In a recent EUROPP article, Cathrine Holst presented an argument in favour of ‘epistocracy’, or expert rule. Tom Angier writes that while arguments for expert rule can be traced as far back as Ancient Greece, a modern conception of epistocracy is doomed to be either ‘banal or dangerous’. He argues that we should resist the temptation to trade democracy for expertise.
Greece: the birthplace of democracy. True or false? Well, true in a sense. Since the financial crisis, the Greek people have rediscovered their political voice, a voice first heard – albeit less shrilly, and on a far smaller scale – in the ancient Athenian polis, or city-state. Ancient Greece was, indeed, the first major democratic power, even if those qualified to vote and participate in political debate were relatively few (namely, citizen males of a certain age). When it comes to political philosophy, however, Greece is the birthplace of radically anti-democratic thought. Plato and Aristotle have bequeathed us moral and political theories that are overwhelmingly suspicious of vox populi. Why so?
In Plato’s case, he had seen the Athenian democratic State execute his great teacher, Socrates, while Aristotle, as tutor of Alexander the Great, was closer to those wielding imperial power than to the dēmos. But besides these biographical motivations, both philosophers were wedded to a paradigm of political decision-making that excludes, or at least thoroughly sidelines the people: namely, political expertise. The Greek word for expertise is technē, so it is no surprise that a major rival to democracy (the rule of the people) is technocracy (the rule of the experts). Plato ascribes politikē technē, or political expertise, to his philosopher-kings, and it is this that supposedly qualifies them to rule over the people. They are presented as knowing both what is in the people’s interests, and how to achieve this, better than the people themselves.
Platonism, or something approaching it, has recently made a come-back in political theory. Going under the name of ‘epistocracy’, or the rule of the knowers – Plato tends to use epistēmē (knowledge) interchangeably with technē – the idea is that, at least under ‘modern’ conditions, experts should have a far greater say in political decision-making than the canons of democratic political theory allow. As Cathrine Holst of the EPISTO Project puts it, a more epistocratic or expert-led politics holds out the prospect of ‘resolute and knowledge-based decision-making’, embodying ‘procedures that optimise efficiency and rationality’, thereby enabling societies to ‘deal with the new risks and hazards’ of a globalised world. This prospect no doubt has its attractions, attractions that have, as I’ve indicated, an ancient pedigree. Let me elaborate on this further.
Plato’s basic claim is that the dēmos is unreliable. Although it may hit, occasionally, on the right policies, this is fundamentally a matter of luck, and any belief that is true by accident cannot be knowledge. The only epistemically respectable position, then, is that of the technitēs, the expert or man of skill, who has a firm grasp of the rules and norms governing a particular area of enquiry and practice. To take some examples: the shoe-maker, ship-builder, doctor or general is master over his own domain, delivering not only the right answers, but also the right outcomes. And the expert who gains Plato’s greatest respect – bar the advent of the philosopher-king – is the mathematician, who deals with the most stable, most certain, and most generally applicable knowledge there is.
Such technē-knowledge lays the groundwork for today’s epistocratic hopes. It sets the standard for what Holst calls ‘the most rational outcomes’, instantiating the kind of ‘decision quality’ and ‘fine-grained … analyses’ she suggests should inform the political sphere. Environmental experts healing the earth, health experts curing our bodies, terrorism experts securing our borders, and economics experts sorting out our cash-flow problems: on the basis of such expertise, we would not only maximise our chances of getting the benefits we seek, the costs of intractable democratic disagreement would, in all likelihood, be circumvented. As Plato speculates, if moral and political debate were subject to the kind of decision-procedures seen optimally in mathematics, we ‘would proceed to count and soon resolve our difference’.
This vision of democratic politics ceding ground to expertise is either banal, or dangerous. On the one hand, if those in favour of a more epistocratic State want politicians to (at least) consult or (at most) defer to experts, they are peddling banalities – for both happen already. Politicians cannot master the multiple forms of expertise relevant to even a single section of one government department. But more crucially, there are significant disagreements between experts even within limited domains of expertise, and these disagreements are often themselves fundamentally political. So to appeal to ‘the experts’ as if this would yield univocal, or (per impossibile) politically neutral results, is naïve. The rule of experts would generate not expert rule, but a cacophony of conflicting views and interests.
