Epistocracy– the Alternative to Democracy Being Promoted by Those in Koch-Funded Academic Positions

Here are the opening paragraphs of an article written by Natalie Schulhof for the Fourth Estate, the student newspaper at George Mason University:

“Garett Jones, associate economics professor at George Mason University, says that there should be less democracy in the United States, according to a talk he gave on Feb. 24.

“Jones says that less democracy and more epistocracy could lead to better governance. Democracy leaves power to the majority while epistocracy allocates power to the knowledgeable. Jones did not imply that democracy should be eliminated, but lessened by 10% for the sake of long term economic growth.

“According to Jones, less democracy would lead to better governance because politicians would be inclined to work on long term growth rather than spending to impress constituents during election season. Politicians try to please the public at the expense of neglecting long-term policies because they are elected through a democratic process.”

The full article can be found at: http://gmufourthestate.com/2015/03/03/less-democracy-better-government-says-mason-professor/

It should come as no surprise that Jones is a professor of Economics and BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, which has been supported by some of the $23 million in funding from the Koch Foundation.

“Epistocracy” is a formal euphemism for restricting voting rights, but not to the most intelligent citizens. If there actually were an intelligence test that was a prerequisite for voting, at least as many Far Right voters as Progressive voters would be turned away from the polls. No, “epistocracy” is a euphemism for reducing any large voter turnout in opposition to the policies advocated by Far Right candidates and their affluent sponsors. Those dubiously qualified voters are described not as “civic-minded,” but as “self-interested” —not as “motivated,” but as “manipulated.” Elections that Far Right candidates lose are, therefore, not a reflection of democratic principles in action but, instead, an illustration of the corruption and distortion of democratic institutions by demagogues. To be valid, democracy must be the exercise of voting rights by the right (or Right) voters.

If low-income voters should be largely ineligible to vote if they also fit into demographic categories that makes their “political intelligence” suspect, then, in contrast, belonging to an upper-income bracket becomes a nearly automatic indicator of such intelligence. Thus, wealth is not simply an economic and social indicator; it is also a political, cultural, and intellectual indicator of a certain (in both senses of the word) suitability for full and unquestioned enfranchisement. Ultimately, the self-interest of the wealthy is to be regarded as the national interest.

“Epistocracy” is a relatively recent economic and political coinage. It substitutes for the older term “noocracy,” a derivative of the term “noosphere,” coined in the 1930s. Here is part of the extended definition of “noosphere” provided in Wikipedia:

“The noosphere is the sphere of human thought. The word derives from the Greek nous (“mind“) and sphaira (“sphere“), in lexical analogy to “atmosphere” and “biosphere.” It was introduced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in 1922 in his Cosmogenesis. Another possibility is the first use of the term by Édouard Le Roy (1870–1954), who together with Teilhard was listening to lectures of Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky at the Sorbonne. . . .

“In the theory of Vernadsky, the noosphere is the third in a succession of phases of development of the Earth, after the geosphere (inanimate matter) and the biosphere (biological life). Just as the emergence of life fundamentally transformed the geosphere, the emergence of human cognition fundamentally transforms the biosphere. In contrast to the conceptions of the Gaia theorists, or the promoters of cyberspace, Vernadsky’s noosphere emerges at the point where humankind, through the mastery of nuclear processes, begins to create resources through the transmutation of elements. It is also currently being researched as part of the Princeton Global Consciousness Project.”

This is very esoteric stuff—and it is a very big leap from the consideration of such concepts to using presumed, rather than demonstrated, intelligence as a prerequisite for voting rights.

As something of a side note, I suspect that the term “noocracy” has not been used for two reasons: first, if it were pronounced “know-ocracy” is would sound like something very negative, something exclusionary rather than exclusive, or it would bring to mind the mildly derisive term “know-it-all”; second, if it were pronounced “knew-cracy,” it would be much more of a tongue-twister for most speakers, and it might suggest something faddish–something beyond democracy, rather than the ideal realization of democracy.

In any case, the origins of these concepts are very clearly cosmopolitan and European– not American—the product of a loose collaboration between Le Roy, a French mathematician and philosopher with an obsessive interest in metaphysics, Teillard de Chardin, a French paleontologist who was also a Jesuit priest with very a very mystical theological bent, and Vernadsky, a Soviet mineralogist and biochemist with a visionary sense of the cosmos.

But the promoters of “epistocracy” typically explain the concept by citing the intentions of the Founding Fathers, not the musings of these three eccentric, if compelling, European thinkers who lived in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century–and who developed these ideas in years immediately before and after the Second World War.

This deliberate, politically motivated misrepresentation has a parallel in the misrepresentations about the roots of Neoliberalism, which has been promoted by economists influenced by the Austrian Friedrich Hayek, who was reacting against and generalizing from the state control of the economy in Nazified Europe. Thus, in both the political and the economic realms, ideological expediency continues to trump historical accuracy, and historical complexities are “dumbed down” to untruths for those citizens deemed intelligent enough to have the right to cast votes.


