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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Democracy Can’t Be Fixed by Having Some Votes Count More

Knowledge-based voting ("epistocracy") is not the answer.


The appalling political process of the past year and the less-than-appealing candidates it has generated have created a great deal of disappointment, distemper, and doom-saying. It has also brought proposals to rescue democracy out of the woodwork.

To think government could produce a disinterested, even-handed mechanism in this area is simply beyond belief.

One such proposal comes from Jason Brennan, author of Against Democracy. In a featured opinion piece in this past Sunday’s Los Angeles Times titled, “Can knowledge-based voting fix democracy?”, he advocates what he calls “epistocracy,” where “More knowledgeable citizens’ votes count more,” as a way to improve democracy.

Brennan begins by noting that most voters are quite ignorant about political decisions, primarily because casting a better-informed vote will not change political outcomes, which means such a vote provides an individual voter with essentially no benefits. He is correct as far as he goes, and in his judgment that the rational voter ignorance problem is a “built-in feature of democracy.” Although, he does not discuss two other important related issues: the “expressive voting” benefit of making individual voters feel better about themselves (made almost free by the fact that an individual vote won’t alter outcomes) and the much higher information costs of analyzing government policies than individual choices in the marketplace.

Right Problem, Wrong Solution

Unfortunately, though his proposed “improvements,” such as awarding extra votes to those better informed on relevant political issues, face severe implementation issues, as well as suffering from logical weaknesses.

Brennan notes some of the implementation problems with his proposal, but he never really comes to grips with how allocations of extra voting power could ever be rescued from political calculation and control. How many other cases of government intervention have not seen the end result of giving government more power (as with the current immigration issue, which is in large part about controlling party preferences of potential future voters)?

To think government, or those in charge of it at a given time, could produce a disinterested, even-handed mechanism in this area is simply beyond belief.

Brennan’s solution also fails to fix the incentive problem facing voters that he cites as the reason his reform is necessary.

Brennan also misidentifies general voter knowledge as the crucial question. More political knowledge does not solve bad government problems in democracies, because while people could use superior knowledge to make better choices for the “general welfare,” that same knowledge can be used by political liars and those they employ to better mislead voters.

That is, knowledge can be used productively for others or to better enable government-enabled piracy. For example, consider MIT professor Jonathan Gruber’s role in selling Obamacare. It is indeterminate whether the net effect of these two opposing possibilities is an improvement. However, giving such “experts” more votes than they now have would clearly make results worse.

Incentives Still Matter

Brennan’s solution also fails to fix the incentive problem facing voters that he cites as the reason his reform is necessary.

How would extra votes in some voters’ hands appreciably affect incentives to be informed? Say some particular voters got a second vote. The chance that two votes would swing any large numbers election is insignificantly different than the insignificant chance that one would; yet than means the ignorant voter problem remains unaddressed. What if there was an even greater voting power differential, with some getting 100 votes? Again, an infinitesimal change in the likelihood of swinging an election.

Something that leaves voters’ incentives substantially unchanged cannot appreciably improve results caused by voters’ incentives in democracy.

And imagine something even more extreme. What would happen if the bonus scheme awarded one extra vote per published article about public policy or constitutional concerns? I would get somewhere around 1,500 extra votes. Even then, as a resident of California, I know with certainty my 1,501 votes would make no more difference than my one vote for either the presidential or any statewide.

In other words, something that leaves voters’ incentives substantially unchanged cannot appreciably improve results caused by voters’ incentives in democracy.

While Jason Brennan correctly recognizes some of the voter-incentive problems with democracy, rational voter ignorance is unfixable by Brennan’s epistocracy solution. Not only does he too lightly brush off implementation problems, he ignores the fact that government, particularly the party in power, would corrupt the process to advance its own ends at the expense of those it professedly serves. Further, his solution is a non-solution, because it does not appreciably alter voters’ incentives to become informed to change outcomes. The consequence would be appreciable costs and virtually no benefits.

 

We Need Freedom, Not Fine-Tuned Government

Improvement requires something very different. It involves recognizing that few decisions beyond mutually protecting our rights need be made in common.

We need not make the same decision about what to eat or wear, where to work or live, how we will be educated or how to get from point A to point B, who to associate with, ad infinitum. Yet we face increasing government dictation on almost every one of those fronts.

Improvement requires only that we remove those choices that need not be shared from political determination. Let individuals make their own choices for themselves with their own resources. Then individuals will not only make far better informed decisions, it will put the many forms of government theft—which provide the ultimate incentives for the “lies, damned lies and statistics” that dominate democracy—off the table.


  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).