The Rule of the (In)competent: Democracy, Expertise and Competence in Political Theory

Academic Year: 
Course Description: 

The rise of populism throughout the Euro-American world has renewed both popular and academic interest in an age-old challenge to democracy: Why should citizens who are incompetent, ignorant, uneducated, or easy to manipulate, have a right to participate in political decision-making? Contrary to this spirit, at the same time, the past decade after the 2008 crisis has seen a mounting challenge to technocratic governments and institutions: Why should we grant experts authority over political decisions? This course builds on recent literature in democratic theory and political morality, as well as some legal sources, to examine how competence, expertise, democratic rights, and democratic duties should be related to one another—and how they should not be related. The course will follow this structure: First, we will examine whether (and why) competence and expertise should—or should not—have a defining role in the distribution of political participatory rights, focusing on the rekindled epistocracy vs. democracy debate. Second, assuming that democracy is the justified alternative, we will concentrate on the desirable kinds and roles of expertise within democratic political decision-making. Third, we will assess justifications of, and objections to, some of the historic and still existent competence-based restrictions on political participation, including education requirements, age thresholds, and mental incapacity. Finally, we will examine what moral duties citizens have to cast competent and informed votes, and what moral duties of truth-telling are incumbent on politicians, with special emphasis on the avoidance of populism, propaganda, and outright lies, as well as reluctance to respond to criticism. Throughout the course, we will pay attention to the implications of our normative findings for the various institutional roles of political decision-making in a representative democracy.

Learning Outcomes: 

By the end of this course, students will be able to…

  • identify some of the most important philosophical theories of democracy, epistocracy and political participatory rights
  • identify and comparatively evaluate strengths and weaknesses of particular theories of democracy, epistocracy and political participatory rights
  • distinguish between arguments for and against restricting voting rights, on the one hand, and arguments for and against moral principles of ethical voting, on the other hand
  • distinguish between the moral obligations of voters, legislators, executive agents and judges
  • reconstruct and criticize some of the most important arguments for and against democracy, for and against restricting the right to vote on grounds of competence or education, and for and against the most important theories of ethical voting and political responsibilities The Rule of the (In)Competent: Democracy, Expertise and Competence in Political Theory Fall 2017 2
  • apply concepts, arguments and theories from the study of democratic theory, and political theory more broadly, in the evaluation of real-life political institutions, electoral regulations, and the behavior of political actors
  • apply concepts, arguments and theories from the study of democratic theory, and political theory more broadly, in order to clarify and evaluate arguments for and against populism and technocracy
  • apply results in the political economy of information and voting in political theory
  • apply the concepts and theories discussed in class to policy debates over democratic institutions, interpret the latter debates in light of the concepts and theories discussed
  • form arguments to justify a form of government over another one in moral terms


(A) Active class participation 15%

Classes in this course will be interactive, and they will only be conducive to the learning outcomes if you actively and regularly participate in class discussions. Accordingly, attendance is mandatory. Participation may range from asking questions to telling others and the instructor what you do not understand to voicing your concerns or criticism of the texts and ideas we will study, to arguing for or against a particular position, to challenging fellow students’ and the instructor’s arguments. (Notably, active participation also includes active listening to fellow students—though it is not exhausted by it.)

(B) Reading set texts before the class they are due for. Readings are available here: [E-LEARNING SITE course link]

(C) Questions / comments related to the readings. 15%

You are also expected to provide at least 3 (three) substantive questions or comments concerning the set texts for 3 classes out of the 12 altogether, throughout the semester. Please upload your answers by 9am on the day before class, in a Google Doc that is going to be circulated for registered students by email. Questions for a particular class should be numbered consecutively in the Class Minutes (so, if you are the 2nd person uploading your questions for a particular class, do not number them [1], [2], [3], but [4], [5], [6].) Please also write your initials (e.g.: ["MA"] for Mráz, Attila) after each of your questions, in brackets.

Please sign up for the 3 classes that you choose to provide questions or comments for, by midnight on the day following the day of our first class. You can sign up using this Google Sheet circulated for registered students by email. Please take into consideration that there should be student-prepared questions for all classes. If this condition is not met spontaneously, the instructor may assign some students—after consulting them—to provide questions and comments for classes that have no sign-ups. (Of course, should this happen, everyone will still need to prepare questions or comments for no more than 3 classes altogether.)

Pre-class questions or comments may be critical (criticizing an argument in the set text), or comparative (comparatively analyzing an argument or concept in the set text in relation to one found in a reading for an earlier class); they may point out the incompleteness, incoherence, or inconsistency of the argument in the set text; or they may bring attention to an implicit (or explicit) premise and / or why a premise is controversial. More positively, questions or comments may focus on a particularly important insight in the text, or show how some argument or insight developed in the readings can be used fruitfully elsewhere.

(D) Mid-Term Examination 30%

A written, in-class examination will serve to ensure that you have mastered in breadth, and some depth, the knowledge and skills this course aims to help you acquire. This will be a closed book exam, conducted in 50 minutes. It will consist of three parts:

  • (i) Theoretical essay question (40%): A question bank will be provided 2 weeks before the exam, at the latest, containing questions that check your ability to identify, reconstruct, compare and evaluate theories, arguments and concepts that we have learned in class. One question will be drawn from this question bank, and you will be asked to answer it in a 500w long essay. Grading criteria will be provided together with the question bank.
  • (ii) Test questions (30%): completion / fill-in-the-bank items, multiple choice questions, true/false (+justify!) items, matching test items, logical relationship analysis (Antecedent: true or false? Consequent: true or false? Is the logical relationship between the two propositions correctly conveyed?)
  • (iii) Application / case analysis essay (30%): You will be provided with a simplified description of a case study. You will have to elaborate in a shorter, 300w long essay, on how some specific concepts, arguments, ideas, theories we have covered in class bear on the given case. The evaluative emphasis will be on the relevant and precise application of principles and on your argumentative skills—no further empirical background knowledge of the case will be required in order to write an excellent essay.

(E) Research paper & paper proposal 40%

You will be expected to write a 2000 words long argumentative research essay for this course. Paper submissions will only be accepted on topics that the instructor has approved and commented on in the form of a written paper proposal. Paper proposals should be roughly two paragraphs long. They are expected to contain the following: (i) research question, (ii) significance of and motivation for the research question, (iii) clear and specific thesis (your tentative answer to the research question which you will aim to argue for), (iv) identification of the argumentative directions, or even main arguments that you wish to make and/or criticize, in broad strokes, (v) a preliminary bibliography of relevant academic works you have consulted or will consult for your paper, comprising at least 3 bibliographical items.

You will have the opportunity to receive preliminary feedback on your paper if you submit a full paper draft by an earlier date than the official deadline. This way you may have a chance to further improve your paper until the submission date, if it is necessary or you so wish, based on the instructor's comments.

Please feel free to contact the instructor with any further questions, doubts or comments regarding the course.

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