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I am not sure who originally came up with this idea, but in his book Against Democracy, Jason Brennan talks about a political system he calls "simulated oracle", or an "enlightened public". In this system, everyone is able to vote, even if they're under 18. It doesn't really matter. When someone votes they don't just get asked what they want. They also get asked about their demographic information and they have to take a test. This test consists of questions that are meant to evaluate how politically educated the person taking it is. Once everyone has voted the results get analyzed and it is calculated what the people would want if they had more information and if they were more politically educated. This does not neccessarily mean that politically educated people have more power.

Clarification: this means that the tests that determine what the people would want if they were more politically educated are what decide who gets elected. The votes do not decide who gets elected, they just influence who gets elected.

Now the question: is this a form of epistocracy/technocracy or rather a form of democracy?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Philipp May 17 at 15:43
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This proposed system is neither truly a democracy nor an epistocracy. Instead, it is a kind of technocracy, as all decisions are ultimately taken by applying a scientific algorithm to a complex dataset about the demographic distribution of choices.

Usually, technocratic approaches attempt to find some objectively "optimal" solution (according to some metric) - in this case, the metric seems to be "matches best what the people would want if they knew what is best for them".

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    "matches best what the people would want if they knew what is best for them" - that is the essence of technocracy, both with and without the algorithmic aspect. It also wouldn't surprise me if the dream of algorithmic technocracy goes back to the high-modernist era of the 1930s. Needless to say, a tremendous weight rests on how reliable (as in conceptions of justice) the "objectivity" must be. – Pete W May 17 at 15:38
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    @PeteW indeed. Add to that the fact that the prospect of taking a test will discourcage people who are not very interested/educated in politics to vote at all (it is not a pleasant experience to face a bunch of questions you cannot answer, even if it does not have other consequences). Not a promising starting point, in my opinion. – Hulk May 17 at 15:57
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Technically speaking, epistocracy can be a form of democracy. Democracy merely means that political power is vested in the citizenry as a whole, not in some small elite group or individual leader. Epistocracy usually means that power is vested in the intelligent (intelligence has various definitions in this case). The enlightened public is both a form of democracy and epistocracy because it vests power in both the people and the intelligent.

Aristotle makes the distinction between 'democracy' (which he views as a system of irrational demagoguery driven by the wayward emotions of ignorant masses) and 'polity' (a system where virtuous, community-centered citizens hold power). We don't use the terminology in the same way in the modern world, but the principle still motivates a lot of political theory. Epistocracy is one in a long list of theories meant to pull universal suffrage away from that collapsed Aristotelian state towards the more virtuous form, in the same vein as representation, republicanism, and other 'mediated' democratic forms. My own view is that it puts the cart before the horse: we shouldn't be weighting citizen's power according to their political acumen, but ensuring that citizens have the political acumen to wield power appropriately. But no one's asked me yet, so...

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The answer is no, because your votes aren't the main factor. This is basically just a modern version of Jim Crow literacy tests though this has a lot more potential for abuse. Those who are in power could just change the outcome of the tests, so that an outcome they wanted occurs. The only useful application for a system like this is when you want to have the illusion of democracy in order to keep you citizens content and prevent unrest.

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    I think you misunderstood, the system doesn’t give votes different weight based on test results, what it does is that it the person who is elected is based on the test results not the votes (though votes affect a test result). Also, the 4th sentence somewhat contradicts the 5th and 6th sentence. – Ekadh Singh May 21 at 14:16
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    @EkadhSingh The problem is that there is no objective way of determining political education and whoever builds the machine will leave explicit or unintentional bias in it and because politics is always changing the machine will need to be updated and soon those who update the machine will become the ruling elite. – Trench May 21 at 14:19
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    @EkadhSingh The people who control the tests control how they are graded which would have a major impact on the results. – Joe W May 21 at 14:35
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    Well as I stated in my question the votes DO NOT influence a persons voting rights. Everyone can vote. Meaning that this system is not „a modern version of Jim Crow literacy tests“. – productive person May 22 at 20:48
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    I think you might have misunderstood the question, being as it wasn‘t a yes or no question and you still answered with „no“. – productive person May 22 at 20:59
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Well I think that this enlightened public is neither a form of democracy nor epistocracy or technocracy. It definitely lies on the fundamentals of democracy being as there are votes, and everyone can vote. It must be said that there are several differences to a representative democracy. To know what they are it is important to know what most representative democracy consist of:

