Epistocracy Bah Humbug

Fenster writes:

Jason Brennan is the “Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.”  Which makes him, I suspect, a smarter man than I.

But I am hesitant to concede that point too quickly to someone who, as Brennan does, advances an argument for “epistocracy”.

In an epistocracy, political power is to some degree apportioned according to knowledge. An epistocracy might retain the major institutions we see in republican democracy, such as parties, mass elections, constitutional review, and the like. But in an epistocracy, not everyone has equal basic political power. An epistocracy might grant some people additional voting power, or might restrict the right to vote only to those that could pass a very basic test of political knowledge.

No doubt this will include Associate Professors of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy, at least at well-regarded universities.

Especially if said professors are not mainly interested in political science but philosophy and, even better, ethics.  The world sorely needs a firmer hand from academic ethicists.

Brennan’s brief article shills for a forthcoming book and if I read the whole book I might well see a more fully developed argument and might well be more impressed than I am from this short piece.  In truth I find this article very weak.

Take one of the central metaphors Brennan uses: the conduct of public affairs as the practice of medicine.

Imagine, as an analogy, that you are sick. You go to a doctor. But suppose your “doctor” doesn’t study the facts, doesn’t know any medicine, and makes her decisions about how to treat you on a whim, on the basis of prejudice or wishful thinking. Imagine the doctor not only prescribes you a course of treatment, but literally forces you, at gunpoint, to accept the treatment. We’d find this behavior intolerable.

Yes we would.  But has Brennan never considered that politics is not simply, or even mostly, a matter of technical competence?  He may not agree with this notion, which is at the heart of a good deal of Western political thought.  But he is not entitled to ignore it, or elide by it as if it is nothing at all.

Now it could be that he finds notions like pluralism incorrect, or just unworkable.  If so he owes the reader more than a facile comparison of politics to medicine.  Politics is about values at least as much, or more than, technical policy outcomes.

And who says the experts are even right on the technical aspects?  He starts the article via the rhetorical device of Brexit to provide self-evident ballast for his contentions.

The Washington Post reports that there is a sharp uptick today in the number of Britons Googling basic questions about what the European Union is and what the implications of leaving are. This is a bit like deciding to study after you’ve already taken the final exam. . . .

Leaving the EU is no small affair. It probably will have enormous effects on the UK, Europe, and much of the rest of the world. But just what these effects will be is unclear. To have even a rudimentary sense of the pros and cons of Brexit, a person would need to possess tremendous social scientific knowledge. One would need to know about the economics and sociology of trade and immigration, the politics of centralized regulation, and the history of nationalist movements. But there is no reason to think even a tenth of the UK’s population has a basic grasp of the social science needed to evaluate Brexit.

This was written last June.  Odd isn’t it?  While the jury is out on Brexit, one can hardly say that the last several months have supported the alarm of the elites, especially the highly talented tenth whose views would be given extra weight.

There is also a straw man character to his argument.  Brexit was, as a national referendum, something of a one-off case.  Most decisions in a representative democracy are made not by the people directly but by their representatives–an elite. Why lead off your argument for wholesale change with the threat of referendums?

Actually, I doubt Brennan would argue for a major change in our political system to block the occasional referendum that would go the wrong way.  No, once we get past the Brexit gambit we see he has bigger fish to fry.

Speaking of the need to reduce the power of incompetent decision makers, he suggests that

republican democracy, with checks and balances, was meant to do just that. And to a significant degree it succeeds. But perhaps a new system, epistocracy, could do even better.

So the problem is not that we don’t rely on elites.  We do.  The problem by Brennan’s lights is that they are just not elite enough.  Even if referendums are rare we must be shielded from the power of the unwashed in electing the elites that already run things.

It is an argument, I will concede that.  But if I look around I see less evidence of mob rule than I do of elite failure to manage the public trust.  The reaction of the people to this is predictable: they don’t like it.

This is how politics happens.  Of course we don’t have a direct democracy–never did.  Of course the talented tenth will know more of the details of issues.  Of course our representative system relies on elites, and on those elites running things with sufficient care, prudence and restraint as to maintain legitimacy.  When they don’t they may get hit very hard on their heads with a blunt instrument, and we hope they will get in line.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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3 Responses to Epistocracy Bah Humbug

  1. Gary Jones says:

    Having a high IQ doesn’t prevent you from being stupid. In fact, it lets you be stupid in ever more complex ways.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Quotes Du Jour: On the Intellectual Yet Idiot | Uncouth Reflections

  3. Hi Gary,

    May I quote this to Twitter? Nice aphorism.


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