Skip to main content

Epistocracy, Vote Markets, and Democratic Reform

This post is one of those papers that I wrote in my last semester of college. Majoring in philosophy was probably one of the best things I ever did as it exposed me to so many different thoughts and ideas that I never would have been exposed to otherwise. It also forced me to tighten up my reasoning and writing. But, enough reminiscing. This post examines three different reforms to democracy. If one is not at least a little familiar with the literature of political philosophy in regard to democratic reform, then this post might be slightly confusing. However, I think I do a decent enough job explaining most of the major concepts.

In this paper (blog post?), I will argue that secret voting in Congress is the best way to reform democracy. In order to illustrate this, first, I will go over two other potential democratic reforms. Specifically, Jason Brennan’s epistocracy and Christopher Freiman’s vote markets. Second, I will explain the problems these reforms seek to fix, but ultimately why they both fail. Lastly, I will introduce the democratic reform that is most compelling, in this case, secrecy in Congress, including what it seeks to fix and why it is superior to the first two reforms I discuss.

In his book, Against Democracy, Jason Brennan comprehensively highlights and demonstrates the severe lack of political competence that voters have today. This, he argues, is a consequence of the democratic process as utilized in the United States and other democracies around the world. The average voter, with little incentive to become politically competent, remains rationally ignorant. The effects of this rational ignorance are poor voting habits and poor political outcomes. In an effort to reform the shortcomings of democracy, Brennan argues for several versions of epistocracy. That is, a political system in which the voices of the competent are amplified, while the voices of the incompetent are eliminated, or at least greatly subdued.

There are four main versions of epistocracy that Brennan makes a case for. The first and simplest of which being restricted suffrage. Just as one must take a driver’s test to determine whether or not they are capable of handling the risks associated with it, Brennan suggests that one must also take a test to determine whether or not they are sufficiently competent to vote. In restricted suffrage then, political power is restricted to those citizens who can pass a test, demonstrating they possess the requisite knowledge.[1] Simple and straightforward, restricted suffrage would achieve Brennan’s goal of only the competent wielding political power

Hand in hand with the restricted suffrage proposal is the proposal of John Stuart Mill, defended by Brennan, called plural voting. In this regime, each citizen has one vote by default, although as Brennan mentions it could also be zero, and through specific actions that demonstrate competence, they are given more votes.[2] The actions that allow citizens to obtain more votes could be by passing an exam or holding an advanced degree amongst other things.

Brennan also presents a hybrid political system called universal suffrage with epistemic veto.[3] As the name suggests, in this scheme, everyone would have the ability to vote, but there would be an epistemic council that would have the ability to veto political decisions. The council would be open to any citizen who demonstrates the requisite knowledge through “rigorous competency exams.”[4] Importantly, the council has no power to make law, it can only unmake law, it cannot start political action, it can only stop it.[5] Additionally, the council cannot appoint its members or issue any decrees or regulations.

Lastly, Brennan suggests government by simulated oracle. In this regime, people in the electorate are split into groups based on their demographics. A test is then given to everyone. The people who pass the test cast votes for themselves and everyone else in their demographic that they represent.

Brennan’s arguments for political competence in an electorate are reasonable, but the question that he and every other epistocrat must answer is what makes one competent? In his estimation, for an electorate to be politically competent, they must reason well, have relevant knowledge of worldly events and goings on, as well as possess social scientific knowledge.[6] Brennan makes a good attempt at defining competence, and thus, theoretically, making the selection for epistocrats an easy, or easier, endeavor. But while reasoning well, possessing social scientific knowledge, and having knowledge of current events are all necessary components of competence, in my estimation, none of them are sufficient by themselves or even when placed altogether.

Within Brennan’s epistocratic scheme, there is a glaring lack of any moral knowledge needed to be competent as he understands. An epistocracy that satisfies Brennan’s definition of competence still has the ability to vote or impose immoral, unjust laws. Perhaps one could argue that reasoning well itself means morality will be considered and implemented into any important decisions. But reasoning well, as Brennan describes, has less to do with coming to the correct conclusions, and more to do with avoiding cognitive errors or mistakes in one’s reasoning.[7] In other words, Brennan is much more concerned with how someone comes to a conclusion rather than what conclusion they necessarily come to. In fact, you could even argue that there may be situations in which the most rational decisions have immoral outcomes. With this definition in mind, it seems that possessing all of Brennan’s competence components can still lead to unjust, immoral political outcomes.

