January, 2017
January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 6)

Democracy without Individual Competence

If what I have argued is true, then being politically competent is highly demanding. Voters would need significant amounts of background knowledge, intellectual skill, moral impartiality, and access to reliable information to make competent political decisions. Only a tiny sliver of the population would count as politically competent.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 5)

Weakening Competence

There are various strategies one might pursue to weaken the demands of competence. Some of these attempts have some force, but ultimately I am sceptical about the degree to which these strategies can be made to work.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 4)

The Extent of Demandingness

Let me elaborate a bit on the demandingness of the account I’ve given. We’ve seen that empirical research consistently shows that a significant amount of voters—between a quarter and a third—already fails the first category of conditions (information about choices). We should be even more sceptical about people having sufficiently sophisticated predictive and evaluative models for competence. We have seen that voters have troubles with having minimally coherent belief systems. Lots of evidence suggests that voters base their choices on minimal, highly filtered amount of information, which they process in badly biased ways.

But I also think that most politically informed, highly-educated voters would not pass the competence test I’ve outlined. Focus on the politicos who keep up with political developments on a day-to-day basis, who have a good degree of civic knowledge, identify and organise along party lines, and participate in politics outside elections. Stereotypically, this is the person who reads a daily newspaper like the New York Times or Washington Post, consults “high-brow” political websites like Slate or Vox, and so on.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 3)

Competence Reconsidered

So let’s reconsider the question of competence. Voting in an election is a type of choice, similar to many other important choices—e.g., which university to apply for, whom to marry, or which house to buy. So I suggest we follow some broadly decision-theoretic notions in outlining what it would mean to be competent in making a choice. We can classify the demands of competence into four categories:

  1. you need to know the major options open to you (knowledge about choices),
  2. you need to be aware of the consequences of each option, or at least have a rough sense of some of the possible outcomes of the major options, and a sense for which of these outcomes are more likely than others (predictive model),
  3. you need to be able to evaluate the desirability of the relevant outcomes, in a way which allows you to make at least rough comparisons across outcomes (evaluative model), and lastly,
  4. you need to be able to form coherent, all-things-considered judgments regarding the desirability of different options on the basis of (i) to (iii) (integrated framework).

This account is still quite generic. But it’s possible to fill in some more of the details if we look at the specifics of voting.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 2)

Competence in the Literature

I’ll start with a quick and selective account of how some other theorists, especially political scientists, have approached the question of competence. The debate is a bit hampered by the fact that there is little agreed-upon terminology, and competence overlaps with a number of other phenomena, such as (political) knowledge, (political) information, (political) sophistication, and education. (Some attempts at conceptual ground-clearing are here and here.)

Still, a few general lines can be discerned. We can start from Jason Brennan’s four conditions for voter competence:

  1. Voters should act on widely available, good information […].
  2. They should avoid mass superstition and systematic error.
  3. They should evaluate information in a moderately rational, unbiased way […].
  4. Voters should be aware of their limits, and thus always look for more and better information on any high-stakes decision. (165)

These are pretty generic demands. They are also relatively minimal—they look like necessary, but certainly not like sufficient conditions for competence.

To be fair to Brennan, he isn’t interested in developing a full account of competence; it might well be that he would wish to add further conditions if he turned to that task. Relatively undemanding accounts of competence, however, are a recurring feature in empirical research on voter competence.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 1)


It is a natural thought that political competence is important to democracy. We are troubled by the idea that voters are not competent, and it is normal to stress the importance of political education. However, I have found that it is surprisingly difficult to state in a satisfying way when individuals are competent voters. This is the issue I’ll aim to shed light on.

Most adults are of course legally competent—that is, we think they possess the minimal mental capacities necessary to be responsible for their own legal choices. But it’s a separate issue whether people are competent at voting. I take this issue to be the following: (when) do individuals possess a certain kind of skill in tackling a certain kind of task, namely, the task of voting?

Here’s a troubling possibility I will explore: political competence is highly demanding, and very few people are capable in making competent political choices. In the voting booth, you might make choices, but it is unlikely that you make a well-informed, competent choice.

Political scientists have long stressed that people are uninformed about politics. They find that anywhere between a quarter to a third of the population are “know-nothings”. But once we realise the true epistemic demands of governance, it might turn out that even more people are not able to competently vote. (I would not think myself competent in such a way, if the argument is true.)

This sets a clear agenda. After looking at some existing accounts of competence (part 2), I’ll argue that political competence might be very rare (part 3). This is a surprising result, but perhaps not too surprising (part 4). In response, you might try to weaken the demands of competence (part 5). But I think more plausibly, we might try to develop democratic theory that entirely works its way around the notion of individual competence (part 6).

Continue to part 2

January 23, 2017
Defining “fact”

Kellyanne Conway has termed a new, 1984-style neologism, that of “alternative facts”. That’s as silly as it is outrageous. But the response to Conway hasn’t been always intellectually up to par. Here’s Politico:

Merriam-Webster poked at the Trump administration through its Twitter feed, appearing to take senior adviser Kellyanne Conway to task for saying that press secretary Sean Spicer was offering up “alternative facts” about the crowd size at the inauguration.

“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” the dictionary company said in a pinned tweet that linked to a Merriam-Webster posting about how lookups for the word “fact” spiked after Conway’s comment.

Unfortunately, “a piece of information presented as having objective reality” is an outright terrible definition of “fact”. Indeed, the claim that 1.5 million people attended Trump’s inauguration can well be a fact on this definition, as long as it is “presented as” having “objective reality”, which Trump’s press secretary might well have. And some things which are clearly facts—e.g., that I own a copy of Ulysses—fail to be facts on this definition, as they are not presented as anything to anyone. That’s because facts are facts: they just are, independent from whether they are presented in some context or not.

This is not an exception. I tell undergraduates over and over again not to use dictionaries for serious intellectual work. This is because dictionary definitions, while good for obscure words and teaching usage, are normally sloppy, often outright terrible at accuracy, at least the kind of accuracy needed for academic writing. Generally, dictionaries are poor guides to resolve intellectual disagreements; they are normally not even good guides to resolve disagreements over definitions. Bashing Conway & Co. is one thing—but at least you should get your facts (ahem) straight.

January 15, 2017
Scattered Thoughts on Trump

I’m not sure how much more amateur political analysis the internet needs, given how much has been written on Trump already. Still, here are some scattered thoughts on Trump:


January 9, 2017
“Westworld”, season 1

The basic premise of Westworld is based around some well-known sci-fi tropes. In a not-too-distant future, rich guests entertain themselves in a Western-themed entertainment park, populated by human-looking, life-like androids (“hosts”). The park is a stereotype-laden dreamland in which hosts have to fulfil their guests’ every wish. Predictably, everything starts to slowly unravel as some of the hosts break through their programming; all isn’t well behind the scenes either: various forces engage in competing plots to force their own visions on the park.


January 6, 2017
  • The website has a brand-new design! It’s the result of a days-work and a new-found appreciation for the power of CSS.
  • I have updated and expanded my student guide on essay writing.
  • My article on political anti-intentionalism in Res Publica is now online.
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