What I’ve been reading

by on May 11, 2016 at 12:58 am in Books | Permalink

1. Jason Brennan, Against Democracy.  He is a epistocrat. P.S. voters are ignorant and irrational.  Furthermore “Politics is not a Poem.”  I agree with most of the debunking arguments in this book, but I am not convinced epistocracy ends up being better; Brennan’s examples of epistocracy include restricted franchise, plural voting, voting by lottery, epistocratic veto (the Senate, but more so), and weighted voting.  I see big advantages to a strict normative ideal of legal egalitarianism of civic rights, and I suspect that ends up meaning some form of democracy, albeit constrained by the overlay of a constitutional republic.

2. Ji Xianlin, The Cowshed: Memoirs of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  The classic account of its kind, in this edition brilliantly translated and presented.

And I am happy to praise Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976, but I did not find it as revelatory as his earlier books on China.  Here is a Judith Shapiro NYT review.

3. Aileen M. Kelly, The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen.  Beautifully written, and full of interesting history, but it never quite convinces the reader that Herzen is an interesting and worthwhile intellect for 2016.  Maybe he isn’t — does that make this book better or worse?

David L. Ulin’s Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles is a meditation on to what extent Los Angeles succeeds as a walkable city, or someday might get there.

There is Don Watkins and Yaron Brook, Equal is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality, by no means do I go all the way with them, but still this a useful corrective to some current obsessions.

Don and Alex Tapscott, Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business, and the World lists more possible uses for blockchains than you would have thought possible.

James T. Bennett, Subsidizing Culture: Taxpayer Enrichment of the Creative Class, the subtitle says it all.

1 Brett May 11, 2016 at 1:21 am

1. I’m not impressed with the quality of government I’ve seen in historical epistocracies. Was the US better governed before the 1830s, when the franchise was limited to property-holders?

2 Adrian Ratnapala May 11, 2016 at 1:59 am

My suspicion is the politics was more corrupt back then, but I would like to see what proper historians have to say.

The usual rap on that time period (the enlightenment and its afterglow) was that slavery and various other social evils were perpetrated then. But that’s a mistake, since those evils pre-dated the enlightenment and were destroyed by it.

The ideas and institutions of those times weakened autocracy, destroyed slavery and put a big dent in sexism. So yes: the American and British polities of around 1830’s acheived a lot and can claim to have had fairly good governments.

3 Ricardo May 11, 2016 at 5:02 am

Pre-Civil War U.S. institutions led to the Fugitive Slave Act, the Dred Scott decision and some of the most rancorous and partisan politics up until modern times. What swept this away was the unforced error of the southern states in terms of seceding and waging war against the Union. Wartime and the sacrifices it entailed radicalized white public opinion in the loyal states against slavery in a way that almost certainly would have taken longer had the status quo persisted.

4 Adrian Ratnapala May 11, 2016 at 12:21 pm

Pre civil war institutions also created all the pressure on slavery that inspired those actions in the first place.

Moreover centralizing laws like the Fugitive Slave Act and judicial creativity (such as deciding retrocitively that no African American had ever been a citizen) is more a harbigner of 20th century institutions than a hallmark of the old ones.

Thankfully, by the 20th century, American governments were inclined to abuse their power in more benign directions. (European governments, not so much).

5 Josh May 11, 2016 at 6:18 am

it’s really hard to say even when America was the most democratic. The obvious answer is during the party system between Jackson and the new deal, but party machinery had methods of creating a self selecting elite. The progressive era made use of popular uprisings, such as 1896, for its own purposes, but led to more direct control by corporate oligarchs and bureaucratic (including new research universities) institutions under their control. Pre 1830s you have the congressional congress which was intentionally oligarchical. I think it’s really more about which oligarchy governs best. The franchise has always Had the effect (intentional or not) of the system controlling people rather than the people controlling the system. An obvious example is the way people just line up on abortion, as if questions of metaphysics and the ontology of personhood and ethics are easy and obvious. I think, if you look at the extension of the franchise, it has always been at times whe. It was to the advantage of whichever oligarchs were in charge at the time. That includes now with backlash against checking ids.

6 Millian May 11, 2016 at 9:20 am

To be clear, “the party system between Jackson and the new deal” was the one with legal and illegal restrictions on the black franchise, yes?

7 Josh May 11, 2016 at 11:28 am

Correct. Your point?

8 Art Deco May 11, 2016 at 3:23 pm

The restrictions on franchise applied during the period prior to 1868 (fairly generally) and to the period running from about 1890 to about 1960 in most (not all) Southern states (and not outside the South at all). Ca 1925, they excluded perhaps 9% of the adult male population.

