Should We Limit Power to Those in the Know? Democracy Through Epistocracy

voting-jfkIn this endless political season, I’m amazed by the number of people who have no idea what they are talking about. I am not referring to the individuals who disagree with me; I’m talking about those who have no grasp of basic facts. They are not dumb (although I wouldn’t necessarily call them smart, either). No, they are uninformed, without a core understanding of civics, U.S. history, or how the country operates. That’s why I’d like to propose an alternative form of democracy, epistocracy.

Epistocracy is similar to a typical democracy. Both are a representative form of government with limits on power, checks and balances, elected officials, and judicial oversight. The difference is that while democracies allow every citizen an equal right to vote, epistocracies dole out these rights based on knowledge, competence, and/or expertise.

I’m tired of ignorance held up as inspiration, where vicious anti-intellectualism is considered a positive trait, and where uninformed opinion is displayed as fact.―Philip Plait, author of Bad Astronomy

The intent of an epistocracy is not to limit power to a selected few, but to ensure that elected officials are chosen by well-informed, “qualified” citizens. As a result, we can avoid being subjected to the judgments of those who do not comprehend the issues. The challenge is in how we define “qualified.”

There are many ways to determine whether someone is properly informed to be eligible to vote. Some have suggested requiring people to pass the citizenship test when registering to vote. Others allow everyone to vote, but for your vote to count, you must correctly answer a few simple questions that pertain to the issues and candidates on the ballot.

If either of these options were to be chosen, the next challenge is deciding who will draft the qualifying questions. Both parties are likely to exert their influence in a way that supports their partisan leanings. Plus, the questions need to be written in a way that avoids preferential treatment based on education or socio-economic status.

If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.—Mark Twain

If enacting an epistocracy sounds absurd, you should consider that you are already utilizing some of its concepts in your workplace. As I’ve previously written, your organization is not a democracy, but you are “qualifying” the people who work there. Interviews, resumes, assessments, background screenings, reference checks, etc. are all intended to help you choose employees who possess the knowledge, competence, and expertise to work in your hallowed halls.

Many pundits and political candidates have suggested that government run more like a business. If this is the case, don’t we need a selection process to determine who can participate? Companies employ litmus tests to ensure their decision makers are informed. Why should participating in our government require any less effort?