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The Problem with Democracy? Letting Everyone Do It

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[Review of Against Democracy, by Jason Brennan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016. 304 pages.]

Growing up in the United States, one gets the impression that democracy is next to godliness. School children put their hands over their hearts every morning and literally pledge allegiance to a flag and to the republic for which it stands. The NFL spends weeks wearing camouflage hats and jackets on the sidelines as part of their salute to the military. What does the military do? Protect (and even spread!) democracy, of course. Author and Georgetown professor Jason Brennan refers to this spirit of “democratic triumphalism” as “the view that democracy and widespread political participation are valuable, justified, and required by justice” (p. 7). But, as his book makes clear, almost no one ever really questions the history, justice, and most importantly, the efficacy of a democratic political system. Brennan’s primary thesis is that democracy is only useful for its instrumental value; it has no real symbolic or intrinsic value. Democracy is a tool like a hammer, Brennan repeats. It’s only as good as its ability to achieve results. “If we can find a better hammer,” he writes, “we should use it” (p. 11). Brennan’s recommendation is epistocracy: the rule of the knowledgeable.

In the latter half of the book, Brennan does a clever bit of authorial maneuvering: “In philosophy, we use the least controversial and weakest premise we need to get the job done” (p. 151). This strategy becomes more clear in retrospect, when we consider the book’s first major argument: that the American voting public are either hobbits, hooligans, or Vulcans (pp. 4–5). Hobbits are apathetic, ignorant, uninformed, and lack strong opinions about politics and world events more generally. “The typical nonvoter is a hobbit,” Brennan writes. I find his bit about the “weakest premise” convincing, because from the outset of his book, readers will either conjure up their hobbit friends and family and be inclined to agree with Brennan’s premise (most likely), or perhaps readers will self-identify as hobbits and say, “This sounds like me” (less likely). Either way, readers are likely convinced of the usability of the concept. Hooligans, though, are the majority of Americans, those who either vote or participate in politics more broadly. Hooligans are the “rabid sports fans of politics.” They have strong views, though they are based on weak and bias-reinforcing data, and they are unlikely to listen to opposing views, no matter how sound. In fact, debate makes them more entrenched in their views. They want to win and they want their opponents to lose, since, to them, politics must be a zero-sum game. Again, even if the reader believes themselves to be a Vulcan (the last category), they can definitely identify these hooligans. Vulcans are essentially Plato’s philosopher-kings, though perhaps we should call them philosopher-voters. They take in all information in an unbiased way, listen to opposing views, and make their decisions based on reputable facts and evidence. We gather that there are not many Vulcans out there. If there were, we probably wouldn’t have a democracy.

Especially convincing is the wealth of empirical studies Brennan cites from chapters 1–4. His main findings include the following: most voters are “rationally ignorant,” meaning they know that they don’t know, and they don’t really care that they don’t know (30); the more educated people become, the more they favor smaller government (34); many political participants only “keep up” with politics because they are expected to according to their social class or vocation, or because they would be interested in politics regardless of a particular election or candidate — to them it is a hobby, such as crafting or gardening (pp. 35–36); political tribalism damages rationality and often causes us to make decisions based on our “group” rather than the validity of the options themselves (p. 39). The rest of the political literature, to be sure, is expansive. In sum, though, the average voter is tribalistic, ignorant, myopic, etc., they feel obligated to participate. Voters tend to think of democracy like a poem (chapter 5) in that it has symbolic value (versus instrumental). And this idea, of course, has been reinforced in most Americans since birth. Brennan wonders why this is, or should be so.

More damaging than the voter, though, is the larger effects of a democratic system in general. Brennan writes “that most common forms of political engagement are more likely to corrupt and stultify than to ennoble and educate people” (55). Believing in the just possibility of ideal democracy is, to Brennan, like believing college fraternities would “improve … character and scholarship” if given the right conditions (p. 73). Shooting heroin or dropping out of high school, he suggests, have the potential to serve an educative function, like ideal democracy, but we doubt the wisdom of trying. Brennan writes elsewhere, “Since individual votes don’t matter and hating other people is fun, voters have every incentive to vote in ways that express their tribal biases” (234, italics in original). Democracy puts us in “genuinely adversarial relationships,” where we treat each other in ways that we would never (hopefully) treat one another outside of the political sphere. We think, If “they” win, “I” lose. And, to be sure, the two-party system, with its attendant popular suffrage, does result in this win/lose dichotomy. We have, for the most part, dumb people voting in a rigged system (where their individual votes don’t matter), which results in one party or person being forced on everyone else at the point of a gun (see pp. 240–41).

And yet, as Brennan shows, this is supposed to be indicative of “consent,” “voluntary” choice, fairness, and the justice of democracy in general. Brennan suggests, instead, that we try a better hammer: epistocracy (See chapter 8). We want the best doctor, the best plumber, the best teacher, etc., so why don’t we want the best voters and the best rulers? We don’t let just anyone come fix our pipes, so why do we let everyone vote, and, theoretically, let just anyone rule? Democracies violate the “competence principle,” which the author defines as the notion that “high-stakes political decisions are presumed to be unjust, illegitimate, and lacking in authority if they are made incompetently” (p. 21). As such, democracies are disqualified to rule (on qualifiers versus disqualifiers, see pp. 165–66). Just as our doctors and plumbers must be competent, so too must our voters and rulers. On Brennan’s suggestion that epistocracy solves some of the issues of political competency, I am somewhat convinced, though Brennan undercuts his argument by never seriously considering anarchism.

Throughout, Brennan talks about how an epistocracy would likely be a “better form” of government, with “better results,” and would, overall, function “better” (see p. 223, paragraph 5, for one example). But, to my understanding, he never says what “better” means. More efficient at collecting taxes? More adept at keeping the masses docile? Better at making war? Brennan would likely say no to all of these, but he never explains what a “better” system or better results are. Nonetheless, Against Democracy is a punchy and prescient tour de force which should be required reading for political philosophy. It’s high time we stop being ruled by hooligans. Brennan calls democracy a “flawed tool” (p. 204), but this doesn’t go far enough. It’s intentionally antagonistic, it’s violent, and it’s inherently violative of the most basic “political” unit: the individual.


Kollin Fields

Kollin Fields is a PhD student in history, and may be reached at kollinfields.com where he writes on libertarian topics including war, political theory, and economics. He resides with his family in Dallas, Texas.

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