On the other hand, if the epistocratic argument is that politics itself constitutes an expertise, this is dangerous. Plutarch, for one, denies the danger, decrying as ‘ridiculous’ those who require that the oarsman be qualified, but let ‘guide the helm he … who was never taught’. But critics of technocracy are not ridiculous. They recognise that the ‘skill’ of the politician is, at best, a hodge-podge of different aptitudes. Psychological acuity, rhetorical panache, some historical knowledge, the ability to compromise, but also a certain ruthlessness: all go to make up the good politician. Above all, however, the good politician must be devoted to the people he or she represents – and it is this democratic, people-centric commitment that makes the assimilation of politics to a technē inevitably misleading. Why so? There are at least two reasons.
First, as Aristotle realised (unlike Plato), human beings introduce a host of complexities into any proposed course of action, since they have manifold needs that differ over time and space. This holds far more at the political level than for more circumscribed and less people-centric crafts (e.g. chess), where the variables are fewer. Secondly, technē or expertise consists essentially, as Aristotle also realised, in knowledge of various means-end techniques. It follows that it stands in need, always and necessarily, of being moulded in an ethical direction. So when those sympathetic to epistocracy recommend that politicians deploy expertise to save the environment, contain terror, sort out the economy, etc., they gloss over the fact that these are matters of deep ethical controversy to begin with, which technocratic proficiency per se has no power to decide.
If the dilemma I’ve set out is accurate, and the epistocrat’s counsel is either banal or dangerously unrealistic, it does not follow that democracy itself is lacking in dangers. Indeed, democracy is dangerous, as Michael Mann’s The Dark Side of Democracy, and the slide to the right in countries like the Netherlands points to. But it is less dangerous than its rivals – even than Holst’s ‘democratic epistocracy’, which (implausibly and somewhat sinisterly) trumpets its ‘basic, but minimal democratic standards’. For the great virtue of genuine democracy lies in recognising that, as Hegel puts it, ‘we do not need to be … professionals to acquire knowledge of matters of universal interest’. It follows that if any ‘professionals’ set themselves up as experts in matters of universal, political interest, the dēmos and its representatives should not hesitate to put them firmly in their place.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Tom Angier – University of St Andrews
Tom Angier is a Teaching Fellow in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews. His research focus is on Ethics and Political Theory, with a specific interest in Ancient Greek approaches. His publications include, Techne in Aristotle’s Ethics: Crafting the Moral Life (Continuum, 2010) and, Either Kierkegaard/Or Nietzsche: Moral Philosophy in a New Key (Ashgate, 2006).
I think your article makes too stark a contrast between ethical and factual debates in politics.
e.g, “when those sympathetic to epistocracy recommend that politicians deploy expertise to save the environment, contain terror, sort out the economy, etc., they gloss over the fact that these are matters of deep ethical controversy to begin with.”
Particularly on the environment, I don’t think the debate is primarily an ethical one at all. You would struggle to find any ethical standpoint, be it deontological or consequentialist, that justifies doing nothing about anthropogenic global warming, if we assume anthropogenic global warming is a reality. Neither utilitarian OR Kantian principles can easily be used to justify condemning future generations to death.
This is confirmed by real-world politics. When climate deniers in the U.S say they want to “teach the controversy”, they are not talking about an ethical controversy, but a factual one. The same is true of economics – mainstream politicians of the left and right agree on the ethical principle of ensuring a decent standard of living for all, but disagree on whether market-based policies or a strong welfare state are more important in achieving that goal. Sure, there are a few Randians who really do believe the majority can starve as long as ‘the individual’ is secure, but they don’t tend to occupy the top government posts in developed countries.
I would argue that conflict over facts, not values, makes up the majority of politics today. Vast resources are currently being deployed to support views of reality that are in many cases simply incorrect. Climate denying is the most obvious and dangerous of these, but I think we should pay attention to their influence on other areas of policy as well.
As things currently stand, democracy is open for ANY worldview, no matter how factually incorrect, to achieve political influence. These worldviews may arise from ethical standpoints, but they often contain factual assumptions (eg, “global warming is a hoax”) that risk vast damage to society.
Much of democratic politics consists in the distortion of (factual) truth for ideological purposes. Epistocracy poses a direct challenge to the legitimacy of such behavior, and that is why it cannot be easily dismissed.