Epistocracy and the Nature of Political Knowledge

Epistocracy and the Nature of Political Knowledge

Many intellectuals and philosophers have suggested that society would be better ruled if political power was concentrated citizens according to their knowledge. For instance, Plato proposed a system of governance, called Noocracy, where decision making is in the hands of philosophers. Other systems of similar flavor such as Technocracy or Meritocracy were also proposed. The most recent system of this kind is Epistocracy proposed by libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan. Epistocracy is based on the idea that only citizens with political knowledge (to be understood as competent citizens who are able to defend their political views on “justifiable grounds”) should be able to participate in decision-making process. In current democratic systems, everybody has political rights from birth because it is assumed that everyone is the best judge of his or her interests. Otherwise, if the State wants to replace “personal autonomy with a paternalistic authority” it is its responsibility to prove the incompetence of the citizen. The hypothesis behind Epistocracy is that the majority of individuals do not have necessary political knowledge for participating in decision-making process. Consequently, political rights should not be birth rights and citizens should gain them by proving their competence, i.e., by proving they are politically knowledgeably individuals (see Democracy or Epistocracy? A Choice Between Two Values)

A flaw of this system lies behind the meaning of “political knowledge.” The conceptual uncertainty surrounding the definition of “political knowledge” poses the practical question of what should constitute knowledge and how this corpus of knowledge should be assembled and fostered. In practice, such system would be an opportunity for the most influents within a society to adapt the abstract notion of “political knowledge” according to their wishes. This is what could make Epistocracy an interesting endeavor for groups seeking to expel others from decision-making process and a dangerous one for everybody else.

State Rule As Common Root

What Epistocracy and democracy has in common is that a hierarchical body of institution is assumed to be necessary which means that people need to be coerced if they refuse to obey collective decisions and enacted laws. The system remains a hammer whose purpose is to generate good outcomes, efficiency and stability and that this might necessitate influencing the life of others at a systemic level is acceptable. In that context, casting a vote to express viewpoints or choices can quickly be seen as an attempt to impose the will of one group on others, like in a permanent zero sum game. This is why one argues that it is vital to deprive political rights of incompetent citizens in order to prevent them to “exercise political authority over” innocent and competent individuals. However, this viewpoint is ideologically biased because it ignores that individuals might be interested in voting to prevent others to impose their will on them. Indeed there is no reason to be interfered by people even politically competent. But does an individual need to demonstrate his competence to tell acknowledged politically competent individuals not to interfere? Or would this viewpoint be considered as a kind of “bad voting” that cannot be defended on “justifiable grounds”?

What is Political Knowledge?

Governments looking to gain power over individuals by restricting individual liberties have the habit to pass regulations based on broad and ill-defined concepts that despite apparent good intentions can be used afterward as means to progressively reduce the ability of individuals to exercise their rights. If a system such as Epistocracy was to be implemented, citizens would be required to pass a competence test in which they answer questions about government structure of their country, basic principles and theories in political science, economy, and sociology. Considering that many of these academic fields are being used to promote ideologically oriented messages, sometimes at the cost of the respect for genuine knowledge, this competence test will not only provide means to defend political views on “justifiable grounds” but it will also shape what type of political views are allowed to exist. When one argues about the supposedly lack of political knowledge of individuals and their need to pursue higher education, one tries to marginalize individuals who remain unconvinced by mainstream political ideologies. In theory, Epistocracy should be the rule by the knowledgeable but in practice; Epistocracy would quickly become a tool for the elites willing to rule through the control of not only knowledge, but what constitutes knowledge.

