Knowing and Ruling

Bryan, you sensibly ask whether I can really maintain (as I claim to) that the quality of the decisions is important, even though I don’t think you are entitled to overrule the majority even when you know what decisions would be better. Do I support the democratic process regardless of the quality of the decisions?

Just before I answer that, remember I tried to put the view you flirt with here into an uncomfortable corner. So there’s still a question for you hanging out there: Do you think that “I know best” is a fully sufficient basis for “I should rule?” So, the only reason the Catholics aren’t entitled to rule the rest of us is because their views are actually wrong? Yikes. And does that mean that the advocates of the true world view get to rule the rest of us? The inference from experts to bosses doesn’t seem to hold up.

Now, I agree with you that democracy cannot be defended without any attention to how well it can be expected to perform on substantive grounds. The question that motivates my thinking about democracy is precisely whether this epistemic dimension can be incorporated into our account of political authority without being led to “epistocracy,” or rule of the knowers, a la Plato (and Caplan?). I think non-epistemic defenses of democracy can be shown to be deeply inadequate. (Maybe more on this later.)

So let me just very briefly telegraph the structure of the view I defend at great length elsewhere in order to indicate that I do indeed think that quality of decisions matters AND that you don’t get to rule just by knowing best. We can fill in the blanks as we go on if you like.

As I said in my previous post, I think political justification requires a kind of general acceptability. I argue that it is unlikely that any proposed identification of the epistocrats (those better qualified to rule) can meet that test. (The most formidable candidate is probably the one you propose: the educated. So I devote a chapter to it in my book… oops I was going to try not to plug the book.) If epistocracy can’t meet the test, can any epistemic strategy meet it? Well, notice that the idea (bear with me) that multiple people talking and thinking together can apply intelligence to political problems in such a way as to perform at least better than random, has the following salient feature: it doesn’t rely on any invidious comparisons between the knowers and the non-knowers, and yet proposes an epistemic engine rather than a merely procedural standard. OK, that raises tons of questions, but we don’t want long posts, so I’ll pause. But the answer to your question is that I do agree we need the epistemic dimension, and I don’t agree that this leads in an epistocratic direction.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan argues that voters are not just ignorant, they’re irrational. According to Caplan, when the cost of holding irrational beliefs is low–as it is in religion and politics–we should expect a lot of irrational belief. “Even when his views are completely wrong,” Caplan writes, “[the voter] gets the psychological benefit of emotionally appealing political beliefs at a bargain price.” But the low personal cost of irrationality has a high social cost. Caplan provides statistical evidence of voters’ “systematically biased beliefs” in economics, and argues this undermines the electorate’s ability to implement good policy. Caplan suggests we should rely “less on democracy and more on private choice and free markets,” in addition to several other provocative reforms sure to make civics teachers blanch.

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Bryan Caplan’s lead essay, Brown University political philosopher David Estlund argues that neither of Caplan’s proposed alternatives to democracy, markets and experts, satisfactorily correct for the problem of voter irrationality. With respect to experts, Estlund observes that political questions are moral as well as empirical: “[M]aybe … my morally wise mother would perform better overall than the economists. That settles nothing, since there is no entitlement to rule others based simply on the fact that you know what is best.” As far as markets go, Estlund says “Voters and market actors are the same people, so we should expect the charges of ignorance and irrationality to be leveled against people in both guises… In the aggregate many market mistakes, like voting mistakes, affect everyone.”

  • University of Virginia political philosopher Loren Lomasky compares Caplan’s criticism of democracy and defense of expertise with Plato’s argument in The Republic, while noting that in a modern system of representative democracy, voters choose among candidates, not policies. “If voters are as intellectually maladroit as Caplan suggests,” Lomasky writes, “then they are incapable of mastery of their elected representatives,” who are thus left with a fairly free hand to set policy. “What [voters] can do, though, is ‘throw the rascals out,’” and that, Lomasky argues, is good enough.

  • Jeffrey Friedman argues that Caplan’s charge of voter irrationality relies on the unrealistic idealizations of economic theory and that “[v]oters who don’t understand economics because they haven’t been exposed to it, or because they’ve been exposed to it but have found it tough going, aren’t irrational; they’re just ignorant.”