I heard it from a few readers – that blog was impenetrable, they said. So I re-read it (click here if you want to suffer as they did), and was forced to admit I did a poor job of explaining what I was saying.
Let me try again. The issue is important enough to be discussed in a way that’s accessible.
The blog was headlined ‘Why are we comparing the virtues of democracy Vs epistocracy?’
What it boils down to is the following issue: how we govern ourselves. Do we go with democracy – universal suffrage with no minimum set for talent, ability, resources? Or do we try something slightly different, an epistocracy: the rule of the knowers?
David Runciman, a politics professor at Cambridge, recently defended democracy in a very long piece in The Guardian. Professor Runciman warned against rule by the experts, the epistocrats. (His book, ‘How Democracy Ends’, was published today, May 10).
The Professor’s argument focused on one particular aspect of an epistocracy – namely, that it was not a democracy, and so, not random and changeable. If we replace politicians with experts, Professor Runciman argued, and they come up with bad ideas, how do we throw them out? Are we not condemned to an eternity of unchangeable, possibly very bad ideas? “The randomness of democracy – which remains its essential quality – protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas. It means that nothing will last for long, because something else will come along to disrupt it.”
I think that’s a pretty decent defence of democracy, which often throws up surprises (think Mahathir Mohammed, 92, back in power in Malaysia as of Thursday, May 10) and throws out those whose political time is up.
But I’m not sure it’s valid to cite, in this context, Plato’s arguments for rule of the ideal state by the “guardians”, the crème de la crème.
Plato is critical of democracy for its indiscipline, the power it gives to the masses, and the chaos that very possibly might ensue. In the ‘Republic’, Plato’s main protagonist Socrates constructs an imaginary ideal state, which is ruled firmly and with truth and justice by the “guardians”. They are specially educated to know only the very best ideas; no coarseness or falseness is allowed to touch their souls. The guardians are charged, as Socrates says in Book III of the ‘Republic’, with maintaining “freedom in the State”.
Note the word “freedom” in Socrates’ description of the guardians’ responsibilities.
Then consider Professor Runciman’s bleak suggestion that epistocracies are bad for the body politic because “ fixing power to knowledge risks creating a monster that can’t be deflected from its course, even when it goes wrong – which it will, since no one and nothing is infallible.”
Is there a chance that two different things are being discussed?
Plato does not talk about an epistocracy. The forms of government he mentions are (in declining order of excellence):
He accepts the fact that one form of government will change (or degenerate) into the other. There is no fixity of the sort that Professor Runciman fears from rule by the experts.
In 2018, one would’ve thought democratically-elected leaders would pick those who know to advise them. That would be democracy that uses experts, appropriately and for the greater common good.