I’m a bit late to getting around to David Estlund’s Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework (Princeton, 2008) but it’s a major work of political philosophy. It is very much in the American tradition of political philosophy strongly influenced by John Rawls’s political liberalism. Estlund defends the core of that project and makes the case that a liberal political schema – a deliberative democratic process, universal suffrage, an attachment to fairness – remains the preferred  mechanism for organising a decent society but his justifications are distinctively his own.

Estlund maintains that democracy offers epistemic advantages (makes better decisions) over alternative systems that might be acceptable by qualified (reasonable) actors. Estlund sets his standards for epistemic advantage low – arguing only that, as a minimum, that democracy is likely to do better than a random coin toss, but he places a great deal of weight on the epistemic value of democracy: “its epistemic value is a crucial part of the story. Owing partly to its epistemic value, its decisions are (within limits) morally binding even when they are incorrect” (8). At the same time, however, Estlund is determined to resist the notion that because some groups may be capable of making better political decisions than others, these groups should, therefore, take decisions on behalf of the whole polity – a form of rule Estlund dubs epistocracy.

It is a book that is by turns fascinating and infuriating. It shares many of political philosophy’s most frustrating elements – a sterile obsession with justifying authority and legitimacy as foundational philosophical elements and a tendency to abstraction to the point of irrelevance – but it is also a thoughtful and thought-provoking work that had me scribbling furiously in the margins. This isn’t going to be a review of the book – I might do that later or, more likely, I might use the ideas in this book in other contexts, but I do want to highlight some passages I found interesting.

“Thinkers about politics are, for some reason, more concerned with ‘realism’ than are thinkers in moral philosophy generally. In an effort to avoid ‘utopianism’ it is very common to see fundamental normative standards adjusted so that there is some reasonable likelihood that they will be met in practice, and no similar tendency to dumb down moral principles. Moral philosophers know that people are likely to lie more than they morally should, but this doesn’t move many theorists to revise their views about when lying is wrong. Things are often different in political philosophy. So, for example, many democratic theorists think that standards of political legitimacy should not depend on citizens doing much more than looking out for their own interests in a pretty casual way, and they often think this precisely because they think that is how people are likely to act.” (12)

Actually, I think there are some very good reasons why political philosophers might be more circumspect about utopianism than moral philosophers – not least because of the terrible damage done by political utopians in the Twentieth Century. Estlund’s later definition of what constitutes a utopian political philosophy does set a very low threshold – he seems to define any hope (no matter how slight) that the world might be made better as a utopian stance – but it’s not a definition I find convincing or that persuades me to abandon my own utopophobia.

“I argue that the qualified acceptance criterion requires that the specified groups of qualified citizens be insular: each much accept all and only the others as having rejection rights. Otherwise some qualified people would reject that very criterion, and so it would be self-excluding. This would mean that there cannot be any qualified disagreement about who is qualified, since then the qualified group would not be insular… [O]ne feature that a person must have in order to count as qualified is to accept the acceptance criterion including its correct account of qualified people. This would guarantee that there would be no qualified disagreement about who is reasonable…  We do not count someone as disqualified just because his comprehensive doctrine is false, but we do count people as unreasonable for failing to hold certain views, such as, perhaps, that all people are morally free and equal, that even reasonable people can disagree, and so on. Here is one more thing they must accept: a certain view of who counts as reasonable or qualified. We assert its moral significance simply by saying that if you don’t accept this view of who is qualified, then you are not qualified.” (60-1)

One of the things that has always struck me about proponents of deliberative democracy is how keen they are to put limits around those eligible to take part in the process of deliberation and how blasé they are about the potential for abuse and the likely impact of such exclusions on an existng polity.

“It is natural to think that the wise ought to rule, and yet it is now universally denied. One reason for this is that any people think that ruling arrangements ought to be justifiable in a generally acceptable way… On the other hand, a decent education, including, say, some knowledge of politics, history, economics, and so forth, as well as close experience with others from diverse backgrounds must be admitted to improve the ability to rule wisely, other things equal, at least assuming a certain measure of good will (otherwise these neutral means might only make a bad person more dangerous). But then why shouldn’t there be general agreement among all qualified points of view that citizens with such an education should have more votes than others? Is the only reason for this the assumption that goodwill is lacking? Should we all accept rule of the wise if that condition were overcome?” (206)

“Even though we must all grant that a better education (somehow conceived) improves the ability to rule wisely, it is not unreasonable or disqualified to suspect that there will be other biasing features of the educated group, features that we have not yet identified and may not be able to test empirically, but which no more epistemic harm than education does good… It is a matter on which there will be reasonable disagreement, and that is fatal to the proposal to use either position in justifying political arrangements. I take this to put the prospects for any form of epistocracy in very serious doubt.” (222)

“There are certain people to whom the public often turns for expert political advice, such as pundits, politicians, political scientists, and so on… How expert are they? Well since there is no publicly agreed standard for scoring their political advice as correct or incorrect, we cannot, as a public, tell. It is not likely that they are, as a class, unusually accurate given that they disagree with each apparently about as much as ordinary citizens do. We would also not expect someone whose predictions about political events are no better than random to be especially wise in their political advice, and yet there is good evidence that predictions made by this class of putative experts is just that bad. These points do not show that no one has better political judgment than anyone else. I am sure some do. It illustrates the difficulty of identifying, in a way acceptable to the broad range of qualified points of view, a set of experts who could be expected to perform better than the best democratic arrangement.” (262)

I found the discussion of epistocracy in Democratic Authority is the most interesting aspect of the book even though I have significant disagreements with details of Estlund’s position. I already have an idea about how this debate might be applied to, for example, the way science fiction represents future societies, that I will certainly return to.

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