June 10, 2017

Epistocracy and Theocracy

I was struck by a line in Thomas Christiano's recent NDPR review of Jason Brennan's Against Democracy. Brennan, a philosopher in the Georgetown Business School and frequent blogger at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, defends the superiority of 'epistocracy'—rule by those with knowledge—over democracy, in part on the basis of evidence that voters in democracy lack the knowledge they need to make responsible decisions. Brennan acknowledges that we have significant data on what actually happens in real-world democracies and it's better than the outcomes we get from a lot of alternative systems but, he says, epistocracy has never been tried and lacks many of the problems that render democratic decision making suboptimal, so it's reasonable to suppose that epistocracy will do better. (This is what I gather from the review plus Brennan's blogging and other online discussions; I haven't read the book.)

Christiano questions whether it is really true that epistocracy has never been tried:


[Brennan] pleads that there have been no epistocracies, so we don't really know how the comparison would go. But this is not quite true. We have had experience of societies that thought of themselves as epistocracies. One example is the Soviet Union and its satellite states, and another is the People's Republic of China. Here the ruling elites claim to know better than others the true interests of the members of society (what else could an epistocracy be but a self-proclaimed one?) And these were societies devoted to the welfares of their populations, at least ostensibly.

The line that struck me was, "what else could an epistocracy be but a self-proclaimed one?" After all, the implicit argument presumably goes, who besides the experts would be in a position to judge whether a society is being ruled by real experts or fake ones? It occurred to me, when I read this, that epistocracy exhibits the same structural problems as theocracy.

Most believers in God presumably think that a government that enjoyed genuine divine sanction and whose policies were based on divine revelation would be better than any government or set of policies invented by mere mortals. But the question is, how does one know, or what basis could one have to believe, that a government really does have divine sanction, or that its policies really are based on revelation? Who, besides the authoritative interpreters of God's will, would be in a position to say whether the interpreters are interpreting rightly? Surely not us ordinary folks who have not been receiving divine revelations. Who are we to question?

Except... in actual theocracies, the will of God has a tendency to look suspiciously similar to the interests of the ruling class. Indeed, even the Biblical Israel which, according to the story, enjoyed genuine divine sanction, is portrayed within that very story as exhibiting this kind of corruption.*

What, then, is to be done? St. Paul says, when prophets speak, "let the others judge" (1 Cor 14:29). But not being prophets, not having special, esoteric knowledge, how can they judge? The answer, of course, is that though they may not be prophets (or theologians, or Bible scholars, or philosophers) the ordinary pew sitters are also not totally ignorant. They are in a position to judge whether what the (alleged) prophet says comports with what they know or believe about God, and they are also in a position to exercise due skepticism when the (alleged) prophet appears to have ulterior motives. (Why, for instance, is God forever telling televangelists that we need to give them our money?!)

Theocracies have well-defined classes of people authorized to represent divine authority. Such a system of government is threatened by any outsider or unauthorized person questioning those pronouncements. The above reflections provide good reasons why even theists—and even believers in modern prophecy!—should oppose theocracy: consolidating a kind of authority taken to be divine into a small number of human hands is an invitation to corruption. Instead, when a (supposed) prophet speaks, all must judge.

My claim is that the structural problems with epistocracy are essentially the same. Scientific experts, like prophets, have a kind of knowledge to which the ordinary person lacks access. Surely if such knowledge is genuine and is really being used for the public good this is far better than rule by ignorance! But there is a problem (and this is essentially the problem pointed out by Christiano): in real life, when power is consolidated in the hands of supposed experts (or at least people who supposedly know better than 'the common sort'), 'science' or 'expertise' has a tendency to look suspiciously similar to the interests of the ruling class.

What is the solution? How are experts to be held accountable, to ensure that they are real experts and are really acting for the public benefit? When an expert speaks, "let the others judge." But not being experts, how can they judge? Although they may not be experts (on the question at hand) ordinary people are not totally ignorant. They are in a position to reocgnize when a supposed expert might have an ulterior motive, and they have a bit of knowledge about how the world works, to ask if what the supposed expert is saying makes sense. Further, there is one issue highly relevant to public policy, about which ordinary people likely no more than experts: whether things are getting better or worse for them or those around them.

We need expert input into policy decisions, but we also need experts to be held accountable to ensure they are actually pursuing the public good. Failures to pursue the public good are not found only in cases of straight up corruption. They can also be the result of unconscious biases. For instance, it may be a matter of directing one's research attention to the problems occurring in one's immediate surroundings or one's social group. If most of the experts happen to be upper middle class suburbanites, that kind of bias will be a serious hindrance to the development of policy that benefits the whole of society.

Democracy forces experts to persuade ordinary folks that they really are experts and that they really have the good of ordinary folks at heart. That's not a bug, it's a feature. But it does mean that when experts fail to convince, disaster ensues. We are witnessing that disaster right now.


* See, for instance, the entire book of Jeremiah, in which the genuine prophet is persecuted for prophesying in ways not beneficial to the ruling class, who have surrounded themselves with false prophets willing to say what benefits them. Posted by Kenny at June 10, 2017 11:22 AM
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