By Harisan Nasir
Often, the form of government most aspired to in our modern time is that of the Democracy. But there are reasons both for and against the pursuit of this social arrangement. Many take that it either stands or falls on epistemic grounds. In this essay, I will first present an argument for democracy’s epistemic benefits by using John Dewey’s experimentalist account of democracy. If epistemic considerations are of utmost importance, then an epistocracy, such as John Stuart Mill’s moderate epistocracy, may possibly be a better social arrangement than a democracy. In order to defend democracy, I argue that an epistocracy undermines universal inclusion while a similar problem is faced by democracies. An epistocracy further commits the fallacy of composition. In order to avoid the lack of universal inclusion, members of a society must adopt a skeptical position. I conclude that a democracy inclines towards this skepticism whereas an epistocracy would tend away from it.
The most powerful argument for a democracy’s epistemic benefits is that it is universally inclusive. States are typically non-homogenous. An effective government must take into consideration the problems faced by every member of society and attempt to solve them. A democracy would treat every person as equal and having an equal voice. This would allow the government to receive situated knowledge from every member of society. A democracy must also have a feedback mechanism. This is possible in Dewey’s experimentalist account of democracy. The effects of certain policies that are in place must be conveyed to policy-makers. This allows policy-makers to consolidate said information from all sources and make an informed and improved policy. Ideally, if a policy does not work, the state is given feedback through votes or discussion, and that policy is either tweaked or replaced. This allows the state to obtain a better set of policies. Such a democracy allows for critical assessment and evaluation of policies and leaves space for discussion. As Dewey says, a democracy would “involve a consultation and discussion which concerns social needs and troubles”. In fact, dissent is an integral part of the epistemic benefits of a democracy. It is an expression of the flaws of a certain policy executed by the state. The state would then ideally, re-evaluate the policies it has and either discard said policy or improve on it. Dissent either through voting or protests allows individuals in a state to convey their approval or displeasure of current policies. Therefore, on this account, a democracy is epistemically well-positioned as it takes into consideration the problems faced by all members of society. Votes and talk ensure that feedbacks from citizens are taken in seriously by policy-makers and policies can be discarded or tweaked as a result. Democracy as a “cooperative social experimentation” then seems epistemically secure as it allows for diversity, discussion and dynamism.
According to David Estlund, it seems agreeable that a better educated populace would enable the state to make better decisions. This stems from the assumption that better educated people are more likely to make better decisions. If this is true, it should be the case that if we want better decisions to be made for the state, the educated ought to be given more authority. Individuals with such an ability are more likely to make a decision that produces a better state of affairs than a decision reached at by an average person. Estlund calls this the epistocracy of the educated thesis. It concludes that ‘the polity would(other things equal) be better ruled by giving the well-educated more votes’. An analogy of a sick patient can be used as an argument for an epistocracy. If you are ill, you would go to a doctor who is an expert at healing for medical advice. You would not ask a random distribution of people to vote on what is the best course of action and go along with what the majority votes for. The act of taking the doctor’s advice over the majority is based on the epistemic abilities of the doctor. The doctor would be more capable to decide what is best for you than the majority. Therefore, we can say that when faced with a specific decision, a specialised group of people who are smarter than the average would be able to make the best decision, or is more likely to reach the best the decision. If the case for a democracy stands on epistemic grounds, then it seems that democracy fails at being the better system.
The moderate epistocracy that is advocated by Mill takes a specific form. An educated person should be given more votes whereas the uneducated person receives only one. Mill’s epistocracy is presented in such a way that there is also periodic elections and universal inclusion. Since each person gets at least one vote, everyone’s voice is heard and the state is still universally inclusive. An epistocracy would then not only preserve the epistemic qualities of a democracy, it would also improve on it by giving the wise more votes and thus, increasing the likelihood of reaching better decisions. In this section, I will attempt to challenge epistocracy on the grounds that it is in fact not universally inclusive like it claims to be. An epistocracy is founded on the marginalisation of at least one group of persons, namely the uneducated. It is a necessary feature of an epistocracy to give the educated a proportionally stronger say than the uneducated. In doing so, it does not seem that it is ‘universally inclusive’. By giving more votes to the educated, they can simply overpower the uneducated. Even if the uneducated are given at least one vote, the imbalance of voting power means that the educated can simply ignore the uneducated in decision-making processes. One could argue that if the uneducated outnumber the educated, they could effectively be the decision-makers. However, such a system would no longer be epistocratic. The central feature of an epistocracy is that the educated either make or have a stronger say in decision-making. If the voice of the educated is drowned out, then it is no longer an epistocracy. Although an epistocracy seems to allow for universal inclusion, it is not a necessary feature of an epistocracy.
