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Against epistocracy

June 17, 2017 - 14:15 -- Admin

I’ve finally been got around writing something about US philosopher Jason Brennan’s arguments for “epistocracy”, that is, restricting voting to people who are well-informed about the issues. For a long time, I assumed that such an idea would be ignored, and fade into oblivion, as most academic ideas do. But it’s popped up here in Australia. And, with democracy under challenge all around the world, it’s obviously not enough to say that it’s self-evidently a Good Thing that everyone should have the right to vote, and exercise it. So, I’ll try to offer some more specific objections.

First, suppose for the moment that university/college education was the criterion for having the franchise. What difference would that make to the outcome of recent elections? The answer, as far as I can tell, is “not much”. Other things equal, more highly educated people tend to be more likely to vote for left or centre-left parties. But other things aren’t equal. Higher education is correlated with higher income, and people with higher incomes tend to vote for right or centre-right parties. Historically, the income effect dominated, so people with more education, on average, voted more for the parties of the right. Nowadays, the two effects roughly cancel out. For example, exit polls from the US Presidential election suggest that most college-educated white voters supported Trump, though the margin wasn’t as great as for white voters without a college education. Divisions on age and race have generally been sharper than those based on education.

Under current conditions, restricting the franchise wouldn’t make a lot of difference. But even if it did, the discussion above points up the obvious problem. Whether more or less informed, voters are likely to support policies that benefit them personally (for example, by reducing their taxes) or reinforce their prejudices (by enacting their preferred cultural policies). Given the right political alignment, an election confined to college educated voters might produce outcomes that were more socially progressive (in the way this term is usually used) and more economically regressive (favorable to high income earners), than we see at the moment, simply because those are the policies that would suit the restricted electorate. I don’t know whether Brennan supports such an outcome (from what I’ve seen of his writing, I suspect so), but there is no justification for loading the political dice in its favor.

So far I’ve focused on the decision of which party to vote for, and what kind of broad policy platforms we might expect. But what about specific policies? Brennan holds out as an example the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was politically unpopular and was abandoned by Trump. According to Brennan, “most experts” agree that the TPP “is good for the global economy”.

That depends on what you mean by “most experts”. Certainly, experts from thinktanks that specialise in these deals supported the TPP, but that’s not very surprising – it’s what they do. Also, a lot of foreign policy experts backed the TPP as a way of enhancing the influence of the US at the expense of China, but that’s not obviously “good for the global economy.” At least as far as the Australian economics profession is concerned, I’d say the range of opinion ranged from lukewarm support to strong opposition. For those who focused on traditional trade issues, the TPP represented the final abandonment of the global approach represented by the long-stalled World Trade Organization negotiations. Most were unenthusiastic at best about the emerging bilateral and plurilateral deals. For those concerned with intellectual property issues, the TPP was seen as a disaster, embodying even more monopolistic protections for the owners of such “property”. And on the left, the Investor-State Dispute Settlement procedures, and the closed-door negotiations, were seen as entrenching corporate power.

There’s no need to resolve these divergent positions here. The crucial point is that Brennan has chosen to illustrate his argument for requiring voters to be better informed about the issues by picking an issue on which he himself is clearly not well-informed.

Finally of course, Brennan’s casual reference to “most experts” raises the obvious problem with epistocracy. Who gets to decide who is well-informed? And who gets to decide who gets to decide?