Ivan Cerovac – Epistemic Democracy and Political Legitimacy

I write this review during the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020. States have begun to reopen their economies, although there is no consistency from state to state nor sometimes from county to county or city to city. The world has relied on the recommendations of public health officials but have begun to rebel against their advice as the economic pain has begun to affect not just the wealthy but regular working people. Protests have broken out across the nation, albeit small, yet have garnered significant attention for their brazenness to defy experts as they congregate in crowds at state houses, sometimes armed with guns.

Populists have long claimed government has relied too much on the advice on experts without consideration for the commonsense experience of the common people. But the pandemic has turned populist politicians like Donald Trump Janus-faced as he implements a federal policy based on public health expert recommendations while criticizing states who follow these same recommendations. China, on the other hand, has shown a willingness to overcome the challenge through measures Western leaders remain hesitant to embrace.

The pandemic has subsequently become a stress test for liberal democracy. The Economist has asked “Is China Winning?” because many have seen the global pandemic “as a geopolitical turning point away from America.” Donald Trump has blamed the World Health Organization for his challenges and begun to withhold funds while China has pledged to make up the difference for America’s negligence. It is natural to assume an effective authoritarian government is better able to command a nation to rely on expert opinion during a crisis. Yet it has been liberal democracies who have the world’s best universities and have led in technological innovation. It is the populist zeitgeist which has put the West’s faith in democracy into doubt. And it remains unclear whether populism is a threat to democratic governance or as Margaret Canovan has written, “Populism is a shadow cast by democracy itself.

Ivan Cerovac does not mention pandemics in his upcoming book Epistemic Democracy and Political Legitimacy. He writes about the ability of democracy to produce the right decisions. Truth and Knowledge are consistent themes for Cerovac, hence his reference to epistemic democracy. This sounds complicated. I will admit I learned a new word from this book. “Epistemic” was not a part of my vocabulary, but it is not as complex as it seems. My Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines epistemic as “of or pertaining to knowledge or the conditions for acquiring it.” So, an epistemic democracy blends a reliance on experts with democratic governance. It is not technocratic, yet it is not oblivious to their recommendations. Indeed, Cerovac argues it is the capacity of democracies to produce decisions based on human knowledge that confers legitimacy on its governance.

Epistemic Democracy and Political Legitimacy is organized around the three tenets that are used to justify Epistocracy. An Epistocracy is a government where experts rule. Ultimately, Cerovac rejects the final tenet of Epistocracy. This leads him toward an Epistemic Democracy where truth is valued but democratic governance remains the vehicle to achieve its aims. The three tenets of Epistocracy are:

  1. The Truth Tenet – The belief in objective truth
  2. The Knowledge Tenet – Some people know more than others
  3. The Authority Tenet – Those who know the most should rule

Political legitimacy, for Cerovac, is tied to objective truth. Some ideas are right while others are wrong. It is the aim of governance to align policies in a direction to achieve the right outcomes. Political systems who produce the wrong outcomes ultimately fail. China, for example, is largely judged on its economic performance. Many observers believe economic underperformance would undermine the CCP. Democratic governments survive recessions because their legitimacy is based on their relationship to the people through elections. Cerovac makes a radical departure from traditional democratic theory in his thoughts on political legitimacy. He bases these ideas on the highly influential political theorist John Rawls. Cerovac writes “John Rawls shifted the discussion from the legitimacy of states and governments typical for the nineteenth and early twentieth century to the legitimacy of the decision-making process.” But Rawls was not agnostic to the outcomes of the political process. He writes, “All ethical doctrines worth our attention take consequences into account in judging rightness. One which did not would simply be irrational, crazy.” His theory of justice establishes two definite principles to guide legislators and magistrates in governance. So political legitimacy depends on a process capable of producing the right political outcomes.

The presence of an objective truth makes it impossible for Cerovac to remain agnostic to the outcomes of the political process. The radical democracy of Chantal Mouffe embraces an agnostic pluralism where the outcomes remain fluid as society continues to negotiate and renegotiate its laws and policies. But Cerovac believes there are right and wrong decisions. Democracy for him is not a negotiation but a debate to uncover the right law, the right policy, the right decision. Cerovac rejects the Authority Tenet because it undermines this fundamental aim. Knowledge requires the free flow of ideas. The Authority Tenet silences ideas and opinions from those who are considered to lack knowledge or understanding. Democracy, counter-intuitively, reinforces the Knowledge Tenet through its commitment to freedom of speech and opinion. The proliferation of ideas risks the possibility of wrong decisions, but it also makes it possible to ultimately recognize the right idea.

Epistemic Democracy reminds me of Mishiko Kakutani’s recent book The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump. It has become fashionable to call Trump a post-truth President as though there is no longer a relationship between political opinions and the real world. It is reminiscent of Ancient Athens where the sophists decoupled the practice of philosophy from the pursuit of truth. Athens has been glorified as a purer form of democratic governance, but Plato saw how its practice corrupted the development of philosophical ideas and undermined the aims of political governance.

There is a challenge which the text leaves unresolved. Truth is multi-faceted. Public health experts are not economists. And economists are not public health experts (although they might believe they are). Experts can foresee outcomes of different decisions, but their vision is myopic. Its knowledge is limited to their discipline. Anything beyond their expertise becomes an opinion like the ideas of anyone else. Judgement is the ability to weigh these different outcomes against values to decide. George Washington was not as knowledgeable as Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton, but he was regarded as a great leader even when they disagreed with his decisions. Knowledge helps us recognize outcomes, but disagreements will persist so long as differences remain between values, priorities and interests. Judgement makes the Authority Tenet superfluous because knowledge remains insufficient to decide between different social values.

Populism will ultimately bring about a reconciliation between democracy and truth. The populist zeitgeist challenges the role of experts in economics, climate change and now public health. It has argued their ideas have no relationship to the truth but are merely opinions. But underlying this tension is a difference in fundamental values. Populism becomes a failure to confront the truth. Rather than assert their true values, it works to undermine the credibility of their opponents. Democracy delivers the best results when it recognizes the outcomes of its decisions so it can honestly decide between the weight of different social values.

Ivan Cerovac offers a unique examination of democracy, political legitimacy and objective truth. It is a surprisingly timely read amidst the global pandemic because the role of experts has been elevated. Indeed, their decisions have undergone greater scrutiny. Sometimes their credibility or methods have been challenged. Robert Dahl recognized Plato’s idea of Guardianship as the greatest challenge of Democracy. Cerovac has embraced this challenged with an entirely novel approach. The challenge for citizens in a democracy is to recognize experts help recognize the outcomes of policy proposals. Experts do not determine our values. Democratic governance requires people to remain honest about their values and priorities. Too often politics have given license to fantasies which make it difficult to have honest debates. Political pundits pretend their ideas facilitate every positive social value. The reality is democracy requires a judgement between values and priorities. It requires judgement not just from political leaders but the citizens themselves.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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