Against Democracy and Elitism

The people's best political framework is neither democracy nor epistocracy but original liberalism, or what we today call libertarianism.


Whenever we libertarians point out democracy's perverse incentives (as I do here) we risk being accused of elitism. However, those who assume that the only alternative to rule by the people is rule by an aristocracy reveal a tragically incomplete awareness of the choices before us.

Rather than choose among rulers, we should ask why anyone at all must rule. But even if we don't go quite that far, we could entertain the idea that radically reducing the scale and scope of government, which essentially is the threat of violence, would also drastically reduce the harm produced by those perverse incentives. Elitism isn't the only available alternative to democracy—and it certainly is not the most desirable one.

Unfortunately, some libertarian critiques of democracy encourage nonlibertarians to believe some form of elitism is the only alternative. Take Georgetown University professor Jason Brennan's recent op-ed, "Can epistocracy, or knowledge-based voting, fix democracy?" in the Los Angeles Times, which is drawn from his book Against Democracy. Brennan begins by citing democracy's systemic flaw: "The median voter wields great power over what politicians ultimately do. But—and here's the problem—the median voter would fail economics or Political Science 101."

"For 60 years, political scientists have studied what voters actually know," Brennan continues.

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 isn't because public schools fail us. It's not because Fox News or MSNBC (take your pick) bamboozles poor voters with well-crafted lies. It's not because people are inherently stupid or unable to think for themselves. It's because democracy gives us the wrong incentives.

How we vote matters, but how any one of us votes does not. The chance an individual vote will make a difference is vanishingly small. Thus, we have little incentive to gather relevant information so that we can cast our votes in careful, thoughtful ways….

While not everything governments do is decided by voters — bureaucracies, parties and officials have significant independence — what voters want makes a difference. And since voters are generally uninformed, we get worse policies that we would with a better-informed electorate.

I'll leave for another time Brennan's debatable contention that this "better-informed electorate" is really better informed where it counts. (When this electorate says it favors "free trade," does it actually mean neoliberal managed trade through government agreements, which may be what some of the supposedly lesser informed electorate fears?) Instead, I'll focus on Brennan's "alternative to democracy called epistocracy." He explains: "In a democracy, every citizen gets an equal right to vote. In an epistocracy, voting power is widespread, but votes are weighted: More knowledgeable citizens' votes count more."

Brennan lays out several ways to implement epistocracy, insisting that "epistocracies should keep some things—like our basic rights—off the bargaining table. They should make power widespread because concentrating power among the few invites abuse. Epistocracies should have constitutional limits on power, judicial review, checks and balances and a bill of rights—just like representative democracies." That's a relief, but can we really trust the informed elite to understand basic rights? (Did the framers of the Constitution get it right? I argue otherwise in America's Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.)

Even with his caveat, Brennan's proposal leaves him open to the charge of elitism. Rod Dreher of The American Conservative writes:

Restricting the vote to the cognitive elite is no solution. I would rather be ruled by the first thousand people through the gates at the Daytona 500 than the people in that room Friday night with Hillary Clinton and Barbra Streisand. Guess who holds more power already in our society? That's right: the cognitive elite. That's how it works in a meritocracy. Prof. Brennan's epistocracy would only give them more — for our own good.

Brennan certainly does not blunt the elitism charge when he writes:

Some would object that epistocracy is essentially inegalitarian. In an epistocracy, not everyone has the same voting power. But what's so wrong with that? Only some people have plumbing or hairdressing licenses because we accept that only some people are qualified to fix pipes or cut hair. Perhaps only some people, rather than everyone 18 and over, are truly qualified to decide who will lead the most powerful country on earth.

Need I point out that it is astonishing for a libertarian to cite licensing in defense of his plan for an unequal distribution of voting power? Formally, licensing is the state's way of determining who may and may not engage in occupations supposedly in the interest of consumers. Actually, licensing is how incumbent practitioners of occupations exclude competition and hamper innovation in order to support the monopolistic incomes to which they have become accustomed. It's a system of privilege. Why hitch political reform to it?

The public-choice problems with any form of epistocracy have long been noted, and Brennan is familiar with them. For example, who would compose the test to determine who gets extra votes? Even if we assume that Brennan has good ideas about making any test fair, public-choice analysis gives us reason to doubt that his ideas would be adopted.

Another problem with testing relates to Gilbert Ryle's distinction between "knowing how" and "knowing that." Someone could be ignorant of the facts asked for on a test—what's the unemployment rate? what party controls Congress? Etc.—but have perfectly libertarian instincts about what the government ought not to be able to do to him. Why should that person have fewer votes than, say, Paul Krugman or George Will?

The shame here is the Brennan needn't have gone down this road. He needed only to spell out the flaws in democracy, contrast stupid "public" action with reasonably intelligent private action, and call for a substantial shrinking of government—if not its abolition. Why invite the elitist charge with a call for an epistocracy?

Albert Jay Nock had it right in the opening of his classic book, Our Enemy the State:

If we look beneath the surface of our public affairs, we can discern one fundamental fact, namely, a great redistribution of power between society and the State. This is the fact that interests the student of civilization. He has only a secondary or derived interest in matters like price fixing, wage fixing, inflation, political banking, 'agricultural adjustment,' and similar items of State policy that fill the pages of newspapers and the mouths of publicists and politicians. All these can be run up under one head. They have an immediate and temporary importance, and for this reason they monopolize public attention, but they all come to the same thing; which is, an increase of State power and a corresponding decrease of social power.

It is unfortunately none too well understood that, just as the State has no money of its own, so it has no power of its own. All the power it has is what society gives it, plus what it confiscates from time to time on one pretext or another; there is no other source from which State power can be drawn. Therefore every assumption of State power, whether by gift or seizure, leaves society with so much less power. There is never, nor can there be, any strengthening of State power without a corresponding and roughly equivalent depletion of social power.

(Emphasis added.)

Social power is Nock's term for the web of peaceful consensual relations—market and otherwise—among free individuals. Thus the people's best political framework is neither democracy nor epistocracy but original liberalism, or what we today call libertarianism.

This piece originally appeared at Richman's "Free Association" blog.