9 Heorogar May 11, 2016 at 7:07 am

Have we not seen what happens when the geniuses running everything have the wrong answers? Bigger, more concentrated power in government – bigger, more concentrated mistakes.

10 Jon Lawlor May 11, 2016 at 8:42 am

Yes, there needs to be a corrective control on the government for it to be stable. That’s probably the single best feature of democracy – you can vote the guys out instead of having to wage a revolution. Or more typically, the ruling elites tend to change their positions to avoid being voted out. That feedback mechanism is strongly influenced by other institutions like the RNC and DNC, but at the end of the day the ballot box is what matters. Feedback is how an institution is maintained, but people in charge of those organizations are usually resistant to it – they’d rather just have things their own way. If they become strong enough relative to the feedback, then the institutions themselves become brittle. If they are stressed enough they break instead of bend.

I’m surprised no one has mentioned Popper’s “The Open Society and its Enemies” – where Popper does a convincing job (to me at least) of demolishing the Platonic idea of philosopher kings as the best form of government. Add to that Norbert Weiner’s “Cybernetics” and I think you’ll find very good arguments against epistocrats.

11 Troll me May 11, 2016 at 3:07 pm

I don’t think the corrective control mechanism works very well in an electoral system which is conducive to two parties holding all the power for centuries at a time.

12 Urstoff May 11, 2016 at 9:45 am

And epistocracy is not necessarily a technocracy. Although I think that would be it’s natural tendency because even smart people are overconfident in their beliefs (not as much as average or dumb people, but enough to cause problems), an epistocracy could simply set up mechanisms whereby decision-making was devolved to local levels or set up incredibly strict constitutional boundaries, etc.

13 mkt42 May 11, 2016 at 1:32 am

As a transplanted New Yorker, David Ulin has good experience at living in a pedestrian-oriented city as well as car-oriented Los Angeles. So I was interested in what he might have to say, but after looking at the preview pages, there seems to be too much random musing and not enough insight in his book. I did like the quote when his mother visited him in the Fairfax district, and she said “You’ve moved to Brooklyn in the 1940s”. Having visited Flatbush (his grandfather’s old neighborhood) and having lived in LA for a couple of decades, I can appreciate the parallels.

But Tyler is still wrong about LA being a walkable city. A person without a car has plenty of places to walk to in say the Fairfax district, but good luck getting anywhere else without it taking an hour. Whereas I was able to zip from Chinatown to Brooklyn Heights and start walking down Flatbush.

14 Tyler May 11, 2016 at 2:50 am

1. Perhaps some improvements are possible (the US Constitution already includes some features with this purpose, if less explicit), but in general it sounds like a system that would ultimately be abused to deny or provide the right to vote based on political rather than knowledge considerations. Moreover I don’t think people would stand for it for very long – it’s easy to say what works better in theory, but too often it is just too easy a political target to actually be viable long-term.

15 Bliksem May 11, 2016 at 3:16 am

“Aileen M. Kelly, The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen. Beautifully written, and full of interesting history, but it never quite convinces the reader that Herzen is an interesting and worthwhile intellect for 2016.”

I haven’t read anything by Herzen, but Isaiah Berlin’s various essays on Herzen gave me the impression that he was interesting, and might be worth reading. See e.g. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1968/03/14/the-great-amateur/

16 Axa May 11, 2016 at 5:23 am

I think the subtitle of “taxpayer enrichment of the creative class” exaggerates a bit. When culture becomes a services business it generates good income and jobs. The big scale business model works for TV, cinema, theatre and books. However, taxpayer money for other domains are more concentrated in the creator: music, sculpture, painting or performance.

17 Josh May 11, 2016 at 6:01 am

Without having read 1, is epistocrati veto similar to our corporate veto (when companies threaten to boycott states where the voters have made laws of which ceo class do not approve), or is it more like the judicial veto? Either way, I wouldn’t be too worried about our little democracy giving undue influence to ignorant voters.

18 ChrisA May 11, 2016 at 6:24 am

A common theme of many of these books is really around the tension between communitarianism versus individualism. For instance income inequality, investments in common goods such as sidewalks in LA or cultural activities, or whether a majority can impose it’s will on on a minority. One thing I have always wondered, for those who are more communitarian than others – why don’t they voluntarily band together to at least deliver their goal to their own group? I get that there are some economies of scale with having all of a country, rather than a smaller set of the country, contribute towards a goal. But if a goal, in a country like the US, can’t achieve a significant enough number of supporters to achieve reasonable economies of scale then perhaps it should not be legislated as well.

