What is an Epistocracy? Does it represent a viable or even preferable alternative to Democracy? In order to understand what it is we should begin by placing it within the context of an ongoing battle between two opposing forces around the globe: elites and populists. As populist candidates and issues have gained traction among the masses in recent years – most conspicuously with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – a few elites have started to question the desirability of democracy, broadly conceived as the rule of the people, for the people, and by the people.
As the name suggests, Epistocracy is the rule of the most knowledgeable (episteme = knowledge) members of society – so-called “experts” – over everyone else. It is seen by its advocates, admittedly only a small number at the moment, as being a superior form of government to Democracy, especially within a techno-scientific, bureaucratically-administered world predicated on information. In order to sell the idea, “the people” must be mocked, ridiculed, and demonized for their lack of education, for their antiquated beliefs in things like God and religion, for their support of Brexit and Trump, for their intractable racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. We see this happening all around us each day, even if very few elites have been honest enough to declare their open hostility to democracy and majority rule.
This ontological juxtaposition between the enlightened few and the ignorant many lays the moral and intellectual foundations for the eventual domination of one group by the other. This hypothetical shift would be achieved through restricting the voting rights of the poorly educated and thereby allowing more power and influence to accrue to people with advanced college degrees. Predictably, proponents of Epistocracy claim that it would not be pursued solely for the benefit of the elites, but more importantly for “the people” as well, who they would in effect “force to be free.”
In addition to the presumptuousness of the position – and the fact that “experts” almost always fail to foresee and/or prevent catastrophes, as evidenced by the the Great Crash of 1929 and the more recent Economic Crash of 2008 – there are significant philosophical problems to address: How do we know that the purportedly intelligent and informed few will be unanimous in their views? And further, what are these views in the first place anyhow? From the first linked article we find very little of substance to address the second question:
“The political scientist Scott Althaus has calculated that a voter with more knowledge of politics will, on balance, be less eager to go to war, less punitive about crime, more tolerant on social issues, less accepting of government control of the economy, and more willing to accept taxes in order to reduce the federal deficit.”
This assumption reinforces the dubious view that the knowledgeable few are largely in agreement on fundamental issues regarding the nature and aims of government. This is belied by the fact that many of the greatest thinkers throughout Western history have held positions that are in direct conflict with the mostly progressive modern values listed here. And while we’ve certainly acquired more knowledge and technical expertise through the years, we’d be hard-pressed to show that this has also led to a corresponding increase in wisdom among political (or other) elites. In fact, given the many wars and other crises of the past hundred plus years, the opposite may be closer to the truth.
But getting back to the first question, a good example of the lack of unanimity between educated elites is seen by contrasting the thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche with John Stuart Mill. Both were extremely well-educated men whose philosophical writings continue to exert a significant influence on us today. Nietzsche famously felt that the more progressive-minded Mill was an idiot (I believe a “blockhead” is the specific term he used), and I’m almost certain Mill would have reciprocated had he been aware of Nietzsche’s writings. Whose perspective, if either, more closely resembles wisdom? Make no mistake, they’re radically opposed on essentials concerning politics, ethics, and pretty much everything else.
Setting aside obvious counter-examples which challenge the assumption that the more educated one is, the more peaceful and politically “progressive” they will be, even here in the relatively well-established bourgeois democracy of the United States we find extremely affluent and highly-educated “Straussians” – followers of the twentieth century political philosopher Leo Strauss – who clearly don’t share these basic positions, especially concerning war and crime. In many ways they’re more barbaric in outlook than even the unsophisticated, minimally-educated masses.
Come to think of it, the United States was an Epistocracy of sorts at its inception. But far from being unanimous in their views, the Founding Fathers vehemently disagreed over essentials regarding the government they brought into existence. Moreover, in their collective wisdom they couldn’t foresee things that seem obvious to us in hindsight; most obviously this includes their inability to anticipate and/or proactively address the slavery issue, which is something that would nearly destroy the country less than seventy years after the adoption of the Constitution.
Today, the democratic instinct is so deeply ingrained in the populace of the Western world, and increasingly beyond its boundaries, that there is no realistic alternative to it. If a non-democratic political system were to somehow come into power, it would have to cloak itself in democratic garb in order to maintain a sense of legitimacy. Furthermore, we’ve already had rule by elites for many years – an oligarchy masking as a democracy – and they’ve led us into this morass by failing to articulate and pursue a common, long-term good which could reconcile the various interests of the citizens of Western nations.
Considered thus, we should reject the underlying assumptions of Epistocracy as being both unrealistic and undesirable. An augmentation of the power of those with political knowledge and technical expertise, at least as long as this occurs without a concomitant increase in their wisdom, may be the most dangerous and inhumane system imaginable. It’s true that the common people can be vulgar in their habits, uninformed of current affairs, and unsophisticated in all matters intellectual, but they often have more practical, intuitive wisdom than their elitist detractors.