Skip to main content Accessibility help

Representative Democracy as Defensible Epistocracy



Epistocratic arrangements are widely rejected because there will be reasonable disagreement about which citizens count as epistemically superior and an epistemically superior subset of citizens may be biased in ways that undermine their ability to generate superior political outcomes. The upshot is supposed to be that systems of democratic government are preferable because they refuse to allow some citizens to rule over others. We show that this approach is doubly unsatisfactory: although representative democracy cannot be defended as a form of government that prevents some citizens from ruling over others, it can be defended as a special form of epistocracy. We demonstrate that well-designed representative democracies can, through treatment and selection mechanisms, bring forth an especially competent set of individuals to make public policy, even while circumventing the standard objections to epistocratic rule. This has implications for the justification of representative democracy and questions of institutional design.


Corresponding author

*Dimitri Landa, Professor, Department of Politics, New York University,
Ryan Pevnick, Associate Professor, Department of Politics, New York University,


Hide All

We are grateful to Bernard Manin for helpful comments. Additionally, participants in a seminar at the University of Virginia provided useful discussion of an earlier version. Finally, we appreciate the work of the journal’s reviewers, who helped us to improve the manuscript.



Hide All
Alt, James, Bueno de Mesquita, Ethan, and Rose, Shanna. 2011. “Disentangling Accountability and Competence in Elections: Evidence from US Term Limits.” The Journal of Politics 73 (1): 171–86.
Anesi, Vincent, and Buisseret, Peter. 2019. “Making Elections Work: Accountability with Selection and Control.” Working Paper. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
Ashworth, Scott. 2006. “Campaign Finance and Voter Welfare with Entrenched Incumbents.” American Political Science Review 100 (1): 55–68.
Ashworth, Scott, and Bueno de Mesquita, Ethan. 2017. “Unified versus Divided Political Authority.” The Journal of Politics 79 (4): 1372–85.
Ashworth, Scott, and Bueno de Mesquita, Ethan. 2008. “Electoral Selection, Strategic Challenger Entry, and the Incumbency Advantage.” The Journal of Politics 70 (4): 1006–25.
Beerbohm, Eric. 2012. In Our Name. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Beitz, Charles R. 1989. Political Equality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Brennan, Geoff. 1989. “Politics with Romance: Towards a Theory of Democratic Socialism.” In The Good Polity. Normative Analysis of the State, eds. Hamlin, Alan and Pettit, Philip. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 49–66.
Brennan, Jason. 2011. “The Right to a Competent Electorate.” The Philosophical Quarterly 61 (245): 700–24.
Brennan, Jason. 2016. Against Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Brennan, Jason. 2018. “Does the Demographic Objection to Epistocracy Succeed?Res Publica 24 (1): 53–71.
Caplan, Bryan. 2011. The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, New Edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Christiano, Thomas. 1996. The Rule of Many. Boulder, CO: WestviewPress.
Christiano, Thomas. 2008. The Constitution of Equality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Christiano, Thomas. 2017. Review of Against Democracy by Jason Brennan. Notre Dame Philosophical Review May 19. Retrieved May 25, 2019.
Cohen, Joshua. 1986. “An Epistemic Conception of Democracy.” Ethics 97 (1): 26–38.
Cox, Gary W. 1997. Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the World’s Electoral Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Estlund, David. 2008. Democratic Authority. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Fox, Justin. 2007. “Government Transparency and Policymaking.” Public Choice 131 (1–2): 2344.
Fox, Justin, and Van Weelden, Richard. 2010. “Partisanship and the Effectiveness of Oversight.” Journal of Public Economics 94 (9–10): 674–87.
Goodin, Robert E., and Spiekermann, Kai. 2018. An Epistemic Theory of Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gordon, Sanford C., Huber, Gregory A., and Landa, Dimitri. 2007. “Challenger Entry and Voter Learning.” American Political Science Review 101 (2): 303–20.
Gordon, Sanford C., and Landa, Dimitri. 2009. “Do the Advantages of Incumbency Advantage Incumbents?The Journal of Politics 71 (4): 1481–98.
Guerrero, Alexander A. 2014. “Against Elections: The Lottocratic Alternative.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 42 (2): 132–78.
Guraieb, Marlene, and Landa, Dimitri. 2016. “Institutional Trust and Political Authority.” 111th APSA Annual Conference, San Francisco.
Hampton, Jean. 1994. “Democracy and the Rule of Law.” In NOMOS: The Rule of Law, ed. Shapiro, Ian. New York, NY: New York University Press, 13–44.
Ingham, Sean. 2019. Rule by Multiple Majorities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hong, Lu, and Page, Scott E.. 2004. “Groups of Diverse Problem Solvers Can Outperform Groups of High-Ability Problem Solvers.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101 (46): 16385–9.
Kolodny, Niko. 2014. “Rule Over None II.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 42 (4): 287–336.
Landa, Dimitri, and Le Bihan, Patrick. 2018. “Does Unbundling Policy Authority Improve Accountability?The Journal of Politics 80 (3): 933–47.
Landemore, Helene. 2012. Democratic Reason. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Li, Christopher M.. 2019. “Indirect Accountability of Political Appointees” Working Paper. Available at Accessed 19 August 2019.
Lijphart, Arend. 1997. “Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma Presidential Address, American Political Science Association, 1996.” American Political Science Review 91 (1): 1–14.
López-Guerra, Claudio. 2011. “The Enfranchisement Lottery.” Politics, Philosophy & Economics 10 (2): 211–33.
Manin, Bernard. 1997. The Principles of Representative Government. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mansbridge, Jane. 2009. “A ‘Selection Model’ of Political Representation.” The Journal of Political Philosophy 17 (4): 369–98.
Myerson, Roger B. 1999. “Theoretical Comparisons of Electoral Systems.” European Economic Review 43 (4–6): 671–97.
Parvin, Phil. 2018a. “Democracy without Participation: A New Politics for a Disengaged Era.” Res Publica 24 (1): 31–52.
Parvin, Phil. 2018b. “Representing the People: British Democracy in an Age of Political Ignorance.” Political Studies Review 16 (4): 265–78.
Powell, G. Bingham Jr 2000. Elections as Instruments of Democracy: Majoritarian and Proportional Visions. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice, Revised edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sieyes, Emmanuel. 2003. Sieyes: Political Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
Somin, Ilya. 2016. Democracy and Political Ignorance. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
Tavits, Margit. 2007. “Clarity of Responsibility and Corruption.” American Journal of Political Science 51 (1): 218–29.
Zaller, John R. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed