A Review of Against Democracy by Jason Brennan. Princeton University Press (September 2016) 304 pages.
Many voters can find democracy exasperating, particularly when watching the TV on the
night of an election which hasn’t gone their way. But most would still likely endorse Winston Churchill’s observation that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (Unlike most of the quotes attributed to Churchill he actually said this, in the House of Commons on November 11th, 1947, but he didn’t claim it was original to him.) Few citizens in a democracy want to delimit or do away with their democratic institutions entirely, and most are genuinely grateful that they do not live in an undemocratic state.
Georgetown professor Jason Brennan dissents from this prevailing view. In Against Democracy, he argues in an engaging and witty fashion that we would, in fact, be better off ditching (or at least seriously curtailing) democracy. The book pre-dates the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, so Brennan’s argument was not produced by frustration with either of these. Nevertheless, he reports in the introduction to the second addition that he received a lot more support in their wake.
Before we look at how well Brennan’s argument holds up, it’s important to be clear on what his argument actually is. Like many critics of democracy, Brennan argues that the electorate is not qualified to make the complex decisions required of governments. However, he makes a more specific point. In his view, subjecting an individual to the decisions of an incompetent voter (or voters) is a form of oppression, no different to forcing someone to seek medical treatment from an incompetent doctor or to be represented in court by an incompetent lawyer. “When some citizens are morally unreasonable, ignorant, or incompetent about politics,” he writes, “this justifies not permitting them to hold political authority over others.”
Brennan is a libertarian, although he sets out to make a non-ideological argument. He acknowledges that democracy has symbolic value, but says that this symbolic value doesn’t justify the oppression which comes with it. According to Brennan, telling someone that they’re not allowed to vote just because they’re a citizen shouldn’t be any different to telling them that they’re not allowed to drive on the road because they can’t pass a driving test.
Brennan places citizens into three categories—Hobbits, Hooligans, and Vulcans. Hobbits are uninformed about politics and indifferent to them. The average non-voter in a Western democracy is a Hobbit. Hooligans are interested in politics, but follow it in the same way that a person follows a team sport. They are strongly partisan, frequently uninformed, and prone to cognitive bias. They barrack for team Republican or team Labour in the same way someone barracks for the New York Yankees or Manchester United. They can repeat the arguments in favour of their preferred party or ideology, but limit their sources of news to those which confirm their own views and have only a limited understanding of the position of the other side. A conservative Hooligan could not give an explanation of the arguments in favour of socialism that a socialist would recognise, nor could a socialist Hooligan give a cogent argument in favour of capitalism. In most democracies, he writes, the average voter is a Hooligan. Vulcans, by contrast, are the ideal democratic citizens—they inform themselves, seek out opposing views, and consider issues with as little cognitive bias as possible (nobody could be completely free from it). While we all like to think of ourselves as Vulcans, Brennan argues that they are actually rare. In general, when the apolitical become interested in politics, they go from Hobbits to Hooligans.
These categories do not conform to any one political ideology, and people in all three categories can be found in different camps. Brennan uses his own libertarianism as an example. A libertarian Hobbit would be someone who is uninterested in politics but has a general opinion that the government should leave them alone. A libertarian Hooligan would spend their time reading Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard and arguing passionately with non-libertarians on the Internet. And a libertarian Vulcan would be someone who has come to libertarian views after careful consideration of the evidence, and continues to read the works of socialist and traditional conservative writers with an open mind, and may reconsider his views in light of new evidence.
Brennan writes a lot about voter ignorance and cognitive bias, both of which, he argues, are much worse than we think. If you’re reading this article, chances are you are interested in and follow politics. And as we tend to spend time with people whose backgrounds and interests are similar to ours, there’s a good chance that your family, friends and co-workers are more informed about politics than average. According to Brennan, this means you probably underestimate how many of our fellow citizens are completely uninformed or actively misinformed about basic political questions. He cites some statistics from Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter by Ilya Somin. In the 2010 midterm elections in the United States, only 34 percent of voters knew that the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) was enacted under President Bush, not President Obama. Only 39 percent knew that defence was the largest category of spending in the federal budget. These are fairly easy questions with straight answers, too—respondents were not asked for their views on trade policy, carbon emissions, dealing with ISIS, or anything else requiring expert knowledge.
