Review: Against Democracy

Jason Brennan’s new book, Against Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2016) is an exciting new contribution to democratic theory. It’s exciting in all the relevant senses: it’s written in a breezy, non-technical style, full of engaging analogies and examples; it advocates a strong thesis which, if true, would upset much of the mainstream thought on democracy; and its author does not shy away from engaging with the details and objections his controversial thesis is likely to attract. In some ways the book is democratic theory’s analogue of David Benatar’s Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, only more convincing.

The title of the book is slightly misleading. Brennan is highly sceptical of the performance of real-world democracies, and he believes that democracy has merely instrumental value. But ultimately he does not directly argue for epistocracy, the rule of the wise, but a weaker conditional—that “if any form of epistocracy … turns out to perform better than democracy, we ought to implement epistocracy” (16)—and he mostly leaves it open whether the antecedent of this conditional can be established. Still, Brennan’s book is an attack on much standard thinking about democracy, which is characterised by what Brennan calls “democratic triumphalism” (6), or as I would prefer to label it, democratic romanticism. This romanticism is made up of a number of slogans, claims and ideas which dominate public perception of democracy. For example, you are apt to hear in Civics lessons or in public debate that democracy is based on, or allows for, the consent of the people—a more obviously wrong platitude that Brennan rightfully attacks (78-82). Or you will hear that there is a duty to vote, that low turnout at elections “threatens” democracy, and political disengagement is bad. These claims are not merely widely believed; they form a kind of shared secular religion.

Brennan, however, turns these claims on their head: sometimes you have a duty not to vote, and sometimes you shouldn’t even have a right to do so. (These claims Brennan has mostly defended in earlier work.) It would be better if uninformed voters stayed away from the polls, and low turnout at elections is a “good start” (3). More generally, political engagement is bad for us—“it pulls us apart, stultifies and corrupts us, and makes us civic enemies” (vii).

Brennan not only accepts, but clearly revels in the position of iconoclast. At one point, for example, Brennan reports Martin Gilens’ findings that actual democracies are much more responsive to the preferences of the very rich rather than the preferences of the median voter (197-8). No matter, responds Brennan: the rich are likely to be better educated, and so this deviation from democracy might be good after all: “It may be that higher-income voters are buying power, but in this way they seem to be buying better government for all” (198). Campaign finance reforms might have things precisely backwards. (To his credit, Brennan emphasises that this conclusion depends on various empirical facts which might not be true.)

So both in style and substance, Brennan’s book is not just a gentle knock on the door of democratic romanticism; it’s a guns-blazing, no-compromises-made frontal assault. This alone makes Against Democracy a valuable contribution to the existing literature. Like Brennan I’ve often found democratic theory to be a frustrating field. While theorists tend to avoid the naïve pitfalls of democratic romanticism you find in Civics lessons, I still think that philosophers are by and large too romantic about democracy, at least insofar as the empirical realities of democracy are concerned. I’m not sure whether democracy has merely instrumental value, but any defence of democracy needs to take into account some pretty difficult problems. Brennan’s book is the most coherent, comprehensive and convincing account of these problems I’ve read so far.

“Ignorant, irrational, misinformed nationalists”

Brennan starts his book by marshalling a long string of empirical evidence regarding the knowledge and motivation of voters (ch. 2), and the effects of political participation on individuals (ch. 3). The first finding is that voters are “ignorant, irrational, misinformed nationalists”, as the second chapter’s heading indicates. This sounds harsh, but the evidence is hard to ignore. Many voters cannot even identify the names of the political candidates of the mainstream parties, are badly misinformed about the positions of political parties, and so on. Moreover, people process information in uninformed and tribalistic ways. The only dim ray of light is that voters vote for what they genuinely think is best for their country, not just themselves; moreover, there is high variance in the distribution of political competence, with there being some highly informed voters.

It’s part and parcel of democratic romanticism to think that Trump,  Brexit, and Alternative für Deutschland are the anomalies, not the rules: that their supporters are a small minority of ignorance and bigotry, while the general voting populace is well-informed and rational, and rarely makes big, Berlusconi-shaped mistakes. But the type of evidence Brennan collects suggests that it’s just the other way round. Trump’s style of politics, for example, is not surprising given how citizens in democracies choose whom to elect: tribalistically, irrationally, in biased and emotional ways. And even where people vote for good, acceptable candidates, most of them do so for bad, ignorant, or at least under-informed reasons: even a Clinton win wouldn’t be great reason for optimism.

More interesting, and with even greater disturbing potential, are the results Brennan outlines in his third chapter. There he argues that political participation and deliberation do not in general make us better, or more enlightened, or more educated reasoners. Instead, deliberation—at least real-world deliberation, not the kind of ideal deliberation philosophers imagine—even has the danger to make us worse in our opinions, to open us up to bias and manipulation, to turn us into political “hooligans”, as Brennan calls them. If this is right, then a common romantic response to perceived flaws in democracy—“let’s have more democracy as a solution”—is flawed. So would be any number of philosophical theories of deliberative democracy, at least insofar as they want to be empirically relevant. This, again, is a big challenge for democratic romanticism.

I’m not in a position to judge whether Brennan gives an even-handed overview of the empirical literature, though I should note that other, well-received books like Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance and Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter tell much the same story. Either way, I strongly recommend these two chapters to anyone doing democratic theory, or anyone with an overly rosy picture of the average voter.

Democracy and Its Symbolism

In the next two chapters, Brennan continues his attack by turning to more philosophical defences of democracy. First, he turns to claims that democracy empowers individuals in some way (ch. 4)—e.g., that having the right to vote enables individuals to consent to government, or that it makes them autonomous, or “authors of the law”, or that it helps them to not feel alienated from political decisions, or to develop the Rawlsian “two moral powers”.

Zooming out from the nitty-gritty of Brennan’s objections, we can see that his usual response turns on the fact that each individual simply has no control over the outcome of elections. Voting in an election is like riding a wave (93): I can decide to stand my ground and try to “push back” the wave into the sea or I can decide to ride with it; either way, the wave will make its way to shore. Another vivid example (which Brennan does not use) is being a fan in a large football stadium. You can cheer for or boo the home team, but your voice will be lost in the noise of the crowd, and you will hardly if ever change who wins. You do make a difference, but it’s minuscule and unimportant. Analogously, though I can decide to vote for the eventual electoral winner or against them, I will not usually have an influence on who the winner will be.

Strangely, democratic romanticism (outside philosophy) routinely uses language that your vote “makes a difference”, or that your vote is important, or some such. There is also the recurring lament that some voters feel “powerless”. But if you look at large-scale elections, these are simply nonsensical things to say or lament. This presents a problem for any particular philosophical proposal according to which the right to vote bestows some morally important benefit on individuals. On this basis, Brennan’s objections to the particular proposals he considers become predictable: It can’t be that a right to vote makes government responsive to my interests, as my vote doesn’t make a difference (86). The right to vote doesn’t make you significantly more autonomous, because it provides you with no type of meaningful control over your life or the policies of the country you’re living in (90). It doesn’t allow you to “be at home” in the social world, as you can’t design what type of world you’re living in (93). Democracy can’t free us from the domination of others, as each of us individually has no way to escape the domination of the majority (98). And so on.

More could be said about the details, but the basic problem is clear enough, and Brennan draws it out powerfully with regard to the particular proposals which have been advanced. If we care about making people autonomous, or freeing them from domination or alienation, then it seems that there are many other means of doing so which are much more effective than giving them the right to vote—e.g., through welfare policies which enhance our opportunities, or by giving them a sphere of individual freedom protected by the law. The right to vote seems like a curiously bad way to start.

Alternatively, you might try to justify the right to vote not on the basis of what benefits it bestows on individuals, but what the right expresses (ch. 5). Brennan admits that he himself accepted in the past that an equal right to vote was justified in this way: that the right to vote is a “badge of equal personhood” (112). But now Brennan wishes to argue that certain kinds of epistocracy do not express disrespect to individuals. (This is compatible with thinking that some other types of distributing the right to vote are disrespectful.)

How, then, could we think that an unequal distribution of the right to vote could express disrespect towards some? Brennan first dismisses Christiano’s suggestion that an unequal vote would express the disrespectful judgment that one’s own judgment is better than others’ (119-124). Brennan replies that such judgments would not, in fact, be disrespectful—“We cannot let the country choke simply because people are sensitive about or have unjustified beliefs about their political competence” (123). I think that Brennan here is roughly right. A big part of the attitude of democratic romanticism is that we all, or at least most people, are somehow equally good in making political decisions. But generally speaking, we’re not, and denying that there are degrees of competence quickly leads you into a type of indefensible moral relativism. So I do not find it hard to think that insofar as restricting the suffrage would merely express the idea that some are better at making decisions than others, Brennan’s response to the disenfranchised to “get over it” is right.

