Reintroduction to Sophiarchism

by Benjamin Studebaker

It has been over a year since I wrote the Introduction to Sophiarchism post. Looking it over, it’s beginning to appear rather dated to me. My position has become more sophisticated and more nuanced, so much so that I think a new introductory post is requisite. In this piece, I will be drawing on much of the work I have done over the course of the last year to paint a more complete picture not merely of why we need sophiarchism, but what a sophiarchist system might look like in practice.

Firstly, what is inadequate about our current system? Why should we consider alternative forms of government in the first place?

  1. Problem of Voter Ignorance–voters often do not know enough about social science to make good decisions. This is not merely confined to advanced theoretical knowledge, but often even basic political facts elude the average voter (see here and here), Importantly, the ignorance of the voters is reflected in the ignorance of the politicians (see here for an example) and consequently in public policy.
  2.  Problem of False Dichotomy–democracy leads to the formation of opposing factions and parties, each of which seeks its own narrow interest rather than the interest of the community as a whole (see here and here). Political parties become dominated by these factions and consequently become incapable of pursuing healthy mediums between the positions of opposing interests.
  3. Problem of Groupthink–often there is a lag time of decades or even centuries before a new good idea catches on with a large enough portion of the population to be enacted even if it remains popular with a minority (see here).
  4. Problem of Convergence–in order to win elections, political parties inevitably appeal to the most common views, irrespective of whether or not those views are good, creating a negative feedback loop and excluding a large number of voters political relevance. These voters are not given equal consideration by the state, which generally appeals to the governing majority of votes (see here).

The problems of voter ignorance and dichotomy combine to lead to a decline in the quality of our governance, manifested both through increasingly poor leaders and misguided policies. Not only are politicians bad at figuring out what’s in our collective interest, they make no effort to find that interest, seeking instead to appease the various interest groups that comprise their respective coalitions. The problems of groupthink and convergence combine to make it extremely difficult if not altogether impossible for states to self-correct this through the democratic process. Even were we to elect entirely new parties, the same forces that caused our dominant parties to become the way they are would eventually infect those alternative parties as well. The third party solution fails to recognize that the problem is structural.

Not only do these problems reduce the quality of our governance and make reversing deterioration problematic, they directly threaten our freedom and equality. Voters who are persistently not part of the majority coalition are effectively subjects of a government that does not care about them. Even voters who do sometimes vote for the winning party often do so while viewing the situation as one of “bad versus worse”. They are not satisfied with either party, but nonetheless vote for bad to avoid worse. I hypothesize that a large portion of supporters of all mainstream political parties fall into this group.

My proposed solution to all of this I term sophiarchism. The principle theoretical contention of sophiarchism is that we need to ensure that those who rule in our societies are qualified, that they have devoted many years reading, writing, and thinking about statecraft. The controversial element in my theory is that, in order to achieve this state of affairs, we need to restrict access to the vote, and we need to restrict who can run for office down to those that have these qualifications.

At this point, I likely have the reader’s back up. Restricting the vote strikes many people as tending toward authoritarianism, corruption, and other pervasive problems we believe democracy to have solved, albeit imperfectly. This apprehension is justifiable and my theory has a duty to placate it insofar as it is able. I have to adequately answer several questions:

  1. How will restricting the vote resolve the problems I identified above?
  2. How could we restrict the vote in a way that everyone would agree would both be fair and adequately track political expertise?
  3. What safeguards would sophiarchism provide to prevent this system from degenerating into totalitarianism, dystopia, and corruption?

I’ll take each in turn.

How Restricting the Vote Resolves the Problems I Identified Above

Let’s look at each problem:

  1. Problem of Voter Ignorance–if we can adequately identify a portion of the population that is more qualified to govern than the present average and we restrict the vote to this group of people, the quality of the average voter will rise substantially by definition. The quality of the political leadership will reflect the higher political qualifications of the new voting group instead of those of the average citizen.
  2. Problem of False Dichotomy–by excluding most interest groups from voting (and preventing them from using money to influence politics) we prevent the government from being unduly influenced by subsets of the population who may have interests that are not the collective’s.
  3. Problem of Groupthink–by restricting the vote to a qualified group, we select the group most likely to develop and support new political ideas, speeding the pace at which a new good idea penetrates a majority of the voting population.
  4. Problem of Convergence–by restricting the vote to a qualified group, we select the group whose consensus is, at the very least, most likely to be a good consensus. By excluding most citizens from voting, we also make them more aware of their lack of political influence and thereby encourage them to participate in more meaningful ways (protests, boycotts, writing, in other ways exercising free speech/assembly).

How We Can Restrict the Vote in a Fair and Accurate Way

When choosing a method for restricting the vote, there are two principal things we need to be cognizant of:

  1. Test Justification, not Conclusion–we need to avoid ideologically testing potential voters. If our restriction method is a test of what people believe rather than whether or not people are justified in their beliefs, it presupposes a conclusion and carries with it too much bias. People should not be expected to agree to a system that tests expertise by excluding their views.
  2. Test Ability to Argue, not Ability to Memorize–our test should not be one that an individual can cram for. We want to identify a high level of expertise, one that takes years of study to acquire. The higher the level of expertise, the better our new voting pool will do.