Power Through Controlling Knowledge

Nowadays, when citizens express their disagreements using the legal democratic framework, their viewpoints can be ignored.  European countries gave a striking example of this when organizing the referendums about the Treaty of Maastricht. In some States, citizens were required to recast their vote until the results were in favor of the proposed Treaty. Other States simply ignored the results and moved on with the agenda. This phenomenon that demonstrates the gap between citizens and policy makers has become common since social democracies have evolved into administrative bodies managed almost exclusively by professional politicians, bureaucrats and their lobbies. They became so accustomed to control the decision process that they do not tolerate interferences arising from individual choices. They have a clear view about how the society is to be organized and that individuals might have their own plan to run their life is at best a detail to be ignored or at worst a disagreement to be fought by all means. This is not surprizing as the emergence of a project of society automatically implies the need to dominate individual wills. The issue is not that individuals are not educated enough to understand the political debates but rather that they do not feel concerned by the type of “societal project” designed for them without their consent. Going further, advocates of Epistocracy suggested that voters should provide detailed demographic information so one could evaluate whether they have “correctly” voted.  “Politically knowledgeably” citizens would be expected to vote according to predefined metrics based on social and economic backgrounds for instance. This would make individual behaviors within predefined social groups almost non-existent thus eliminating uncertainties for policy makers. Regulating voting rights on the basis of whatever would ultimately be accepted as required political knowledge could be a method to marginalize individual choices and make the pools of voters as homogeneous as possible at least in terms of political beliefs.

Ultimately, the restrictions of voting rights combined with a practical control of the corpus of knowledge would officialise and even worsen the flaws of the current system. Those in power could set the rules to favor those in power, i.e., power through controlling the nature of knowledge itself. This would establish a self-reinforcing system of rule by a class of elites, with an apparent philosophical legitimacy. It would deepen the asymmetry between the class of elites working to control the life of their citizens and the citizens who are progressively stripped from their abilities to run their own life and who would have almost nothing to say about decisions affecting them.

Another worrying aspect of Epistocracy is that it legitimates the stereotype that individuals are not the best to manage their own life. It provides apparently reasonable arguments that can be “weaponized” to restrict individual rights. This would start with the voting rights and could continue with property rights or the right to give birth and raise a family for instance. This is worrisome as these rights are already questioned in many countries. One could argue that in a perfect “theoretical” epistocratic system, every adult citizen will be “knowledgeable” and that no one would be depraved from their individual rights. But in reality, it is likely that many citizens will end up being excluded from the decision process. The defenders of Epistocracy are convinced, citing totalitarian governments as examples, that they do not fear how the excluded citizens would react and whether the excluded might be willing to oppose the system because history have shown that once people get used to the type of government they have they tend to consider it as legitimate (see Epistocracy: A Political Theorist’s Case for Letting Only the Informed Vote)

Epistocracy is one of the many political theories questioning the ability of individuals to be responsible for them or assuming that they are unfit to make appropriate decision (see Paul Krugman Thinks You’ll Be Happier With Fewer Choices. Nonsense). These proposals consider with skepticism the abilities of citizens to make individual choices and suggest imposing a system where citizens would be encouraged to give up the control of their life. Those proposals might look questionable to anyone considering individual freedom and the responsibilities coming with it as the ultimate virtue. Unfortunately, it should be reminded that such proposals might be welcomed by individuals that favor security over freedom and prefer to be given directions rather than taking responsibility for their own choices. While good governments should have worked to help their citizens to live without their needs, many today want individuals to be allowed to act only with authorisation while governments would be free to do anything they want.

Western Europe Puts Free Speech in the Crosshairs

Western Europe Puts Free Speech in the Crosshairs

As Murray Rothbard, writing in Power and Market, noted: “Democracy may be thought of, not so much as a value in itself, but as a possible method for achieving other desired ends…Democracy, after all, is simply a method of choosing governors and issues, and it is not so surprising that it might have value largely to the extent that it serves as a means to other political ends.”

In several western countries, the legal framework protecting individual rights is challenged. Political activists and intellectuals are taking advantage of the social and economic discontentment to promote centralized forms of governance as a solution to societal and economic problems. They argue that this unprecedented reinforcement of centralized power should inevitably come with a redefinition and reduction of individual rights. In this context, individual rights, such as private property rights and freedom of speech, are purposely named “negative” rights because those are individual rights which protect a person against the aggression and coercion of others. These “negative” rights are increasingly constrained and progressively replaced with “positive” or “social” freedoms that may only be guaranteed with more government planning and redistributive control to ensure that individual action remains confined within the collective of the society as defined and enforced by the government.

