Journal of Political Philosophy 24 (4):406-426 (2016)

Daniel Viehoff
New York University
Call “epistocracy” a political regime in which the experts, those who know best, rule; and call “the epistocratic claim” the assertion that the experts’ superior knowledge or reliability is “a warrant for their having political authority over others.” Most of us oppose epistocracy and think the epistocratic claim is false. But why is it mistaken? Contemporary discussions of this question focus on two answers. According to the first, expertise could, in principle, be a warrant for authority. What bars the successful justification of epistocracy is that the relevant kind of expertise does not exist in politics (either because there are no procedure-independent standards of right or wrong in politics, or because, though such standards exist, no one knows better than anyone else what they require). This skeptical position comes, however, at a significant cost: Without the assumption that some political decisions are better than others, and that some people know better than others what these decisions are, it is difficult to make sense of much of our political practice, including how we criticize politicians and choose among candidates for office. The second answer accepts that there is expertise of the relevant sort in politics. It argues, however, that such expertise does not justify political authority because political justifications are subject to special “acceptability requirements.” Since claims to expertise are normally not acceptable to all qualified (reasonable etc.) points of view, they cannot function as premises in the justification of political authority, and the epistocratic claim fails. Yet as a number of critics have pointed out, this (broadly Rawlsian) strategy faces significant problems: it is at least unclear whether the strategy in fact bars all epistocratic conclusions whether there is any principled way to draw the distinction between qualified and non-qualified points of views on which it depends; and whether principled defenses for it are available and internally consistent. This article outlines a third and previously largely overlooked answer, which resists the epistocratic claim without either denying the existence of expertise in politics or invoking special acceptability requirements for political justifications. The only plausible argument for the epistocratic claim, this article argues, focuses on the compensatory role that the expert’s authority plays in correcting the subject’s relative unreliability or other agential shortcomings. The expert’s authority is thus justified only if the subject, by adopting a policy of obeying the expert’s directives, does not face problems that are very similar to the ones that the expert’s authority was meant to solve in the first place. If, for instance, the subject finds it no easier to reliably identify what the expert’s directives require of him than to reliably assess and act on the reasons with which the expert is meant to help him, then the expert’s directives lack the compensatory value that would justify her authority. But if some widely accepted empirical conjectures about politics in a pluralistic political community are correct, then citizens normally either have no reason to adopt a policy of obeying experts, or the experts with regard to whom they have reason to adopt such a policy differ, so that no expert has the kind of general authority over the polity that we associate with political rule. (We may call this the “non-compensation argument” against epistocracy.) The argument is important both because it helps shed light on the proper relation between authority and expertise in general, and because it shows that we can normally reject the epistocratic claim without adopting either the skeptical or the Rawlsian strategy, thus undercutting whatever support these views derive from the mistaken perception that they are necessary for resisting the threat of epistocracy. Finally, because the anti-epistocratic constraints it introduces apply only to justifications of the subjects’ duty to obey, but not to the existence or activities of political institutions as such, the compensation argument can accommodate our anti-epistocratic intuitions without excluding epistemic considerations from the design of political institutions more generally.
Keywords authority  expertise  legitimacy  political justification  Rawls  Estlund  epistocracy
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DOI 10.1111/jopp.12100
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References found in this work BETA

The Morality of Freedom.Joseph Raz - 1986 - Philosophy 63 (243):119-122.
Political Liberalism by John Rawls. [REVIEW]Philip Pettit - 1994 - Journal of Philosophy 91 (4):215-220.
Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?Alvin I. Goldman - 2001 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63 (1):85-110.

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Citations of this work BETA

Epistemic Democracy and the Role of Experts.Cathrine Holst & Anders Molander - 2019 - Contemporary Political Theory 18 (4):541-561.
XIV—The Truth in Political Instrumentalism.Daniel Viehoff - 2017 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 117 (3):273-295.
The Grounds of Political Legitimacy.Fabienne Peter - 2020 - Journal of the American Philosophical Association 6 (3):372-390.
Political Philosophy and the Nature of Expertise.Robert Lamb - 2020 - Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 23 (7):910-930.
Political Philosophy and the Nature of Expertise.Robert Lamb - 2018 - Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy:1-21.

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