Democracy is something held up as the pinnacle of human government, a core tenant of the idea behind the United States, and an unquestionable truth never to be questioned.
If we refuse to question not only the structure and function of our democracy but also our underlying beliefs in a critical way when they seem to have failed us, then we are at best in denial and at worst incredibly naive.
As Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
So why not entertain others, if they’re inventive enough?
This is, on some level, the subject Jason Brennan, an Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at Georgetown, tackles in his recent book, Against Democracy, which challenges some of our underlying assumptions about democracy and the behavior of voters. It goes on to do what few other books that grapple with these same issues do—suggest a solution.
Brennan breaks voters down into three categories: Hobbits, Hooligans, and Vulcans. Hobbits, as one can recall from J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, aren’t interested in politics and have a low level of political knowledge. On the other hand, Hooligans know more about politics than Hobbits do, but evaluate information in an incredibly biased way, causing them to reject any opposing arguments or worldviews at the onset of an argument or debate. Finally come the Vulcans who, by contrast, are incredibly open-minded, analytical, and knowledgeable.
While many of us imagine ourselves as Vulcans after reading those descriptions, the reality is most of us are some combination of Hobbit and Hooligan.
As Brennan writes in an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times:
“For 60 years, political scientists have studied what voters actually know. The results are depressing. Hundreds of different surveys, such as the American National Election Studies, find that the median voter is ignorant or misinformed not only about the social sciences needed to evaluate candidates’ policy proposals, but even of basic facts and trends, such as what the unemployment rate is and whether it’s going up or down.”
This extends to many of our preconceived notions about voters. “Even moderation is a result of low information,” Brennan says. “So people who don’t know very much tend to pick a middle ground position and not have a very strong opinion about it.” These individuals take a moderate position almost as a default, but as people learn more they tend to become more extreme one way or another, leading to further polarization.
And this, when we think about how we think democracy should occur, might point to the idea it doesn’t function like we believe it does, particularly if we approached the ideas underpinning democracy as principles to be analyzed rather than irreproachable truths. We don’t, for example, allow unqualified people to make medical decisions for us or even come rewire the electricity in our house. These are, particularly in terms of medicine, potentially life or death decisions. The thing is that the people we elect to office are making life or death decisions every day too. Just one example of this recently is the failed raid in Yemen authorized by President Trump, in which a Navy Seal died. But that doesn’t even address the numerous people whose lives are dramatically impacted by domestic policy decisions.
Brennan calls this idea the “Competence Principle” and notes that if we hold this true for other professions, why not voters?
Democracy isn’t the only system we know of, and no, this is not referring to autocracies or dictatorships. There is also epistocracy, or the rule of the knowers.
At its base, this system operates on the belief that the electorate might make better decisions if it were restricted to those who were more knowledgeable and less biased. Ideally, the electorate empowered to vote would more closely resemble Vulcans rather than Hobbits or Hooligans.
In some way or another, this would be done by allocating political power by knowledge. One form this could take is by allocating everyone one vote, but giving further votes to people that have passed voter achievement tests or have a BA, for example.
Another way this system might work is that nobody has the right to vote but would gain the right to vote by passing an exam or obtaining some other form of credentials. Another option might be a voter lottery, where nobody has the right to vote until right before an election when 20,000 citizens are selected and paid to deliberate with one another before voting. The hope is that by at least deliberating with one another, they’d have a higher level of information than they might have otherwise.
Finally, there is the statistical option of having normal elections, where everyone can vote, but they have to take a quiz and put down their demographic information. Once you have these sets of data, you can simulate what they would have chosen if they got a hundred percent, estimating what they would want if they were better informed.
These are all different versions of epistocracy.
“While most forms of this are probably unconstitutional, there are some ways you could work with this to make it constitutional,” says Brennan
Governments could, right before an election, issue a quiz on various basic knowledge and civic principles. If you scored above an 80 percent, you’d get a $500 tax credit. So it’d be a way to incentivize people to learn, at the very least, basic facts.
Epistocracy isn’t a perfect solution. But Brennan believes we have to compare the flaws in epistocracy with the flaws in democracy. “Of course people are going to try to game it, of course it’s going to be subject to political abuse, and of course there are going to be questions about the fairness of tests and other things. But I think these issues are also true of democracy.”
So the question is, which of these systems, with all their flaws would perform better overall? Since we haven’t tried epistocracy, we really don’t know. Brennan advocates researching these ideas, and then trying them on a small scale to see if they work. If they do, scale them up.
Whether or not epistocracy could work or will even be tested remains to be seen. However, by at least recognizing alternatives to democracy exist and working to understand them, we can imagine ways to bolster, change, or enrich our democratic process, even if that might lead to something else entirely.