According to Jason Brennan, a political philosopher, there are three broad types of democratic citizen:
· Hobbits are mostly apathetic and ignorant about politics. They don’t give politics much thought.
· Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. They have strong and largely fixed world views. They tend to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing political opinions and ignore or reject information that contradicts those opinions.
· Vulcans think scientifically and dispassionately about politics. Their opinions are strongly grounded in social science and philosophy. They try to avoid being biased in explaining contrary points of view.
When I attempt to relate these citizen types to the stages of adult development identified by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, discussed in my last post, it is obvious that Vulcans have self-transforming minds. I have the impression that other types of democratic citizen tend to exhibit lower stages of adult development in their political views than in other aspects of their lives. There isn’t much incentive to behave like a responsible adult in the political arena since your vote is unlikely to be decisive. Some Hooligans may be self-authoring (self-directed) in the sense that they have chosen for themselves which political team to support. In their role as citizens, however, Hooligans are characterised as having the socialized minds of faithful followers. Hobbits may be socialised, or even self-authoring, in some aspects of their lives, but they are disassociated from politics.
In his book, Against Democracy, Jason suggests that few citizens are Vulcans. Nearly all citizens are either Hobbits or Hooligans. Hooligans have more political knowledge than Hobbits but are still prone to make systemic mistakes on many important issues in economics and political science. The cumulative impact of their incompetence has adverse consequences for other citizens. On this basis Jason argues that there are good grounds to presume that some feasible form of epistocracy – a system that gives competent and knowledgeable citizens more political power than others - would out-perform democracy, in which all citizens have equal voting rights. Epistocracy would still result in rule by Hooligans, but would give greater power to competent and knowledgeable Hooligans.
Jason is against democracy only in the sense that he considers that some form of epistocracy would be likely to produce superior outcomes. He acknowledges evidence that democracies have done a better job of protecting economic and civil liberties and well-being of citizens than dictatorships, one-party governments, oligarchies and real monarchies.
In the light of the bias and ignorance of voters, some readers may be wondering how most modern democracies have managed to avoid catastrophic outcomes. Jason suggests that has been prevented by several moderating factors including the power of the judiciary and government bureaucracies to set their own agenda, the power of political parties to shape the political agenda independently of what voters desire, and politicians who have generally been much better informed than voters.
That line of reasoning supports the views of Joseph Schumpeter, a famous economist who argued about 70 years ago that the success of democracy was problematic unless it was strictly limited. In my book Free to Flourish I noted that other famous economists, including James Buchanan and Milton Friedman, suggested that additional constraints needed to be imposed on democratic politics to avoid bad outcomes.
In the preface to the 2017 paperback edition of Against Democracy, Jason notes that in recent years more people have become willing to consider the flaws in democracy. After mentioning Trump and Brexit he goes on to make the point that his criticisms of democracy are based on information on voter ignorance that has been known for a long time. Unfortunately, he doesn’t explore whether there has been a change in the moderating factors that have hitherto ensured that outcomes are better than they would have been if the prejudices of ignorant voters had prevailed.
The change I have in mind is the declining power of the major political parties to shape political agendas in ways that moderate the ill-informed desires of electors. It strikes me that over the last decade or so, innovations in the social media have greatly increased the power of ill-informed Hooligans and the populist politicians who promise to give effect to their views. Ill-informed Hooligans can now more easily establish links with like-minded people who share their misconceptions. They tend to communicate in echo chambers that reinforce their outrage when the leadership of the major parties is unresponsive to their concerns. Consequently, in some countries we are seeing ill-informed Hooligans taking over major parties and the reins of government. In other countries splinter parties comprised of ill-informed Hooligans are attracting supporters away from major parties and making it more difficult for them to pursue coherent policy agendas. No matter which way it is happening, the growth in political influence of the ill-informed Hooligans seems likely to be detrimental to the future well-being of citizens in democratic countries.
Jason outlines a range of possible forms of epistocracy that might reduce the political influence of Hobbits and ill-informed Hooligans. Most of these suggestions involve taking the right to vote away from ill-informed people or giving their vote lower weight.
However, it is difficult to see how those proposals could ever be politically feasible while most citizens continue to have some faith in democracy. Even citizens who have shown no interest in politics in the past are likely to place some value on their right to vote. They are likely to perceive that it has existence value. The right to vote offers all citizens the potential to participate collectively in voting an oppressive government out of office, should the need arise.
It seems to me that when government by ill-informed Hooligans produces economic disasters the best response we can hope for will be for changes to be made in the rules of the game to tip the balance in favour of better economic policies. This could involve such things as more effective public debt ceilings, and making proposals for changes in tariffs and other trade barriers open to scrutiny by an independent agency responsible for reporting publicly on national economic benefits and costs. A couple of years ago I suggested some more fundamental institutional changes to make government in Australia more accountable in an article in On Line opinion.
The question in the heading of this article is prompted by Jason’s favourite epistocracy proposal, government by simulated oracle:
"Suppose there is a range of candidates from various political parties. We can ask citizens to provide their anonymously coded demographic information and then take a test of basic objective political knowledge. They then rank the candidates from most to least favored. Using these data, we can determine how the public would rank the candidates if the public were fully informed. Whatever candidates ranks the highest, wins."
I am not attracted to the idea of adjusting the preferences of voters in this way, but I wonder whether a significant proportion of voters might be willing to accept the guidance of an oracle to help them to decide how to cast their votes. What I have in mind is that individual voters would be surveyed to determine their preferences and then offered impartial expert voting advice based on their responses. At present there are any number of commentators offering voting advice, but effort is involved for individuals to find and interpret this information. I am not aware of any oracles offering unbiased voting advice tailored to individual voters.How many Hobbits and Hooligans would accept impartial expert advice about how to vote?