Democratic Disorder. Why Modern Democracy is Failing and its Alternatives

Bachelor Thesis, 2017

37 Pages, Grade: 80.00

Free online reading


In light of recent political occurrences such as the Brexit Referendum and Donald Trump’s election as well as overall economic instability throughout democratic states around the world, there is an increasing urgency to discuss alternative political systems. This dissertation will form a comprehensive thesis in favour of epistocracy – a political system where political power is distributed according to knowledge. My dissertation will begin with establishing the values and standards according to which a political system ought to be evaluated. This will be followed by demonstrating the ways in which democracies are failing and what the reasons might be. I will show with empirical data that due to voter ignorance and the use of rhetoric to manipulate voters, democracies tend to elect bad politicians and policies. I will also outline Plato’s concept of the philosopher-kings from the Republic. I will contend that several problems associated with democracy can be resolved by epistocratic systems. I conclude that an epistocracy will likely perform better than a democracy and therefore we, citizens and intellectuals alike, ought to seriously consider it.

List of Content

Introduction .. 4

1. Proceduralism vs Instrumentalism .. 6

2. Is Democracy Entering a State of Crisis? .. 8

3. The Role of the Voter in Democratic Failure .. 12

4. The Mechanisms & Role of Political Rhetoric .. 19

5. Origins of Epistocracy .. 24

6. Mill’s Epistocracy .. 26

7. Objections Against Epistocracy .. 28

8. Epistocratic Systems .. 31

Conclusion .. 33

Bibliography .. 35

List of Figures

1. Estimates of long term effect of Brexit on national income .. 9

2. The Median Voter Model: Random Error .. 13

3. The Median Voter Model: Systematic Error .. 14

4. Enlightened Preferences: Free-Market vs Government Intervention .. 15

5. Question: “Are there too many immigrants?” .. 16

6. EU Referendum results by demographics in the UK .. 17

7. A7. Average partisanship of speech .. 22


After observing first-hand, the entailments of the EU ‘Brexit’ Referendum as well as the US Presidential Election in the summer of 2016, it dawned on my mind whether a democracy would be the best system for our society. This prodded me to investigate further into searching for an alternative political system that would be like democracy, but an augmented and improved version of it, where the educated would have a larger voting power – an epistocracy.

Unfortunately, literature for epistocracy is currently limited to several contemporary political philosophers in the intellectual sphere namely, Jason Brennan, Ilya Somin and David Estlund. There is much philosophical research yet to be done regarding this political system; the Oxford English Dictionary does not yet acknowledge the term “epistocracy”. An epistocracy is a political system where political authority and voting rights are distributed according to competence, skills, and the good will to act on those skills (Brennan 2016: 14).

Furthermore, in light of mentioned recent global political and economic events, I believe that there is an urgency for the discourse of alternative political systems. As many democratic countries begin to suffer from economic instability, environmental degradation, political uncertainty and immigration issues, there is never been a more important time for the intellectual world to consider seriously the change that is overdue. And, for the citizens of the world ought to find that it is their duty that they are enlightened.

Thus, in this dissertation, I will attempt to critique democracy, demonstrate how and why it is failing and discuss the possibilities to which an epistocratic system can overcome these issues. Furthermore, this dissertation will take on the challenge of forming a coherent thesis that connects contemporary political and economic phenomenon with public choice theory, rhetorical theory and arguments in favour of epistocracy.

In Chapter 1, I will compare ‘proceduralism’ and ‘instrumentalism’ as criterions to which political systems are evaluated and decide that the latter ought to be chosen as well as establish that ‘instrumentalism’ is the standard to which this dissertation will be based on. In Chapter 2, I will discuss phenomena such as the crisis in economic and political language and conclude that democracy is failing. In Chapter 3, I will demonstrate using empirical data that voter ignorance are factors in the failure of democracy. I conclude this with the finding that the preference for policies of the enlightened public is similar to the preferences of economists as compared to the preferences of ignorant voters. Additionally, I refute the Miracle of Aggregation with Caplan’s findings of systematic biases in voter preference. In Chapter 4, I will show how the mechanisms in rhetoric used by politicians are the means to which voters are deceived and manipulated. Additionally, I use empirical data to point out that political rhetoric has profound effects on voter preferences and therefore I contend that knowledge in rhetoric ought to be imparted to the voting public to overcome this. Chapter 5 & 6 will run-through the origins of epistocracy, it finds its roots as far as the philosophies of Plato and as recent John Stuart Mill’s proposals of “plural voting”. I point out that these theories are the basics of epistocratic theory. Chapter 7 will discuss Estlund’s proceduralist critiques against epistocracy and conclude that among his objections, only the “Demographic Objection” remains a reasonable point. The final chapter will respond to this critique and explores several different forms of epistocracy to which are currently available to us by some contemporary philosophers- Thomas Cristiano, Jason Brennan and Lopez-Guerra. I conclude that epistocratic systems ought to be seriously considered for implementation.

The aim for this dissertation is to present a comprehensive argument from diverse references in favour for epistocratic political systems to be implemented in the future. In the construction of my thesis, I will draw on heavily from Brennan’s “Against Democracy” and Caplan’s “ The Myth of the Rational Voter”. ”.