A sizeable minority of the electorate is staggeringly ignorant of basic questions. They cannot find their own country on a globe, they don’t know who the United States fought in the Second World War, and don’t know which politicians and which parties advocate for which policies. If they do vote, they’re quite likely to vote in ways which an informed voter would find completely bizarre, such as supporting Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders over other Democratic and Republican politicians because they believe they would enact similar policies. Based on an American National Election Studies survey, Brennan estimates that the electorate falls into four quartiles—the top 25 percent of voters are well-informed, the next 25 percent are badly-informed, the next 25 percent are know-nothings, and the last 25 percent are systematically misinformed. His work examines the American electorate, but similar studies could be conducted in other democracies. According to Brennan, attempting to educate these uninformed or misinformed citizens is futile, as they face no real consequences for their ignorance. If I don’t go to the trouble to learn that traffic in my country travels on the left-hand side of the road, I’ll get run over. But I can cheerfully vote at random at every election for my entire life and be no worse off.
It gets worse. Voters are not just uninformed or misinformed; even when they do have access to the right information they can still come to the wrong conclusions because they are misled by motivated reasoning and cognitive bias. There has been abundant and fruitful research suggesting that, when making decisions, we often adjust the evidence to fit our conclusions rather than adjusting our conclusions to fit the evidence.
Brennan cites several studies in support of this position. In one of these, conducted by Geoffrey Cohen, two groups of voters were presented with two policies on welfare, and asked which they supported.1 The first group was told that one policy came from the Democratic Party and the other the Republican Party. In the second group, the parties were switched, so that the policy associated with the Democratic Party in the first group was now associated with the Republican Party and vice versa. In both groups, self-identified Democrats were more likely to support the Democratic policy and self-identified Republicans were more likely to support the Republican policy, regardless of what the policies actually recommended.
In another experiment carried out by Dan Kahan and colleagues, subjects were divided into four groups.2 People in the first two groups were asked to interpret a study on whether a new skin cream was effective in treating a rash. The study was fictional, but they weren’t told this. One group was given a set of numbers suggesting the cream is effective, and another was given identical numbers suggesting it is not. In both groups, people with good numeracy skills generally interpreted the data correctly. The third and fourth groups were given identical numbers but in a different fictional study, which purported to examine the link between laws permitting the concealed carry of firearms and crime rates. One set of numbers suggested that concealed carry reduced crime, the other suggested it increased it. Self-identified liberal Democrats, even those with good numeracy, were far more likely to interpret the data correctly when the numbers suggested an increase in crime than when they suggested a reduction in crime, even though the actual problem was the same in both cases. And for self-identified conservative Republicans, the opposite held true—even those who were brilliant at maths often got their sums completely wrong when the numbers suggested that concealed carry increased crime rates.
Brennan’s proposed alternative to democracy is epistocracy. Derived from the Greek epistēmē, meaning knowledge, it is government by the knowledgeable. Brennan puts forward five models for how an epistocracy could work in practice:
- Restricted suffrage: People need to earn the right to vote, either by passing an exam or meeting certain qualifications.
- Plural voting: Everyone gets one vote, but some get more. This idea has been proposed before, particularly in fiction. In The Curious Republic of Gondour, Mark Twain described a society in which people could get additional votes for achieving higher levels of education and owning property. “To offer to ‘limit’ the suffrage might have made instant trouble; the offer to “enlarge” it had a pleasant aspect” he wrote—this would probably make plural voting more palatable to the electorate than restricted suffrage. The plural vote is also at the centre of the 1953 novel In The Wet by English-Australian author Nevil Shute. Set 30 years in the future (in 1983), Shute presents a world where Australia and Canada have adopted the “multiple vote.” In this model, each voter gets a single vote by default, but can get up to five more through military service, education, raising a family, living overseas, or being an official in a Christian Church. The final vote—the seventh vote—is personally awarded by the Queen for heroism. Britain has failed to adopt the multiple vote, and so has fallen into ruinous socialism. The novel, and the proposal for granting extra votes, reflects Shute’s own conservative views.
- Enfranchisement lottery: Each election cycle, a group of citizens is selected at random and put through an intensive program to turn them into voters and have them participate in non-partisan decision-making forums.
