Introduction to Sophiarchism

by Benjamin Studebaker


Hi folks, I still like this post, but it’s a little old and my thinking has developed a bit. I wrote another one called Reintroduction to Sophiarchism that I think this better. Please check that one out, if you like. Otherwise, enjoy:

Sophiarchism has been a work in progress for me off and on for a couple years now, and will likely remain an on-going project. Sophiarchism is, at this point in my academic life, my core idea that I think worth contributing. Here’s a short introduction to that idea, its premises, the problems it identifies, and the solutions it supplies. It is by no means comprehensive–it would take an extended book to do it any justice, and I can only write such a book when I have a willing publisher.

The first thing sophiarchism observes is that democratic governments are only as good at governing as their voting populations are at voting. The difficulty in this is that, with just a little bit of mismanagement, a democratic state can send itself into a downward cycle. A poor government can lead to a weakening of social structures, producing inequality and social injustice that causes the average level of education regarding political affairs to deteriorate, reducing the amount of politically relevant content the average citizen knows, or replacing good content with biased content or propaganda. As the quality of the voting population falls, the chances that a competent government will be elected to reverse such deterioration falls, and the task of reversal becomes more arduous.

We can see that many people in our modern societies are more poorly informed, both in terms of outright not knowing and in terms of having been misinformed, than previous voting populations in most Western countries. There are many verifiable fallacies that majorities of voting populations have bought into (everything ranging from “Obamacare will increase health costs” to “Saddam supplies weapons to Al-Qaeda” to “stimulus doesn’t work” to “we have a debt problem” to “the Eurocrisis is caused by profligate spending”). These poorly informed voters are vulnerable to disinformation and are frequently convinced to vote against their own interests.

Measures of sentence sophistication in the speeches of the governing members of democratic states show consistent declines, indicating that, at minimum, the leadership is toning itself down for a less sophisticated voting audience, but likely indicating that the leadership itself is less sophisticated. These leaders play to prejudice and passion rather than seeking the optimum solutions to problems.

At the same time, as the level of globalisation and inter-connectivity increases among nations, problems become exponentially more complicated and more difficult to explain to these voters, who are themselves declining in their sophistication. A voting population with steadily declining capacity to understand and judge is being given increasingly more complex and difficult problems to understand and judge.

Democracy has always been a system more about preventing horrifically bad government than it has been about trying to find great government.  The trade-off, that the government would be as skilled as the voting population as a whole, means the position of the man of average opinion, and, consequently, of average judging ability, is the position that dominates. This has always given democracy a tendency toward mediocrity, but with the spread increasing between voter ability and issue complexity, performance is moving down from mediocre to abjectly poor, with the primary remaining virtue being that we still remain protected from horrifically bad government.

Unfortunately, as the quality of our governments continues to cyclically decline, political decisions concerning the most complicated issues (those of economic and foreign policy nature) will get prohibitively bad, as we are seeing in terms of how Western leaders are handling the global financial crisis–often completely ignoring textbook macroeconomics and giving in wholeheartedly to popular opinion, no matter how baseless.

This is a pretty nasty problem, isn’t it? What is to be done about inequality, global warming, financial crisis, and the like, if our governments are not up to the task?

This is where the solutions of sophiarchism come in. Sophiarchism recognises that there are critical tools democracy invented and developed to great success to prevent bad government, but that an insufficient amount has been done to ensure that government is not just mediocre, but actually high-performance. Sophiarchism proposes a sophiarchist government as opposed to a democratic one to solve this problem.

The core feature of any sophiarchist state is that suffrage is not universal, but reduced to a pool of certifiably able applicants–importantly, this is based on some measure of governing ability, not wealth. At this time, the best available (but by no means perfect) certification of governing knowledge is the possession of a PhD in the social sciences.

Here is an example of a potential real-world sophiarchist structure:

  • Each university’s PhD-possessing social science faculty and graduates votes for a representative
  • Representatives assemble to elect one from among their number to be sophiarch, the head of state and chief executive
  • The sophiarch must, in order to be confirmed, sign a contract written by the representatives stipulating which rights the sophiarch must protect and which things the sophiarch cannot do
  • Once the sophiarch is chosen and agrees to this contract, all citizens vote to either confirm or reject the arrangement–if rejected, the process must begin again, if confirmed, it becomes law for the given term
  • The sophiarch chooses two groups of ministers from academia–political and scientific. Political ministers are drawn from the social sciences and manage the bureaucratic arms of the government, while scientific ministers advise government policy and ensure that it does not contradict scientific fact. In “science heavy sophiarchism”, these science ministers are given veto power over policies concerning their area of academia.
  • If the sophiarch violates his contract, any citizen may challenge the sophiarch’s legitimacy. A special court then reviews the case and passes a judgement.
  • If the court acquits the sophiarch, all proceeds as normal. If the sophiarch is convicted, the PhDs as a whole vote on whether or not to relieve him immediately. Regardless of the way they vote, the offending policy is struck down.
  • At the end of the sophiarch’s term, the entire process begins all over again
  • The above concerns the national government–the local governments would be free to set up a variety of different governmental models, including democracy, (so long as they do not contradict the national contract) so as to inspire innovation and maintain a dynamic political climate

A system such as this provides protections to individual liberty and prevents really horrible government as democracy does via the sophiarch’s contract and the special court. At the same time, it skirts the gridlock and indecisiveness rampant in some democratic structures and raises the level of governmental expertise. At the same time, it eliminates the limiting cap on government performance created by the voting population’s limited ability. It also avoids the problems of one-party states–the PhDs only convene once every term, there are enough talented PhDs that it is unlikely that the same one would be repetitively chosen as representative, and the PhDs only vote on the sophiarch, the contract, and in questions of violations. This makes corruption at least as unlikely as it is in democratic states at present.

Such a system, I believe, would totally outperform the governments existent today.

Interesting study on declining speech sophistication for members of US congress: