In our family of six, two of us can run for president, three of us can drive, four of us can marry, and five of us can open social media accounts. In this week’s elections, only three of us can vote. These restrictions limit our rights for good reasons. Take voting. We don’t allow children to vote because: (1) they may be unduly influenced by their parents , and (2) we assume they don’t have the requisite understanding to make a responsible decision. In other words, knowledge matters.
This epistemic rationale takes center stage in the other restriction cases as well. But how far should the “knowledge requirement” go? In his book, Against Democracy, Georgetown philosopher Jason Brennan argues that voters should be required to pass a test on basic political knowledge. This would result in what he calls an “epistocracy,” or a rule by the knowledgeable. Only those who impartially educate themselves on civics and current issues (Brennan calls them ‘Vulcans’) would be eligible to vote, according to one proposal. (I encourage you to read this interview with Brennan and listen to this radio show to hear more about his intriguing ideas.)
Is Epistocracy A Good Idea?
On the one hand, competent voting sounds great. A great many of those who vote have no idea what they’re really voting for. Columnist Ilya Somin, in his Washington Post piece, writes that many people vote badly because
[t]hey often lack even basic political knowledge; and what they do know, they analyze in a highly biased way. Instead of acting as truth-seekers, they function as “political fans” cheering on Team Red or Team Blue.
As a passionate knowledge activist, I am generally in favor of anything that helps people improve their beliefs about important issues. But I have two main reservations about this plan.
Two Objections to Epistocracy
First, from an ethical/political standpoint, universal suffrage protects us from certain dangers and should not be rolled back lightly. I tried to compare the right to vote to other rights, and I think one apt comparison is with gun ownership. The right to bear arms originally aimed to protect the citizens from the potential tyranny of their own government. We still keep some restrictions on who may own a gun, but we generally maintain high levels of freedom here. (Set aside the question of whether the second amendment still serves the original purpose.)
Similarly, not everyone uses their right to vote, but everyone could, and that’s the important thing. If voting is restricted to the epistocracy, then it is easier for tyranny to arise. Why? Because it is always easier to manipulate a few than to manipulate many, regardless of education or understanding. We can tolerate some bad voting in order to preserve this safeguard.
Secondly, and the most relevant to my own research interests, is the problem of epistemic limitations. Several philosophers (David Estlund and Udit Bhatia to name two) have argued that the amount of knowledge needed for an elite epistocracy to effectively vote on national issues would be prohibitive. Our country is so big and so complex that it simply cannot be effectively governed by so few, simply because they lack the necessary insight and information. No matter how smart they are, they understand only what they can put their epistemic arms around. And this will always be less that what universal suffrage can collectively represent.
Ilya Somin agrees:
Even if epistocratic selection mechanisms work better than I expect them to, the resulting more competent electorate might still lack the knowledge needed to effectively monitor more than a small fraction of the activities of the large and enormously complicated modern state. That herculean task may exceed the competence of even Vulcans. Ironically, the main flaw of epistocracy may be that we don’t have the knowledge to make it work.
In conclusion, the best way to solve this problem is to educate yourself and vote. Alternatively, if you know absolutely nothing about the issues at hand, you may have a moral obligation to abstain from voting. In either case, as you engage in public discourse about the elections, match your speech to your knowledge. If you haven’t looked into the issues, then just say , “I’m not sure,” or “I don’t know what to think yet.” And if you have done the homework, speak up and offer reasons for your views. And whatever you do, don’t let tribalism be a substitute for thinking!