Dhaka Courier

Do we need democracy or epistocracy?


Only election cannot guarantee democracy until good governance is established and constitutional institutions are able to function independently.

A thought-provoking article (The Daily Star on 15 September 2018) titled “Democracy in Crisis” written by Professor Ali Riaz -- a distinguished professor at the Illinois State University, USA -- drew my attention. In this article, he writes, “That democratic values and democratic institutions are in crisis all around the world is no longer a revelation; casual observation of the current global scene is enough to bear this out.” This is a fact that many populist leaders have appeared on stage of world politics and come in different races, colours and gender. They have managed to create an agency of loyalists who are even good at praising the leaders’ attires. Some extremist demagogues have emerged in all societies, even in healthy democracies. Globally some of the leaders are now using sports nationalism (cricket or football) as a weapon to unite the nation; some are using religion to build the nation; and some are introducing “Development Theory” to establish a new definition of democracy before the people or voters who seem to be confused about the present-day democracy – where intolerance prevails -- across the globe.

According to Georgetown University’s political philosopher Jason Brennan, we would be better off if we replaced democracy with a form of government known as “epistocracy.” In his controversial book, Against Democracy (published in 2016), he says, “Epistocracy is a system in which the votes of people who can prove their political knowledge count more than the votes of people who can’t. In other words, it’s a system that privileges the most politically informed citizens.” He also argues that democracy is overrated and isn’t necessarily more just than other forms of government. Besides, it doesn’t empower citizens or create more equitable outcomes.

In an interview taken by Sean Illing, writer for an American digital media Vox (23 July 2018), Brennan says, “We know that an unfortunate side effect of democracy is that it incentivizes citizens to be ignorant, irrational, tribalistic, and to not use their votes in very serious ways. So this is an attempt to correct for that pathology while keeping what’s good about a democratic system.” In fact, political division has become so dysfunctional and ugly that it’s crippling to democracy.

On 21 January 2018 Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt jointly wrote an opinion article titled “This is how democracies die” -- published in The Guardian. He says, “Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box. The electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive.” He also points out that newspapers still publish but are bought off or bullied into self-censorship. Citizens continue to criticise the government but often find themselves facing tax or other legal troubles. This sows public confusion. People don’t immediately realise what is happening. Many people continue to believe they are living under a democracy.

In the article (“This is how democracies die”, The Guardian), they have aptly described how democracy is dying: “Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended – by political parties and organized citizens but also by democratic norms. Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be. Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not. This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy – packing and “weaponising” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence) and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it.”

US president Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865) defined democracy as “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Democracy is the antithesis of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. When there’s a lack of democracy prevailing in a state, people’s freedom is hampered, and the press is gagged, and judiciary is also controlled by the party in power. Absence of effective democracy leads to a kleptocracy. Kleptocracy is defined as a government with corrupt leaders (kleptocrats) that use their power to exploit the people and natural resources of their own territory in order to extend their personal wealth. Such a government remains usually unaccountable to its nation. It seems effective democracies are dying globally!

Democracy prevails in Bangladesh, but currently the unbridled financial scams and pervasive loot in banking sector are tantamount to kleptcocracy. This is happening because good governance is absent in the financial sector. People perceive that corruption is rampant in all sectors; bribery has become a way of life in government offices. Citizens of Bangladesh want to see a written charter which must be made public and accessible so that public servants (government officials) can be held accountable for the service they provide. It seems we are in a tangle of kleptocracy because many of our institutions lack accountability.

Notwithstanding, I want to believe that the present government will take actions seriously to practise effective democracy; institutionalize it by letting the constitutional organizations work independently and effectively; make development sustainable by curbing corruption in all sectors; and enhance efficiency of bureaucracy by introducing reward & punishment system in government sector. The government should also manoeuver to face these challenges ahead of the national election to be held at the end of this year. And establishing good governance in all sectors – both public and private -- should be the top priority for the ruling party. We hope the situation will change positively.

Professor Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winner for Economics, identified four essential components for institutionalizing democracy. He put stress on four Ds – debate, discussion, democracy and development. Unfortunately, in our society, debate is sometimes regarded as disobedience; discussion is often discouraged; development is synonymous with democracy; and democracy is being practised here only through the holding of national election every five years.

In conclusion, I want to quote Professor Amartya Sen: “Throughout the nineteenth century, theorists of democracy found it quite natural to discuss whether one country or another was “fit for democracy.” This thinking changed only in the twentieth century, with the recognition that the question itself was wrong: A country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it has to become fit through democracy.” Now choice is ours!

Sheikh Nahid Neazy, associate professor,Department of English Stamford University Bangladesh

  • Do we need democracy or epistocracy?

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