Do we need to Rethink what Democracy means?

The weakening of democratic structures and the rise of technocratic governance are regularly cited as some of the most troubling consequences of the Eurozone crisis. Cathrine Holst assesses whether modern society’s dependence on expertise ensures that we must now redefine what democracy means. Presenting arguments in favour of a democratically tempered form of ‘epistocracy’, or expert rule, she asks whether traditional ideas of ‘rule by the people’ may be outdated or even dangerous in a world that is in urgent need of decisions based on knowledge.

The EU has taken unprecedented administrative and legal measures to address threats of terror, environmental challenges, and, most recently, the euro crisis. Critics claim that the Union’s way of managing risks and crises contributes to pushing the EU further towards technocracy and “rule of the few” – and further away from democracy as we know it. Others regard current developments as necessary and in the end promising. What is required from the EU, not least in times of crises, is resolute and knowledge-based decision-making, and procedures that optimize efficiency and rationality, even if this implies redefining what democracy means.

The heart of this debate is normative: the protagonists have different, more or less ambitious ideas of what democracy requires and different ideas of what constitutes legitimate political rule. However, normative position-taking and interpretations of facts are intertwined. The different approaches to democracy and political legitimacy are intimately linked to different notions of the strength and character of our expertise-dependence in the age of globalization – or of “the fact of expertise”.

It is well known that discussions of political ideals and norms must take into account certain “general facts about human society” and about modern society in particular, to quote political philosopher John Rawls. Many would probably agree with Rawls when he says that a theory of justice with relevance for modern societies must recognize among other things “the basic fact of pluralism”. Normative theorists cannot go about assuming that people of modern pluralist societies would ever come to share “comprehensive doctrines”.

The question is whether we must also include a basic fact of expertise alongside “the basic fact of pluralism” and other basic facts normative political theory must recognize. Should we not regard modern, globalized societies’ dependence on scientific and professional expertise as in the end inevitable and thus a “general fact” in Rawls’s sense? If so, must we not also let this fact be reflected in our normative ideas of legitimate political rule? Some would simply say no. They do not deny, of course, that globalization requires institutional adaption, but normatively speaking, legitimacy and democracy must mean what it used to mean.

A counter-argument would run like this: To deal with the new risks and hazards, the best available expertise must be mobilized and given the decision-making power needed, even if by doing so we are challenging familiar ideas of democracy and legitimacy. Globalization introduces new and exceptional interdependencies. Greece’s budgetary deficit affects not only Greece, but people and businesses all over Europe; local responses to health and environmental risks somewhere in Europe may end up affecting all of us; inadequate anti-terror measures in one country can cause terror in any other.

And stakes are high. A European economic crisis could become world-wide and reduce growth, employment and welfare everywhere; terrorism is a threat to human life and security; environmental disasters could in the end undermine the material conditions for human existence. If more power to the experts can help save the planet, the economy, health, security and other basic goods – why not embrace it? Why worry so much about democracy, and the EU’s democratic deficit in particular – if there indeed is such a deficit – if the moves that are made, basically and in the long run, are in the interest of all and something all reasonable persons would subscribe to if they had the insight and knowledge to make informed choices? Why stick to traditional ideas of “rule of the people” that may be irrelevant and even dangerous in a world that is in urgent need of decisions based on our best knowledge? What’s wrong with replacing democracy as we know it with a democratically tempered variant of what political philosopher David Estlund refers to as “epistocracy” – a “rule of the knowers”?

