Contrarian political philosopher Jason Brennan frets about democracy and the intellectual fitness of voters. The controversial Georgetown University professor argues for giving voting rights only to those who can pass a test or prove that they’re capable and competent. Brennan’s “epistocratic” vision is sacrilege to the world’s democracies and, despite his counterarguments, elitist, or at least exclusionary. Yet, to his credit, he manages to make a calm, logical case. Brennan’s analysis of how and why democracies go astray is worth reading.
While always politically neutral, we recommend his treatise to those policymakers, leaders, and citizens who’d be intrigued by an out of- the mainstream analysis of modern politics.
- Making decisions about governing is a monumental task that has the potential to do grave harm.
- Despite this harsh reality, democracies let anyone and everyone vote, regardless of their competence and knowledge.
- Voters break down into three categories: “hobbits, hooligans, and vulcans.”
- Hobbits are apathetic and ignorant; they have no interest in learning about politics.
- Irrational and biased, hooligans vote frequently and affiliate strongly with a party or cause.
- Vulcans are cerebral and analytical; they recognize their own biases.
- Given voter ignorance, higher participation would do more harm than good.
- Unlike a democracy, an “epistocracy” grants voting rights according to knowledge and competence.
- Restricting voting rights seems elitist, but it is not inherently unfair.
- We don’t unleash dangerous drivers on our roads or allow incompetent jurors in our courtrooms, yet we allow uninformed voters to vote.
“Hobbits, Hooligans and Vulcans”
Modern democracy is an imperfect system marked by high-minded talk of equality and undermined by apathy, voter ignorance, and the vagaries of human nature.
In the late 1800s, voter turnout neared 80% for major US elections. Today, 60% reflects a healthy turnout for a US presidential vote. When voters decide to stay home, that isn’t the embodiment of a lamentable trend. It’s “a good start.”
“Governments…make policies and choose courses of action that can have momentous and even disastrous consequences for citizens.”
Consider economist Joseph Schumpeter’s political theory: “The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field…He becomes a primitive again.” If politics turns otherwise responsible citizens into beasts, perhaps it’s healthy that Americans are apathetic and care more about football than studying C-SPAN or the latest social science research.
“US democracy is more inclusive than ever, with more and more people invited to take a seat at the political bargaining table. And yet fewer people RSVP.”
Voters in democracies break down into three groups:
- Hobbits: These know-nothings typically don’t bother to vote and pay no attention to politics, policy, or current events. Hobbits generally lack opinions about political matters.
- Hooligans: The political equivalent of “rabid sports fans,” these true believers form strong opinions and cling to them regardless of the facts. Hooligans stay informed, but they seek information that confirms their views and rejects information that contradicts their opinions. Party affiliation and political identity inform hooligans’ self-image. They dislike those who disagree with them, and they can’t explain the point of view of someone with a conflicting position. Most people who are active in politics – including politicians, political activists, and citizens who vote routinely – are hooligans.
- Vulcans: Vulcans are coolly logical. They are aware of their own biases and can elucidate opposing points of view. They do not believe those on the other side of the aisle are foolish or misguided.
These stereotypes offer a useful – and cautionary – frame for political behavior. The vulcan seems the ideal archetype. Idealists hope that hobbits and hooligans turn into vulcans.
“Presumptively, just as defendants have a right not to be subject to incompetent jury trials, innocent people have a right not to be subject to incompetently made political decisions.”
It’s unlikely that American voters could transform into deeply informed, analytical decision-makers who recognize their biases and make rational choices. It’s more likely that hobbits will turn into hooligans. Society is better off if people stay ignorant and apathetic, rather than morphing into ill-informed, active voters. By becoming politically active, the former hobbit suddenly has a reason to despise his new opponents. Maybe apathy isn’t so bad.
Fears of rampant stupidity are nothing new. In ancient Greece, Plato fretted that democracy would be dragged down by dumb voters. He urged rule by a wise and benevolent philosopher-king. Failing that, Plato liked the sounds of “epistocracy” – rule not by the many, but by the few who could prove their knowledge, competence, and skill before they voted. While epistocracy seems authoritarian or elitist, it follows a simple principle that “incompetent or unreasonable people” shouldn’t be allowed to impose their will on everyone else to satisfy democracy’s misguided ideas about equality.
“When it comes to politics, some people know a lot, most people know nothing and many people know less than nothing.”
Epistocratic principles could be applied to modern society under several possible schemes:
- “Restricted suffrage”: Give voting rights only to those who prove themselves sufficiently well informed to earn the right to cast a ballot. Test to determine the right to vote. Everyone would be eligible to take the exam, but only those who show mastery of the basic concepts of political science, economics, and sociology would earn permission to vote. To make the test fair, focus the questions on objective topics. To create an incentive, voters who pass the test could receive a $1,000 bonus. A citizen who failed the test but wanted to vote could pay a penalty of $2,000, similar to a gas-guzzler tax.
- “Plural voting”: Everyone gets a vote, but the better-educated and more-informed get more votes. This system, espoused by the philosopher John Stuart Mill, holds that political participation helps voters feel empowered. It also acknowledges that stupid voters make bad decisions. It favors those who can prove their competence.
- “Enfranchisement lottery”: Before each election, hold a random drawing to grant voting rights. Winners would have to earn the right to vote, perhaps by participating in forums with other voters. The random nature of the lottery would ensure the electorate reflects the demographics of the larger population.
- “Epistocratic veto”: Every citizen retains the right to vote, but an epistocratic branch of government could overrule democratic deliberations. Membership in this deliberative body would be open to any member of society, but qualifying would require passing difficult tests and undergoing criminal background checks. People with conflicts of interest would be disqualified. This council of expert overseers couldn’t create new legislation or regulation but could overrule decisions it deems misguided. The council could block the candidacies of unqualified candidates; this might create gridlock but would force voters to consider candidates carefully.