To illustrate my point, I will use cultural activities. Why don’t large numbers of people voluntarily combine to donate a certain percentage of their income for the support of the arts? This to be administrated by a central or regional bodies based on their cultural preferences? If the arts are so important, surely the artistic supports would be willing to join such a program. They could deny access the cultural events to those people not in club to avoid any free rider problem (although it seems to me that cultural goods are generally non-rivalrous). Similarly, for those who believe a high minimum wage, why not form a club where the members agree not to purchase goods or services from any vendor unless they are paying a high minimum wage rather than legislating this requirement? If it is truely more efficient in terms of staff turnover then it should be self funding. Medical services is another one – it always seemed to me that the goal of free medical assistance to anyone in the US was easily achieved simply by forming a club that agreed that its members would pay whatever medical costs its members had, they could even form their own hospitals.

On inequality – I see many people are concerned about such trends in society – but they could easily form a club to 1) not purchase any goods or services from companies that have high wage inequality and 2) agree to income transfers among themselves.

Of course the concern is that if you join such a club, then you might be disadvantaged relative to those who don’t join the club. But isn’t this just true of people outside the “US club” and in some other country’s club? The other concern is that perhaps all the rich people don’t join the club. But the poorest say 50% in the US are among the richest in the world – so if they can’t afford their clubs, how on earth is such shared goods and services affordable in the rest of the world?

19 anon May 11, 2016 at 9:50 am

Below the national level States, counties, and cities provide the framework for varied approaches, and we do see great variation. “Best biking cities” do invest more etc

20 FUBAR007 May 11, 2016 at 12:12 pm

>>Why don’t large numbers of people voluntarily combine to donate a certain percentage of their income for the support of the arts?<>Similarly, for those who believe a high minimum wage, why not form a club where the members agree not to purchase goods or services from any vendor unless they are paying a high minimum wage rather than legislating this requirement? If it is truely more efficient in terms of staff turnover then it should be self funding.<>Medical services is another one – it always seemed to me that the goal of free medical assistance to anyone in the US was easily achieved simply by forming a club that agreed that its members would pay whatever medical costs its members had, they could even form their own hospitals.<>On inequality – I see many people are concerned about such trends in society – but they could easily form a club to 1) not purchase any goods or services from companies that have high wage inequality and 2) agree to income transfers among themselves.<>Of course the concern is that if you join such a club, then you might be disadvantaged relative to those who don’t join the club. But isn’t this just true of people outside the “US club” and in some other country’s club? The other concern is that perhaps all the rich people don’t join the club. But the poorest say 50% in the US are among the richest in the world – so if they can’t afford their clubs, how on earth is such shared goods and services affordable in the rest of the world?<<

Despite what the Davos crowd likes to think, there is no global social contract, and there is no world government. Those outside the U.S., and thus outside the American social contract, have no primacy in American domestic policy matters.

I suspect you're being deliberately obtuse in order to backhandedly say communitarianism is inherently hypocritical. The underlying question, though, is really one of: a) first principles and b) the nature and scope of the social contract i.e. who is and who isn't in the tribe and thus deserving of the benefits of redistribution. Where you fall on the political continuum hinges in large part on where you define the boundaries of the tribe. At one extreme are hippie globalist types who define the tribe as all of humanity. At the other is the libertarian anarchist who defines the tribe as…himself. The rest of us fall somewhere in-between.

21 ChrisA May 11, 2016 at 12:29 pm

I am not being obtuse, genuinely interested why people put so mich effort and emotion to the political process ratger than trying to comvince volunteers to join in their goals. In your last point, I agree we all have different views on where the optimum community lies, so why not recognise that fact and allow the less so minded some opt out?

22 Turkey Vulture May 11, 2016 at 12:52 pm

There isn’t a good mechanism to prevent defection when you’re dealing with a group of otherwise-different people who happen to care a lot about one issue. If you’re trying to get this type of group together within a community that can, at a minimum, punish defectors with loss of social standing or ostracism, you’ll have a lot more luck. Otherwise, you will need a more coercive mechanism to prevent cooperation from breaking down.

23 FUBAR007 May 11, 2016 at 1:41 pm

@ChrisA:

Some of the types of voluntary communities you ask about do exist, just typically at a local or regional scale e.g. art museums that rely on patronage and membership donations, the Mormon Church which essentially runs a private welfare state in Utah, etc.