Chapter 1: Proceduralism vs Instrumentalism

It is important, firstly, to set the relevant criterion to which a political regime will be judged by. In regards to how democracy should be perceived, there are two schools of thought consisting of, ‘proceduralism’ and ‘instrumentalism’ (Brennan 2016: 10). These terms however, comes in other forms, ‘proceduralism’ has been used interchangeably with ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘instrumentalism’ with ‘consequentialism’, but for the sake of simplicity I will maintain the labelling of the debate as coined by Brennan in his book Against Democracy . This chapter emphasises the importance of how democracy as a political system can be valued, so that it is clarified throughout my dissertation, the standards to which I believe a democracy ought to be judged by.

When we inquire to which how a democracy is said to be valuable, some may argue that it is valuable in such a way that a knife is valuable i.e. a knife is valuable because it is sharp and it can cut things with ease. This refers to its instrumental value. In other words, the knife is perceived as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. This view is called instrumentalism (Brennan 2016:10). On the other hand, others may argue that an object may have, symbolic value. Some philosophers argue that a democracy has intrinsic value much like an artwork does; an artwork is beautiful because it is sublime and it invokes certain positive feelings and ideas within the beholder. For these thinkers, democracy is an end in itself; its values and procedures are intrinsically just, independent of the political outcome. For them, a political decision is justified as long as it follows an idealised democratic procedure.

In terms of the distribution of political authority, proceduralists would hold that some methods of distributing the rights to vote, for example, is intrinsically just or unjust, or are good and bad in themselves. Meanwhile, instrumentalist would maintain that we should distribute these rights in whatever way that would produce the best political outcome, with less priority to democratic ideals (Brennan 2016: 11). One could say that, a proceduralist believes in the idealistic form of democracy while the instrumentalist is cruder in his approach but focusses on its efficiency as an electorate tool. An instrumentalist would say, “its not pretty but it works”.

It is my contention that a democracy’s value lies purely on its instrumental value; the only reason to favour a democracy over any other political regime is that it the most effective tool at producing the most just results. In other words, if a democracy fails to function or fails to live up to its proposed promises then it is just as useless as a blunt knife. Thus, I will argue and explore the possibility, throughout my dissertation, that an epistocracy could be a sharper knife than its predecessor, if it were to be implemented. Rawls would point that out that proceduralism makes weaker demands for justice than instrumentalism would (Fabienne 2016). In other words, an instrumentalist would argue that a political institution is only legitimate in so far as it produces the most just outcome; in contrast to proceduralism, ideals are arbitrary. We should not fall into the trap of focussing on the procedures of democracy, because ultimately, it is justice tha that democracy strives for.

Chapter 2: Is Democracy Entering a State of Crisis?

In very recent times, all of us have become witnesses to the disastrous effects of democracy. In June 2016, as Britain voted to leave the European Union, the British sterling pound saw a massive drop in value to a 31-year low, a figure which is worse than the pound was during the 2008 financial crisis. Consequently, the devaluation has caused inflation making common grocery items more expensive and thus burdening the lower echelon of British society. As on March 28th, the UK activates Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begins its transitional exit out of the European Union. The sterling pound has seen no substantial recovery; the UK goes into two years of negotiations whereby its market and future enters into a void of uncertainty (Peters 2017).

This phenomenon of a crisis is further supported by the fact that the UK’s exit will undermine is status as a financial global hub in Europe. Richard Gnodde, chief executive of Goldman Sachs said that a decision has been made to relocate staff out of London to Frankfurt and Paris. Other banks have also joined in the bandwagon: HSBC boss Stuart Gulliver has stated that 1,000 roles will be moved to Paris after Brexit. Furthermore, JP Morgan has said that over 4,000 jobs in the UK will be at risk (Treanor 2017).

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Figure 1 : Estimates of long term effect of Brexit on national income (Source: Financial Times).

According to the Financial Times, there is an overwhelming consensus among main groups of economists that there will be negative consequences in terms of GDP for the UK economy. In other words, along with short-term upheavals, there will also be long-term consequences for leaving the single European market. Therefore, it is very likely that voters have unwittingly made the wrong decision.

And let us not forget, the global financial crisis of 2008 that saw the Lehman Brothers go bankrupt and the total collapse of the American sub-prime mortgage housing market. During this time, 34 million people became unemployed; the crisis threatening the total collapse of the world financial system.

These phenomena come as a direct challenge to deeply embedded assumptions about democracy that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, where after engaging in an existential struggle the US emerged victorious. Since then, the Western World have been the torch bearers for liberal democracy to which would be the way for progress and economic growth (Li 2013). [1]

The crisis of democracy is demonstrated by the severe transformation of political language in political speeches, mass media and discourse that has arisen in the event of the U.S. presidential campaign and election of Donald Trump. It has been a clear indication that modern democracy has entered a new era of “post-truth” politics with Donald Trump as its leading exponent. Mr. Trump relies heavily on assertions that somehow “feel” true but does not hold any grounds in empirical fact (The Economist 2016). Chief Executive of the New Yorker Thompson states that,

“Argument has turned cruder, ruder, more polarised and less anchored in facts. Much of media treatment of political debate has gone the same way, further cramping the spaces in which reasonable people can engage in rational discourse” (Rawnsley 2016).