I argue that, at present, the most reasonable way to do this would be restrict the vote to people with a degree in a social science discipline (political science, economics, philosophy, law, history, and sociology immediately come to my mind as relevant disciplines). There maybe be room to argue as to how high a level a degree we should require–BA, MA, or PhD. In my view, the more advanced the degree requirement, the better our voting pool will be. Given that many BA’s and MA’s end up in unrelated fields, while most social science PhD’s end up working in academia, the PhD requirement also helps to ensure that specific interest groups with large numbers of social science BA’s and MA’s (like investment bankers) don’t end up unduly influencing state policy. PhD’s have wide-ranging opinions that do not conform to any narrow ideology and they put in many years reading, writing, and thinking about the state and society in order to earn their qualifications. They all have to submit well-constructed dissertations and cannot get by on mere memorization of facts.

How We Can Prevent Dystopia

Naturally, the biggest concern with sophiarchism is the thought that, by concentrating power in the hands of a relatively small portion of the population, we might create a corrupt oligarchy similar to one party communist or fascist states, resulting in totalitarian policies, corruption, inefficiency, and other nebulous social ills. To allay these concerns, I find the most effective means is to lay out a potential procedural structure that addresses them directly.

So, we have selected our voting group (social science PhD’s). In a country of any considerable size, this voting group is going to be in the tens of thousands. It would be impractical to use direct democracy even with so small a group as this. It would also be dangerous, because under direct democracy, these PhD’s would no longer spend their time in academia but would instead become a professional political class, not unlike the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Instead, these PhD’s must elect representatives, as we do now.

For a voting system, I recommend the one proposed by Hare and supported by John Stuart Mill, the single transferable vote, though other voting systems are compatible with sophiarchism.

Once the PhD’s elect the legislative body from among their number, this body convenes. The legislature has three tasks, which it performs in this order:

  1. Choose the chief executive (the sophiarch)
  2. Write a constitution constraining the chief executive
  3. Select judges to rule on questions of whether or not the constitution has been violated by the sophiarch.

The sophiarch is elected through a vote of the legislature. Here I recommend that the legislature engage in multiple rounds of voting until an individual emerges with in excess of 50% of the vote.

Once the sophiarch is chosen, the legislature can devise a constitution to set constraints on what the sophiarch will be permitted to do once in power. For example, the sophiarch might be precluded from placing limits on freedom of speech, or prevented from enacting certain policies which the legislator fear he might, given his nature, be inclined to enact. This constitution can be quite permissive or it can very tightly regulate the new administration, depending on the level of anxiety felt by the legislators and by the people as a whole. By customizing the constitution to suit the individual executive, this system eliminates the ambiguities associated with having a very old constitution the writers of which cannot be consulted. It also makes the political system more dynamic, and imposes checks on the executive without requiring a standing legislature, which tends toward corruption and, in this case, might lead to the problems of one party states. Because the constitution constrains the sophiarch, it will not be necessary to employ the legislative body throughout the term. These PhD’s will be able to go back to academia, from where they can once again be critical of the government as outsiders. I propose that the constitution require the approval of a majority of PhD’s, but that this majority must include a majority of the PhD’s who did not vote for the sophiarch, so as to ensure that it adequately protects against a large number of the minority’s concerns.

The constitution is only as good as its method of enforcement, however. In order to ensure that the constraints are adequately enforced, I propose that the minority, the group of PhD’s who voted against the sophiarch, be given exclusive privilege of picking a majority of the judges on the constitutional court. I also propose that we let the minority choose the chief justice, so that critics of the new administration may select which cases the court hears. So say we were to choose 9 judges, 5 would be selected by those who explicitly opposed the new leader of the administration, one of which would be the chief justice. If we were especially afraid of the executive branch’s power, we might increase this proportion further. The remaining judges could be chosen by the new administration, by the previous administration once the system has been running for some time, or through a split between the two.

Once the sophiarch has been chosen, the constitution written, and the judges selected, the legislature disbands and the entire arrangement is put to a national referendum as a package deal. All citizens may vote yes or no in this referendum. If the package is rejected, the process begins again from scratch, with the PhD’s electing an entirely new legislative body. If the package is approved, the new administration proceeds to assume power. This is what I term the “emergency stop”. It ensures that while the average person is not the author of the government, the average person can reject a government that has not been adequately explained or justified to him.

The new sophiarch would be permitted to select an array of experts to serve as ministers and help him to run the country. Any citizen would be permitted to challenge the constitutionality of any of the actions taken by the administration, with the chief justice choosing among these which challenges to hear. The court would have the power to strike down individual acts. I also propose that it have the power to indict the administration as a whole, ruling that it is in gross violation of the constitution, in which case, the administration would be put to a  public referendum in which all citizens could vote either in favor of keeping the government or of recalling it. A recall vote would trigger the election of a new legislature, a vote to keep the government overrides the court’s ruling. This provides a second “emergency stop”. These two emergency stops will, I believe, put the brakes on any attempt by the PhD’s to impose a government that is totalitarian. It gives the people a check on the system, but not one that is so overriding so as to make the entire system subservient to the average voter’s consensus view.

I do not maintain that the system I propose here is without flaws, but I do maintain that it would likely result in better, more dynamic, and more sustainable governance over an extended time frame than our current state structures provide. The problems I mentioned up top are quite serious, and this system does much to mitigate them. Potential critics of this system have the burden not merely of showing this system to be imperfect, but to show that it would make things worse than they presently are in some significant way. I caution aspirant critics against making the perfect the enemy of the good.

I would like to see this system implemented somewhere someday somehow. In my future academic work, I hope to develop the arguments in its favor further, along with its method of implementation. Any constructive criticism I receive I use to further adapt the system to evade compelling potential negative outcomes, and is much appreciated.