- Epistocratic veto: We keep democratic institutions, but allow their decisions to be overridden by some sort of council selected through qualification. The episotcratic council cannot initiate policy on its own.
- Weighted voting/government by simulated oracle: Voters can vote on their preferences, and some sort of AI then develops policies which will deliver on those preferences, mimicking how voters would vote if they were perfectly informed.
Brennan pre-empts some of his critics’ objections. Faced with the argument that all those who are subject to the power of the government should have an equal say in elections, he points out that we already exclude about a fifth of the population from voting because we don’t believe they have the capacity to meaningfully participate—these are the under-18s. And in doing so, we exclude many 16- and 17-year-olds who have a better understanding of public policy than many adults. The right to vote is, in Brennan’s view, fundamentally different to other political rights such as the right to freedom of speech and religion as it has an impact on others.
Brennan also argues that we should not judge epistocracy the way we judge unjust measures to restrict suffrage used in the past. Just because we once restricted or excluded people from voting because they were black or female, doesn’t mean we should completely reject any restrictions now. There are just and unjust reasons for excluding someone from participating in public affairs, just as there are just and unjust reasons for prohibiting someone from doing anything. Brennan accepts that any epistocratic measures would favour some demographic groups over others. In the United States, for example, there’s reasonable evidence that the average wealthy, middle-aged, white man is significantly more likely to have a better understanding of topics like economics and foreign affairs than the average young, poor, black woman. So, epistocracy would see the power of wealthy, middle-aged white men increase at the expense of young, poor, black women.
Brennan agrees that this is inevitable, but says we should view it in the same way as we view other inequalities. White people from well-off backgrounds are far more likely to become lawyers and doctors than black people from poor backgrounds. The solution is not to relax the requirements to enter these professions, but rather to work over time on reducing the inequalities which lead to this imbalance in the first place. Brennan argues that epistocracy could be better for poor minorities in the long run, as it would reduce the political power of the poor and uneducated white voters who are more likely to favour policies which disadvantage minorities (such as tough policing and lengthy prison terms).
There are three significant problems with Brennan’s argument which he doesn’t address sufficiently in the book—looking at existing epistocratic institutions, making episotcracy work in practice, and explaining democracy’s success.
Looking at existing epistocratic institutions
In a 2018 interview with Sean Illing on Vox, Brennan denied that there had ever been an epistocracy in practice. But over the past two centuries, many democracies had institutions explicitly intended to give more power to better-informed citizens. For example, the Canadian provinces retained some property qualifications for voting until they were abolished between 1876 (British Columbia) and 1948 (Quebec). Some U.S. states appointed senators until 1913. Prior to 1911, the House of Lords had substantial power to veto legislation in the United Kingdom. Oxford and Cambridge Universities had their own seats in the British Parliament until 1950. In the Vox interview, Brennan acknowledges this, but says it was “…a stupid idea. It pains me to say this as an educator, but it turns out that university education has very little impact on how much people know. In general, college-educated people know more than non-college-educated people, but it’s not the college that’s making the difference.” But he still accepts that people with tertiary education are better-informed, so in practice, giving them more power is an epistocratic measure.
Brennan may respond that these historical restrictions were based on property ownership rather than merit, but he also claims that the wealthy are usually better-informed. It should be possible to assess the effect of these institutions in practice to see if they led to better or worse policy outcomes.
Even today, different democratic countries have institutions which are more or less democratic and more or less epistocratic. Take three English-speaking democracies—Australia, the United States, and Canada. Australia has an elected senate, no bill of rights, and compulsory voting. Many more low-information voters cast ballots than in the other two countries, they can elect all their legislators, and the legislation passed by those legislators is subject to only a very limited veto by the courts. The United States and Canada have much lower voter turnout, and the American constitutional Bill of Rights and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms give courts much more power to strike down legislation made by the elected legislatures—a limited epistocratic veto. The United States has an elected senate, too, and puts many more questions to popular vote than Australia does. But Canada does not, and bills passed by its house of commons are subject to review by an appointed senate. But there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Canada is a much better-run country, or that Australia suffers from the effects of unrestrained democracy.
