Political Philosophy
January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 5)

Weakening Competence

There are various strategies one might pursue to weaken the demands of competence. Some of these attempts have some force, but ultimately I am sceptical about the degree to which these strategies can be made to work.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 4)

The Extent of Demandingness

Let me elaborate a bit on the demandingness of the account I’ve given. We’ve seen that empirical research consistently shows that a significant amount of voters—between a quarter and a third—already fails the first category of conditions (information about choices). We should be even more sceptical about people having sufficiently sophisticated predictive and evaluative models for competence. We have seen that voters have troubles with having minimally coherent belief systems. Lots of evidence suggests that voters base their choices on minimal, highly filtered amount of information, which they process in badly biased ways.

But I also think that most politically informed, highly-educated voters would not pass the competence test I’ve outlined. Focus on the politicos who keep up with political developments on a day-to-day basis, who have a good degree of civic knowledge, identify and organise along party lines, and participate in politics outside elections. Stereotypically, this is the person who reads a daily newspaper like the New York Times or Washington Post, consults “high-brow” political websites like Slate or Vox, and so on.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 3)

Competence Reconsidered

So let’s reconsider the question of competence. Voting in an election is a type of choice, similar to many other important choices—e.g., which university to apply for, whom to marry, or which house to buy. So I suggest we follow some broadly decision-theoretic notions in outlining what it would mean to be competent in making a choice. We can classify the demands of competence into four categories:

  1. you need to know the major options open to you (knowledge about choices),
  2. you need to be aware of the consequences of each option, or at least have a rough sense of some of the possible outcomes of the major options, and a sense for which of these outcomes are more likely than others (predictive model),
  3. you need to be able to evaluate the desirability of the relevant outcomes, in a way which allows you to make at least rough comparisons across outcomes (evaluative model), and lastly,
  4. you need to be able to form coherent, all-things-considered judgments regarding the desirability of different options on the basis of (i) to (iii) (integrated framework).

This account is still quite generic. But it’s possible to fill in some more of the details if we look at the specifics of voting.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 2)

Competence in the Literature

I’ll start with a quick and selective account of how some other theorists, especially political scientists, have approached the question of competence. The debate is a bit hampered by the fact that there is little agreed-upon terminology, and competence overlaps with a number of other phenomena, such as (political) knowledge, (political) information, (political) sophistication, and education. (Some attempts at conceptual ground-clearing are here and here.)

Still, a few general lines can be discerned. We can start from Jason Brennan’s four conditions for voter competence:

  1. Voters should act on widely available, good information […].
  2. They should avoid mass superstition and systematic error.
  3. They should evaluate information in a moderately rational, unbiased way […].
  4. Voters should be aware of their limits, and thus always look for more and better information on any high-stakes decision. (165)

These are pretty generic demands. They are also relatively minimal—they look like necessary, but certainly not like sufficient conditions for competence.

To be fair to Brennan, he isn’t interested in developing a full account of competence; it might well be that he would wish to add further conditions if he turned to that task. Relatively undemanding accounts of competence, however, are a recurring feature in empirical research on voter competence.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 1)


It is a natural thought that political competence is important to democracy. We are troubled by the idea that voters are not competent, and it is normal to stress the importance of political education. However, I have found that it is surprisingly difficult to state in a satisfying way when individuals are competent voters. This is the issue I’ll aim to shed light on.

Most adults are of course legally competent—that is, we think they possess the minimal mental capacities necessary to be responsible for their own legal choices. But it’s a separate issue whether people are competent at voting. I take this issue to be the following: (when) do individuals possess a certain kind of skill in tackling a certain kind of task, namely, the task of voting?

Here’s a troubling possibility I will explore: political competence is highly demanding, and very few people are capable in making competent political choices. In the voting booth, you might make choices, but it is unlikely that you make a well-informed, competent choice.

Political scientists have long stressed that people are uninformed about politics. They find that anywhere between a quarter to a third of the population are “know-nothings”. But once we realise the true epistemic demands of governance, it might turn out that even more people are not able to competently vote. (I would not think myself competent in such a way, if the argument is true.)

This sets a clear agenda. After looking at some existing accounts of competence (part 2), I’ll argue that political competence might be very rare (part 3). This is a surprising result, but perhaps not too surprising (part 4). In response, you might try to weaken the demands of competence (part 5). But I think more plausibly, we might try to develop democratic theory that entirely works its way around the notion of individual competence (part 6).

Continue to part 2

December 20, 2016
Modelling the Pursuit of Justice

Following up on my previous post, one of the most interesting aspects of Gaus’s work on ideal/non-ideal theories of justice is that he suggests a formal model in which we can think about the issue. Gaus is quite explicit in stressing the advantages of formal modelling in the introduction to his book. In particular, the outlines of the model Gaus develops are clearly inspired by the idea of fitness landscapes from evolutionary biology; and the contrast between his ideal and non-ideal theories of justice looks a lot like the search for an efficient search algorithm on such landscapes.

So Gaus liberally exploits models from the sciences to think about the pursuit of justice; and this strikes me as a valuable, interesting strategy. But while Gaus sketches a formal model, and spends lots of time on developing various aspects of it, it remains seriously incomplete. In particular, Gaus never suggests—or comes close to suggesting—a way how we can translate the contrast between ideal and non-ideal theories into concrete algorithms within the context of a specified mathematical model. Nor does Gaus spend much time at all on evaluating the success of actual search algorithms, or surveying the literature on the success of such algorithms.

This is a curious omission. In fact, in the crucial part of his book, when Gaus levels his ultimate charge against “ideal” theories of justice, he falls back on mostly non-technical arguments that I found rather unconvincing (though this is a story for another day). Here I’ll make some preliminary observations about how Gaus’s hints could be translated into an actual model, and which challenges we face along the way.


