Jason Brennan has some questions: What if…people had to pass some sort of test in order to vote? If this sounds suspiciously like old methods folks used to stop minorities from voting decades ago, I’d say you’re hearing the same thing I am and probably making a face like someone just made you eat a combination of rotten onions and dirty toes.
Consider an alternative political system called epistocracy. Epistocracies retain the same institutions as representative democracies, including imposing liberal constitutional limits on power, bills of rights, checks and balances, elected representatives, and judicial review. But while democracies give every citizen an equal right to vote, epistocracies apportion political power, by law, according to knowledge or competence.
Voters tend to mean well
but voting well takes more than a kind heart. It requires tremendous social scientific knowledge: knowledge that most citizens lack. Most voters know nothing, but some know a great deal, and some know less than nothing. The goal of liberal republican epistocracy is to protect against democracy’s downsides, by reducing the power of the least-informed voters, or increasing the power of better-informed ones.
Dooooo go on.
One common objection to epistocracy—at least among political philosophers—is that democracy is essential to expressing the idea that everyone is equal. On its face, this is a strange claim. Democracy is a political system, not a poem or a painting. Yet people treat the right to vote like a certificate of commendation, meant to show that society regards you as a full member of the national club. (That’s one reason we disenfranchise felons.) But we could instead view the franchise as no more significant than a plumbing or medical license. The US government denies me such licenses, but I don’t regard that as expressing I’m inferior, all things considered, to others.
Ah, but not being able to…plumb…legally won’t do things like drastically erode your autonomy over your own body.
Others object that the equal right to vote is essential to make government respond to our interests. But the math doesn’t check out. In most major elections, I have as much chance of making a difference as I do of winning the lottery. How we vote matters, but how any one of us votes, or even whether one votes, makes no difference. It might be a disaster if Donald Trump wins the presidency, but it’s not a disaster for me to vote for him. As the political theorist Ben Saunders says: in a democracy, each person’s power is so small that insisting on equality is like arguing over the crumbs of a cake rather than an equal slice.
Numbers–how do they work?
On the other hand, it’s true (at least right now) that certain demographic groups (such as rich white men) are more likely to pass a basic political knowledge test than others (such as poor black women). Hence the worry that epistocracies will favor the interests of some groups over others. But this worry might be overstated. Political scientists routinely find that so long as individual voters have a low chance of being decisive, they vote for what they perceive to be the common good rather than their self-interest. Further, it might well be that excluding or reducing the power of the least knowledgeable 75% of white people produces better results for poor black women than democracy does.
Math checks out. After all, the US has a history of showing that rich white men have routinely taken the plight the poor black women into account–almost above all!–when voting! Ya know, I want to snark more but my breath just left my body.