In terms of political language, the US presidential campaign has become a warzone of accusations and atrocious propositions devoid of grounds and good will from both sides of the debate; every linguistic weapon launched against the other side independent of any perception of future consequences. According to Thompson, Trump is a symptom rather than the cause of a political disease; there is a “nihilistic rejection” on expertise because propositions are based on opinion rather fact. Thus, it is having catastrophic consequences on policy-choice (Thompson 2016). As I argue in the next chapters, voter incompetence has deeply negative consequences to democracy, the degradation of political discourse will further aggravate this problem, rendering voters equipped with nothing but bows and arrows to make reasoned choices about policy options; if there are not already totally incompetent to begin with. [2]

Which leads me on appropriately to one of the most significant indicator that democracies are inherently problematic: it frequently adopts and maintains policies that are harmful to its citizens. For example, protectionism. In general, economists argue that protectionism harms the country’s economy and yet most democracies impose tariffs and import quotas (Caplan 2007: 1). Furthermore, when democracies negotiate under free-trade agreements, there is often more misconduct and opacity in their dealings, as special interest groups including public and private, lobbyists and bureaucrats are often prioritised over the general public. Caplan call this the “Paradox of Democracy” (2007: 2). And it is precisely the underlying assumption in this dissertation that democracies tend to fail because they deliver on exactly what voters want. Which leads me on appropriately to address the question, “why are democracies failing”?

Chapter 3: The Role of the Voter in Democratic Failure

It is my contention that the largest and most significant factor involving the issues with democracy is attributed to the incompetence, irrationality and ignorance of voters regarding politics. As political scientist Philip Converse states, “the two simplest truths I know about the distribution of political information in modern electorates are that the mean is low and the variance is high”. Ilya Somin of Democracy and Political Ignorance describes, “the sheer depth of most individual voters’ ignorance is shocking to many observers not familiar with the research” (Brennan 2016: 25). Furthermore, Brennan outlines several examples in the US, including the fact that during election years, most citizens cannot identify any congressional candidates in their district or that 40% of Americans do not know whom the United States fought in World War II (2016: 26). The sheer ignorance of voters is summarised by Caplan’s opening remark in The Myth of the Rational Voter, “what voters don’t know would fill a university library” (2007: 5).

Perhaps the most significant answer that many mathematicians, political scientists and philosophers would give in response to this phenomenon is that democracy can function perfectly well when the majority of voters are ignorant. Although, voters constantly make errors in their choices, their errors are random. A democracy that is 99% ignorant will cause an outcome that will be just as likely to be decided by a 100% enlightened public. This is the called the “Miracle of Aggregation” (Caplan 2007:6; Brennan 2016: 177). Thus, this mathematical theorem demonstrates that a democracy works no matter how ignorant the electorate is; all random errors cancel each other out and the best policy is always chosen in representation of the wise minority’s preference.

It seems that at this point, one would wonder why would it be worth considering a separate political system at all since democracy seems to be mathematically ‘fool-proof’. However, there is another form of empirical evidence that undermines this claim: voters have systematic biases and thus make systematic errors (Brennan 2016: 177). The Miracle of Aggregation works only on the assumption that voters do not make systematic errors; that their errors are only random. Caplan has found that there are 4 types of biases that voters are inclined to: (1) The anti-market bias, where people do not understand the “invisible hand” mechanism of the market (2) the anti-foreign bias, where people underestimate the benefits of immigration (3) the make-work bias, where voters equate a causal effect relationship between prosperity and employment and not productivity and finally (4) the pessimistic bias, where people have the unfounded perception that economic conditions are bad and getting worse (Caplan 2007: 10).

For example, suppose two candidates campaign by taking positions regarding the degree of protectionism that is socially optimal:

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Figure 2 : The Median Voter Model: Random Error (Source: Bryan Caplan “ The Myth of the Rational Voter”)

As demonstrated by the figure above, the Miracle of Aggregation theory argues that given the random errors made by voters cancel each other out, whereby voters that prefer free-trade unwittingly vote for protectionism and the protectionists vote for free-trade, the winning platform will still be ‘socially optimal’ i.e. the end outcome will remain the most efficient level of output for the economy regardless of random errors. However, after inputting for systematic bias, the corrected figure looks more like this:

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Figure 3 : The Median Voter Model: Systematic Error (Source: Bryan Caplan “ The Myth of the Rational Voter”)

After considering voter ignorance, the new figure shows that more citizens vote for protectionism than the ones that end up choosing for free trade. Consequently, the political scales are tilted towards the radical spectrum of protectionism away from the socially optimal platform. As politicians compete against each other to maintain their position or to get elected they heed what voters demand, but not what is best for them (Caplan 2007: 10-11). Ultimately, the worst policies are chosen.

Further support for the occurrence of systematic bias comes from political scientist Somin. In his research regarding whether ignorant voters vote randomly, “a recent attempt to test the Miracle of Aggregation on samples drawn six recent presidential elections (1972-1992) found that, controlling for various background characteristics of votes, poor information produces an average aggregate bias of 5% in favour of the incumbent”. Additionally, a separate statistical argument comes from Scott Althaus, “random errors do not, strictly speaking, cancel out… These random errors… continue to influence the location of means and modes as well as the shape of marginal percentage”. Thus, according to statisticians, random errors tend to fall along a normal distribution (Brennan 2016: 178). In conclusion, the Miracle of Aggregation is a mathematical myth. Which leads us on to the enlightened preference method.