December 14, 2016
The Tragedy of Truth

The following is a somewhat sketchy, programmatic attempt to combine some of my central beliefs about liberalism into a coherent whole. 

There are truths, I presume, in politics about what we ought to do. That is, there are certain ways how we ought to design our societies, how we should distribute rights, duties, resources and opportunities across people, which types of actions and behaviours we should prohibit and which permit, and so on; and these facts are so, to a large degree no matter whether we believe or desire them to be so, or whether many people believe them to be so, or whether democratic majorities decide them to be so.

Finding out these truths is difficult. What policies we ought to implement depends on a variety of normative and empirical facts which are hard to know, and the interaction of which is difficult and non-trivial. This reveals the first tragedy of truth in politics: we might fail to be right. We might find out that our societies have been deeply unjust and repugnant. When we look back at the patterns of sexist, racist, colonialist (etc.) injustices of almost all past societies, then we might even come to the shattering conclusion that our current way of organising our society is also highly likely to be unjust in some way, even if we do not know precisely how. This is the tragedy of truth for any non-relative view, any view which allows for the normative truth to seriously deviate from our current beliefs and conventions.


December 3, 2016
Libertarianism for Doubters

Libertarianism in its classical form is a radical doctrine. At its core is a belief in strong, virtually absolute property rights for individuals and the absence of enforceable duties to help others, based on some doctrine of self-ownership. Libertarianism also has radical implications. It would entail that large amounts of the activities of the modern state are unjust, in particular any type of social redistribution. Indeed, libertarianism arguably requires us to be anarchists of some kind, and abandon states altogether. (I’m dealing with one strand of libertarianism here, deontological “right”-libertarianism.)

The radicalism of the libertarian project should give you pause if you’re a libertarian. It is a minority position both in the academy, and across the history of political thought. Many thoughtful, clever intellectuals have offered serious objections to libertarianism from both moral and economic perspectives. Furthermore, there have been no real-life implementations of libertarianism, so any belief in libertarianism must rely on lots of empirical stipulations and unreliable guesswork about the real-life nature of such societies. Moreover, from many competing moral views a libertarian society would not merely be a mistake, but a moral disaster, insofar as a such a society would not fulfil crucial duties of justice, e.g., of social redistribution.

So here’s the central question: what type of political society should you advocate if you’re a libertarian who enjoys significant, heavy doubts about whether libertarianism is true? (To be clear, I’m in the opposite position—I consider myself a liberal who enjoys doubts that libertarianism might be true.) An intuitive answer is that you should hedge your bets as a libertarian. Irrelevant of any possible reasons internal to libertarianism to advocate a social welfare net (some have been offered in the literature), you have reasons to favour a minimal safety net supported by forcible taxation because you might be catastrophically wrong in your belief that libertarianism is right.

The same line of argument applies mutatis mutandis to virtually all utopian, radical political theories. All, I suspect, have serious reasons to morally safe-guard their own implementation—that is, to make practical accommodations for the possibility that their theory is wrong. If you’re a socialist, for example, who wishes to radically abandon all kinds of property rights, it should give you pause that most competing views allow for at least a moderate version of such rights, and who see their abandonment as an injustice. But I’ll limit my discussion here to libertarianism specifically.


October 9, 2016
Democratic Fanaticism in Action

When 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 aware of a review of Brennan’s book in Jacobin which perfectly illustrates the irrational guises in which democratic romanticism—or alternatively, democratic fanaticism—appears, even (especially?) amongst intellectual elites.

As it happens, I’ve just come back from teaching an introductory course on the methods of philosophy at the University of Bayreuth. I used one of Brennan’s earlier articles (“The Right to a Competent Electorate”) as a text for one session of the seminar. I used the text specifically because I predicted, from previous teaching, that students would have strong emotive and political reactions to Brennan’s text—most of them would find the idea that some people should not be allowed to vote appalling, or at least counterintuitive.

I separated students into groups, and asked them to work out whether (and if so, how) they thought Brennan’s argument was flawed; and then to develop Brennan’s strongest possible reply to whatever they had come up with. Despite the obvious aims—learning how to read and understand a text, and to pay attention to how a good author like Brennan anticipates lots of potential objections—there was also an implicit learning objective: to realize that philosophy requires a willingness to expose even your most-cherished moral and political commitments to withering criticism, and an ability to consider and imagine the strongest possible objections to them.

I think my students did well—there wasn’t an atmosphere of lazy rejection in our discussion, but a sense that refuting Brennan (if you wished to refute him) would require hard and serious intellectual labour. Jacobin, I take it, is meant to be an intellectual magazine. So we would expect that they also approach a philosophical argument as, well, an argument—that is, as a set of reasoned steps to a conclusion—as far as this is possible within the constraints of a popular magazine. Jonah Walters’ review, on the other hand, doesn’t even get to the stage of not engaging with Brennan—his piece is just the intellectual version of a hit piece in the Sun (“dirty libertarian shows his true fascist face in recent book—and his argument isn’t even new!”).

Indeed, what is most frustrating about articles like Walters’ is that they are meant to have, and imitate, intellectual substance. This does much unnoticed damage: it might deceive some sophomoric readers into thinking that something is going on here which is worth emulating, while the best sociological explanation of a review like this is simply that the author (or the magazine) feels a need to establish their ideological commitment to democratic fanaticism through loud invective of any view which questions it. Nothing of intellectual interest happens here—to see this is itself a useful lesson to teach. I’m slightly frustrated that I hadn’t come across this article earlier—it would have been great to use for my students as a particularly disastrous example of how not to engage with philosophy.

September 29, 2016
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.


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