Here, of course, is where epistocracy becomes difficult. Creating a test or criterion for morality is an incredibly difficult task. Who determines what theory of morality is correct? What type of questions would be included in a morality test? Are both relevant questions whose answers do not seem clear. Additionally, even if the ability to create a good test for morality is granted, there is no way to test for someone’s ability or willingness to act on morality. It is entirely possible for someone to understand the “moral” answer to a question but have no intention of acting within that moral framework once they have obtained power. Seeing as there is no way to conduct a reliable morality test, and even if a reliable morality test is granted there is no way to test whether someone will act on their moral knowledge or not, then finding the people that satisfy all of Brennan's requirements of them plus the moral knowledge required does not seem possible in reality. 

Christopher Freiman offers a different reform for democracy. In his paper, Vote Markets, Freiman argues for the legal and moral permissibility of selling one’s vote. In order to prove his claim, he presents four prima facie reasons for allowing vote markets. First, voting as understood today is not efficient, vote markets would allow for efficiency as both seller and buyer of a vote would be made better off. Second, voters already have the ability to use their votes in ways antithetical to justice. Third, there are several democratic processes that already exist and function similarly to vote markets, and lastly, vote markets would allow citizens to express their preferences more intensely.[8]  

Freiman is correct. Voting as it exists today is not entirely efficient, but while vote markets would undoubtedly increase efficiency, there are other trade-offs that might make vote markets less than ideal. My argument is simple and similar to Greg Mankiw’s as cited by Freiman, albeit slightly different. Like any market, there will be externalities that negatively affect others outside of the interaction between buyer and seller. Freiman comments that this argument, while correct, proves too much as negative externalities can be imposed on third parties even without vote markets. When people who otherwise would not have voted are persuaded into voting this would also causes negative externalities on third parties. Freiman takes this even further arguing that voting itself causes negative externalities on third parties who choose not to vote. Thus, negative externalities by themselves cannot be a reason to prohibit vote markets.

This is where Freiman is wrong. Negative externalities can be a reason for prohibiting vote markets by themselves. That is, there is one main difference between the externalities caused by vote markets and the other type of externality that Freiman mentions. Within a democracy there is merit in deliberation about ideas. Deliberation is virtuous not just as a random democratic ideal, but also, as Helene Landemore suggests, because of its tendency to produce epistemically superior outcomes.[9] While this may not happen as often as theorists like Landemore would like, the potential for epistemically virtuous deliberation between individuals who voted or plan on voting and those less inclined to vote would be occluded by or lost completely were vote markets implemented.

Freiman’s second reason for allowing vote markets is that citizens already have the right to wield their vote in ways antithetical to justice. Either by voting selfishly or even by voting in direct contradiction of just ideals by supporting and voting for racist candidates, for example.[10] Once again, the argument is fairly simple. If a voter who is voting unjustly should not be interfered with by the government or individuals, why should a voter be kept from selling their vote? As stated in the beginning, Freiman is only providing prima facie reasons for allowing vote markets, meaning that his arguments are meant to simply shift the burden of proof from those who wish to allow vote markets, to those who do not wish to allow them.

In this respect, Freiman is successful. But of course, there still might be other reasons to disallow vote markets. Freiman provides some other arguments that are connected to my objection to this argument, so I will discuss them in more depth toward the end of this section.

Freiman’s third reason is that there are already certain practices that are functionally the same as vote selling that are allowed. Examples of this would be logrolling or earmarking. As Freiman describes, “logrolling occurs when a legislator secures the vote of another legislator on his favored legislation in exchange for offering his vote on behalf of her favored legislation.”[11] This is functionally equivalent to selling a vote and yet is still allowed. Similarly, earmarking is when public funds are allocated to specific projects or recipients with the intent of winning that portion of the population's vote.[12] Again, Freiman argues that since these practices are functionally the same as buying votes and are allowed under our current democratic scheme, then vote markets should be allowed as well.

While Freiman is correct that these practices are functionally the same as buying votes in a vote market, that does not that these practices are good in and of themselves. It is possible that they are also deficient mechanisms that should be done away with. In fact, Freiman even mentions that there are some cases where practices like logrolling are illegal. Additionally, earmarking, while similar to vote buying in function does not guarantee that the recipients who get public funds allocated toward them will vote for the specific legislator come election time. Whereas the ability to buy a vote would guarantee the use of that vote for the candidate of the buyer. This is a significant difference. Similar to the argument of negative externalities, the potential for a recipient or group of recipients of earmarked funds to vote against the legislators that earmarked those funds for them is an important possibility to preserve.