IMO, the reason they don’t catch on at a scale sufficient to displace the federal welfare state is that the U.S. is essentially too demographically and ideologically diverse. Postmodernism hath had its way with us. I think also that, in general, people–particularly the professional upper-middle class–are less geographically tethered. We’ve moved from a geographically rooted society characterized by fewer, but stronger social ties to a more dispersed society characterized by more numerous, but weaker social ties. In other words, from a rooted, high-trust society to a mobile, low-trust society. Other contributing factors include: the collapse of journalism’s traditional business model and the subsequent end of hard, local news; secularization and the ongoing collapse of mainline Protestantism; the lack of industrial policy and the outsourcing of industry and supply chains to the developing world; the death of nationalism among the investor class and subsequent lack of investment in domestic infrastructure; the shift of the burden of professional and vocational training from the business community to a higher education apparatus that can’t keep up; the unwillingness to assimilate ethnic minorities and the corresponding unwillingness of those minorities to assimilate; automation eliminating middle-skill, middle-wage jobs that are then replaced with low-skill, low-wage jobs; the growing decadence and decay of the military-industrial complex; and the obsolescence of the Main Street, mom-and-pop retail business model.

24 ChrisA May 12, 2016 at 12:56 am

Thanks for these responses. I would be interested in continuing this dialogue but I don’t want to impose on our host anymore. But one last point, on defection. We have established the institution of marriage sort of to deal with this issue. Why not have the equivalent of “marriage” but for your club? That is you enter in a civil contract to support the goals of your club with some punishment if you later have a “spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” moment.

25 Troll me May 11, 2016 at 3:14 pm

1) Freeriders. 2) People DO do all of those things you suggest.

26 ChrisA May 12, 2016 at 12:57 am

Freeriders can be dealt with by civil contracts, as proposed in my above comment. And people don’t nearly do enough of these things voluntarily before arguing for coercion.

27 poorlando May 13, 2016 at 12:20 pm

I have wondered the same things that ChrisA has posed in his original post, and the responses here have been unsatisfactory. As for “freeriding”, the bottom half pays no or minuscule federal taxes on net, yet they get many benefits through redistribution. Is that not freeriding? Are you concerned about freeriding in ChrisA’s scenarios but not in our current system?

28 dearieme May 11, 2016 at 6:35 am

“some form of democracy, albeit constrained by the overlay of a constitutional republic”: which means constrained at most by Supreme Court whims. That’s an epistocracy of sorts, I suppose.

29 Troll me May 11, 2016 at 3:16 pm

Whims? Are the positions of these judges not basically known years in advance on most issues under the sun?

Voters are far removed from that influence. But it IS a product of elections.

30 Art Deco May 11, 2016 at 4:08 pm

Yes, whims. Robert Bork’s characterization of constitutional law in 1999 (that the appellate courts had managed to destroy it as a serious intellectual subdiscipline) is apt.

31 JC May 11, 2016 at 6:37 am

Churchill once said: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” but he also said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”… Churchill was right, democracy has its flaws but it’s the best we can get.

Time to time democracy will fail so fantastically that people will invest time and brainpower designing an alternative system, but only those ignoring history will go this way because failing to understand that democratic system is the best way to organize a society is essentially ignoring history and human behavior.

Democracy is not all about picking who’s going to lead a jurisdiction, it’s more than that. A true democratic system must make sure that nobody can abuse the system at will, it must seek balance between separate powers that regulate social life.

32 Art Deco May 11, 2016 at 3:57 pm

Catastrophic failures of democracy include Chile (1958-73) and Spain (1931-36). One locus was addled by Marxism and the other by and witches brew of bourgeois anti-clericalism and Marxism. Manuel Azana was a lapsed literature teacher. Salvador Allende was a physician. The pushers of ‘epistocracy’ should take note (or contemplate the life and career of Fidel Castro).

33 JC May 12, 2016 at 3:31 am

Indeed. Allende is a good case. He was elected and embarked on a program aimed at building a socialist regime but well designed systems must have mechanisms to peacefully impeach those who try to abuse the system.

34 BenK May 11, 2016 at 6:43 am

There are some serious issues with the epistocracy arguments.
First, most of what he argues for is really the rule of the informed, not the knowledgeable.
From the sense of those words, you can probably see where I’m going with this…

Second, he privileges certain kinds of knowing (see his use of ‘rational’), as well as related
forms of belief/religion.

Third, property ownership is certainly one kind of knowing, but it also impacts investment
and stability in a community, given a certain degree of friction for making or liquidating
particular asset classes. As such, there are independent arguments for restricting voting/leadership
to invested individuals, that can be largely orthogonal to knowledge, particularly rational
knowledge.

Fourth, there is the question of how he envisions the demonstration of knowledge. Already
we privilege knowledge, at least of the kind required to get elected or hired into government office.
The question should be whether those are the forms of knowledge which should be preferred.
Ultimately, it is also worth asking what kinds of knowing, being, and having will be favored under
any new regime – whether they be test taking, personal relationships, family relationships, etc.