This argument may turn out to be totally misguided. However, a robust defence of more ambitious ideas of democracy cannot simply assume that this is the case. My contention is that ambitious democrats criticizing technocracy, juridification and elitism, in the EU and elsewhere, tend to underestimate what they are up against. Instead of concentrating on scrutinizing, and to the extent possible refuting, the strongest arguments of their opponents, their answer is, all too often, general democratic pathos and appeal to undisputable basic moral intuitions that, however, can be given a wide range of interpretations, also epistocratic ones. Moreover, democratic critics tend to underplay their own de facto acceptance of a large set of expertise arrangements. Most of them would in the end support the idea that political decisions should be democratic, but also knowledge-based and arrangements that privilege expertise for the sake of guaranteeing a certain decision quality. Their worry is that scientific and professional expertise is given “too much” scope, not that privileging expertise at all takes place. But what is “too much”? Can there be “too little”? And how is this (bigger or smaller) concession to “the knowers” at all acceptable, given their own often rather radical assumptions and characterizations of what a “rule of the people” ought to mean?

The argument for epistocracy that I sketched above is a version of a realist argument with a long history inside and outside of philosophy. I think it deserves more attention than often assumed. However, there are other arguments as well. A challenging one, as far as I can see, are arguments for epistocracy that take as their point of departure the so-called epistemic justification of deliberative democracy. This branch of democrats argue that democracy should be deliberative – the ideal is citizens that make political decisions on the basis of reason-giving and argumentation – not only because this procedure is justified on its own merits, but because it also produces the most rational outcomes. This may be a good argument for deliberative democracy compared to other variants of democracy; it may very well be that democracies that are deliberative produce decisions that are epistemically superior to those produced by non-deliberative democracies. However, if epistemic quality is a central concern, the question arises whether democratic deliberation necessarily delivers better outcomes than less democratic forms of deliberation. What if elite discussions among the informed and knowledgeable more often produce decisions that are in the enlightened, long-term interest of everyone, than democratic deliberation?

Investigating this and other arguments for epistocracy can contribute to fundamental discussions in normative political theory. For instance, the realist argument touches upon the classical debate on how to understand the relationship between “is” and “ought” (what does a de facto expertise-dependence imply for how we conceptualize political ideals?). The epistemic argument that I have sketched touches upon familiar discussions on procedural versus outcome-oriented justifications of political rule. The investigation may also contribute to normative political theory of a more middle-range sort. Epistocratic arrangements may be more or less embedded in democratic mechanisms, occur at different stages in the policy-cycle, rely on different kinds of expertise, have more or less narrow tasks, etc. To be sure, the different arrangements’ normative legitimacy will depend crucially on their more detailed characteristics. I believe current discussions would profit from moving beyond general arguments “for” or “against” epistocracy, technocracy, elitism (and so on), towards more fine-grained and institutionally oriented analyses and assessments.

Finally, arguments for epistocracy rely decisively on empirical premises. For example, is it the case that globalization increases expertise-dependence? (i.e. the realist argument). And is it the case that expertise interaction is more rational and deliberative than interaction among “most people”? What is the empirical founding of assuming that less-than-democratic deliberation produces outcomes superior to the outcomes of democratic deliberations? Probably, not much is left of any argument for epistocracy without such a founding.

All of these issues form part of the EPISTO project, (Why not epistocracy? Political legitimacy and “the fact of expertise”), that will run from 2012 to 2017. Epistocratic arguments have been put forward at least since Plato proposed a radically undemocratic state ruled by philosopher kings. However, the focus of EPISTO will be on scrutinizing more recent epistocratic proposals that argue, more moderately, for a democratic epistocracy, meaning expert rule regulated by basic, but minimal democratic standards.

This column was first published by EUROPP @ LSE


  1. Alan Myler says

    I am simply dumbstruck by the naivety of this article.

    “What is required from the EU, not least in times of crises, is resolute and knowledge-based decision-making, and procedures that optimize efficiency and rationality, even if this implies redefining what democracy means.”

    Absolutely not. What is required from the EU is to listen to the ordinary peoples of Europe and to act in their interests and against the existing “experts” who lobby and guide and coerce the political class in the interests of the financial system and the 1%. We need more democracy, not less.

  2. Hilary Barnes says

    “Basic but minimal democratic standards” – What in the name of General Confusion is this supposed to be? And which experts are we supposed to believe – the majority of the day, like the ones who say the Earth was the centre of the universe? Sounds to me like some one has caught a post normal democracy bug.

  3. shayn mccallum says

    No! No! No!
    This is exactly the WRONG way to go. I hate these kinds of concessions to power the centre-left keeps making. What ever happened to struggling to change things for the better rather than making peace with atrophy and the existing forms of power? Why are we always just shrugging ang giving up? Goodbye to an economy that serves the public good, goodbye to welfare now goodbye to democracy???? If we follow this route we might as well hang up our hat and admit we’re done. Let the centre-right rule in peace- or worse yet, the far-right as people, demanding a greater stake in their society find no political avenues to pursue their goals. This would be a monumentally awful error of Weimar proportions.

  4. Henning Meyer says

    SEJ is a platform for debate so obviously we present different opinions without endorsing them. I think the topic is valid but the conclusion is wrong. There is no divine expert knowledge (remember the two economists with three opinions?) and it is the job of democratic processes to absorb expert opinions and then make informed decisions. Leaving the decisions to the philosopher kings (btw I have never met one of those – they seem to be quite elusive) is not a solution. I am surprised that one can apparently get a 5-year research grant for this.

    • Alan Myler says

      “I am surprised that one can apparently get a 5-year research grant for this”

      Perhaps the funding for the study comes from sources who would like to give legitimacy to a roll back of democracy? She who pays the piper calls the tune.

      • Henning Meyer says

        it looks like the project deals with the European Commission: “The empirical goal of EPISTO is to study the role and characteristics of expertise in the European Union. The central empirical case will be the expert group system of the EU Commission.” Funded by the Norwegian Research Council.

      • Alan Myler says

        “it looks like the project deals with the European Commission”

        As I said, perhaps the funding for the study comes from sources who would like to give legitimacy to a roll back of democracy…

  5. says

    China has an epistocracy, moderated by a large, representative body that must approve all legislation. Despite Western claims that it is a ‘rubber stamp’, it is not. It has held up needed legislation for years…much to the frustration of the CPSC.
    The Chinese give their government a trust and approval rating of 85% – 95%, according to Pew, Edelman, and Harvard.

  6. Gemma says

    What a strange article! I felt I was going back in time, some obscure time from which we struggled so much to achieve what we have now (still)? Surreal indeed!

  7. says

    The whole idea of doing politics in this way seems to depend on the assumption that there is no such thing as politics. First, imagine that there are no differences in interests among the population and that “experts” therefore have no interests of their own, cannot be bought and can and will understand and weigh everyone in the population’s needs and wants equally. Having done that it becomes possible to conjure a vision of a society where “experts” would do a good job running a society and there was no need for democracy.
    We do not live in such a world. So for instance, the technocrats involved in running Europe today have been recruited from among those who systematically failed to predict current crises, but did their failing in the interests of wealthy elites. Those who succeeded in predicting current crises are not “experts” but dangerous cranks, because they did their succeeding in the interests of those less well off. The whole point of this sort of “managed” pseudo-democracy, this “epistocracy”, is precisely to ensure that those annoying people without yachts do not influence policy, so highly educated people who know a lot about a subject and have the gall to go around being right about it cannot be allowed to count as “experts” if they advocate the interests of the wrong people.

    • Alan Myler says

      Agree fully. The concept that politics should be eliminated due to the necessity for efficiency and pragmatism absolutely neglects the question of who benefits from the efficiencies. Politics is messy and inefficient and a quagmire of contradictions and compromises, as it should be. Such is life.

  8. says

    I stumbled across this article, nice work. I am a Platonist philosopher, and I think perhaps for a person just starting out in this great debate, the key question is what is the difference between political thinking and scientific thinking? For example, where does the ethics stop and the pragmatism take over? What kind of decisions can be made by crowds, what kind of decisions can only be made by experts? For example, is it true that all cowards can do is judge the all round idealism of experts, but never judge what they actually say about anything in particular?

    I often try to write articles about these big issues: eg