Finally, Freiman suggests that vote markets allow for more intense preference expression on behalf of the voter. The basic argument is that voter who is truly committed to a specific cause or candidate will be able to more intensely express that preference in the number of votes that they buy up.

My response to Freiman’s second and final reason for allowing vote markets, and vote markets more generally, is fairly simple. Like many people, the biggest intuition and worry about implementing vote markets would be the advantage that the wealthy may wield over the poor. Even a more intense expression of preference might only be available to those wealthy enough to buy a significant chunk of votes. Freiman also admits that status quo, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the wealthy exert more political power than their poorer counterparts.[13] Thus, perhaps further advantaging the rich over the poor is not an ideal we should strive towards. Freiman calls this the “Equality Argument”.[14]

Freiman’s overall argument against this intuition is two-pronged and slightly complex. If we accept that even without vote markets the wealthy still wield political power over the poor, then we must also accept that this advantage of the wealthy lessens the legitimacy of our democratic institutions and should be prohibited. This a fairly intuitive response and most people would agree that if such inequalities exist, then regulations should be implemented to improve the legitimacy of democracy. Freiman then argues that if we accept the efficacy of regulations in our current political system, then this only strengthens the case for markets. In other words, if there is a possibility of regulations improving egalitarian criteria status quo, then there must also be the possibility of regulations improving egalitarian criteria in vote markets.

On the face of it, this response is very compelling. After further inspection, however, there is one problem with Freiman’s reasoning. The major issue in Freiman’s reasoning is that he assumes that the ban on vote markets is not itself a regulation improving egalitarian criteria. It becomes difficult to see why a world with vote markets would succeed just as well with regulations on the wealthy if the very regulation to improve egalitarian criteria, a ban on vote markets, has been eliminated. If there is a world in which a ban on vote markets cannot be implemented, then I am not sure how Freiman can conclude that regulation in both worlds would be equally as efficacious. Thus, the Equality Argument can still counter Freiman’s argument for vote markets based on this fact.

Finally, Brian Kogelmann offers the most compelling reform for democracy. In his book, Secret Government, Kogelmann offers what is, in my estimation, the best reform to democracy. Contra philosophers like Christiano and Rawls who believe in publicity or the seeing of justice being done as a democratic ideal, Kogelmann offers a defense for more secrecy in government. The ideal of one person, one vote is critical to democracy, but it is not by itself enough to establish a normatively attractive conception of democracy.[16] Thus, as Kogelmann argues, in order to establish more political equality, we must have more secrecy in government. While somewhat counterintuitive, Kogelmann argues that secrecy effectively does away with two major obstacles to political equity, campaign contributions and information asymmetry.

As similarly noted by Freiman, campaign contributions are impediments to political equality because not every citizen can offer as much money to political campaigns as lobbyists and special interest groups can. Due to this, there is an inequality in whose interests will primarily be considered. Secrecy eliminates does away with the commitment problem that Kogelmann calls “credible commitments.”[17] In other words, due to secrecy, campaigns will be disincentivized to contribute large amounts of money to political campaigns. This disincentive is based on the fact that secrecy eliminates the mechanism through which credible commitments are resolved.[18] Similarly, secrecy addresses the problem of information asymmetry amongst voters.

While admittedly counterintuitive, the following claims can best be understood through an example. In terms of campaign contributions, imagine a scenario in which two people, A, and B each have one vote for themselves, but B has their interests considered more than A because of B's monetary contribution to a political campaign, for example. As congress is now, B not only has an incentive to donate to the campaigns that she votes for, but the official whose campaign B contributed to, because their decisions will be seen, also has an incentive to fulfill B's desire, even at the expense of A. But, Kogelmann argues, if we lived in a society where there was more opacity as it pertained to government decision-making, B would be less likely to try and monetarily influence political outcomes because there would be no way for B to know if her money was put to good use or not.

In terms of information asymmetry, or “leveling down” information, as Kogelmann calls it, secrecy does not let B leverage her information over A. If B is more up-to-date on politics than A, and therefore more closely monitors specific legislators, it only makes sense that the legislators will be more responsive to B’s desires. This is because if they do not address them, B will actually do something about it, whereas A, who is so busy and bogged down with work will not be able to consistently hold her legislator accountable[19]. If there were secrecy in Congress, then this information playing field gets leveled, and a legislator no longer has to be more responsive to B’s desires than A’s, because B can no longer apply pressure for her to vote in a specific way. Contrary to most commonly held intuitions, more secrecy actually seems to create more political equality, rather than less.