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Figure 4 : Enlightened Preferences: Free-Market vs Government Intervention (Source: Bryan Caplan “The Myth of the Rational Voter”)

Althaus measured how citizens’ knowledge affected their policy preferences. He estimated what US voters would otherwise vote for if they stayed the same demographically but had ‘maximum’ political knowledge (Althaus 2003: 101; Caplan 2007: 25-26). This was achieved by using a ‘multivariate logistic regression model’ of which considered demographic variables that include gender, income, marital status, age, education, partisanship, occupation, religious affiliation, union membership, homeowner status, parental status, financial status, region, and type of community (2003: 105). These variables are then assigned with preferred policies to simulate how preferences might change if respondents were better informed (2003: 102).[3] What he found was deeply worrying: there was a large difference in policy preferences between enlightened voters and ignorant voters. It was found that, the more informed people became, the more they would favour less government intervention and control of their country’s economy. Several other patterns include, they would be more in favour of free-trade and less of protectionism, implementation of higher taxes to balance federal deficits, more supportive of market solutions to solve health-care problems, and so on (Caplan 2007: 27; Brennan 2016: 34, 189).

Furthermore, Caplan demonstrates using empirical data from the Survey of Americans and Economists (SAEE), the differences in preferences of the public, economists and the “enlightened public”. [4] The SAEE is based on interviews with 1,510 randomly selected members of the American public and 250 economics Ph.D. holders, its objective is to test for systematic voter-expert belief differences (Caplan 2007: 52). For example, Caplan presents data on the question of “There are too many immigrants”:

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Figure 5 : Question: “There are too many immigrants”

Caplan points out that for voters whom suffer from anti-foreign bias, immigration can seem terrifying, where unskilled workers “flood” into the country, “stealing” jobs, reduce the minimum wage, and take advantage of public benefits. On the contrary, economists and enlightened public would argue otherwise.[5] Caplan states that, “international trade in goods increases the size of the pie, even if one trading partner has an absolute advantage in everything, and even if the good is labour” (2007: 59). Furthermore, empirical economists have found little support for the claim that immigrants reduce wages and significant evidence was found that immigrants consume less in public benefits than they pay in taxes (2007: 58).

At this point, I would it be appropriate for me to demonstrate some similar data that concerns the Brexit Referendum:

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Figure 6 : EU Referendum results by demographics in the UK. (Source: The Economist)

Research using demographic data by The Economist from the UK Data Service finds that: 57% of degree-holders voted to stay in the European Union, while most of those with only secondary-school educations wanted to leave (2016). Like Althaus’ and Caplan’s findings, it is apparent that there is a significant difference of voting choice between the “enlightened” voters than the ignorant. Which leaves one to ponder on the idea whether voters really know what they are doing.

However, one could point out an underlying assumption about the connotations contained within these data: the economists is always correct and thus any deviation from their position is measured as bias. But this is not taken for granted in Caplan’s work, instead he makes for a probabilistic argument concerning the data from SAEE (Brennan 2016: 191). He states,

“my empirical approach does not rule out the possibility that the experts are wrong. Its key assumption is simply that after controlling for a long list of possible confounding variables, any remaining lay-expert belief gaps are evidence of public bias” (cited in Brennan 2016: 191).

In other words, he is saying that when economists and regular voters systematically disagree, while considering that the disagreement is not explained by demographic factors or any non-cognitive biases, it is more likely that the economists are correct rather than the ignorant voters. However, it would be important to point out that, political issues go beyond just the sphere of economics. But, it goes without saying, that most issues involved in major elections require knowledge. One of the reasons for this is that it helps us discern truth from rhetoric.

Chapter 4: The Mechanisms and Role of Political Rhetoric

“Look what we have now: poverty, no education, crime; you can’t walk down the street with your child, we are going to fix it… we’re going to fix it.” [6]

These were some of the words that lead Trump to victory. His words provoking and inducing a visualisation among the audience; as if to paint an image of a post-apocalyptic America where murder, rape and robbery run rampant and the streets littered with homeless people. [7] Throughout his campaign, Trump has uttered statements that has made him sound childish; a far cry from eloquent speakers such as Barack Obama. Which begs the question, “how did Trump manage to get elected”?

The answer lies in Trump’s ingenious use of language- rhetoric. One would be surprised to find out that Trump’s use of rhetoric seems to have been specially crafted and tailored for the American audience; contemporary rhetoricians argue that it would take someone highly educated to be pretend to be that stupid (Nunn 2016).

To start off, rhetoric is simply defined as “the art of persuasion”, i.e. the attempt by an individual to influence another with words (Leith 2012: 1, 10). According to Aristotle, that unlike philosophy, rhetoric involves probabilities rather than certainties, e.g. analogy and generalisations. While Plato, describes rhetoric as a kind of a form of flattery and claims that all kinds of flattery are good at taking on different forms (Waterfield 1994: ix).

For Aristotle, an ‘ethymeme’ was the equivalent in rhetoric to ‘syllogisms’ in philosophy (Leith 2012: 59). In principle, ethymemes and syllogisms are units of thought, i.e. the processes to which one arrives at a conclusion. Syllogism involves at least two premises to which a conclusion is drawn. For example, premise one states, “all politicians are crooks”, and premise two states, “Trump is a politician”. Therefore, the conclusion would be, “Trump is a crook”. For rhetoric, it is somewhat more ambiguous to which a conclusion is drawn. For example, “Trump is a clever man. He is a billionaire.” There is an ethymeme contained, because it makes the underlying assumption or the hidden premise that billionaires are clever. Hidden premises that are generally known to the public makes rhetoric even more effective.