35 rayward May 11, 2016 at 6:50 am

1. By what criteria are people identified as “knowledgeable”? Are those who devote much effort to restrict the franchise of others more or less “knowledgeable” than those whose franchise would be restricted? Are those with high IQs more “knowledgeable” than those with middling IQ’s? Are those with degrees from the Ive League more “knowledgeable” than those with degrees from elsewhere, or no degrees at all? Of course, the founders were skeptical of democracy – which helps explain why there is no right to vote in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. But did the founders have a monopoly on “knowledge”? My argument in favor of universal suffrage is a practical argument: if everyone votes, the result is more likely to reflect the wisdom of the “average” voter, “knowledgeable” voters of one extreme or the other cancelling each other out. That”s right, a “knowledgeable” voter is just a euphemism for a voter who agrees with me, no matter how stupid I may be about a particular issue.

36 rayward May 11, 2016 at 7:13 am

In his blog post yesterday afternoon, Douthat continues his argument for conservatives not to support Trump, comparing Bush’s measured responses to the 9/11 crisis and the financial crisis to Trump’s possible (or likely) unhinged responses. [Douthat acknowledges that Bush’s ultimate decision to go to war against Iraq and the way the war was carried out leave much to be desired, but his response immediately after 9/11 should be the time to judge the president.] Of course, what that approach to judging a president (i.e., in a crisis) leaves out is what occurred before the crisis. By that standard, Bush was a total failure as president, having failed to avert the 9/11 attack or the financial crisis. My point is that apportioning the franchise based on “knowledge” is as nonsensical as judging a president by her response to a crisis after it arrives.

37 rayward May 11, 2016 at 7:19 am

Knowledgeable voters provide us with a president and Congress whose tenure is marked by peace and prosperity, unknowledgeable voters provide us with a president and Congress who don’t.

38 Brian Donohue May 11, 2016 at 12:32 pm

To be clear, voters have given us divided government during most of Obama’s term.

When Obama entered office in January 2009, there were 134.1 million Americans working, 111.5 million in the private sector and 22.6 million for government.

The most recent numbers show 143.9 million Americans working, 121.8 million in the private sector and 22.1 million for the government.

So, over 7.25 years, the economy under Obama/Republican Congress has added 9.9 million jobs, 10.4 million in the private sector and negative 0.5 million in government.

Remember when Bill Clinton said he governed to the right of where he would have preferred. It’s almost like Presidents are riding the tiger rather than calling the shots.

Anyway, I’m not sure who the “knowledgeable voters” are to thank for this. I mean you, rayward, obviously. But I’m sure there are others.

39 Turkey Vulture May 11, 2016 at 12:37 pm

Turkey Vulture, obviously.

40 Brian Donohue May 11, 2016 at 12:38 pm

Also see Reagan/Democratic Congress and Clinton/Republican Congress.

This is actually an argument for Hillary. I don’t care for her at all, but so long as Republicans hang on to the House, it’s all good.

41 Troll me May 11, 2016 at 3:24 pm

Measured responses? Within the month he invaded a country 10,000 miles away based on a rumour that someone who they thought maybe sort of probably had something to do with it could plausible have been hiding out there.

And then invaded Iraq on false pretexts.

And passed legislation (Patriot Act) which hugely violates constitutional principles which are critical for upholding freedom.

I agree that Trump is pretty unhinged. But it’s hard to imagine a more unhinged response than that of Bush. Assuming, of course, that there was nothing at all devious going on. I’ve basically ignored all the 9-11 conspiracy theories until recently. But I watched a YouTube video which includes analysis from some pretty serious architects, engineers, etc.

Without drawing specific conclusions about who dunnit… the official story is TOTALLY bunk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYUYya6bPGw. AND, some officials who tried to point this out got imprisoned on highly dubious charges.

42 Art Deco May 11, 2016 at 4:05 pm

And then invaded Iraq on false pretexts.

There were no false pretexts.

43 jorod May 11, 2016 at 9:47 am

Knowledgeable means you understand how the world works and the effects of individual decisions. Which most democrats have no clue.

44 rayward May 11, 2016 at 7:56 am

Watkins and Brook: Ayn Rand is dead; get over it. The 1% is safe from the unruly mob with pitchforks. Of course, to acolytes of Rand the mob is always at the door, even though the mob isn’t even allowed in the neighborhood.

45 jorod May 11, 2016 at 9:40 am

Obviously, you are not a taxpayer or businessman.

46 jorod May 11, 2016 at 9:39 am

Try reading Throes of Democracy by McDougall. Best book written in the last 20 years on 19th century US history from Jackson to Grant.

