Hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans: why democracy may not be the best system

The Secretary of the Authors’ Union

Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee

Which said that the people

Had forfeited the government’s confidence

And could only win it back

By redoubled labour. Wouldn’t it

Be simpler in that case if the government

Dissolved the people and

Elected another?

Die Lösung (The Solution) by Bertolt Brecht


Brecht was writing about the Volksaufstand, the People’s Uprising in East Germany, which began with a strike by East Berlin construction workers on 16 June 1953. It turned into a popular revolt against the communist regime. The Volkspolizei and Soviet tanks were needed to put it down. It was obviously satirical, but after recent events maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to sack the electorate. Democracy seems to be in crisis. The current incumbent of the White House seems to have little appreciation for democratic niceties and seems to be a fan of the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin. After the Brexit vote there was a surge of basic questions on Google about what the European Union was and what the implications of leaving were. I know what the polls say, but I still have a sense of foreboding; Marine Le Pen may become the president of France. What the hell is going on?

Into the fray has come Georgetown professor Jason Brennan with a shocking critique of universal suffrage. In Against Democracy Brennan argues for epistocracy, a knowledge-based voting system. This is how the philosopher defines the concept:

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. Any such system will be subject to abuse, and will suffer from significant government failures. But that’s true of democracy too. The interesting question is whether epistocracy, warts and all, would perform better than democracy, warts and all.”

After Words: Hobbits, Vulcans, and the flaws of democracy:

This kind of criticism is not new; voter ignorance has worried political philosophers since Plato. Brennan posits that citizens do a pretty bad job of evaluating political issues. His taxonomy of voters, who he divides into hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans, is certainly provocative. Hobbits are those who are uninterested in and with little knowledge of politics. Hooligans, on the other hand, tend to know more than hobbits do. However, they will only listen to arguments which support their worldview; opposing arguments are ignored. They also lack any kind of social scientific sophistication. Finally we have the Vulcans who combine extensive knowledge and analytical sophistication with open-mindedness. As the name suggests, Vulcans do not allow their emotions and biases to impair their judgement. Alas, few of us can ever aspire to Vulcanhood. Luckily, I am one of them. However, the vast majority of voters are a mix of hobbit and hooligan. Surveys show that they lack even the most basic notions. And what little knowledge they do have is analysed in a highly biased way.They are like football fans. Brennan is a libertarian. At the heart of the problem is rational ignorance:

Each individual vote has so little impact on the final outcome, voters have little incentive to either acquire relevant knowledge or rein in their biases. They are therefore easily hoodwinked by unscrupulous demagogues. We spend far more time researching when we are going to buy a flat-screen TV or a car. Than we do on voting. This is logical in that if we make a mistake, it will be our sole responsibility and we will have to live with it. Responsibility is spread among millions.

In general we only allow people to make important decisions if they possess a certain degree of competence. We wouldn’t dream of allowing quacks to make medical decisions. Imagine you are facing an operation. You are told that rather than being operated on by a professional doctor your fate will be determined by a hundred randomly-picked laymen, who will democratically decide on how to operate on you, voting on each step of the medical procedure. We assume that people should not be allowed to make important decisions for others unless they have sufficient knowledge to do so. Even if you survive, you have suffered a violation of your rights. You should never have been exposed to the incompetence of these laymen. Brennan calls this idea the “Competence Principle.”

I find this critique of democracy thought-provoking. It does make some interesting points, but it is ultimately flawed. I think the analogy with medicine doesn’t stack up. Politics is not susceptible to this kind of analysis. If you have two candidates in an election, you cannot vote on the basis of each candidate’s IQ. Mr. Brennan thinks he is more qualified to vote than a plumber, but I’m not so sure. I don’t want to do a Michael “We’ve had enough of experts” Gove, but I am sceptical about non-partisan technocratic solutions. Smart people can easily do dumb things. As George Orwell said – there are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them. Smarter people are not immune from biases they are just more eloquent and are able to justify their prejudices. These elites may be on the left or right. Brennan and Caplan, the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, come from a libertarian perspective. Many libertarians think that many in the general public are economically illiterate. They would like to see more influence of the marketplace. On the other hand, in his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank took a more left-wing perspective, looking at the rise of populist anti-elitist conservatism in the United States. Why do relatively poor people vote against their own self-interest?

I am also sceptical about the voting tests which will limit universal suffrage. Can we really trust governments to implement epistocracy in any kind of unbiased way? I mentioned gerrymandering in a previous post. In the political process these tests will surely be manipulated to favour likely voters of the party in power and exclude those who would against. What would the voter eligibility test include? What would be the pass mark? Some of Brennan solutions would be a logistical nightmare. In the end it is hard to get away from the Churchillian dictum that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.



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