Many have become suspicious of the use of rhetoric. As rhetoric traces its roots back to the ancients, so does its sceptics. The most prominent sceptic was Plato of whom was also highly sceptical of democracy, he saw how ignorant the people were, and thus saw the danger of a democracy where people could be easily persuaded by rhetoric (Waterfield 1994; Leith 2012: 26). In the dialogue between Socrates and Gorgias, rhetoric is defined as, “an agent of the kind of persuasion which is designed to produce conviction, but not to educate people, about matters of right and wrong’ (cited in Waterfield 1994: xii). According to Plato, rhetoric is superficial; it relies on schemes and ploys to persuade rather than expertise knowledge about the issue that it is concerned with. Plato argues that rhetoric is a form of pseudo-knowledge, whereby a rhetorician argues and presents propositions that is an illusion of truth: much like the shadows from Plato’s allegory of the cave. It plays on people’s beliefs and misleads them. Therefore, it was important to Plato, to fight against rhetoric, as to him, in contained all the characteristics of evil (Waterfield 1994: xvii).

According to Aristotle, there are three major aspects of rhetoric to which persuasive appeal can be achieved, those are: Ethos, Logos and Pathos. Ethos is the establishment of a connection between the speaker and the audience and it provides a route to which a speech is driven (Leith 2012: 48). It creates an idea of trustworthiness of the speaker to his audience by stating propositions to which listeners can identify themselves with. In other words, it creates the illusion that the speaker is belongs to the same group as the audience and is not an outsider. Thus, I contend that the role of rhetoric plays is significant to which American voters identify themselves with Donald Trump.

Secondly, Aristotle states that the most effective form of argument is one that the audience is allowed to reach towards a conclusion before, or just as the same time, the speaker reaches it. ‘The audience takes pleasure in themselves for anticipating the point’; this an essential part of the Logos (Leith 2012: 58).

Thirdly, Pathos is the appeal to emotion. In rhetoric, speeches can be designed in such a way as to make statements that invoke feelings of passion, patriotism, mourning, and even anti-Semitism. As Quintilian argues, we can entice our audience “with delights, drag them along with the strength of our pleading and sometimes disturb them with emotional appeals… we cannot make even just and true cause prevail’ (cited in Leith 2012: 66). While Trump makes the Logos proposition that immigrants are criminals and rapists, it is also a Pathos proposition, whereby it invokes feelings of fear and hatred towards immigrants (Gabbatt 2015; Gorvett 2015).

Furthermore, rhetoricians such as Sam Leith point out that Trump speaks with very limited working vocabulary, with run-off sentences, and his propositions are ridden with empty adjectives and adverbs. In other words, Trump’s rhetoric is a simple one, and it imitates a casual conversation. However, the advantage with simple language is that it appeals to a wider audience and it connotes honesty to the audience (Leith 2017).

In my opinion, it is essential that people need to learn about rhetoric and the methods used in advertisements, speeches and even tweets that are used to persuade the ignorant mass. This is because, the methods of rhetoric are intrinsically intertwined with the processes of democracy. Campaigns, speeches, social media, discourse, propaganda all contain elements of rhetoric and is used precisely to persuade the masses, much like the Athens of Plato’s time. Where people used methods of rhetoric in speeches and deliberation, but the difference is that the awareness of rhetoric has receded towards the point that it is only heard of by the educated; the public i.e. voters are as ignorant as sheep towards its persuasiveness. As Brennan states, “voters know corrupt liars should not be made president, but they often have difficulty determining which candidates are corrupt liars” (2016: 225). To which calls for the discussion of systematic biases in political rhetoric:

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Figure 7 : Average partisanship of speech (Source: ‘ Measuring Polarization in High-Dimensional Data’ by Gentzkow et al. 2016).

Recent empirical data from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research show that there has been a dramatic rise in partisanship i.e. the bias in political rhetoric since 1990 (Gentzkow et al. 2016: 37). The group of economists examined speeches held in US Congress from the year 1872 to 2009, using an algorithm that analysed words spoken by Republicans and Democrats; the model used to measure data is designed to control the finite-sample bias through penalisation (2016: 11, 24). They found that the differences in rhetorical language used by Democrats and Republicans are now more different that ever. As political rhetoric diffuses into media and public discourse, these findings imply a deep polarisation not only in the US Congress but also more broadly, within the American electorate (2016: 23). In other words, current empirical data indicate that there are profound effects to which the biases of political rhetoric have on voter’s views on issues such as immigration, climate change, tax, and political preferences (2016: 23).

I believe that in order to overcome the effects of political rhetoric, voters ought to understand its mechanisms. Knowledge about rhetoric equips the voter with both the freedom to use it and resist it. As W.H. Auden, wrote in 1939, “All I have is a voice. To undo the folded lie” (cited in Leith 2012: 16). Thus, it is in rhetoric where one has the ability to fold the lie as well as to undo it (Leith 2012: 16).

