Current Issue Volume 26 | Nos. 1-2 

Political Epistemology

ROUNDTABLE ON POLITICAL EPISTEMOLOGY

Scott Althaus, Mark Bevir, Jeffrey Friedman, Hélène Landemore, Rogers Smith, and Susan Stokes

On August 30, 2013, the American Political Science Association sponsored a roundtable on political epistemology as part of its annual meetings. Co-chairing the roundtable were Jeffrey Friedman, Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin; and Hélène Landemore, Department of Political Science, Yale University. The other participants were Scott Althaus, Department of Political Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Mark Bevir, Department of Political Science, University of California at Berkeley; Rogers Smith, Department of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania; and Susan Stokes, Department of Political Science, Yale University. We thank the participants for permission to republish their remarks, which they subsequently edited for clarity.

 

HOW SMART IS DEMOCRACY? YOU CAN’T ANSWER THAT QUESTION A PRIORI

Jason Brennan

ABSTRACT: Hélène Landemore claims that under certain conditions, democracies with universal suffrage will tend to make smarter and better decisions than epistocracies, even though most citizens in modern democracies are extremely ignorant about politics. However, there is ample empirical evidence that citizens make systematic errors. If so, it is fatal to Landemore’s defense of democracy, which, if it works at all, applies only to highly idealized situations that are unlikely to occur in the real world. Critics of democracy will find little in Landemore’s defense of democracy to make them change their minds.

 

DEMOCRACY AND EPISTOCRACY

Paul Gunn

ABSTRACT: In Democratic Reason, Hélène Landemore argues that deliberation and the aggregation of citizens’ dispersed knowledge should tend to produce better consequences than rule by the one or the few. However, she pays insufficient attention to the epistemic processes necessary to realize these democratic goods. In particular, she fails to consider the question of where citizens’ beliefs and ideas come from, with the result that the democratic decision mechanisms she focuses on are insufficiently powerful to justify her consequentialist defense of mass decision making. If “the few” are technocratic experts, Landemore supplies little reason to resist their rule on epistemic grounds, for she does not secure a knowledge base for the citizens that might compete with the knowledge that is often attributed to such “experts.” Aggregating and deliberating about poor information is no substitute for good information. Her book can therefore be seen as a call for a new phase of epistemic political theory that compares the real-world knowledgeability of ordinary citizens and putative experts, but it does not convincingly deliver on its goal to demonstrate the epistemic superiority of the former.

 

DEMOCRACY AS THE RULE OF A SMALL MANY

Jamie Terence Kelly

ABSTRACT: What is the optimal size of a democratic society? While not taking an explicit stand on this issue, Hélène Landemore’s model of democracy in Democratic Reason suggests that democracies ought to be small, certainly smaller than many existing states. If, as Landemore argues, we must rely on the random selection of representatives, then we should be concerned about both the size of the population and the way cognitive diversity is distributed within it. Given the realities of party politics and media framing, this means that smaller political societies will yield wiser decisions than very large ones.

 

A WELCOME DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACY

Sanford Levinson

ABSTRACT: Against critics of capacious notions of democratic rule by “the many,” Hélène Landemore vigorously defends what she calls “democratic reason” because of the epistemic value of active deliberation by diverse groups of people. Deliberation is necessary to overcome isolated reasoning (where one might prefer an educated “expert” over an “average” citizen), and diversity is necessary to overcome the potential echo chamber created by conversations in a (non-diverse) group of “the best and the brightest.” The best way to create optimal democratic rule may involve greater reliance on random selection of decision-making bodies than on standard- model elections.

 

DEMOCRATIC REASON, DEMOCRATIC FAITH, AND THE PROBLEM OF EXPERTISE

Alfred Moore

ABSTRACT: Hélène Landemore’s Democratic Reason develops one important line of research in political epistemology, which we can define as the study of the ways in which distributed knowledge is put together for the purposes of making political decisions. Landemore argues for the epistemic benefits of cognitive diversity in political decision procedures in a condition of epistemic equality—where there are no experts. Given this omission, her approach has undeveloped potential for a second line of research in political epistemology, on the problem of aggregating asymmetrically distributed knowledge, i.e., integrating democratic reason with expertise.

 

THE POLITICS OF GETTING IT RIGHT

Russell Muirhead

ABSTRACT: Hélène Landemore’s Democratic Reason marks a crucial achievement in democratic theory, as it successfully shows that democracy is about more than procedural legitimacy—and that it should be. Nonetheless, the procedural argument remains at the heart of the case for democracy. For many democratic decisions, getting the right answer is not what we ask of political institutions. Politics is often about defining what counts as a problem, and no single definition counts as the right one. Furthermore, the epistemic claim that democracy is likely to get moral questions right can obscure the difficulty of getting moral questions exactly “right.” The best political approach to controversial questions is often to strike a balance of competing claims, and every actual democracy does this in ways that leave many citizens dissatisfied. This is why many citizens participate in democratic politics as partisans: They put more trust in their party than in the democratic regime to get it right. Partisanship fuels the never-ending democratic contest over what it means to get it right in politics, but it is also appropriately epistemic, in that it is prompted by the never-ending possibility that even democracy will get things wrong.

 

MAKING IT UP ON VOLUME: ARE LARGER GROUPS REALLY SMARTER?

Paul J. Quirk

ABSTRACT: Hélène Landemore’s Democratic Reason offers a new justification for democracy and for broad-based citizen participation, appealing to the “emergent” intelligence of large, diverse groups. She argues that ordinary citizens should rule as directly as possible because they will make better informed, more intelligent decisions than, for example, appointed officials, councils of experts, or even elected representatives. The foundation of this conclusion is the premise that “diversity trumps ability” in a wide range of contexts. But the main support for that claim is merely a series of computer experiments that are strongly biased toward that result and tell us essentially nothing about decision making in real-world political settings. Moreover, Landemore’s analyses of alternative forms of rule (“rule by the one, the few, and the many”) deal only in abstract comparisons between sharply distinguished ideal types. Among other difficulties, they entirely overlook the central consideration in such comparisons: the relative ability of any decision- making process to go beyond stereotyped, intrinsic strategies and integrate multiple sources and varieties of information. In the end, Landemore’s claims for the superior intelligence of broadly participatory forms are thus not supported by credible evidence.

 

WHY POLITICAL IGNORANCE UNDERMINES THE WISDOM OF THE MANY

Ilya Somin

ABSTRACT: Hélène Landemore’s Democratic Reason effectively demonstrates how cognitive diversity may potentially improve the quality of democratic decisions. But in setting out the preconditions that democracy must meet in order for the many to make collectively well-informed decisions, Landemore undermines the case for voter competence more than she strengthens it. The conditions she specifies are highly unlikely to be achieved by any real-world democracy. Widespread voter ignorance and the size and complexity of modern government are severe obstacles to any effort to implement Landemore’s vision. Better-informed decision making is more likely to be achieved by allowing a wider range of issues to be decided by “voting with your feet” instead of at the ballot box.