Despite the recent rise in anti-democratic sentiment in the USA following Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, meeting someone who doesn’t believe in democracy is still a relatively rare occurrence. The idea that questions of how to organize society should be decided democratically is one thing that people who disagree deeply about policy matters can (hopefully) agree upon. The same is true in philosophical circles, where it is almost universally accepted by political theorists that an ideal society would be a democratic society (even if not everyone agrees on why democracy is valuable).
This hasn’t always been the case. Plato, famously, was an anti-democrat, advocating an epistocratic model of government in which philosopher-kings administered the state in the interests of all. Since Plato, however, interest in epistocratic modes of governments has waned. That is, until Jason Brennan’s recent book Against Democracy.
Jason Brennan Against the Value of Democracy
Before delving into Brennan’s arguments in Against Democracy, it will be helpful to have a deeper understanding of why democracy is generally seen to be valuable.
Advocates of democracy tend to argue that democracy is either intrinsically or instrumentally valuable. “Intrinsically valuable” means valuable in itself, without regard to its consequences. “Instrumentally valuable” means valuable as a tool for achieving something else. As the instrumental arguments for democracy are the focus of Brennan’s objections in Against Democracy, in this essay, we will focus mostly on these.
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The argument for the instrumental value of democracy holds that democratic decision-making at a state level is valuable because it leads to better laws. Democratic governments are better at protecting citizen’s rights, are better at promoting economic growth, and generally advance the interests of their citizens more effectively than non-democratic regimes do.
The reason this is the case is that, whereas non-democratic governments can cling to power by using increasing amounts of force and coercion, democratic governments need to be responsive to voters. As a consequence, they simply can’t get away with poor quality governance and bad outcomes for some citizens. The most striking illustration of this argument is Amartya Sen’s contention that ‘no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press’ (Sen, 1999, p. 152).
As well as being more responsive to voters, democratic governments also perform better than non-democratic ones because they have more and better access to the information needed to administer a country. In other words, democratic governments have an epistemic advantage over non-democratic governments.
To illustrate this point, it will be helpful to consider a thought experiment. Imagine you are in charge of a country. One way to run the country is to make all the decisions yourself, with the help of a small group of advisors and confidants (e.g. like Putin or Kim Jung-Un). The problem with this option is that you need lots and lots of information to make complicated decisions. You’d need to send out lots of inspectors to write reports, and you’d have to be sure you could trust those reports.
If, instead, you submitted proposals and policies to the vote, you’d be able to gather everyone’s best shot at the answer and decide on the basis of what people (in aggregate) think the right thing to do is. In essence, by asking people to vote, you are harnessing everyone’s collective knowledge, making it more likely we (as a group) make the right choice.
Against Democracy: Hobbits and Hooligans
In Against Democracy, Jason Brennan takes aim at these arguments. In a nutshell, Brennan argues that, contrary to what is claimed by democracy’s champions, democracies do not lead to better decisions. Instead, democracy encourages people to be more tribalistic, more ignorant, and less rational.
On Brennan’s account, voting is a form of power. When people vote, they don’t just influence outcomes for themselves, they also have influence over the lives of others by lending support to the policies of the people they vote into office. Given that voting is a form of power over others, Brennan argues that voting is only permissible if this power is exercised competently. Tragically, this is often not the case.
Most people in a democracy are either what Brennan calls hobbits or hooligans. Hobbits ‘are mostly apathetic and ignorant about politics. They lack strong, fixed opinions about most political issues. [They have little, if any, social scientific knowledge’ (Brennan, 2009, p. 4). Neither do they follow current events or spend much time thinking about politics.
Hooligans, on the other hand, “are the rabid sports fans of politics. They have strong and largely fixed world-views. They can present arguments for their beliefs, but they cannot explain alternative points of view in a way that people with other views would find satisfactory” (Brennan, 2016, p. 5).
Although hooligans consume politically relevant information, they do so in a biased way. They seek out facts that confirm their view instead of searching for any and all relevant information (including information that might lead them to change their mind).
Neither of these types of people, Brennan argues, can exercise voting rights competently. Both hobbits and hooligans tend to be misinformed about politics. Hobbits are misinformed because they don’t know relevant information. To give a few examples, “roughly a third of American voters think that the Marxist slogan ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ appears in the constitution”. Most citizens can’t identify political candidates in their district (Brennan, 2016, p. 25), or what the different branches of government are (Brennan, 2016 p. 29). Nor do they have an accurate understanding of what the government spends their money on, vastly overestimating how much goes on foreign aid (Brennan, 2016, p. 26).
Hooligans are similarly misinformed, albeit for a different reason. Although they know some information that is relevant, they are likely to ignore other relevant information that disconfirms their preferred views; making them unreliable knowers when it comes to difficult questions which require social scientific knowledge to answer.
Unlike the argument that voters are misinformed, the charge that most voters are irrational applies much more to hooligans than hobbits. The reason is that, having strong opinions to defend, hooligans are more likely to suffer cognitive biases which lead them to engage in motivated reasoning. They are more likely to ignore evidence that disconfirms their view (Brennan, 2016, p. 43), consuming more political media also makes them more susceptible to availability bias (Brennan, 2016, p. 46) and framing effects (Brennan, 2016, p. 48). Conversely, not being particularly concerned with politics, hobbits are less likely to engage in motivated reasoning simply because they haven’t got a strong political view they are motivated to defend.
Given that voters are irrational and misinformed in this way, there is little evidence that democracy leads to improved outcomes because it can take better account of the knowledge people have. In other words, the main instrumental argument for democracy fails. Given that we have a right for political power to be exercised competently, we have a prima facie case for preferring an epistocratic regime over a democratic regime. Precisely what this epistocratic regime would look like, however, is far from clear.
What Would an Epistocracy Look Like According to Jason Brennan?
In the same way that there are many different types of democracy, there are also many possible versions of epistocracy. What differentiates these two types of political system, Brennan suggests, is that epistocracies (unlike democracies) do not aim to distribute basic political power equally. Whilst they may still have some of the same institutions as a democracy (e.g. parliaments, elections, deliberative forums, public consultations) not everyone would have a default right to vote or run for elections (Brennan, 2016, p. 208).
Within this minimal characterization, there is widespread scope for variation. Possible versions of epistocracy include restricted suffrage (perhaps implemented through voter competence tests), plural voting (with some people having more votes than others). A third alternative would be to have universal suffrage with an epistocratic veto. On this model, all people could run for office, but an epistocratic council composed of people who could pass a rigorous competence exam focusing on social science and political philosophy would be entitled to veto policy proposals arrived at democratically.
Brennan’s book is inconclusive on which system we should institute. The reason is that, prior to trying any of the systems, it is simply impossible to know which would yield the best results. Moving towards an epistocratic regime requires a leap into the unknown. Given this unavoidable uncertainty, Brennan suggests beginning cautiously, trying out different voting systems on a small scale, evaluating their effects. In the US, this could be done at a state level. In other jurisdictions, different regional or local authorities could institute different voting systems in their areas, leaving it open to others to choose other systems.
Brennan, Jason. (2016) Against Democracy. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ.
Sen, Amartrya. (1999) Development as Freedom. New York, Knopf.