Chapter 5: Origins of Epistocracy

It was sometime in 300 BC, when a thinker first explored the idea of a state ruled by an elite group of wise and educated experts. These group of people were called philosopher-kings, they were to be trained in various subjects that nurtured the mind and body, these include musicology, cultural studies, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy. In Republic, Plato asserted that the best solution for solving political issues are for philosophers to become kings. This was because, he argued, that philosophers perceive things “in themselves”; a philosopher is awake because he has been enlightened with knowledge and the rest are asleep because they are driven by belief and opinion. Philosophers have stronger perception on reality and can distinguish it from the deceptive and illusory form of the world (Waterfield 1993: 195).

“Knowledge is correlated with the truth of things, which is a property of what each thing is itself, and which never changes; belief is correlated with the less real aspect of things, in which they are no more beautiful than ugly” (cited in Waterfield 1993: 195).

For Plato, the ones that have toiled their way into enlightenment have access to perceiving the realm of the Forms; the knowledgeable possess genuinely founded moral and political views rather than from belief. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, he depicts men chained in a cave so that they cannot see sunlight; behind them is a fire which project their shadows onto the wall. For Plato, the physical realm, rhetoric, language, beliefs or other forms of “pseudo-truths” are represented by these shadows; the shadows are their reality. One of them escapes and sees the heavenly bodies and the sun for the first time and this is likened to ascent to the Forms. Excited by the revelation that his past reality was just an illusion, he informs his former fellow prisoners. This subsequently causes great resentment among them to the point that he is killed by them- just as Socrates was killed by the Athenians (MacIntyre 1967: 43).

Plato lived in democratic Athens and was deeply distressed about the flaws and dangers of democracy. He saw that the uneducated were slaves to the desirous aspect of their tripartite mind and thus were not rational enough to make the correct voting decision. Plato argued that people were often too flighty in their behaviours:

“Sometimes he drinks heavily while listening to the flute; at other times, he drinks only water and is on a diet; sometimes he goes in for physical training; at other times, he’s idle and neglects everything; and sometimes he even occupies himself with what he takes to be philosophy” (Plato cited in Crain 2016; Waterfield 1993).

It is my contention that Plato’s concepts found in Republic provides a basic framework to which we can draw from; many of the principles and teachings in Plato’s dialogues present truth to which are entirely compatible to our modern world and thus it is possible for us to structure a political regime that is based on knowledge and competence, not entirely different from a democracy, but rather an augmentation of it- an epistocracy. I believe that this chapter is also important in establishing that epistocratic theory is not merely a recent occurrence, but its most basic form can also be found in classical philosophy. Which brings us on appropriately to the next chapter.

Chapter 6: Mill’s epistocracy

It was not until the 19th century that a political regime based on knowledge was again intellectually considered; John Stuart Mill argued that extra votes should be given to university degree-holders or people in intellectually-demanding jobs (Crain 2016; Estlund 2003: 53). It is not surprising that Mill was highly influenced by Plato; the Socratic idea of rationally examining our lives developed into one of Mill’s strongest beliefs. Mill agreed with Plato’s idea of the philosopher-kings and believed that political authority ought to be passed to the group that is “most capable for exercising it wisely and justly” (Estlund 2003: 54). Reflecting Plato, Mill argued that the superior wisdom and competence held by a group of elites was justifiable to the higher political authority they could possess. Mill’s proposed political regime was of plural voting, i.e. every person will have one vote, at the very least. [8]

Mill postulated that encouraging citizens to engage in politics would enlighten them; he hoped that political deliberation and participation would transform the politically ignorant citizens into people that thought rationally and scientifically about politics (Brennan 2016: 6). He urged his fellow citizens to examine all the consequences of different forms of government (Brennan 2016: 1). However, during the time of his writing, only a few countries had representative government, and these states had restricted suffrage, whereby voting was restricted to an elite minority.

Plural voting advocated by Mill is motivated by two objectives: firstly, it is to prevent a group or class from having absolute political authority over the state and its people without having to justify it. In other words, Mill’s regime avoids Plato’s totalitarianism and finds a middle path between it and a democracy. The second objective is to avoid giving equal voting rights without considering their individual merits in regards to political competence, education, and intelligence. Mill believed that it was essential that political institutions implemented policies that recognised that some opinions are legitimately more weighted than others.

Chapter 7: Objections Against Epistocracy

Although a resister against epistocracy, Estlund concedes that Mill’s proposals are “formidable”, as it is to Mill’s advantage that he attempts to distribute privilege among the educated, not the wise (2003: 58). In “ Democratic Authority”, Estlund formed a proceduralist philosophical justification for democracy, supported by two propositions about democracy: firstly, democracy procedures are inclined to make correct policy decisions, and democratic procedures are in themselves fair to the perception of all citizens. For him, democracies more often than not, make the correct decision (2008). In support of this argument, economist and philosopher Amartya Sen pointed out that democratic states never have famines, rarely engage in civil wars, have greater liberty for their citizens and prioritises human rights more than other political regimes do (Crain 2016).