Brennan also dismisses the idea that the political liberties—the rights to vote and run for political office—are necessary for self-expression (135-8), leading to the perhaps best quip in the book:

The political liberties are ineffective ways to communicate our attitudes to others. A vote is not an expressive instrument. It’s like a piano with only four keys and that breaks after playing one note. (135)

Again, I think this is roughly right. We can return to the stadium example. Even if your cheering doesn’t change the outcome, you might find it enjoyable. But if you want to communicate something to others, there are many other better ways to do so outside a stadium.

More interesting is Brennan’s reply to the general claim that unequal suffrage expresses the idea that the disenfranchised are subordinate, or in some other sense unequal or inferior (125). In response, Brennan starts out by observing that the link between having an equal right to vote and a perception as an equally valuable human being is socially constructed (127). Similarly, that a middle finger expresses disrespect is contingent and arbitrary—it could also express respect, or be a neutral gesture—and in much the same way, Brennan contends, is the association between the right to vote and equal standing in society. Instead,

people could regard [political] rights as licenses, no different from driving, hairdressing, or plumbing licenses. (129)

So in our epistocratic alternative, we tie respect and perceptions of equality to something else—membership in the same society, say—while the right to vote is distributed independently from such equal respect.

This strikes me as a possible way to design a society, though you have to strain your imagination quite a bit—there might be something deeper in human psychology which ties perceptions of power to perceptions of worth. Either way, that conventions of showing disrespect could have been formed in some alternative, epistocracy-friendly is a little beside the point, given that they weren’t formed in that way. This is driven home by one of Brennan’s examples where he imagines a strange society in which equal respect is expressed by giving people red scarves (128). In such a society, not giving a red scarf to homosexuals would disrespect and humiliate them. Homosexuals plausibly have a right to be given red scarves in this society, even if you think that this convention is silly, confused or inefficient. In much the same way, democratic romanticism very closely associates equal standing with an equal right to vote, and democratic romanticism is a very deeply imbued and powerful mainstream creed. This gives us a prima facie reason, perhaps even a duty, to give people an equal right to vote, even if some outsiders like Brennan think that this convention is silly, confused or inefficient.

Brennan notices this point, and aims to answer it with another comparison. Imagine, he argues, a society in which being denied a medical license on grounds of incompetence “would be humiliating or destructive of self-esteem” (130). However, granting incompetent people a right to operate on others puts them at risk of being harmed. If we live in a society where this is the norm, it’s one that we should ignore and seek to change. If I’m giving out medical licenses in this alternative society, I shouldn’t give an incompetent person one, even if this will foreseeably degrade and humiliate them in the eyes of other members of this society. The analogy with epistocracy should be clear: the medical license is akin to the right to vote; incompetent voters (as a collective?) threaten to harm the innocent; so even if not giving someone the right to vote will be perceived as disrespectful and humiliating, this is a bad social convention I ought to ignore. This suggests that Brennan’s argument here ultimately relies on the right against harm (or risk of harm) by incompetent voters, and the fact that this is a socially constructed convention is neither here nor there. This brings us to the core of Brennan’s book, which is his argument for the right to a competent government.

The Right to a Competent Government

Brennan’s favourite analogy, already prevalent in his earlier articles, is the right to have a competent doctor. Imagine that you’re informed before a life-or-death operation that you won’t be operated on by a professional doctor. Instead a hundred laymen, picked at random from the street, will democratically decide on how to operate on you, voting on each step of the medical procedure. Imagine that, miraculously, you survive the operation. Even then, Brennan argues, you’ve been wronged: you had a right not to be exposed to the utter incompetence of those strangers. It was wrong to give incompetent people a vote over what happened to you in such a crucial high-stakes decision.

From cases like these Brennan extracts a more general principle, the competence principle:

It is presumed to be unjust and to violate a citizen’s rights to forcibly deprive them of life, liberty, or property, or significantly harm their life prospects, as a result of decisions made by an incompetent deliberative body, or as a result of decisions made in an incompetent way or in bad faith. (141)

It’s hard to disagree with this principle in general. Indeed, the competence principle strikes me as an implication of a more general moral principle, a right against having undue risks imposed on oneself. But much will depend on how precisely we fill in the details—in particular, on what counts as “competent” and more generally, “undue risk”. When I used Brennan’s earlier article in undergraduate teaching, by far the most common responses I received were along these lines—“what’s competent?”, “how do we measure competence?”, and in particular, “who decides what counts as competent?”.