47 Brian Donohue May 11, 2016 at 9:52 am

Equality of conditions is a hideous vision. Sounds good at first blush, though.

48 anon May 11, 2016 at 9:55 am
49 Garett Jones May 11, 2016 at 10:21 am
50 Jason Brennan May 11, 2016 at 3:30 pm

The Kochs don’t fund my job (FWIW I have a chair endowed by one of our alumni) and didn’t support my writing this book in any way. But I love money and would be happy to take a big fat check from them as a reward for writing it!

51 byomtov May 11, 2016 at 7:07 pm

At GMU, money is not fungible.

52 Jason Brennan May 11, 2016 at 7:52 pm

Dunno about GMU, but I’m not at GMU.

53 byomtov May 12, 2016 at 9:26 am

My mistake. Sorry.

Still, I’d be interested to hear your response to my more substantive comment below.

Part – only part – of my rather strong negative reaction to your idea is the underlying assumptions about voter behavior and the role of government.

54 byomtov May 12, 2016 at 10:33 pm

Crickets.

55 Brian Donohue May 11, 2016 at 6:10 pm

Interesting. Thanks for sharing!

56 byomtov May 11, 2016 at 7:06 pm

Most expansions of the suffrage bring in, on average, people who are less politically
informed or less broadly educated than those already eligible to vote…

Broadly educated? This is impossible to measure. I’d argue that there are many individuals lacking a lot of formal education nonetheless have a pretty good understanding of how the world, or at least the US, functions in certain respects. Politically informed? Are we going to leave that up to Caplan? No thanks.

as democracies become more democratic, their decision-making processes become of lower
quality in terms of cognitive processing of issues and candidate choice.”

Why? There seem to be a number of problems with this. First there is the question of whether voters vote their own interests and ideologies, or, being somehow “broadly educated,” vote purely according to notions of justice and the national interest. The historical evidence is not good. It is no accident that disenfranchised groups tend to suffer more from discrimination than those who can vote. There actually is more to politics and government than maximizing GDP.

Second is the assumption that on the very broad questions that an election deals with the opinions of these wondrous folks are better than others. How many have a deep understanding of Middle East issues, or fiscal policy, or any of a number of other things elected officials deal with?

Finally, there is a serious trap here. Once you empower 70% of voters to disenfranchise the other 30% according to their preferred standards you will soon have 49% disenfranchising another 21%, and so on.

57 Turkey Vulture May 11, 2016 at 10:19 am

1. In an epistocracy, can 51% of the epistocrats still enslave the other 49%, along with the commoners?

I tend to think that the best forms of governance are relatively democratic, fairly local, and with circumscribed powers, though I (like the author) can be seduced by those systems that promise to give me greater power.

I think the way to prevent tyranny, of whatever sort and in whatever system, is to provide means by which the oppressed can resist. While some such ability may be provided through the political system itself, I think cultural norms are just as or more important. A culture that both looks down on tyranny and makes heroes out of those who resist it will help to prevent tyranny in the first place.

I also think that, in combination with these norms, an armed populace acts as a bulwark against oppression (so long as the minority is armed), even in the age of nukes, ICBMs and drones. As the past 50 years of U.S. military history of shown, there is no need for those resisting the vastly superior power to be capable of winning in open warfare. Instead, they need only credibly commit to imposing ongoing costs on the superior power, so that eventually it decides “well this isn’t worth it.” Just the threat that this will occur acts to limit the extent of oppression in the first place (although we seem to forget it relatively quickly when it comes to foreign adventures).

58 anon May 11, 2016 at 10:31 am

Armed and armed. The whole ME is burdened with too many cheap AKs. It doesn’t help their path to democracy.

In other news, Cliven Bundy, who lured western politicians into armed insurrection (stopping at “stand-off” only by the restraint of government officers) is suing President Obama.

We are not as far above ISIS as we think.

59 Turkey Vulture May 11, 2016 at 11:40 am

I don’t believe I said that an armed populace leads to democracy.

I think a nation’s democratic institutions will always be endangered in multi-ethnic/multi-faith states if many citizens’ primary allegiance (outside their families) is to a group (religious, ethnic, or both) rather than a political jurisdiction.

60 anon May 11, 2016 at 11:46 am

What I am saying is that people who see arms as protection against oppression are increasingly going around the bend. Shelly Shelton, Republican member of the Nevada Assembly, brought her toddler and her AR to the Bundy ranch. Not a good combination IMO.

61 Turkey Vulture May 11, 2016 at 12:06 pm

I’m not sure there’s anything increasing about it, other than maybe the ability to broadcast that it occurred.

