Can epistorcay work in Bangladesh?
Md. Fakrul Islam Chowdhury writes for DOT :
The controversy surrounding last year’s parliament elections credibility and the lack of apparent interest and trust among voters clearly visible in alarmingly low turn outs in the following elections of Municipality and Upozilla elections, raises some fundamental questions regarding the effectiveness of our current electoral system. Alternatives are being proposed to reform our present electoral system to make it more democratic.
But what if the problem is inherent in the democracy itself or at least in one of its basic inbuilt feature—that is, majority rules. What if, the morality of democracy, that the governments formed by a system that gives the right to the majority of the voters to choose their government is itself carries the seed of turning into a corrupt, unjust and economically, culturally and environmentally unsustainable one?
Some academics in West have been trying to figure out ways to mitigate the problems, they believe inherent in democracy and come up with not only alternatives to tweak the existing system but to offer fundamental alternatives to the system of democracy itself as the most moral and effective form of governance.
Georgetown political philosopher Jason Brennan, is one such academic, who in his book, Against Democracy, challenges a basic premise that most people take for granted: the morality of democracy. Dominant conventional wisdom on both right and left holds that all, or nearly all, adults should have a right to vote, and that the electorate has a right to rule. Brennan contends otherwise. As an alternative to universal adult franchise, almost universally accepted as a basic feature of democracy Brennan proposes, “epistocracy” – the “rule of the knowers.
Epistocracy comes in many forms. An epistocracy might give everyone one vote, then grant extra votes to citizens who pass a test of basic political knowledge (such as the citizenship exam). Or it might grant the right to vote only to citizens who pass such a test. Or it might instead hold an “enfranchisement lottery”: Immediately before an election, choose 10,000 citizens at random, and then those citizens, and only those, are permitted to vote, but only if they first complete a competence-building exercise.
One major question is what counts, and who decides what counts, as political competence or basic political knowledge.
There is a high probability of Epistocracy may encourage and present opportunities to the corrupt regimes/parties rigging a political exam for their own benefit. Brennan proposes that one solution of this potential risk may be using a widely accepted existing tests such as the American Citizenship Exam.
Another, almost paradoxical sounding idea, is that we could allow the qualification exam itself to be chosen though a democratic process. The idea here is that voters might be competent to answer the easy question of what counts as a good voter, even if they are not competent to answer the hard questions about the economics of international trade or immigration.
Some would object that epistocracy is essentially inegalitarian. In an epistocracy, not everyone has the same voting power. But what’s so wrong with that? Only some people have medical or law licenses because we accept that only some people are qualified to perform those responsibilities. Perhaps only some people, rather than everyone 18 and over, are truly qualified to decide who should be deciding the fate of one’s country.
At first, ideas like epistocracy may seem very radical. In some ways they are. But in many respects they are just modest extensions of the practices we already have in place.
Every actually existing democracy excludes a large part of its population, “the Children” or people under the age of 18, from the franchise because it is considered they are ignorant and have poor judgment.
We call those people “children,” and we feel no guilt over systematically excluding them from political power. It strikes most of us as just simple common sense. The idea of letting some of them vote if they can prove they are more knowledgeable than the average adult is considered radical and dangerous.
However, any epistocratic system would face abuse.
According to Brennan, epistocracy would work better in high-trust, low-corruption societies — such as New Zealand or Denmark — rather than low-trust, high-corruption societies, such as Russia, or Nigeria.
Apparently, it may seem, Bangladesh is not ready for epistocracy as Bangladesh would easily fall in to the latter category of low trust high corruption states that Brennan is so skeptical about being fit for experimenting with a system like epistocracy in choosing governments.
However, it’s been made painfully obvious that democracy in its current form is not working very well in countries like Bangladesh either.
The question isn’t which system is perfect, but which system would work best for the time being.
My take on this would be while Brennan’s thought provoking idea of epistocracy is perfect in its diagnosis of the inherent flaws of democracy, the major stumbling block to the alternative he proposes, ironically remains that we don’t have the knowledge to make episotocracy work, yet. At least in the countries like Bangladesh.
For me, at least for the time being, we are more likely to mitigate the harm caused by political ignorance by limiting and decentralizing the power of government rather than by trying to transfer it to more knowledgeable hands. But even if full-blown epistocracy is impractical, modest movement in that direction may potentially be feasible.
The writer is the Consulting Editor, Amader Notun Shomoy