- “Simulated oracle”: In this model, all citizens are asked simultaneously to vote on policies or candidates, to take a test of basic political knowledge, and to indicate their demographics. With these three sets of data, the government can estimate the public’s “enlightened preferences,” for example, what a fully-informed but demographically-identical voting public would want. It implements these enlightened preferences.
For much of history, the powerful denied voting rights to the nonpowerful for illogical and immoral reasons. Religion, gender, race, and social class all served as reasons to deny voting rights. But the wrongness of suppressing some voting rights for venal reasons does not mean that the idea of unequal voting is wrong.
“Once we understand the theory of rational ignorance, political ignorance no longer seems strange. Of course people are ignorant.”
A more responsible approach would equate voting rights to driving rights. Governments deny driving rights to motorists who put other citizens at risk. Society recognizes character and competence as important in the jury system. Courts can disqualify a juror due to a lack of knowledge and moral character. They overrule incompetently rendered verdicts. Because juries have real power, the US judicial system allows for limits on jury service and decisions.
Idiots in the Polling Booth
Sound judgment is crucial. If you’re crossing the street, you look both ways. You wouldn’t see a Mack truck and presume it’s a trick to confuse you. When crossing the street, you face real consequences for a bad decision.
“Most democratic citizens and voters are, well, ignorant, irrational and misinformed nationalists.”
Step into the voting booth, and you can behave more stupidly. Your vote is unlikely to swing a major election. You could abstain, you could vote rationally after much study, or you could vote in the most irrational or misinformed way possible – yet your life would be unlikely to change as a result of your choice. In a democracy, voters experience no individual punishment for irresponsible behavior.
Even so, Americans pay for collective bad decisions because they can lead to futile wars, misguided environmental policy, and foolish law enforcement. Hobbits and hooligans rule American politics. An American who earns a bachelor’s degree from a mediocre college vault into the ranks of the nation’s intelligentsia. Good luck finding US voters who can name their members of Congress or identify which party controls that body. Americans flail at rudimentary civics questions such as which nations the US fought in World War II, what the Cold War was about, or what “liberal” means.
“Realistically, epistocracies will still feature the rule of hooligans rather than vulcans, although epistocratic vulcans may be more vulcan-like than in democracy.”
The scores plunge further when the questions get technical. Where does Mitt Romney stand on abortion? How much of the federal budget goes to Social Security? Did TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) pass under Bush or Obama? The abysmal test scores exaggerate Americans’ knowledge. Quizzes that the Pew Research Center and other companies conduct are multiple-choice tests. If they were fill-in-the-blank queries or essay questions, scores would fall even more.
“Political psychology shows that we are not disposed to be vulcans. But we can overcome our cognitive biases with effort.”
Voter stupidity isn’t a character flaw. It’s “rational ignorance.” Most voters lack an incentive to stay informed about current events and public policy. They ignore politics. A small subset of voters enjoys reading about politics and policy, but most citizens don’t pay any attention whatsoever.
If only due to human nature, people receive and digest political information in irresponsible, flawed ways. Call it political irrationality. A vulcan would approach any new political information with an open mind and a lack of bias, gladly weighing opposing views and calmly reaching the most rational decision. Few citizens of democracies are vulcans.
“In a democracy, every citizen has equal fundamental political power.”
Most voters are hooligans and prone to “process political information is deeply biased partisan” ways. They give more weight to information that supports their preconceived notions and dismiss or discount data that don’t fit. Hobbits wouldn’t leap into the political sphere as vulcans; they’d go from having no opinions to forming flawed opinions. Voters in democracies make all sorts of errors of logic. They tend to vote for more-attractive candidates over less attractive ones. And, they hold politicians to account for outcomes the politicians couldn’t possibly control.
Political tribalism emerges when people join groups, affiliate strongly, and hold animus toward outside groups. Commitment to objective truth is the first casualty. Tribalism manifests in the partisan orthodoxy of certain hot-button topics, such as gun control, climate change, the Islamic State, the minimum wage, gay marriage, and flag burning. None of these topics connect directly to another. Yet a voter’s stance on one proves a gauge of his or her stance on every other.
“Perhaps some citizens are incompetent participants who impose too much risk on others when they participate.”
Politics would continue to play a role in an epistocratic regime. For instance, the content of any voter qualification test would be the subject of jockeying. Democrats would angle to make the test as easy as possible, while Republicans would want to make it slightly more difficult.
Any mention of voter exams recalls ugly memories of the Jim Crow era when literacy tests kept black voters out of polling booths. The difference is that an epistocratic regime would not impose tests in bad faith or to support a racist or biased agenda. The tests would be the same for voters of all races and demographic backgrounds. The goal would be not to exclude certain groups, but to establish the competence of those who receive permission to cast ballots.
Voting tests would favor those who enjoy wealth and education. The top half of income earners know more; those on the bottom generally know less.
“When I argue that epistocracy could do better than democracy, I have to speculate more than I would like to.”
Political knowledge positively correlated with registering as a Republican and negatively correlated with being Democratic or independent. People ages 35 to 54 know more, while younger and older voters know less. Those in the Western US know more, while those in the South know less.
The demographic objection to voting tests relies on two main complaints. First, testing would be unfair to certain groups. That’s true, but it’s not as if democracy creates fair outcomes in all instances. And second, voters who lack a clear understanding of social sciences won’t choose candidates and policies that will improve their lives.
About the Authors
Georgetown University professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy Jason Brennan co-wrote Marketing without Limits with Peter Jaworkski, A Brief History of Liberty with David Schmidtz, and Compulsory Voting: For and Against with Lisa Hill. He also wrote The Ethics of Voting, Why Not Capitalism? and Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know.