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Challenging Democracy

By Jack Walker - Philosophy Student @ Churchill College, Cambridge


At the time of writing, 11 different Conservative Party MPs have put their names forward in the competition to succeed Boris Johnson as the next Prime Minister. The individual candidates have been the focus of press attention, something that has received less coverage is how the ensuing leadership election will actually work. What are the rules? Who gets to decide who runs the country?

After all the candidates have been declared, the field is whittled down to two finalists through a series of votes by Tory MPs. At this point, there will be a final vote amongst Tory party members and whoever wins, assuming they can command a majority of MPs, will be our next Prime Minister. Learning the details of this process should encourage us to ask some big questions. For example, is this process democratic? Those who would say yes remind us that voters in the UK opt for a party rather than a person and that the previous general election delivered a large mandate for the Conservatives. As such, it would be undemocratic to not respect the party preferences of those who voted in 2019.

On the other hand, even if we accept this reasoning, we might wonder why decision-making power should lie in the hands of so few.

Much of the influence lies with the 358 Tory MPs who get to weed out at least 9 candidates before any member of the public gets so much as a say. Even when the vote between the final two is opened out, it is not decided by all adult residents of the UK, nor all the citizens of the UK (there is a difference between these two groups), nor even all the people who voted Tory in 2019. Instead, the remaining power lies in the hands of the members of the Tory party (around 200,000 people) who make up a tiny and unrepresentative portion of the overall population. Why should this small group get to decide who rules over everyone? I won’t say any more about this issue beyond noting that 2019 certainly seems like a long time ago in political terms.

Once we start asking questions about whether X thing is democratic, it becomes tempting to zoom out even further and start asking more strictly philosophical questions. Why is democracy a good system of government anyway? Sure, it’s generally assumed that democracy is the best system of government (or the worst apart from all the others as the old quote goes) and wars have been fought trying to spread its virtues, but why is it good that everyone should have an equal say in political matters?

One famous objection to democracy comes all the way back from Plato who offers the following kind of argument (Plato’s own example is called The Ship of Fools). If you were sick and needed treatment, would you go and canvas a wide group of people to see what you ought to do, or would you ask an expert? Most of us would surely reply that it makes the most sense to seek out the expert, in this case a doctor. The doctor has much more skill and experience in providing effective treatment than an assortment of random people with no training. Plato then argues by analogy, saying that if we accept that we should defer to the experts in the case of our own health, then why should things be different when it comes to the health of our society? Why shouldn’t we just give the power to those who would be best at running society? Here Plato is defending a position called epistocracy – literally, power to the knowledgeable.

This position has been defended by others in the history of philosophy, infamously by John Stuart Mill who advocated an elitist system of plural voting and more recently by Jason Brennan. Brennan draws on literature from behavioural psychology to show that the amount of political information the average voter knows is shockingly low. The typical voter according to Brennan is incredibly biased and knows ‘less than nothing’ since they are systematically misinformed. Given this, we shouldn’t expect democracy to give us high quality decisions. As such, Brennan defends a policy which would make citizens pass a basic political information test before they can be afforded the responsibility of voting (he sets out his position more fully in his book referenced below). Epistocracy is not a popular position. In arguing against Brennan, many have pointed out that it is very difficult to give a neutral test of political knowledge that doesn’t end up excluding people unjustifiably. Who gets to decide who the ‘knowers’ are is a deeply political issue in itself. Similarly, we might object that opening the door to excluding some voters would run the risk of being massively corrupt.

These are what’s called instrumental arguments against epistocracy – that is, they say ‘epistocracy would actually have worse consequences than democracy, so we should stick with democracy’. However, these kinds of arguments seem to leave us unpleasantly at the whims of fate. If it can be shown that epistocracy leads to better results than democracy, the whole objection collapses. Instead, if we want to take a firm stance against epistocracy we might wish to argue on intrinsic grounds, holding that even if epistocracy gets better results, there are still some non-instrumental reasons why democracy is preferable, perhaps because democracy better respects equality or freedom.


In my next article I will discuss how some philosophers have suggested we might improve our political systems by making them more democratic, allowing us to avoid the problems of epistocracy.


Further reading:

  1. Plato’s Republic (Book VI)

  2. Democracy - Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy - 2006

  3. Against Democracy – Jason Brennan – 2016

  4. Democracy: Instrumental vs Non-Instrumental Value – Elizabeth Anderson – 2009


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