Reinvent democracy or face its sure decline

Paul Monk / 18 May 2019

Today is federal election day. I assume almost everyone reading this piece will be voting. In Australia, such voting is compulsory. In the US its voluntary. Opinions differ about which system is better. But suppose someone were to say to you, You have a moral obligation to not vote. How would you respond I suspect with puzzlement, perhaps cynical amusement. You might assume they meant that not voting would be a form of protest of some kind.

Source: Reinvent democracy or face its sure decline

Suppose, however, that you were told in addition, “You shouldn’t vote because you are not competent to vote.” I suspect your puzzlement would turn to indignation. Such indignation might be warranted. But it also might be due to the Dunning-Kruger effect: a cognitive bias in which we mistakenly assess our cognitive ability as greater than it is. It comes from a common inability to recognise our actual lack of ability.

Suppose, on the other hand, that you were told, “You, of course, are competent and should vote. But X or all those in category X have a moral obligation not to vote, being incompetent.” How would you then respond? I suspect it would depend rather a lot on what people were in category X. Minors? The criminally insane? Neo-Nazis? Climate deniers? Name your category.

Here’s the underlying question: Are we, as a society, actually better off with a universal franchise than with one restructured by criteria of competence, with a view to ensuring the election of better representatives and the making of better public policy? That’s right: a restricted franchise — restricted not by class, gender or ethnicity but by competence.

This is a line of thinking being developed by some political philosophers in an attempt to rectify the increasingly apparent flaws in our democratic systems. The approach has been called epistocratic, from the Greek words episteme (knowledge) and kratos (power or rule). It hinges on the idea that we all suffer from having too many unqualified voters and too few ways to hold dishonest or incompetent politicians accountable. The time has come to devise ways to improve the situation — if we can.

You may instinctively recoil from this idea. You may do so out of an intuitive fear that this is some kind of elitist plot to swindle the common voter; or that it is academic ratbaggery based on a failure to understand practical politics. But step back a little from your intuitive response and ask why we have a universal franchise.

Isn’t it basically for two reasons: the sense of equity, based in at least vague ideas of universal human rights; and a tacit belief that this is, all things considered, the best available (or least worst) way to ensure sound government and good public policy? Don’t these two beliefs have in common the underlying assumption that we have a right to competent government? Doesn’t it, then, stand to reason that our current democratic processes are simply various instrumental means to achieving that end?

Right now, even the oldest and best established democratic constitutions (which happen to be those in the English-speaking world) are floundering, while many of the newer ones are lapsing into populism and dictatorship — Venezuela, Turkey, perhaps even Narendra Modi’s India, as The Economist worried this past week. Many people, even here, feel frustrated or disillusioned with electoral democracy as it now works. How, then, are we to think this through — competently?

Remember, the Athenian democracy (in the late 4th century BC) and the Roman republic (in the 1st century BC) failed and fell. Those falls remain perhaps the most sobering episodes in the history of Western civilisation (if some in our universities will pardon the expression). They fell because their deliberative processes failed to deal with changing circumstances. They failed to keep delivering rational consensus or generating effective policies.

Classical republics

Our modern republican and constitutional systems were devised by people who hoped to do better not only than monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy or anarchy but also better than the Athenians and Romans. In the 21st century, we are finding our democratic institutions under threat — rather unexpectedly — for pretty much the same reasons that the ancient republics were for a century before each fell. This is despite the much wider franchise and far more liberal social order that we have (in the West and its imitators) than existed in classical times.

The great 19th-century German historian Theodor Mommsen wrote of the growing tensions within the Roman republic in the second century BC in graphic terms: the governing elite as a crust of ice over a river and the growing populist resentment of it as a current flowing beneath that crust. The republic’s problem was, as he expressed it: “the strength of that encrusting ice; of the growth of the current beneath, and of the fearful moaning and cracking that foretold the mighty breaking up that was at hand”.

Last summer, I was discussing all this with my old Roman historiography teacher Ron Ridley, who has just been awarded the Borghese Gold Medal in Rome for his work on Roman history. He asked what I thought was the greatest work of historical scholarship in the 20th century. I nominated Ron­ald Syme’s The Roman Revolution, a magisterial study of the fall of the Roman republic. “Exactly!” he responded with alacrity.

One of the more striking recent contributions to the field is Edward J. Watts’s Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny (2018). This is the terrain we are in. If you don’t think we are, you are being complacent. If you think the answer is simply for your own preferred party to govern, you are in error — whatever that party may be. If you think the answer is some kind of “strong leader”, you aren’t serious about voting or accountable deliberation.

The epistocrats are trying to get at the root of the problem. What historian Josiah Ober called the Athenian revolution, in the 6th century BC, was about inventing deliberative methods that would make democracy possible: a wider sample of citizens voting to ensure greater diversity of opinion; deliberative assemblies; rotating and elected office-holding; special forms of balloting; the rule of law; and citizen juries.

