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.


Competence isn’t mastery: being competent at driving doesn’t mean you’re good on the race track. Similarly, one might respond that voters merely must be competent in making “decent” choices. For example, perhaps you’re a competent voter as long as you manage to avoid voting for plainly unjust policies and candidates, or otherwise disastrous candidates. This line of response accords well with a Schumpeterian understanding of democracy, in which the role of the electorate is merely to provide a check against the worst and most corrupt politicians from office.

I am not convinced of this response, either on its own merits, or whether it succeeds in cutting down the demands of competence. First, even if voters’ only task is to avoid terrible candidates, that still requires you to acquire significant amounts of political knowledge. You still need a coherent evaluative framework which draws the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable candidates, and you still need to be able to roughly predict the policies of different candidates.

In particular, I suspect that whether a candidate counts as “good enough” partially depends on the range of available candidates. (Think Clinton—Trump.) So in a two-party system, whether some candidate is a good enough choice depends on what other candidate s/he is running against. So you do not get around the epistemic task of doing a survey of the available candidates and their proposals.

More fundamentally, I doubt that lowering the epistemic threshold in such a way is an attractive theoretical option. There’s first the simple observation that most democratic theorists nowadays reject the minimal, Schumpeterian picture of democracy. That is, most contemporary theorists think of elections not merely as safeguards against tyranny, but as places where something much more epistemically substantive happens: voters are thought to engage in the active legitimation of candidates, say.

Beyond this ad hominem argument, I suspect that a satisficing conception of competence depends on what’s at stake. Assume that you suffer from a life-threatening disease. A well-trained doctor can save your life at minimal risk. A badly trained semi-professional can save your life, but only at the cost of amputating both your legs. There is some pressure to think that only the first doctor is competent—or more precisely, competent to the morally required degree—even if she does “well enough” on some measures.

Where the choices we make concern the lives of others and the stakes are high, it seems that the relevant threshold for competence should also be high: we will be less tolerant of errors. This definitely is the case for voting; so it is hard to see how we should accept as competent voters who merely avoid voting for terrible candidates.

Easy Decisions

Alternatively, one might ask, aren’t some electoral choices easy? That is, you didn’t need to be very competent to see which way one ought to have voted in the Brexit referendum, or in the recent presidential election in the United States. Most electoral choices, you might say, are no-brainers. If you follow the candidates and their proposals even superficially, you’ll see that the decision is easy to make.

Note that if this is your response, then you must immediately accept that large parts of the electorate aren’t competent at making these supposedly “easy” decisions, as they plainly choose the “wrong” answer. History, unfortunately, is full of supposedly easy answers that large amounts of people got wrong. So if you’re looking for a response that saves the intuition that the majority of people are competent, then this line of response won’t do.


But perhaps I have overstated the amount of knowledge needed for competence in some other way. It is a standard idea in the literature that people use mental shortcuts in approaching difficult epistemic problems. For example, in a complicated navigation problem, it might be most efficient to take the shortest (or safest, or well-known) route as an alternative to surveying all possible routes.

Social scientists have suggested a number of mental shortcuts that imperfectly informed voters use to nonetheless make rational decisions. Ilya Somin has usefully summarised (and criticised) these proposed shortcuts. He labels the main shortcuts

  • information from daily life—obtaining information about the economic situation from (e.g.) one’s own financial situation, or the employment changes of people one knows, and other changes in one’s immediate environment;
  • political parties and information flows—inferring the position of a candidate from their party affiliation, and associating parties with general ideological stances;
  • cues from opinion leaders—e.g., relying on the recommendations of political activists and other insiders;
  • retrospective voting—reducing the election to an incumbent—challenger contrast, and judging the incumbent by perceived performance;
  • issue publics—focus on one particular area of policy (or policies) that one is more familiar with, and base one’s vote on which party’s proposal look best in this area.

It cannot be denied that the use of some of these heuristics is wide-spread and often rational. Individuals need to pare down the epistemic task at hand in some way. For example, it is hard to see how we could form any political opinion without relying on the testimony of experts. Relying on some of these shortcuts, to some degree, seems to be entirely compatible with competence.