In my estimation, Kogelmann’s reform for democracy is better than Brennan’s and Freiman’s, although for different reasons. While sympathetic to Brennan’s lament about voter ignorance, simply on grounds of feasibility I find it hard to imagine the implementation of any form of epistocracy as Brennan imagines. Perhaps there is some formulation of epistocracy that could exist without the concerns that I mentioned, but Kogelmann’s reform seems to provide a much more feasible improvement to democracy that Brennan’s proposal of epistocratic government cannot. Freiman’s proposal suffers from a different weakness. Inherent in them, vote markets simply have an issue of inequality that one, Freiman does not adequately argue against and two, is more adequately addressed by secrecy. Even if we granted that vote markets could actually apply regulation to improve egalitarian criteria, secrecy also corrects for the gap in political influence between rich and poor without any drawbacks like deliberation occluding externalities.

[1]Jason Brennan, Against Democracy, pg. 212

[2] Ibid, pg. 213

[3] Ibid, pg. 215

[4] Ibid, pg. 216

[5] Ibid, pg. 216

[6] Ibid, pg. 37-40; 83

[7] Ibid., pg. 37-40; 141: As explicated in his competence principle (and other points in the book) Brennan does not seem to emphasize coming to the “correct” conclusion, but rather reasoning well, avoiding errors and cognitive biases, and making decisions in “good faith”

[8] Christopher Freiman, Vote Markets, pg. 761

[9] Helene Landemore, Democratic Reason, pg. 90

[10] Christopher Freiman, Vote Markets, pg. 763

[11] Ibid, pg. 765

[12] Ibid, pg. 765

[13] Ibid, pg. 767

[14] Ibid, pg. 766

[16] Brian Kogelmann, Secret Government, pg. 37

[17] Ibid, pg. 49

[18] Ibid, pg. 52

[19] Ibid, pg. 57: Importantly, Kogelmann uses this example in regard to interest groups not being able to leverage information against the general public, but I thought an interpersonal example between A and B would be easier to understand.


Popular posts from this blog

Red Pill and Manifesting the Good Life

For those unfamiliar, Red Pill is a philosophy developed from the movie The Matrix , where the main character, Neo is offered two pills by Morpheus, one blue and one red. The blue pill offers contentment and relaxation and exclusion from what is actually going on in the system that operates behind the illusion of order. The red pill offers freedom and the truth of reality. It shows you what's really going on, how dirty and dark the matrix really is. If you want a good idea of the idea that the red pill philosophy appeals to, watch this clip . Introduction The red pill is a movement that has grown significantly in the last couple of years. It consists of men, mostly, who have broken out of the "matrix" and have come to understand the reality of the world. Taking the red pill means seeing through the manipulations and deceptions of society. While vague and slightly confusing, if simply understanding the world for what it truly is was the only consequence of taking the "

Double Consciousness and Black History Month

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, -- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. - W. E. B. Du Bois When I was younger, I was always fairly disconnected from the idea of Black history month. I did projects about various abolitionists, activists, and freedom fighters. I wrote essays and gave presentations about pioneers of the civil rights movement, but I never felt really connected to the celebration or commemoration of this specific month like I knew I was “supposed to.” I’m not gonna lie, I thought something was wrong with me, “am I not Black enough?” “what’s the big deal anyway?” It felt as if two sides of myself were at war with each other.

The Power of Doing (Sucking)

For me, the phrase, "just do it" is almost synonymous with Nike. I'm not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but I must admit that it has made me completely numb to the phrase over the past five years. So numb that even when I hear the phrase in its appropriate context, removed from anything Nike-related, I just think of Nike and it has little to no effect on me. While this may seem like a super random introduction, pretty removed from the title of this post, it isn't. Doing is hard. Doing is so difficult that oftentimes people hold themselves back from achieving the things they want to accomplish simply because they don't do .  Honestly, I can relate to this more than I'd like to admit. Most of the time when we have something that we want to do, what keeps us from starting it is our belief about what might happen if we were to do it. The potential consequences. These consequences might include judgment, wasting money and time, and just being bad at the thing