It’s the last question in particular which seemed to concern many of my students. There are some silly ways to state this objection (no one knows what competence is, so we can’t do competence tests), but there is also an avenue of reply which I think many philosophers will choose. This is the claim that there are no agreed-upon standard of political competence amongst reasonable people, and also no agreed-upon standards by which we could measure the quality of outcomes, which we would need to say whether undue risks are imposed. A theorist of this stripe would add that we need agreement on such standards to legitimately disenfranchise others, or to judge whether democratic majorities are generally incompetent or not. In the absence of such an agreement, an equal distribution of the vote emerges as the baseline. Brennan is aware of this line of argument, but has purposefully excluded it from the book, as he thinks he has adequately tackled it elsewhere (viii). That’s to be regretted, as I think that many democratic theorists will try to make their stand here.

As part of developing the competence principle, we will also need to sketch acceptable levels of incompetence. A first complication, also noted by Brennan (199-203), is that even while voters are often incompetent, the governments they elect might not be. In response, Brennan wishes to decouple two different judgments. The competence principle tells us that elections are unjust and illegitimate (as they expose us to incompetence), even if the actions of so-elected governments aren’t (assuming they’re competent). This makes the practical implications of Brennan’s result harder to understand. Assume that we live in a democracy in which all major party candidates are competent—we can rely on them to form decent governments which are sensitive to the evidence, though the courses they would take would be of different ideological stripes. As a voter, I impose no risk of being incompetently treated on others in this election, even if I am severely incompetent myself. So it is hard to see how my incompetent voting would be wrong, at least according to the incompetence principle, as it exposes no one to an incompetent exercise of power. Whether this is generally true is of course an empirical question (202).

I also suspect that the question of competence will ultimately turn, at least partially, on comparisons with the feasible alternatives. That is, a collective decision-procedure imposes an undue risk on you insofar as it is significantly worse than the best available collective decision-procedure. The hundred laymen operating on you democratically impose an undue risk because there is clear, preferable alternative available, namely to be operated on by a professional doctor. But the alternatives in the political case are much less immediately clear, as there is no obvious comparison case, or we do not precisely know how the relevant comparisons would perform, or what risks they would impose. If judgments of competence rely on comparisons in this way, then this also means that Brennan cannot remain fully agnostic about the comparative performance of epistocracy and democracy. He must give us at least some reasons to think that the former will have a much lower expected risk to harm innocents than the latter.

The Epistocratic Alternatives

This is a big ask, and it’s perhaps an unfair criticism to say that Brennan doesn’t deliver on it. Nonetheless, the penultimate chapter, “The Rule of the Knowers” is perhaps the weakest of the book. As Brennan notes, he has so far only argued that democracy is an “ugly pig” (205)—but perhaps it’s still the prettiest pig in the Pretty Pig Contest. In response, Brennan outlines and discusses a number of epistocratic alternatives to democracy. The most interesting alternatives, and also the ones which seem to enjoy Brennan’s greatest sympathy, are restricting the suffrage via competence tests, and universal suffrage subject to the veto of an epistocratic political body, similar to a supreme court.

Focus on restricting the suffrage first. If we believe Somin, about 35% of voters are “know-nothings” (25), lacking even basic political knowledge. So if you’re an epistocrat, you will want competence tests which exclude at least a third of voters. I’m not sure, however, whether a committed epistocrat should be satisfied with just a third of voters. After all, the other two thirds of voters aren’t well-informed, they rather possess minimal points of political information, such as an ability to name the three branches of government. But being genuinely informed about politics and able to vote competently, is a gargantuan achievement which democratic romanticism routinely underestimates. What you would need at the least is information about the political programmes of the major parties, the feasibility and likely consequences of these programmes—which would require you to have a rough overview of the major social sciences, such as economics and political science—and lastly, a workable and consistent theory of justice which adjudicates and evaluates these outcomes. I do not personally think that I have access to this information, and neither do I think that large swaths of the general populace do, even if we take into account the possibility to defer to authorities on the relevant subjects. So presumably, much higher numbers of voters would need to be excluded in an epistocratic system, perhaps up to 90%. (One example Brennan gives is of only 10% of the population having the right to vote (213).)

I take it that excluding up to 90% of the population raises precisely the questions of reasonable rejectability I’ve mentioned above. But even focussing on the more moderate type of restriction, it’s very hard to see how (1) introducing competence tests of this type could become politically feasible in the near future, and (2) how, even if they were introduced, they would not be proxies for power struggles which have nothing to do with competence. On the first point, it strikes me that trying to introduce competence tests for voters would be political poison for those advocating it in any major democracy. I can think of no major movement which has advocated such tests—indeed, I even find it hard to think of fringe movements demanding it. So at the very least, advocating for the introduction of competence tests in the near future is hopelessly utopian, even if right.

