Should Democracy Defer to its Experts?
This paper addresses the question of the political status of experts in democracy. While expertise enjoys unavoidable political influence on collective decision-making, as a consequence of the epistemic division of labor, I argue that it may jeopardize the two basic democratic principles of citizens’moral equality and intellectual autonomy. Bearing on highly complex and specialized issues, expert claims usually generate some kind of ‘epistemic deference’ from ordinary citizens, who are denied the practical means of understanding and appraising the content, grounds or implications of expert claims on crucial political topics. This questions intellectual autonomy, by encouraging ordinary citizens to surrender their personal judgment to experts, and by making collective democratic control over experts ineffective or nonexistent in practice. Further, it implies some kind of public recognition of the experts’ epistemic superiority over ‘ordinary citizens’ which possibly calls into question the democratic principle of equal moral status. I conclude the paper by showing how specific institutional arrangements can help reduce epistemic deference and protect equality and autonomy without losing the political benefits of expertise and epistemic division of labor. The paper has a twofold normative agenda. First, it attempts to highlight and criticize the democratic regimes’ current tendency to shelter some weak ‘epistocratic’ patches within themselves. Second and jointly, it aims at overcoming the traditional tension in democratic theory between popular government and the rightness of political decisions by arguing that democracy should primarily secure the moral equality and autonomy of its members, because they are basic democratic principles to be satisfied, and because this is the only proper way to reach genuinely right collective decisions.