In the just-released fall issue of Bookforum, Jedediah Purdy reviews Against Democracy by Jason Brennan, in which the author makes a provocative and timely argument: democracy should be replaced by “epistocracy,” or rule by those who have knowledge. Average people don’t understand the complexities of modern-day economics and governance, so they cast ignorant votes, suggests Brennan. In his review, Jedediah Purdy is less than persuaded. Here’s an excerpt:
So, democracy doesn’t work very well, and there’s nothing morally special about it. So why not try something else? Some people—especially the well-educated, high-income, white, and male, as Brennan doesn’t shy from telling us—know more than others about the basics of politics, economics, and policy. Maybe, as John Stuart Mill suggested some 150 years ago, these highly competent citizens should get extra votes. Maybe no one should be able to vote without passing a rigorous civic-literacy test. Maybe there should be an epistocratic House of Lords (Brennan doesn’t use the analogy, but it is the same idea) with the power to veto democratic decisions that its highly qualified membership disapproves of. Brennan peppers his book with hints that his (presumably highly educated) readers would like the results of epistocracy: His epistocrats may be demographically unrepresentative, but they tend to be disproportionately skeptical of war, libertarian about personal morality, mistrustful of long prison terms, and supportive of free trade. On the face of it, neither the Brexit vote nor a Trump victory would survive an epistocratic veto.
The appeal is clear. But Brennan ignores perplexities and, worse, fatal contradictions. Trump, after all, is running as an epistocrat: True, he famously declared that he loves less-educated voters, but his consistent attack on the Obama administration is that it is incompetent and doesn’t understand how the world works. This minor irony points to a more basic problem: An epistocracy is not a way out of politics, because it will always have a politics of its own. Who will set up the standards of knowledge? Which aspects of economics, or constitutional law, will be treated as uncontroversial? And unless the competency test focuses on highly apolitical areas like mathematics or the natural sciences (a possibility Brennan notes, although he prefers “basic facts” and “largely uncontested social scientific claims”), the people with the requisite knowledge will almost certainly be erudite hooligans, who care enough about politics and policy to know the ins and outs. Anyone who spends time with law professors and political theorists, who would likely be well represented on epistocratic councils, knows that they are not less partisan, or even less tribal, than others; they simply have more time to work on their arguments. In other words, epistocracy has the same problems as democracy, but lacks the countervailing virtue of treating people as equal citizens and the authors of their own laws.