I didn’t follow the Bundy story, but I don’t think possessing both a toddler and a firearm is a bad idea if you take the proper precautions (and I don’t mean holding them at the same time – not a great idea). Unless you mean that she was bringing the firearm in preparation for a standoff – in which case, yes, I think it is best to avoid taking your toddler to where you plan to engage in an armed standoff.

62 anon May 11, 2016 at 12:14 pm

Yes, it was a show of strength against the Federal government with gun and toddler.

63 Urso May 11, 2016 at 3:42 pm

The fact that he’s suing President Obama shows just how above ISIS we actually are.

64 anon May 11, 2016 at 5:26 pm

I would expect you to know the story, at least in broad strokes. Bundy had a policy difference with the other BLM (the Bureau of Land Management) and convinced many that he was suffering “tyranny.” Those folks showed up with guns to defend his rights. This resulted in a confrontation that narrowly missed being the deaths of many.

If you’d checked, you’d know Bundy was suing Obama because his actions were all legal, don’t ya know.

It is essentially a Sovereign Citizen case, something that may be just a low level of background crazy in America, but something that could become worse.

65 Urso May 12, 2016 at 2:53 pm

Right, and in ISISistan, Obama would’ve long ago cut his head off and placed it on a pike on the Mall, pour encouragez les autres. Here we give him due process of law and even let him file his stupid lawsuit. I’d say that’s better, wouldn’t you?

66 Troll me May 11, 2016 at 3:41 pm

Freedom of speech, universal rights which protect minorities from majorities, etc., I think are intended to serve these purposes, and rely on a judiciary and security apparatus which uphold them. Sometimes we need to agitate to ensure these core principles are upheld.

67 Turkey Vulture May 11, 2016 at 4:21 pm

I think cultural norms are central in upholding a lot of those, though having a security apparatus that will defend them helps too – although again, that depends on the society’s cultural norms being shared by the security apparatus. Otherwise, many of the rights and protections are parchment barriers and nothing more.

This is why I believe a norm of free speech generally, and not just free speech vs. governmental restrictions, is so important. When it becomes fully acceptable for everyone except government to punish people for their speech, I think the days of protection from government suppression of speech are numbered.

68 byomtov May 12, 2016 at 9:30 am

Establishing an epistocracy means that there must be a method whereby some citizens can deprive others of the right to vote. That doesn’t seem to me to to be something that is going to have happy outcomes.

69 Anton May 11, 2016 at 11:12 am

I actually read the Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts during college (13 years ago), mostly because Isaiah Berlin talked him up so much. I don’t think I got much out of the experience. As an essayist, he struck me as being a poor man’s Montaigne, and frankly I don’t remember much about his social observations. I think he had an odd idea about a village-based socialism, which would have been better than Stalinism (just about anything is better than Stalinism), but it probably wouldn’t have worked well either and probably can’t be taken as a model for anything.

70 rayward May 11, 2016 at 11:55 am

Whenever the right is out of power they suffer a severe case of paranoia, convinced that the nation is on the brink of collapse unless the right can regain power, whether by restricting the voting rights of less “knowledgeable” people or an outright coup if necessary. Paradoxically, the two greatest economic crises of the past 100 years took place while the right was in charge, which might explain their paranoia. Since President Bush was perhaps the worst president ever, if measured by two great crises he failed to avert, anybody who voted for him is at best not “knowledgeable” and at worst an imbecile, in either case should never be allowed to vote again according to the epistocrats.

71 Brian Donohue May 11, 2016 at 12:23 pm

“outright coup if necessary”?

Evidently, the right doesn’t have a monopoly on paranoia.

72 Turkey Vulture May 11, 2016 at 12:34 pm

Yeah, I’d say there is a group of partisans on both sides who act like their time out of power is the end of the world. I heard a lot of craziness from partisans on the left from 2000-2008, and the partisan left has responded in kind from 2008-2016. I was young for the Clinton years but my sense is it was like that back then too.

73 Turkey Vulture May 11, 2016 at 12:34 pm

*”and the partisan right has responded in kind from 2008-2016″

74 msgkings May 11, 2016 at 1:19 pm

Yes this is correct. Prior to Clinton there was much less vitriolic partisanship and more overlap. It started with Clinton, it got personal, the right just hated that guy. And then the left hated Bush II, and then the right hated Obama. Not opposed, they were HATED. Hillary will be hated too. I wish it would stop.

75 Turkey Vulture May 11, 2016 at 1:28 pm

Not that I stand fully above this. I don’t fall into the right/left partisan hate, but I did hate the idea of GWB and Hillary for what they represent in terms of an aristocracy of blood/marriage rearing its ugly head at the same time as our Executive gets more powerful. If we were facing a Jeb v. Hillary race right now, I’d be in danger of going unhinged here.

