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  • Foresight, Epistemic Reliability and the Systematic Underestimation of Risk
  • Joshua A. Miller (bio) and Steven Douglas Maloney (bio)

"Liberal governments cannot plan."

—Theodore Lowi

Good government must balance demands of legitimacy with those of accurate inquiry about the common good. David Estlund's work on epistemic proceduralism, culminating (to this point) with Democratic Authority, demands theories of democratic legitimacy respect this balance. Estlund compels his reader to doubt that either correctness theories or pure procedural democracy adequately manage this balance. Estlund moves the conversation on deliberative democracy dramatically forward by pushing all parties away from either extreme. Still, we wonder about Estlund's view that there exist no instances when a political regime might need to tilt heavily towards correctness at the expense of legitimacy. Perhaps some events are so cataclysmic that their avoidance must trump both legitimacy on the particular decision and general reliability on questions of less importance. Ultimately, Estlund's claims to balance the demands of truth-seeking and democratic justification raise many principled objections and empirical challenges to institutional design even as they lay others to rest.

Estlund claims that public inquiry into moral and empirical facts is authoritative only when it is subordinated to a general acceptability requirement, "no one has the authority or legitimate coercive power over another without a justification that could be accepted by all qualified points of view."1 The general acceptability requirement ideally harnesses the preference aggregating and information-assessing functions of democratic institutions like voting, deliberating, and protesting while curbing elitist ("epistocratic") procedures. Moral experts are not, by virtue of this qualification, political authorities capable of making generally obligating policies. Since our moral intuitions and judgments are generally not biddable by unexplained appeals to expertise, democratic polities that defer to experts are, he claims, confusing correctness with authority. This caveat preserves the authority by which even dissenting citizens feel obliged to obey or face just coercion.

Estlund's view is laudable for trying to force formal political theorists to consider epistemic demands, but it ignores the growing requirements of predictive inquiry necessitated by the state's exclusive claim to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens. We agree that a fair procedure is insufficient if it is not also likely to produce good policy: "it must count in favor of a social decision procedure that it tends to produce the better decision."2 Still, a procedure that does this must successfully collect epistemically reliable evaluations of facts and norms. A functioning democracy must not only be able to determine basic fact-finding (that a flood or financial collapse is occurring or has occurred) and norm-discovery (to proclaim in retrospect that it ought to have been prevented.) A state must also prevent and prepare for future risks, to preserve its citizens' health, safety, and welfare. Even more difficult, it must handicap the likely risk of its occurrence against the expenditure of limited resources for prevention or ameliorative response.

Strictly speaking, this is not normative inquiry. There are facts of the matter about future states of affairs, but they can only be measured in probabilities, cautiously and with constant corrections as new facts come to light. Nonetheless, future events have normative implications such that prediction and prescription are often conflated. We fear that predictive and preventative inquiry is a kind of empirical inquiry for which majoritarian institutions are ill suited. It appears, then, that Estlund cannot split the difference between authority and accuracy: for some decisions, at least, he must choose.

A. The Challenge

"What if democracy got most things right, but none of the most important things?"3

There are some decisions a state can make whose effects outweigh all others. The risks associated with failure in these decisions overshadow considerations of legitimacy, acceptability, and accuracy in lesser matters: getting those decisions right must be the first priority of any polity if it is to survive to make more banal choices. In this way, all regimes are truth-seeking, and all citizens should accept institutions that [End Page 54] get these decisions right the most often rather than trading off the possibility of cataclysm for some other goods like fairness.

When considering cataclysmic risks, Estlund focuses on...