In his case against epistocracy, Estlund deploys various objections: firstly, he proposes the general acceptability condition. For Estlund, a political regime is justified in so far that it has been generally accepted among the ruled, in the case for epistocracy. He mentions Rawls, whereby “the view of political justification relies only on claims and doctrines acceptable to all reasonable citizens” (2003: 58). However, he quickly concedes that this condition contains flaws, whereby unreasonable grounds could be used and thus ought to be disqualified. For example, the grounds that a political regime is unacceptable because an individual might feel that he should be king for whatever reason. Estlund quotes Mill in support of this condition:

“It is only necessary that this superior influence should be assigned on grounds which he can comprehend, and of which is he is able to perceive the justice” (Mills 1950: 382 cited in Estlund 2003: 59).

Essentially, there are only two practical arguments that are significant in Estlund’s critique: firstly, Estlund argued that the epistocratic method of screening voters might be biased. He argues that because everyone is biased in towards their own self-interest, an epistocracy would favour the interests of the privileged group. Thus, this bias outweighs the epistemic benefits of the privileged group (2003:66). This is coupled by Estlund’s Demographic Objection, where he states that, “the educated portion of the populace may disproportionately have epistemically damaging features that countervail the admitted epistemic benefits of education” (2003: 62). He argues that in the real world, an epistocracy would disproportionately privilege members of a certain races, class and gender; people are inevitably biased. [9]

The Demographic Objection was one of the main reasons for abolishing the literacy test of 1975, where governments decided to deprive the black minority of their rights to vote by requiring them to pass almost impossible literacy tests. However, these were administered in bad faith with the intention of disenfranchising the blacks, and whites were not required to take it. Therefore, this argument does not show that an epistocracy is inherently objectionable (Brennan 2016: 224).

Secondly, he argued that the concept of universal suffrage was so deeply entrenched in our minds as a default structure for democracy that the idea of restricted suffrage i.e. giving votes to the educated will simply feel unjust. In this argument, Estlund’s proposition presume that people are inherently irrational and do not possess the capabilities to deliberate and consider the positive and negative consequences of a new political regime. Estlund is reducing the citizen to a simple-minded being that bases their rationality simply on emotions and ideology.

If this is the case behind Estlund’s logic, then this simply reinforces the arguments for an epistocracy; it is on the grounds among many scholars that voters tend to be irrational and too emotional to discern clearly, without the need for education, the right policies to implement and who to vote for. Thus, Estlund does not provide sufficient grounds for his argument, it is insufficient to simply “feel out” what is the right political regime and what is not, Estlund’s argument undermines the capabilities of the voter.

However, what remains a reasonable point is Estlund’s “Demographic Objection”. With the various forms of epistocracy that are currently available to us, this problem can be addressed without much difficulty. To which leads us on to the next chapter, in our consideration for the implementation of epistocratic systems.

Chapter 8: Epistocratic Systems

A political regime is epistocratic to the extent that it distributes political authority proportionately to political competence, in the form of law or policy. An epistocracy may retain many of the institutions, decision-making methods, procedures, and rules found in a democracy. For example, parliaments, elections, freedom of political speech, deliberative forums and so on. The most significant difference between an epistocracy and a democracy is that citizens do not by default have equal right to vote or run for office (Brennan 2016: 208).

The first form epistocracy meets the democracy and epistocracy halfway, as Thomas Christiano proposes there to be a division of political labour: “Citizens are charged with the task of defining the aims the society is to pursue while legislators are charged with the tasks of implementing and devising the means to those aims through the making of legislation” (2008: 104). In his regime, legislators have only instrumental authority; the people take on a shared ownership of the state and determine the goals to which the system ought to strive for. However, Christiano is sceptical about whether we can expect voters to sacrifice an immense amount of time and effort on their part to gain sufficient knowledge in the social sciences; it would mean that society would have to abandon the division of labour (2006). Furthermore, it would be required that we would need to know more about possible trade-offs, transaction costs, and opportunity costs to determine what our goals ought to be (Brennan 2016: 211).

The second form comes under a regime of restricted suffrage and plural voting. Everyone in this system begins as an equal and by default, no one is entitled to political authority and voting rights until they proven to have at least some form of basic knowledge in the social sciences. A restricted suffrage epistocracy responds to the problem that ignorant voters of whom make up the majority will not end up choosing bad policies or leaders (see chapter 3). Under this regime, a voter qualification exam can be designed to assess said basic knowledge or demonstrate an acceptable level of intelligence; entries from all demographic backgrounds will be accepted. For example, the test will ask candidates to answer various logical problems and mathematical puzzles or a memory test on geography (Brennan 2016: 212). In order to encourage the disadvantaged members of society to participate, the government could offer incentives to citizens who pass the exam in the form of tax credit (Brennan 2016: 213).

Thirdly, Lopez-Guerra advocate a form of epistocracy called the “enfranchisement lottery”. Under this scheme, everyone begins on an equal footing. A lottery is used to select a random but representative subset of citizens of whom will gain the right to vote. The purpose of this lottery to ensure that the chosen minority are representative to the demographics. Subsequently, the citizens will engage in various deliberative forums whereby sufficient knowledge is imparted and attained from each other (2014: 4). It is important to point out that with Lopez-Guerra’s system, it avoids the “demographic objection” as argued by Estlund in the previous chapter. However, this system attempts to produce competent voters rather than select, to which causes some practical problems such as the huge transaction cost that could be suffered under this proposal i.e. it would require a large amount of resources to educate them.