Free Speech in Europe: Always More Regulations and Constraints

The Republic of France for instance has enacted more than 400 laws to regulate and restrict the right to express opinion. Those laws are often sponsored by advocacy groups to influence public discourse on sensitive topics. Their objective is to promote the viewpoints considered as admissible while using the legal framework as a weapon to censor non-compliant opinions. Recently, the French government attempted to go a big step further in their campaign of censorship with the “Avia law” that was proposed to strengthen the fight against “hate speech” online. To summarize the core principles of this law, it suffices to say that it was based on a system that any visitor of an online platform could use to flag “manifestly illegal” content (among a long pre-set list of offenses). Once this happened, the notified online service provider was required to remove it within 24 hours or could face a penalty of 250,000 Euros and up to one year imprisonment. A deadline of one hour was given by the administrative authority to remove illegal terrorist content.

A particularity of this law was that no judge or any other third party would have been involved in the evaluation of the “illegal” character of the incriminated contents. It is the administrative authority that promoted the law which would have acted as judge. As it was not enough, ensuring the application of such law could have been done only by following rather broad subjective criteria because, from a legal perspective, the concept of “hate” is not even formally defined in the French legal system. The law faced fierce opposition and was invalidated by the French constitutional court after representatives of the French Senate requested a detailed review of the case.

The attempts of the French government to regulate and censor what is left of “free speech” are not restricted to France. French authorities have been championing their law enforcement model against illegal online content at the European Union level with the support of Germany. Those initiatives got noticed and France was recently flagged as no less than a major threat against free speech by U.S. representatives.

The Case for Amending the U.S. Constitution

In the United States, one observes waves of criticisms targeting the constitutional amendments considered by some activists and intellectuals as anti-democratic abnormalities preventing societal changes to come into effect. Calls for removing or modifying the first amendment to shut down hate speech are louder than ever but still considered with skepticism. The right to keep and bear arms, i.e. the right of citizens to safeguard themselves, and private property rights are also under threat. Intellectuals do not hesitate to deny the importance of property rights and this makes activists requesting their abolition or restriction more confident.

Since targeting “negative” rights that guarantee individual freedoms is not enough, proponents of larger constitutional changes also focus on what they named the “non-democratic” nature of the U.S. Constitution in order to make a case that would see it amended.

The Citizen Climate Convention: A Trojan Horse Against Individual Freedoms?

In France, amending the constitution is considered a perfectly legitimate means to support and strengthen an ideological agenda. The latest attempt of this type was made by the “Citizen Climate Convention” (CCC) which suggested rewriting the first article of the French Constitution as follows: “The reconciliation of rights, freedoms and principles cannot compromise the preservation of the environment, the common heritage of mankind.” The CCC was an experiment of “direct democracy” established under the auspices of the French President to answer some of the demands made in the wave of the public protests which have been taking place in major French cities during the last months. The CCC was constituted of 150 citizens “randomly” selected to work on topics related to the societal impacts of climate change.

The role of the CCC was to provide recommendations to guide the transformation of the society and its transition towards eco-friendly energy sources. The members of the CCC were accompanied by a Governance Committee providing guidance and counseling. All members of this committee came from the left of the political spectrum with members of left-leaning unions and think thanks, ecologists, and NGO activists included. No representative of the private sector were to be found, and while supporters of renewable and green energies were well represented, representatives of the other sectors of the energy industry were not invited to participate in the discussions.

This lack of diversity of thought and opinion became apparent when the report of the CCC was released. This report, organized around 150 propositions, was a concentrated mixture of coercive measures and restrictions of all kinds accompanied with economic recipes such as rent and price controls, with new taxes and regulations joined together in a call for more central planning policies. It is worth emphasizing that the rewriting of the constitution suggested by the CCC was rejected by the President who argued that “protection of the environment cannot be placed above public freedoms.” This statement makes explicit that, on a long term basis, even the initial promoters of the CCC feared that this amendment would have lead to either the suppression of individual freedoms in the name of environmental causes or to their subordination to policies which could have been voted on the basis of this amendment.


Fundamental laws safeguarding the equilibrium between the prerogatives of the state and the fundamental rights of the citizenry are being questioned by proponents of constitutional changes which would give even more power to already intrusive governmental and administrative authorities. Higher constitutional institutions have taken their responsibilities to prevent the most radical of these demands from coming into effect but one can reasonably assume that new attempts will be made to force and accelerate those changes.

Brice M. Vanhaelen is a scientist from Belgium.

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