76 The Original D May 11, 2016 at 3:41 pm

msgkings is right. They hated Clinton from the get-go and amped it up further when Gingrich and his revolutionaries took over the House in ’94.

I naïvely thought that part of it was just a continuation of the battles of the sixties, and that since Obama wasn’t from that era then maybe it would be moderated somewhat after he was elected. Nope.

77 Art Deco May 11, 2016 at 3:48 pm

C’mon. The Taft family had a long run. IIRC, two of Franklin Roosevelt’s children sat in Congress. And you’ve had Kennedys and Kennedys and Kennedys. This is nothing all that novel.

It’s been a self-limiting phenomenon. One reason I suspect is that an interest in political office is a minority taste. Another is that families just are not a consistent repository and generator of achievement-motivated, ambitious, and savvy people. And you have the 3d generation syndrome. Look at Chelsea Clinton; she’s intelligent, has multiple advanced degrees, and has at age 35 managed to maintain a sustained interest in no line of work. She’s tried her hand at McKinsey-type consulting, academic administration, broadcast journalism, and is now running her parents’ money-laundering operation. None of her aunts and uncles are much like her mother and father (bar an absence of scruple) and there’s no reason to expect their children will be. So, she’s the end of the line. Same deal with the Kennedys. You take them out of the Boston media market, and one of two things happens: (1) they lose or (2) they serve in ordinary and appropriate offices for a period of years, then go back to their private pursuits.

78 Art Deco May 11, 2016 at 3:36 pm

No, not really. Clinton was guilty of things no President had publicly acknowledged in living memory if ever. The thing is, the Democratic Party is animated by people who fancy themselves superior beings intellectually and morally. Acknowledging the Clintons’ criminality was a threat to their self-image. The net effect was to utterly corrupt the Democratic Party. The contrasting behavior of the Republican congressional caucus in 1974 (“I do not favor leaders who mislead”, quoth Barber Conable) is instructive.

So, you have the myth of the frothing-at-the-mouth Clinton-hater. I’m sure you could find such a person on the message boards and listservs of the era, but that was a niche venue at the time. Political discourse was quite different when it was in journalistic venues or ordinary conversation only.

Nowadays, you do readily find people who yammer about ‘the Obama Marxist regime’ and what not. A great deal of it’s just trash talk, though.

79 Troll me May 11, 2016 at 3:54 pm

There was a time when the press would not report on details about presidents, like whether they had mistresses and the like. And personally, I think it would be rather better that way. I think a president should be judged on management skills, policy knowledge, ability to inspire people, to exert leadership on important issues, uphold freedom and democracy and the like. I couldn’t care less where they put their private parts in their private time, so long as it is between consenting adults.

80 Art Deco May 11, 2016 at 4:02 pm

There was a time when the press would not report on details about presidents, like whether they had mistresses and the like.

From about 1941 to about 1966, what Larry Sabato called ‘the era of the lap dog press’. The costs of that disposition could be seen in 1964 when CBS News dithered and dithered and by default declined to report that Lyndon Johnson had appeared before a crowd at an airport manifestly intoxicated. Their reporter on the scene (George Herman) called his editors and asked for guidance. He fell asleep waiting for a reply.

81 Art Deco May 11, 2016 at 4:04 pm

I think a president should be judged on management skills, policy knowledge, ability to inspire people, to exert leadership on important issues, uphold freedom and democracy and the like. I couldn’t care less where they put their private parts in their private time, so long as it is between consenting adults.

Well, other people think differently. So what should drive disclosures? A great deal of extraneous material about Richard Nixon has been disclosed over the years. No one on your side of the argument complained

82 anon May 11, 2016 at 5:53 pm

I think you have to think of yourself outside, not part of mass movements, apart from the madness of crowds, for any claim of superiority.

Which crowd, which madness, obviously is not an answer.

83 byomtov May 12, 2016 at 11:58 am

I would be delighted to see the current Republican caucuses in both House and Senate replaced by their 1974 predecessors.

84 rayward May 11, 2016 at 1:07 pm

The “Paranoid Style in American Politics” is the famous essay by Richard Hofstadter in Harper’s (later expanded to a book by the same title) for those who don’t know what I am referencing.

85 Art Deco May 11, 2016 at 3:15 pm

He is a epistocrat. P.S. voters are ignorant and irrational.

When you run down a laundry list of the things academics favor that ordinary people do not, you appreciate the irrationality of ordinary people. It’s much less destructive.

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