A second worry is that, even if it was politically feasible to introduce such tests, I suspect that any debate over the specifics of how restrictions should be designed would just become proxy struggles over power. This can already be observed in contemporary debates over voting regulations in the United States. Demands for ID requirements to vote or forbidding “same day registration” are thinly disguised attempts by Republican law-makers to keep African Americans—i.e., heavily Democrat-leaning voters—from the vote, who are less likely to have certain kinds of ID, and more likely to register the same day as the vote. Any attempt to introduce competence tests would have to be enacted through the current system. Any proposal brought forward through this system is more likely to disenfranchise the voters unwanted by those currently in power. Brennan, surprisingly optimistically, suggests that “questions about competence are easy” (226), and that democratic majorities would be decently good at identifying standards of competence (225). But even if this were true, the more pertinent question is whether competence tests would be decided merely as questions of competence, and would not devolve into proxy wars for something else.

The second alternative, universal suffrage with an epistocratic veto, is in some ways a more feasible alternative. If you’re very optimistic, you might see the courts as an already existing kind of epistocratic system parallel to democracy. This is, perhaps, what Ronald Dworkin thought in the 1980s. But the analogy also shows a similar problem: nominations to the American supreme court, for example, are highly political. Electing the “most competent” judges simply is a proxy struggle between the major parties of filling a political body with adherents of their particular creed. I suspect that any attempts to design and fill an epistocratic body would suffer from the same flaws. It’s also not clear why a mere veto of the epistocratic body would be enough. If you think that our current society is deeply unjust and the majority deeply incompetent, then an epistocratic veto is at best the power to prevent our society from becoming even worse.

Brennan will almost certainly reply that these issues depend on empirical data. Perhaps we can imagine types of epistocracy, and transitions to them, which do not suffer from these problems. Or perhaps we can extrapolate some data points according to which epistocracy will be fine, or at least better than democracy. Fair enough—all I have given is some armchair speculation. But the point is that Brennan has also not really established that his imagined epistocratic alternatives perform all that well or better. I suspect that if you oppose democratic romanticism, the best way forward is not primarily to design grandiose, but currently infeasible and utopian epistocratic alternatives, the benefits and weaknesses of which we are deeply unsure about. Rather, the alternative focus for the democratic sceptic should be on how we can improve the current institutional design of existing democracies. This will involve slightly more boring debates—about the role of political parties, bureaucracies, primaries, voting systems, campaign financing, the role of the media, and so on. Reforms in these areas might be much more feasible means to improve political performance.

Nonetheless, Brennan is right to demand greater experimentation in this area (230). Once you leave democratic romanticism behind, it’s possible to realise that there is a large menu of choices of how we could make political choices, including a wide variety of kinds of democracy. States and governments are still the most powerful entities in our world, and their quality will be one of the prime determinants of the future of humanity. So it is of crucial importance to find good ways of governance, even if we narrow the question to finding good ways of designing democratic institutions; the taboos of democratic romanticism are largely obstacles in this respect.

Concluding Remarks

I have not commented so far on two chapters. In “Is Democracy Competent?” (ch. 7), Brennan dismisses some results from social choice, such as the Condorcet Jury Theorem and the Hong-Page theorem, which attempt to mathematically show that democracy is collectively competent even if individuals are only moderately informed. Brennan’s discussion is convincing—and I owe him a reference to this entertaining paper—but also only of interest to a relatively specialist audience.

In the last chapter, “Civic Enemies” (ch. 9), Brennan ends his book with the suggestion that politics might be harmful because it turns us into enemies who hate each other. I’m not sure that European politics is generally characterised by the same degree of hatred and polarisation, so this chapter might reflect Brennan’s American experience a bit more. In addition, it’s not clear why people being enemies would be a problem to democracy specifically. Presumably, a tribalistic party system and the possibility of deep polarisation would survive in most kinds of epistocracy as well. Brennan’s argument here really starts to look like an argument against (non-anarchic) politics in general.

This is one of the few philosophical books I’ve read in a mere two days. My discussion here has been very preliminary, and I would hope to write something more in-depth on Brennan’s book if I find the time. Either way, I would highly recommend Against Democracy to virtually any reader, whether a philosopher or not. The book is helpful for those, like me, who have always been sceptical of overblown claims in favour of the benefits of democracy. But even if you think that some form of democratic romanticism is true, the book will be of value, as it’s a highly engaging devil’s advocate’s case against democracy, which will help to clarify what you oppose.

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  1. […] I wrote about the deeply ingrained power of “democratic romanticism” in my last post, I didn’t provide any particular example of this phenomenon. As luck has it, I’ve now been made […]

  2. […] a few general lines can be discerned. We can start from Jason Brennan’s four conditions for voter […]

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