Even if we admit this point, however, competence still turns out to be highly demanding. Focus on the third shortcut, cues from opinion leaders. In forming an opinion on the relative merits of different proposals for economic policy, for example, I am certainly not required to be an economist to count as competent. It should be sufficient if I survey the judgments of some major economists or research institutions, and then base my opinions on those.

This cuts out a lot of the epistemic burden falling on me. But note what I still need to know when I follow this shortcut: (i) I need to have some method to identify reliable sources—e.g., I need to be able to distinguish reputable academic think-tanks from partisan charlatans; (ii) I need to be able to at least understand the recommendations given by the expert sources—e.g., I need to be able to interpret key phrases such as “exchange rate”, “trade deficit”, and “median wage”; (iii) I also need some framework to judge the significance of expert recommendations and predictions—e.g., I need to be able to say whether and how it matters that, say, the trade deficit would raise under a specific policy.

Moreover, key experts will often disagree in their recommendations and predictions. So I also need some kind of competence in adjudicating between competing cues from opinion leaders—I need to decide whom to give more weight, or how to aggregate partial information from different sources into a coherent whole. In short, relying on this shortcut avoids lots of epistemic work, but still imposes significant demands on individuals.

More could be said about each of these proposed shortcuts—I think these shortcuts are either unconvincing, or we can obtain a similar result for them. Here’s a more general issue. We are interested not merely in whether it’s rational to follow certain heuristics; our focus is on when individuals are competent in making a decision. To retain competence if you follow a shortcut, I take it, (i) you need to check in regular intervalls whether following this shortcut still delivers appropriately reliable results, (ii) you need to understand how the shortcut works, (iii) you need to know of the shortcomings of the shortcut, and under what circumstances you need to use other epistemic means, and lastly, (iv) you need to have some framework to resolve conflicting results delivered by different mental shortcuts.

We should remember, as I argued in part 2, that competence is not mere reliability. Perhaps “vote for party X” or “vote for the candidate that expert Y endorses” or “vote for the incumbent if things have been going well for you” are reliable methods to vote well. But I have troubles seeing how following a shortcut blindly is sufficient for competence. It does not seem to me that I become competent in medicine if I always relay the advice given on, even if that advice is reliable.


Another idea is that what counts as competent in fulfilling some task is relative to the actual distribution of competence regarding that task. That is, there is not an absolute threshold level of competence, but rather competence is determined relative to how competent others are.

Here’s an analogy. Assume that we are stranded on an island, and your leg becomes infested. You become delirious and increasingly ill. You’re stranded with two other people, John and Susie. John has no medical background, while Susie has completed the first year of her medical studies. Susie suggests that your leg has become infested, and that it needs to be amputated before the infection spreads. John opposes this idea, claiming that you’ll get better with some rest.

Would it be wrong for Susie to amputate your leg? For all she knows, this is a life-or-death situation. While her medical knowledge is incomplete, she is still the only person with some degree of medical competence on the island. I think it is plausible that under these circumstances, it is permissible for Susie to amputate your leg. Even if we might not judge Susie to be competent when she’s in the presence of certified professionals, it looks that the contextual standard of competence has shifted, so that she qualifies.

So a similar strategy for the political case would be to accept that people are by and large not very knowledgeable about politics, but insist that this shows that the threshold of competence must then be set relative to this actual distribution of competence. The error in my strategy was to suppose that a standard of competence “comes from the heavens”.

However, there are two problems with this line of response. First, even if we accept that there is some comparative aspect to competence, competence surely can’t be comparative all the way. In ancient Greece, Democritus was the most knowledgeable atomic physicist. But I don’t think we should say that he was competent at physics, because his level of knowledge about atoms was marginal at best. Similarly, even if we accept that standards of competence are shifted by the actual distribution of political knowledge, those who do comparatively well might still be judged incompetent.

A second problem is that the actual distribution of political knowledge is extremely lop-sided. This is shown again and again by empirical research: median levels of knowledge are very low, but variance is extremely high. There are some career bureaucrats, expert economists and political consultants who know quite a lot about politics. If these people set the comparative standard of competence, then it seems that still large parts of the population would count as incompetent.

The difference between what Paul Krugman knows about economic policy and what an economics undergraduate knows about economics is enormous; and several orders of magnitude again separate the ordinary citizen and the economics undergraduate. If political competence is set relative to this distribution, we haven’t gained much.

Continue to part 6

Start from part 1

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