A similar flaw can be found in a democracy. One problem of democracy is that the majority does not seem obliged to take all forms of dissent into consideration. At the end of the day, the majority still rules in a rudimentary democracy. If a certain policy disadvantages a very small group of the population whose votes are too small in number, then it seems that this group will always fail in making changes. One could argue that by ignoring these minority groups, it would lead to an epistemic failing on the part of both policy-makers and the large part of society. However, it does not seem necessary in this model of democracy to ensure that everyone tries to improve epistemic abilities, especially if it is not in their self-interests. The state could be epistemically capable of making very good decisions for a large majority, but refrain from improving the situation when it concerns some small minority. This creates a problem for a democracy if its success is dependent on universal inclusion. A democracy that is led solely by the majority lacks the epistemic benefits laid out in the first part of this essay. Even if it has the capability to improve epistemically, it does not seem to have any need to do so. Politicians can simply appeal to the majority in order to get into power. The majority, who is able to vote in their own self-interest, can simply ignore the minority. Even if universal inclusion is present, it seems possible that a democracy would still decide not to listen to the opinions of a minority group. This problem of ignoring minority voices seems possible in both an epistocracy and a democracy. It seems then that both an epistocracy and a democracy faces a very similar flaw, regardless of which form is epistemically superior.
Universal inclusion must be properly refined before we conclude whether or not either arrangements succeed in attaining it. Universal inclusion need not be something good of itself. The reason why universal inclusion is important as an epistemic benefit is that it enables adequate feedback to be given to decision makers. It is this adequate feedback that is necessary, not mere universal inclusion itself. In an epistocracy, where the uneducated receives less votes, there is still inclusion of a certain kind. However, the feedback system is compromised because everyone does not get an equal say. Decision-makers can reject any feedback from the uneducated without much repercussions as their share of votes is smaller in proportion. A democracy wins out here since everyone has an equal vote, there is less risk of such a marginalisation, the majority must outweigh the minority by a larger proportion before their concerns can be deemed as insignificant.
A defender of an epistocracy might claim that such marginalisation would not occur. The objection outlined earlier only works if there are enough educated people, and they have proportionally much more votes than the educated. Let us take for example, a minority 20% of the population are considered ‘educated’ and are given 5 votes instead of 1, while the rest of the population receives only 1 vote. In such a case, the educated would not outnumber the uneducated in terms of votes. Even if we double the proportion of educated in this population, the uneducated still take up 60% of the population and the educated holds around 77% of the votes. In such a situation, the uneducated still take up a large enough proportion to organise themselves and to protest. The vote share that they hold is still not insignificant either. Thus, the risk of marginalising the uneducated remains small.
Implicit to an epistocracy, there is the assumption that we should strive for more of the population to be better educated. This is ingrained in the political value of education which states “A well-educated population will, other things equal, tend to rule more wisely”. Thus, to make better decisions, a state would try to make as much of its population well-educated. Therefore, the proportion of educated to uneducated would not stay at 2:8 or 4:6. Rather, it will reach a point where 90% of the population is educated while 10% of the population remain uneducated. In such a case, the 90% would hold 98% of the vote share. Whereas the uneducated would only hold 2% of the vote share. This is where severe marginalisation would occur in an epistocracy. It is also worthy to note that if everyone in a society is educated and hence receives the 5 votes, then it simply becomes a democracy. However, the transition towards a complete homogenisation of education levels is suspect on two accounts. Firstly, it seems almost impossible to ensure that everyone is well-educated, even modern states struggle to ensure each and every one of their citizens receives a good education. Secondly, it removes the possibility of choice, what if a person chooses not to be academically educated? Say for example, a person chooses instead to go to a vocational school in order to be a welder or a craftsman. The training he receives would not be counted as what would help make a better decision for the state and he would not receive the 5 votes. If there are enough of said craftsmen, then the uneducated would still persist to exist, and the epistocracy would not reach homogeneity.
