Many people doubt the wisdom of the many and believe that experts, or some people distinguishing themselves by their wisdom, should play a more important role in shaping public policy. The motivation is that most lay people are ignorant about politics – and rationally so, because the impact of their vote is not worth the investment of time necessary to acquire the relevant knowledge – and may even be systematically biased (against markets, foreigners and future generations, for example).
Isn’t it possible to imagine better decision-making mechanisms than giving everyone equal electoral power? The merit of Jason Brennan’s recent contribution to these debates is to offer several possible alternatives. Among those, one is particularly interesting, because it doesn’t entail disenfranchising some citizens, and because it bears similarity to the practice of judicial review: an “epistocratic council”, either with legislative or review and veto power (Brennan’s favoured option). Members of this council would be selected on a meritocratic basis, passing a competency exam. And in order to minimize the risks of a biased test, all citizens could have a say and an equal vote in the determination of the required competencies.
Some degree of popular participation and political equality would thus be maintained in the determination of the required competencies. There would also be formal equality of opportunities to access political power. Differences in skills would of course translate into unequal real opportunities, but this is also the case with elections. Hence, the main difference with electoral representation is that there would be no institutionalized democratic accountability: during their mandate, these technocrats would have free rein vis-à-vis public opinion.
In a recent article in Politics, I argue that granting political power (either legislative or vetoing) to such council would generate increased risks of misrule or biases, risks that egalitarian inclusion and democratic accountability help minimize – albeit imperfectly. The risks of misrule stem from the independence from public opinion. Elected representatives do enjoy an important degree of independence in existing democracies. Mandates are not imperative, and citizens being poorly informed have troubles identifying their representatives’ responsibility. Hence, the accountability mechanism offered by elections is poor. Yet poor doesn’t mean useless. Elected representatives’ independence is not total; they still have to anticipate voters’ judgment and worry about their popularity. This can have negative consequences when voters are xenophobic or discount the future, but it is still an important safeguard against misrule. And we do need such safeguard, because a person selected through a competency exam cannot be trusted to behave morally. A person’s morality cannot be tested, for it can be feigned and unchecked power is corrupting.
Furthermore, even the best intentioned technocrats run the risk of being biased. Due to their social position, they might not know what it means to live specific experiences such as being a proletarian, a woman or an immigrant. And deprived from the electoral incentive to gather information from citizens, they risk acting on these biases.
In sum, a council of experts making decisions for the whole is not appealing. Expertise does have a role to play in politics, but in informing deliberations, not in making decisions. Whether this argument applies similarly to judicial review is an open debate.
Pierre-Étienne Vandamme is a postdoctoral researcher at the KU Leuven Center for Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy, Belgium.