  1. Universal: This is a must have for a representative democracy. It means that all citizens can take part in voting, given a few exceptions like age. The main idea is that taking part in democracy is not dependent on demographics or ideology.
  2. Proximity: Not all representative democracies have this. This means that the votes directly influence the result. In the USA this is not the case because it has an electoral college.
  3. free: This is very common for representative democracies but not necessary. It means that the voter has a choice to vote or not to vote.
  4. Equal: This is a necessity for a representative democracy. It means that all voters have an equal amount of votes, and that every vote carries an equal importance.
  5. Anonymous: This is also necessary. It means that votes can be held anonymously and that it cannot be determined who voted for who.

Given these conditions for representative democracy it can be evaluated how democratic the enlightened public is. The first condition applies, because everyone can vote and this right is not dependant on ideology or demographics. The second condition does not apply, because the votes get analyzed before they are accepted. The third condition does apply because voting is voluntary and not influenced by the state. The fourth condition does not apply, because a vote from a person with better education might count more. The fifth condition does apply.

So out of five conditions (some were optional) three apply. This shows that the enlightened public has a lot in common with democracy.

A rough definition for democracy would be: the people have the authority to choose governing figures.

I do think this definition applies because the people do have the power. It must be said that this does not mean that this is a representative democracy.

There a varying definitions for technocracy but they all are similiar to this: Power is given based on scientific or technical knowledge.

This also somewhat applies being as the votes are evaluated based on the voters knowledge. The main difference is that it is based on political knowledge rather than scientific or technical knowledge. Although a lot of definitions consider political knowledge scientific knowledge (or they are phrased differently).

There are also various definitions for epistocracy but they all share the idea that power is given based on philosophical knowledge. There are once again similarities between this and the enlightened public but the enlightened public does not consider philosophical knowledge (definitions for epistocracy may also consider this).

I think just giving it a label does not do the system of an enlightened public just.

Perhaps it is best to merely think of it as a blend of the multiple systems.

I think that all of this begs the question whether this system is just. Well this is a very philosophical question but I will try to give an outline of arguments pro this system.

It does not clash with a humans natural rights. John Locke one of the main philosophers of the age of enlightenment phrased the natural rights like this:

  • Life: everyone is entitled to life
  • Liberty: everyone is entitled to do anything they want to so long as it doesn't conflict with the first right.
  • Estate: everyone is entitled to own all they create or gain through gift or trade so long as it doesn't conflict with the first two rights.

This could be a solutions for getting the votes of politically educated people without discriminating against any groups of people.

The main argument against this would be potential clashing with social contract theory (too complicated to go into depth in an answer). Social contract theory basically states that a system is only legitimate if the governed consent to it. It might happen that a majority of the population does not consent to the system.

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    My main argument against it would be that it places an awful lot of power in the hands of the people writing the test of political knowledge - anyone who has ever written exam questions will know how hard it is to fairly measure knowledge. How to determine what kind of knowledge is required for how much added weight to the vote? How to ensure that it cannot be leaked in advance? – Hulk May 18 at 5:39
  • These are not criticisms of the political system but rather of exploits, and its mot like democracy has none(as an example how to be sure nobody that handles votes "loses" very many republican ones). Another problem with your statement is the fact that doing well on the test doesn‘t ever add any weight to your vote it is merely used as information to find out what someone would want if they had more information. – productive person May 18 at 7:33
  • @productiveperson so are you saying the test does nothing or that the test will change who you vote for. I don’t understand – Ekadh Singh May 18 at 12:08
  • @EkadhSingh the tests give you a dataset. After everyone has voted that dataset gets analyzed and it is not that the votes get changed, but merely that the result is different from a democracy. The result is what the people would want if they knew more. The results may be different from those of a democracy but nothing ever gets "changed". – productive person May 18 at 12:12
  • No 5 may easily be at least compromised if the demographic analysis is fine-grained. (side note: where I am, if too few votes are received in one station, they have to be combined with another station's before counting) – cbeleites unhappy with SX May 18 at 15:49

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