This is What Epistocracy Looks Like

Most academics know some version of the critique of elite rule, administrative power, and centralized regulation by experts. Hannah Arendt called bureaucracy the “rule of No Man;” Michel Foucault described the overlap of legislative power, knowledge-production, and the apparatus of discipline and control; Iris Marion Young defended simple street activism against the demand that political participation meet elaborate standards of reasonableness in the name of pluralism and in so doing laid the groundwork for current theories of agonistic democracy like Chantal Mouffe; Roberto Unger suggested that we ought to embrace democratic destabilization, experimentalism, and a radical institutional creativity belied by the supposed necessity of expert judgments; Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck have diagnosed the relationship between risk-aversion and governmental responsibility for emergency management as a modern form of legitimacy that both generates hazards and takes responsibility for managing them. Other criticisms came from conservative circles: Friedrich Hayek, Michael Oakeshott, and even Antonin Scalia.

Phillip Tetlock’s work on expertise is very illuminating here: in some fields, the avowed experts’ predictions actually are no better (and sometimes worse!) than a coin flip. That’s why David Estlund criticized the epistocratic tendency to ignore the systematic biases that underwrite invidious comparisons between evaluations of competence and incompetence in his book Democratic Authority.

And yet, some matters of expertise are unavoidable. David Estlund called these “primary bads”: war, famine, economic collapse, political collapse, epidemic, and genocide. In some cases, increased participation decreases the risk of such catastrophes: literacy and universal suffrage decrease the risk of famine, for instance. ”No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” Amartya Sen wrote in Development as Freedom, because democratic governments ”have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.” Yet democracies still go to war and face economic crises (if not yet collapse) and the temptation is always there to imagine a system that will decrease the likelhood of such events.

The standard line is that democracies must keep experts “on tap, but not on top.” But consider a common example that Steven Maloney and I articulated in our paper “Foresight, Epistemic Reliability and the Systematic Underestimation of Risk:”

all citizens are affected by the Federal Reserve funds target rate (the rate that banks charge each other for overnight loans to cover capital reserve requirements) as it ultimately determines the availability of credit and thus the balance between economic growth, inflation, and unemployment. Most experts agree that the range of viable options for this rate is limited. Further, they agree that direct or representative democratic control of the rate would encourage non-optimal outcomes, including price bubbles that could lead to economic collapse. As a result, decisions on the target rate, which affect every citizen, are nonetheless denied to the public. Some citizens thus argue that the Federal Reserve ought then to be abolished as illegitimate. [These] citizens charge that members of the Federal Reserve Board, who are drawn from the management of a few investment banks, allow systematic biases for their home institutions to color their decisions… [I]t makes (1) findings of fact (2) in an exclusive and closed manner that (3) have coercive effects on citizens because (4) democratic decision-making would lead to cataclysmic primary bads….

Now, it is amusing to point to the financial crisis of 2008 and argue that the Federal Reserve failed to prevent economic collapse. But though the crisis was and remains severe, the Federal Reserve actually played a major and undemocratic role in preventing a true collapse. David Runciman’s recent piece in the London Review of Books makes a similar point:

When democracies are in serious trouble, elections always come at the wrong time. Maynard Keynes, the posthumous guru of the current crisis, made this point in the aftermath of the First World War, and again in the early 1930s. When something really momentous is at stake, the last thing you need is democratic politicians trawling for votes. Keynes readily accepted that democracies were far better at renewing themselves than the supposedly more efficient dictatorships. He just wished they wouldn’t try to do it when they were struggling to stop the world descending into chaos.

Matthew Yglesias discussed the implications of the Federal Reserve for Progressives early last year:

No public institution can or should be truly independent of the political process. The Supreme Court is an independent branch of government, and rightly so. But its decisions are subject to hot political debate, and the nomination of judges to sit on the high court is considered an important presidential power. This, too, is as it should be. The assumption that monetary policy is too important to hold central bankers accountable through the political process should have come to an end along with the illusory great moderation.

Perhaps he is right; but perhaps politicizing the Fed will have the same de-legitimizing impact that politicizing the Court has had, which could be dangerous for an institution whose only power is its capacity to make credible counter-cyclical commitments.

Too often, we have the tendency to reduce these questions into a battle between “democrats” and “elitists.” But there are few serious radical democrats who advocate the dissolution of the administrative state, let alone the liberal rights that restrict majoritarian rule.

Objections to elite status and epistemic privilege more often reflect a kind of partianship about which experts to respect, as a proxy for in-group solidarity. It is difficult not to reduce matters of scientific expertise and superstition to in-group/out-group tribalism: after all, as much as I respect the opposition to intelligent design in public schooling, there is little reason to believe it has important implications for biology curricula, and it also has massive public support in many school districts. A pure democracy would allow the people to set their own standards.

We all fear some out-group, whether it be the white supremacists’ fear of non-white incursions, or the secularists’ fear of theological domination. Many people without a college degree resent the wage premium and social status associated with it; many people with a college degree resent the democratic power of the uneducated and the pandering they receive by politicians and media. Regardless of education, there is the sense of irreconcilable differences. Many people believe that we do not inhabit the same world, even as our disputes over how to constitute our shared world erupt over a very narrow band of possible policies.

Who among us is not an elitist or a vanguardist in some sense? We all think we’re right and that we could run things better than the status quo. Even my fellow fallibilists think we’ve got a recipe for institutional humility that would enhance outcomes!

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