In regards to the demographic objection, the argument presupposes that voters will vote for their own self-interest or for the interest of group that they belong to. However, it is demonstrated with various empirical studies that voters do not vote selfishly. In fact, voters tend to vote for what they think is to be the national interest and therefore they vote sociotropically and altruistically (Brennan 2016: 50, 227). However, as demonstrated in Chapter 3, voters often unwittingly vote for policies that deviate from the socially optimal platform. And secondly, it is presumed that the disadvantaged citizens will understand how to vote in ways that help their own self-interests, but as I demonstrate in Chapter 3 as well, it is unlikely that voters know which policy or politician to vote for that will produce their favoured result. Even Estlund is seen to accept that a well-administered epistocracy would be more likely to perform better than a well-administered democracy. As he states, “removing the right issues from democratic control and turning them over to the right experts would lead to better political decisions, and more justice and prosperity” (cited in Brennan 2016: 222).


As I draw my dissertation to a close, I am thankful that I had the opportunity to engage in this challenging intellectual inquiry. In the beginning of my dissertation, I provided the launching platform that prodded myself to investigate and internalise this political system to which was grounded on various empirical data, economic and political phenomenon that would indicate that democracies are collapsing. Secondly, I analyse various aspects of voter ignorance along with empirical data as factors to which democracies fail. Then, I discuss the role and mechanisms of political rhetoric in affecting voter preferences. Subsequently, I presented the basic framework to which an epistocracy can operate on through the discussion of literature by Plato and John Stuart Mill. Balancing out the argument, I present multiple objections that are raised for the resistance of epistocracy. And finally, I present to the reader several possible epistocratic systems that could be implemented.

As I mentioned in the introduction, much literature and research are yet to be contributed to this subject, such as the problem of designing a voter qualification exam. For example, there is the issue with designing an exam that assesses the knowledge required to every election, as the knowledge required varies (Brennan 2016: 212). Furthermore, what would be determined as relevant knowledge would be reasonably disputed due to different ideologies, beliefs, demographics, agendas and political circumstances and so on. And thus, it follows that, what is counted to be “political competence” precisely would also be controversial, as in the real world, there are large spectrums of intelligence, skill, and knowledge held. Not to mention that economists would have a hard time calculating the possible transaction costs required to convert a democracy to an epistocracy and the opportunity costs required for citizens to set aside time and effort to acquire knowledge.

There are certainly many flaws to democracy, but this dissertation does not connote that an epistocracy would be perfect nor does it predict that it will function better than its predecessor if it were to be implemented. However, based on the research that I have carried out, I believe that the values and practicalities of epistocracy as well as beliefs and assumptions on democracy ought to be seriously considered and evaluated. Furthermore, an epistocracy, like past political regimes, are expected to be subjected to some degree of government failure and political abuse. Some could also argue that it will make things worse. But given that we all choose to be instrumentalists, as I think that we ought to be, and if there is a reasonable likelihood that an epistocracy would function better than a democracy in any given society with any degree of government failure and corruption, then we should have it.


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[1] Some have argued that democracy hinders economic growth, using China, the most autocratic and centrally-controlled system in the world as the leading exponent for this argument (Huang 2011; Li 2013).

[2] I have dedicated a separate chapter to the techniques and mechanisms of rhetoric in support of the post-truth politics argument.

[3] It is important to point out a disclaimer here that Althaus merely estimates what a fully–informed person’s preference would be. As there is no consensus on what constitutes as useful political knowledge, the term ‘fully-informed’ ought to be superficially understood as “achieving a perfect score on a particular test of factual political knowledge”. To put it simply, the simulated preferences as shown in Figure 4 are only hypothetical (2003: 104-105). The model was originally pioneered by Carpini and Keeter (1996) and Bartels (1996) (Althaus 2003: 102).

[4] Caplan presents data for 37 questions in total from the SAEE in his book. But because of the word limit, I will confine myself to just one question (See pages 57 to 79 for the rest).

[5] It is also worthwhile to point out that, that Caplan’s estimation of the preferences of the ‘enlightened public’ is paralleled with the method used in Althaus’ research (Caplan 2007: 55).

[6] These words were spoken by Trump on 25th August 2016 at a rally in Mississippi.

[7] The Pew Research Centre has found that by global standards, the majority of Americans are either upper-middle income or high income. Moreover, Americans classified as “poor” would be considered as middle income relatively to other 110 countries in the world (Kochhar 2015).

[8] Estlund called the rule of the educated a scholocracy. It should be pointed out, that there is a distinction between an epistocracy and a scholocracy. For Estlund, in an epistocracy, it is the wise that rules and not the educated (2003). But for the sake of simplicity, the epistocracy that I contend with involves both definitions.

[9] Estlund does, however, mention possible corrections for this. He stated that demographic objection can be avoided by demographically correcting the group that is given extra votes. For example, if the issue is an underrepresentation of a certain gender, it may be possible to select from the educated group in proportion to the general population (2003: 63).

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Democratic Disorder. Why Modern Democracy is Failing and its Alternatives
University of London
Philosophy, Politics, and Economics
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philosophy, politics, economics, brennan, plato, estlund, jason, trump, brexit referendum, jason brennan, mill, political philosophy, political science, thesis, dissertation, goldsmiths, london, democracy, epistocracy, voter ignorance, bryan caplan, against democracy, myth of the rational voter, democratic failure, voting, brexit, goldsmiths college, political systems
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