Aristocracy, as you know, is government by the “best” or the “noblest” citizens. Kakistocracy is the opposite: government by the worst (or, more literally, the shittiest). Idiocracy was invented by director Mike Judge to serve as the title and theme of his 2006 dystopian comedy, set in the year 2505, when a professional wrestler and porn star occupies the White House. (In what passes for the real world, it took only 10 years for a WWE Hall of Famer and porn-star diddler to win the presidency; in a 2017 interview, Judge admitted that in the age of Trump, his film now seems “optimistic.”)
Until now, I hadn’t noticed the idiotic phonetic explainer. Intentional, I hope.
And epistocracy, our word of the week? It’s a recent coinage, created about 16 years ago by Brown University political philosophy professor David Estlund, that means “government by the knowledgeable.” The episto- part is related to other words about knowledge, including epistemology (the study of knowledge systems) and epistemic closure (an information cocoon). (I wrote about epistemic closure in 2012.)
In a 2003 paper, “Why Not Epistocracy?”, Estlund wrote:
If some political outcomes count as better than others, then surely some citizens are better (if only less bad) than others with regard to their wisdom and good faith in promoting the better outcomes. If so, this looks like an important reason to leave the decisions up to them. For purposes of this essay, call them the knowers, or the wise; the form of government in which they rule might be called epistocracy, and the rulers called epistocrats based on the Greek word epistḗmē, meaning knowledge.
Epistocracy’s other major proponent in the United States is Jason Brennan, a professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at Georgetown University’s business school. Brennan’s 2016 book, Against Democracy, argues that democracy is overrated and that we’d be better off with epistocracy. In a 2017 interview with Vox, Brennan offered ancient Athens as an example of an epistocracy “because only a very small number of people were actually voting, and they were the most educated members of society — the people who had the most political knowledge and the time to spend working on politics.”
In a critical essay, published in the New Yorker just before the 2016 US election, Caleb Crain was skeptical about Brennan’s proposal:
How would an epistocracy actually work? Brennan is reluctant to get specific, which is understandable. It was the details of utopia that gave Plato so much trouble, and by not going into them Brennan avoids stepping on the rake that thwacked Plato between the eyes. He sketches some options—extra votes for degree holders, a council of epistocrats with veto power, a qualifying exam for voters—but he doesn’t spend much time considering what could go wrong. The idea of a voter exam, for example, was dismissed by Brennan himself in “The Ethics of Voting” as “ripe for abuse and institutional capture.” There’s no mention in his new book of any measures that he would put in place to prevent such dangers. ...
Brennan, for all his cleverness, sometimes seems to be struggling to reinvent the “representative” part of “representative democracy,” writing as if voters need to know enough about policy to be able to make intelligent decisions themselves, when, in most modern democracies, voters usually delegate that task.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read that essay and didn’t know about epistocracy at all until last week, when I happened upon the Twitter account of Fred McElwaine, aka @gingermarauder. In his bio, McElwaine—who says he lives in “Belfast, EU”—describes himself as “father, husband, physician, marathoner. Citizen not subject. Epistocrat with ranked voting.” Digging around, I discovered a Twitter account called Epistocracy: “A nonpartisan social platform that enables politically aware individuals to consider, weigh in on and debate topical issues important to them.” The account is private; the profile links to a nonexistent website. So for now, anyway, count me among the non-knowing.