When Aristotle wrote his Politics in the late 4th century BC as Athenian democracy was failing, he had in front of him the constitutions and histories of more than 150 Greek city-states, by no means all democracies. He argued that the most effective and stable form of constitution would be a “mixed and balanced” one, with elements in it of democracy, oligarchy and monarchy. What the epistocrats are attempting is in this spirit of research and serious thinking. They look to alter the mix and balance in subtle ways to make our deliberative and electoral processes deliver better results — for us all. This is what political and democratic reform has in general been about in the modern era.

Civil liberties count

There is a boldly incisive introduction to these ideas in Jason Brennan’s provocatively titled book Against Democracy (2016). If you want competent government combined with civil liberties, rather than a party state such as China’s, a theocratic state such as Iran’s, an autocratic or populist dictatorship such as Russia’s or Egypt’s or Turkey’s or Venezuela’s, and rather than our floundering systems in the West, Brennan’s ideas are worth chewing over — after you vote today as competently as you can. Brennan’s key premise is that we have extended the franchise very widely, but too many voters simply don’t understand the issues on which they are voting, are too gullible to political rhetoric and are unable to judge whether a policy is good or bad in substantive terms. He calls them “hobbits” and “hooligans”. He goes out of his way to supply empirical evidence for his claim. This is not the place to reproduce it but it’s worth reading and pondering.

Perhaps his most salient point is this: we require drivers to earn a licence by passing certain tests, and we tend to believe that individuals or corporations that pollute the environment should abstain, be penalised or made to follow regulatory guidelines. Yet we allow everyone who reaches the age of 18 to vote without requiring that they pass any kind of test, or submit to any but the flimsiest regulatory guidelines. Why? He observes that even in introductory political philosophy classes at elite universities, although the standards are relatively low and grades are at stake, “many students cannot muster even a rudimentary understanding of the most basic issues in political philosophy. Yet these students — many of whom will fail out of college — are among the intellectual elite in the United States”.

The crucial thing is his inference from this basic data to the idea that we can improve on outcomes by restricting or reweighting the franchise. He thinks we should do this in such a way as to give much greater weight to the votes of well-informed people than ignorant people. The key chapter of his book is called The Rule of the Knowers. Assuming you are still reading and haven’t cast this column aside in egalitarian outrage, here’s an outline of what he has to say.

First, democratic institutions and universal franchise as a given are instrumental rather than intrinsic goods; that is, we stick with them because we believe the alternatives are worse. Second, suppose a better alternative than our current arrangements could be devised — even if still imperfect — wouldn’t it be rational to adopt them for equally instrumental reasons? Third, such alternative arrangements, in principle, can be devised and we should look for ways to reform our democratic institutions accordingly.

In what ways, then, reform them? He freely allows that “it’s easy to expose the pathologies of democracy; it’s harder to design institutions that would improve on it”. His realism is spelled out in the statement, “Given what we know about political behaviour, including what we know about rent seeking, corruption and abuses of power, which is likely to deliver better results, some form of epistocracy or some form of democracy?” He says theoretical reflection and empirical evidence strongly suggest it would be epistocracy. But he’s perfectly aware of the reasons many people are likely to be resistant to such a claim.

Pass muster or veto

Each system will work better in some countries and cultures than others, he concedes, but his argument is that, other things being equal, we stand to improve things if we can find ways to ensure that voters must be qualified to vote and policies must pass strong quality tests or be vetoed. “The major difference,” he writes bravely, “between epistocracy and democracy is that people do not, by default, have an equal right to vote or run for office.” The challenge is to define how such a system would work without privileging some kind of elite at the expense of the rest, as currently happens

One option is to allow “hobbits and hooligans” to vote on ends (what outcomes they desire) but not on means (how best to generate these outcomes). Another is to require anyone who wishes to vote to pass an examination open to all citizens regardless of their social background — and to systematically seek to educate the poor and disadvantaged to become good voters (not tribal ones). A third is to give plural votes to people who have a demonstrated competence to vote thoughtfully.

He and other epistocrats explore various ways to eliminate bad voting from the system, including an intriguing idea called the enfranchisement lottery and another that he describes as universal suffrage with epistocratic veto, in which an “epistocratic council”, while not empowered to make laws, could (rather like an upper house or supreme court) veto bad political outcomes or laws. There are many ideas in play here and they are not a plot to deprive any of us, least of all “hobbits and hooligans”, of liberty or good government. They are, in a tradition dating back to Athens, a meditation on how, in fact, we can better ensure both those things.

You may well be sceptical of this line of thinking, but do you have demonstrably better ideas? Don’t fall for the Dunning-Kruger effect; reflect more seriously on what is at stake. Don’t brush off the epistocrats out of indignation and don’t just blame others of any stripe for our problems. Do some real thinking about how we can exercise not merely a “right” to vote, but a more fundamental and serious right: to create and to sustain competent government.

Do so and you will actually be exercising a level of competence in citizenship and thoughtfulness about politics and public policy, of which any epistocrat would approve. Settle for dismissiveness, partisan rancour or indignation and you’ll be failing a crucial test. The Athenians failed in the end and so did the Romans. We should not, in that regard, stumble along in their footsteps.

You may ponder these things — as you vote today.

All the more reason.