A defender of epistocracy might then discard universal inclusion altogether in order to avoid the problems I have posed for an epistocracy. They may claim that universal inclusion, although absent in an epistocracy, is not necessary in making better decisions for the state. Even without universal inclusion, an epistocracy with 90% educated persons would still make better decisions than a democracy with a similar proportion of educated individuals. Here, I argue that defenders of an epistocracy make a fallacy of composition. Just because an educated individual has the capability to make better decisions for himself, it does not necessarily mean that if given more votes, it would result in better decisions for the state. Take the multiple Hitler example. The existence of one Hitler resulted in the holocaust and the second world war. Assume that this occurred because Hitler was evil. If there were ten Hitlers, would that have made the holocaust and the second world war ten times as evil? It seems plausible that the ten Hitlers would actually fight each other for dominance and power in Germany and end up killing or weakening each other instead. Their incapability to work with each other would be their downfall and the holocaust and the second world war might have never occurred. This could also occur in an epistocratic society. The assumption that an educated person makes better decisions may cause the educated to disagree on a whole plethora of issues. With the thought that one is educated and thus makes better decisions, an elite will fight for his perspective and think that only his perspective is right, and superior to others. This attitude is reinforced by the fact that the state gives them more votes because he is smarter than others. The lack of universal inclusion would prevent people within said state to obtain positional information and receive further constructive feedback from each other. With none of them being able to agree with each other, decision-makers might be stuck in a gridlock and the state would not even be able to pass laws or create new policies.
A democracy where everyone is given just one vote, could possibly solve this issue. I further argue that it is not mutually exclusive to the notion that we should work towards educating the populace in order to make better decisions. One key aspect of Dewey’s form of democracy that seems lacking in an epistocracy is an element of scepticism. Part of universal inclusion and the dynamism of democracy is the idea that decision-makers and members of democracy could be wrong, “Democratic decision-making needs to recognize its own fallibility”. There is a sense that our intellectual dispositions could be flawed in some way, or at least fails to access certain problems or issues due to our positions in society. Due to this scepticism, no one is given more votes than another person, because he might just as well be wrong in his decisions. This seems absent in an epistocracy, more so in an epistocracy that discards universal inclusion. The very notion of the educated being more capable of making decisions inclines the educated to believe that they are infallible in making decisions. This is further reinforced when the educated receives more votes than the uneducated. This is part of what would cause the gridlock mentioned in the previous section. Giving everyone a single vote would serve to reinforce a sense of scepticism in both the people and the decision-makers. This sceptical element in a democracy is preserved even if we take education to be politically valuable.
This essay addressed several issues. Firstly, I presented Dewey’s model of democracy as the ideal that is to be defended. I presented arguments against it in the form of a moderate epistocracy, whereby the educated receives more votes than the uneducated. I firstly argued that this arrangement of votes undermines universal inclusion but as a caveat, democracy also faces a similar issue. Lastly, I made the claim that an epistocracy asserts the fallacy of composition. To avoid this fallacy, one should remain sceptical about one’s own epistemic abilities. An epistocracy inclines away from this scepticism whereas a democracy inclines towards it. Thus, a democracy would trump an epistocracy since it preserves this sceptical element in decision-making.
Anderson, E. (2006). The Epistemology of Democracy. Episteme, 3, 8-22.
Dewey, J. (2012). The Public and Its Problems: An Essay in Political Inquiry. Rogers, M. L. (Ed.) Penn State University Press
Estlund, D. M. (2009). Why Not An Epistocracy of the Educated. In Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework. Princeton University Press.
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