Sunday, 11 September 2016

Government by experts

Jason Brennan has an article in nationalinterest where he advocates the replacement of democracy by what he calls epistocracy – an electoral franchise not of all adults, but of knowledgeable adults.

Just over twenty years ago Francis Fukuyama declared liberal democracy the end of history. But history marched on, revealing rot in democracy’s roots. Around the world, from radical leftists in Venezuela and Greece to American Trump supporters, bitter voters wave their banners around populist demagogues. Nationalist movements, echoing those that lead to the first world war, are on the rise. The working classes reject globalization, immigration and economic liberalism. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and other countries may soon follow suit. In the United States, the political parties are more polarized than ever before, with the most right-wing Democrat to the left of the most left-wing Republican. As a result, the United States faces gridlock and tribal politics rather than compromise solutions.

These movements are driven by low-information voters and the politicians who serve them. The past few decades have been perhaps the best in human history, with more people around the world rising out of absolute poverty than ever before. But many Western voters, ignorant of the social sciences or even of basic political facts, see change all around them, feel left behind and neglected, and strike out in fear and resentment.

He offers a number of possible epistocracies where knowledgeable voters are favoured over those deemed insufficiently knowledgeable.

Democracy, I argue, is not an end in itself. It has the kind of value a hammer has. It’s just a useful instrument for producing just and efficient policies. If we can find a better hammer, we should use it. Indeed, epistocracy may be a better hammer. Perhaps a liberal republican epistocracy might outperform liberal republican democracy. It’s time to experiment and find out.

Essentially Brennan thinks too many voters are too dumb to be allowed a vote, but gives the game away by suggesting that these are voters liable to vote for Donald Trump. He has his political allegiances too.

Information matters. Which policies people prefer depends in part on how informed they are. Even controlling for the influence of sex, race and income, highly informed citizens have systematically different policy preferences from ignorant or misinformed voters. For instance, high-information voters favor free trade, globalization, immigration and civil libertarianism. Low-information voters, regardless of their demographics, favor the opposite: they tend to favor Trump’s platform.

Here’s an interesting question. Does one need to read Brennan’s book in order to assess his ideas adequately? The first comment gives us one answer by telling us what many readers of his article will have already surmised.

To spare the reader the trouble. What the author is advocating, albeit reluctant to admit for obvious reasons, is a totalitarian technocracy, an aristocracy of the "experts", that is the total opposite of everything the US was founded upon. The fact that these notions are indeed becoming a trend amongst the nation's elites (they have already been the norm amongst EU officials) is frightening.

In my view that raises an interesting point - it probably isn’t necessary to read Brennan’s book in order to make a competent assessment of his general thesis. When it comes to political rhetoric we weigh it via our allegiances, a far more visceral assessment than Brennan seems willing to acknowledge. Knowledge itself guarantees nothing. Nous is far better, but how many nous experts do we have?


Sackerson said...

If it was up to those who "know better" we'd have Remained and as like as not joined the Eurozone, to boot.

Sam Vega said...

I agree, Sackerson. One of the advantages of the current "information revolution" is that ordinary people with enough motivation can test the hypotheses of "experts". We used to read their words in newspapers, or see them on TV, and had no option but to believe what they said, or to simply ignore them. Now, however, we can see whether they are talking nonsense or not.

Brennan uses the example of Brexit to show that many people voted without considering the consequences. Apparently there was a spike in googling the EU after the vote, as if voters were only then wondering what they had done. But just look at some of the "expert" predictions that came to nothing. It seems that some people genuinely know what they are talking about, whereas others are mere bullshitters.

Demetrius said...

Experts like Dr. Strangelove?

A K Haart said...

Sackers and Sam - and one we lost is the windmill scam. With experts as our friends we don't need enemies.

Demetrius - it may be a gene - the Strangelove gene.

wiggiatlarge said...

To be honest, and I don't think I'm alone I am tired of all this , vested interests whether commercial or political prevail as was shown in the appaling dumbed down Brexit debate, if you could call it that, from both sides.

The subsequent 'March for Europe' interviews with the educated "remainers" showes a very different scenario, however they were edited, with people asked what they liked best about the EU Replying "the NHS" or travelling without passports ? the Guardian is still full of these people who still believe the EU is some sort of Valhalla, and still they bleat on, for me another bottle of rouge is a much better alternative.

A K Haart said...

Wiggia - I can't see it improving, although there may be another factor. It may be that the internet has exposed issues which were always there but much more hidden than they are now. Things were no better in the past, just better hidden. In which case we may see changes, although they are likely to be slow.