6 thoughts on “Epistocracy– the Alternative to Democracy Being Promoted by Those in Koch-Funded Academic Positions

  1. Voting is one of the few activities we do where people can make important or life-and-death decisions about strangers around them and we don’t require at least some test of competence. Doctors, airline pilots, and even drivers of cars must pass a test and get a license. Study after study and poll after poll show that huge swathes of the electorate are abysmally ignorant of history, current events, civics, geography, and other basic information necessary for making good political decisions.

    It’s true that the concept of epistocracy has more traction on the political right, but the irony is that the average attendee of a Donald Trump or Sarah Palin rally would probably fail any reasonable voting test, whereas the left tends to have more support among well-educated people, and so would probably gain strength in an epistocracy. The fact that the Koch Brothers are behind this is not a reason to reflexively reject it. After all, if the Koch Brothers started donating to public radio should I stop listening to Marketplace and Prairie Home Companion? (not a rhetorical question because Koch Industries lately has been contributing to American Public Media, the producer of those shows) In any case, if Trump is elected I suspect the left’s antipathy to the idea of epistocracy would diminish dramatically.

    Also N.B. that, despite the author’s repeated references to “intelligence” in the article, above, the concept of epistocracy is about knowledge, not intelligence. It’s rooted on the Greek ” epistēmē”, meaning “knowledge”, i.e., the same root as “epistemology”.

    Martin Kich’s objections to epistocracy conflate two different issues: the concept itself and its implementation. How we prevent a voting test from favoring a particular political class, demographic group or economic stratum is an implementation detail, albeit the critical one. But we’ve accepted the need for tests in other area where incompetent people may endanger the public, such as bar exams, medical boards, civil service exams and drivers’ tests, even allowing for the fact that disputes about fairness sometimes arise and are settled in courts or with affirmative-action schemes. So it’s not implausible that we could devise an acceptably fair test for voting. But as things stand now, basic decisions about whether we send our young people to war, whether we address global climate change, whether we have access to health care, and many other literally life-and-death topics are being made for you by people who shouldn’t even be trusted to operate a lawnmower or handle sharp objects.

    • Did you ever wonder why the average IQ is 100 and how it has remained the average over many years? The thing is, we do evolve, we have not been stagnating at the same mean intelligence level, ever. Every year, the world population, gets smarter and the mean 100 gets shifted up so an IQ level that was once 110 now tests out at 100. The idea that some people are not capable of understanding the life and death matters that effect them is only true because they haven’t been educated to properly understand them. Education is the answer, not the creation of an elite voting class and to espouse such a solution shows a sore lack of critical thinking which straight away points to an ineligibility for membership of said class but rather points to being afflicted by the Dunning Kruger effect.

      Let me put it like this, if every year the average IQ shifts 1 point and the lowest IQ involved in mapping the human genome, at the time, had an IQ of 115, that would mean that 15 years after the mapping, the average child would grow up to be capable of such a remarkable feat of intelligence. This would also push to the outlying fringes those who, as you so eloquently put it, “shouldn’t even be trusted to operate a lawnmower or handle sharp objects.” With this being true, how can there be a credible need for epistocracy?

  2. The more people who vote, the better the information about the collective will of the public an election gathers. It might make more sense to require everyone of legal age to vote, with a tax/fine for failing to participate. A voter establishes incompetence or other incapacity could perhaps have the fine waived.

    • I disagree with mandatory voting. First of all, it would be yet another imposition on us by the state – inconsistent with the concepts of freedom and liberty that form the basis of American political culture. And more specifically, regarding the idea that it provides information about the collective will, I suggest that NOT voting also provides valuable information about the extent to which voters feel disengaged or alienated.

      In a society where our choices in the voting booth are increasingly controlled by powerful economic interests, entrenched political political forces, or, in the case of Trump voters, frenzied mindless mob mentality, it’s difficult to see our system of electing leaders as having any of the merits that Enlightenment philosophers ascribed to democratic decision making. In that context it’s understandable that many people wouldn’t want to participate in a system as corrupt and far removed from rationalist principles as ours. So not voting is a form of political protest every bit as legitimate as a street demonstration, letters to the editor, flag burning, or soapbox speech in the park.

      The US has one of the lowest levels of voter participation in the democratic world. We are also the only democracy with only TWO political parties in our national legislature. In the US voting for third parties is a waste of time and neither of the establishment parties represents us. If you want more voter participation, make the system less alienating rather than using strong-arm tactics to just make it LOOK like voters are less alienated.

      • Well, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, your United States and your right to vote were won on spilt blood so surely asking everyone to respect the sacrifices made during your war of independence by voting and fining those who don’t is a small thing. People can, of course, still not vote by simply spoiling their ballot.

        You can suggest not voting all you want but in the real world, the only valuable information it provides at present is who it is safe to ignore when it comes to writing policy. You also make a grave mistake in tarring all Trump voters as a frenzied, mindless mob and this mistake just cost the Democrats the presidency. Sure some of them were but now look at the post election anti-Trump demonstrations calling to ignore the will of the people. Obviously, this mob element is present on both sides of the divide.

        P.s., A Stanford study recently concluded that the U.S. is not a functioning democracy but is actually an oligarchy. Look it up, it’s a truly interesting read. So, before throwing it out the window, you should first give democracy a fair go rather than replacing it with something truly draconian.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.