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.

This looks like a quite radical result. And in some ways, it is. But much depends on what role individual competence plays in our theory of democracy, or if it plays a role at all. The result is most troubling if your theory of democracy commits you to one of the following claims,

  1. People should not have a right to vote if they are incompetent at making political choices.
  2. People should not vote if they are incompetent at making political choices.
  3. Democratic decisions are legitimate to the degree that they are made by competent voters.
  4. The quality of our democracy is measured by the degree to which voters are competent.

If you believe any of these four claims, then a demanding notion of competence leads you to highly sceptical results about democracy. But there’s another way to read the outcome: instead of showing scepticism about democracy, the demandingness of competence shows that theories which bind democracy closely to individual competence are mistaken. Democratic theory ought not to rely centrally on the assumption that individual voters are competent.

This is the lesson I would take away from the discussion so far. We should accept that making competent electoral choices is highly demanding. But we shouldn’t read this as an indictment of democracy; rather, we should see it as indicator that we must revise our theories.

Focus on claim 1, one of Brennan’s key ideas. There are several ways to weaken it, compatible with a demanding notion of political competence. First, we might weaken the principle to a prima facie principle. We might think that incompetence speaks against giving someone the right to vote, but that there are other considerations which speak in favour of giving everyone a right to vote—e.g., equal representation. So instead of claim 1, we accept

1*. Other things being equal incompetence speaks against someone having the right to vote.

I’m not sure this weakening is sufficient. If (1*) is not to be a paper tiger—i.e., a powerless principle which is outweighed by other principles—then it must have some practical consequences. And if it is true that almost everyone lacks political competence, then (1*) should still lead us to conclude that many people shouldn’t have the right to vote.

A better move, I suspect, is to drop the notion of political competence altogether. You might, for example, turn to the following claim,

1**. (Other things being equal,) people should not have a right to vote if they make irresponsible political choices.

The idea is that there is space between a competent and a responsible voter. Roughly, you’re a responsible voter if you vote to the best of your knowledge, in an impartial and morally well-motivated way, and with a view towards the common good. You can vote responsibly in this way while falling way short of competence.

One argument for a responsibility standard would precisely start from the high demands of competence. We might argue that, because the epistemic burdens of competence would severely strain individuals, and take away valuable time and mental energy from them, there is no requirement for them to achieve such levels. Instead, what we require of them is a good-will effort at voting.

There are other conceptual alternatives. One route to explore is the idea of reliable voting which we have already come across several times. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if people vote incompetently, as long as they do not vote for seriously bad candidates.

I do not know whether the details of these proposals can be made to work—that’s a question for another day. But all that is important at this point is that there are ways to pursue an account of political rights that doesn’t invoke the idea of competence, and is even compatible with the idea that many people are incompetent at voting.

Note in particular that I’ve limited my attention to individual competence. Nothing I’ve written questions the idea that the electorate is collectively competent in solving political questions. Indeed, that some groups are collectively competent strikes me as likely. The collective of government bureaucrats as well as political and economic experts might be capable of competently devising policy.

Thus, if we aim for a general line of justification for democracy, I think that relying on collective competence, rather than individual competence, is the way to go. Of course, motivating and explaining how collective competence is possible in the face of individual incompetence is not trivial.

Almost all theorists think that democracy is of central importance, instrumentally as well as intrinsically. Democracy seems particularly appealing because we all participate in it, equally and directly. This makes it tempting to think that we’re also individually competent in this exercise. I have tentatively suggested that we might not be. Our own experience and reason only illuminates a tightly limited patch of the social terrain that forms the problem of governance.

This is a much humbler, much more limited epistemology. But it also makes the miracle of democracy more remarkable if we can show that it works. But that’s a story for another day.

Return to part 1

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