Better than Democracy?

By Robert Bernstein   |   December 3, 2020

Winston Churchill famously said, “…democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”

I write this as Joe Biden has been declared “president-elect” in the news and while Donald Trump still sends out repeated appeals for money.

Record numbers voted for each side. Meaning that record numbers of people are very upset with the outcome.

Was Churchill correct? Is there nothing better? Four years ago I watched libertarian philosophy professor Jason Brennan argue that democracy does not fulfill its claims. What are some of those claims?

Is democracy fair? On the surface, one person, one vote seems very fair. But Jackson Browne noted this in his song “Lives in the Balance”:

They sell us the president the same way

They sell us our clothes and our cars

They sell us everything from youth to religion

The same time they sell us our wars

Some people have far more access to “selling us” than others. But don’t we each still get our vote? Statistically, voters are more male, white, older and moneyed than the population.

More important to Brennan: Most voters are “low information.” Americans in a Kaiser poll believed that 26 percent of the U.S. budget goes to foreign aid. It is actually less than 1 percent. Only 27 percent of Americans think that there is a scientific consensus on human-caused climate change according to a Pew poll. In fact, 97 percent of climate scientists are sure.

Brennan asks us to imagine we are about to take an exam along with 210 million people. But your grade will be the average score of everyone taking the test. What incentive do you have to study and give the best answers?

The climate crisis and COVID should make everyone aware that we need good governance with a long-time horizon

Brennan divides voters into three groups. “Hobbits” just want to live their lives. “Hooligans” are like soccer fans in Brazil. Very informed but very biased. “Vulcans” are fact-based. Brennan admits that pure Vulcans may not exist, but he wants Vulcan-ish votes to count more than the others.

Issues like trade, healthcare, and the climate crisis are complex. “Gut feelings” are not helpful. Most Americans have no idea why international trade is even good.

“Can you explain the view of the other side in a way that they would accept” is something we also need from voters.

“I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University,” said conservative pundit William F Buckley. Brennan disagrees. He advocates for an “epistocracy” where people who have more information have more say. Maybe not Harvard Faculty. But we can establish who are experts in most fields.

John Stuart Mill argued for “plural voting” where people with more knowledge got extra votes.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton said that giving women the vote would empower women. But voting only empower groups, not individuals.

At the opposite end from epistocracy, Australian writer Tim Dunlop calls for a “People’s House,” an extra branch of government drawn by lottery like a giant jury.

But do we want a “fair” system or one that performs best? The climate crisis and COVID should make everyone aware that we need good governance with a long-time horizon. Some problems have to be solved with massive long-term investment, regardless of public opinions.

Philosopher David Hume refuted the idea that we “consent” to governance as we usually have no choice. But no large society has ever functioned without government. Our current voting system unfortunately creates warring tribes. We feel like gladiators in a pit (Brennan’s words) who must kill or be killed.

People are actually quite competent in their daily lives. They educate themselves enough to find work; they secure shelter and raise children. Can we harness that competence for voting? Can we find better incentives for being informed?

Brennan suggests some kind of factual exam as an incentive. You don’t have to pass the test to vote. But perhaps you would get a financial reward if you do well before voting.

At the very least we need a way for people to understand the consequences of their votes. A majority of Americans say they want universal healthcare and free public college. These same people vote for candidates who oppose these things.

Can we develop a way for people to list the goals they want to achieve and then accurately select candidates and policies based on those goals and on established facts? Perhaps we will find that most of us share the most important goals?


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