Making epistocracy work in practice
A second objection is the practical one—how do we decide who gets to vote, or who gets more votes, or who gets to veto the majority? One option is to have an exam. Deciding what should go into the exam would be a huge challenge, but in the Vox interview, Brennan proposes an interesting solution—everyone could vote on what the exam should contain. He admits this is a paradox, but argues that “voters know in the abstract what they ought to know; they just don’t actually know the things they think they should.” In Against Democracy, he uses the example of his young son, who knows in the abstract what qualities would make a good wife but isn’t mature enough to decide who he should marry. But once major political parties knew what was on the exam, they could coach their potential supporters to the point they could pass it.
Otherwise we would be left enfranchising people based on their experience and qualifications, but as Brennan himself admits, these are not reliable measures of how well-informed someone is about public policy. Any such system would risk giving the vote (or the extra votes) to a college graduate with limited life experience and unrealistic ideas over a small business owner with less formal education but more practical knowledge of how the world works.
Not only that, it’s not clear how solid Brennan’s central argument—that well-informed people have systemically different policy preferences, and those preferences are better—actually is. Brennan extensively cites the work of political scientist Scott Althaus, who concluded from studying voter surveys that better-informed voters generally support free market solutions and free trade, favour progressive views on homosexuality and abortion, reject a harsh or punitive criminal justice policy, and oppose a hawkish foreign policy. But Althaus himself cautions against using this data to make assumptions about the policies which all voters would prefer if they were better-informed, and likewise, assuming that those policies must be better. “There is no statistical magic that can tell us what the American public would really want if it only knew better” he wrote in an email to writer Jesse Singal. “These simulations do not and cannot tell us what the American people really want.”
Ilya Somin, whom Brennan also quotes with approval, wrote a generally positive review of Against Democracy, but cautioned that these practical problems would probably be fatal to Brennan’s proposed solutions. “Ironically, the main flaw of epistocracy may be that we don’t have the knowledge to make it work” he wrote. Somin, like Brennan, is a libertarian, and he speaks from a libertarian distrust of elaborate or complex government solutions. Epistocracy in any form would require such a solution.
Explaining democracy’s success
Finally, there’s the obvious objection that, whatever is wrong with it in the abstract, modern Western democracy is hugely successful in practice. Democracies are generally richer and better at protecting human rights than non-democracies, and their residents are healthier. Compared to people in the undemocratic past, or residents of countries with authoritarian governments, the citizens of Western democracies have it made. This is the Democratic Paradox—we can prove beyond a doubt that many voters are misinformed and biased, but also prove beyond a doubt that the governments they have elected over the past two centuries have generally produced good outcomes.
Brennan does address this, but not in great detail. He suggests that the success of Western democracies may be in spite of rather than because of democracy, or because democracy itself is limited. Political parties reduce the burdens on voters and concentrate policy-making in the hands of politicians, officials, and civil servants, who are all generally better-informed than the voting public. The influence of money on politics delivers disproportionate power to a wealthy and well educated minority. The democratic will is thwarted by bureaucracy; Sir Humphrey Appleby-type figures who are able to control politics from behind the scenes.
Still, this doesn’t explain why we should get rid of or constrain democracy. When asked about democracy’s success in the Vox interview, Brennan responds, “That’s a very good question. I like to say I’m a fan of democracy, and I’m also a fan of Iron Maiden, but I think Iron Maiden has quite a few albums that are terrible—and I think democracy is kind of like this. It’s great, it’s the best system we have so far, but we shouldn’t accept that it can’t be improved.”
But this is a fundamentally different position to the one he takes in the book.
For these reasons, I’m not persuaded by Brennan’s overall argument. Still, it’s important to challenge the assumption of democratic right to rule, like any other exercise of power. We shouldn’t simply accept it, any more than we would uncritically accept the divine right of kings. Against Democracy is an interesting and engaging read. But, in the end, I will put up with occasional exasperation on election night.
Adam Wakeling is an Australian lawyer and writer whose work has explored Australian political, social and military history. His most recent book, Stern Justice: The Forgotten Story of Australia, Japan and the Pacific War Crimes Trials, was published by Penguin in 2018.
1 Geoffrey Cohen ‘Party over policy: The Dominating Impact of Group Influence on Political Beliefs’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003, 85(5), 808–822.
2 Dan M. Kahan, Cantrell Dawson, Ellen Peters & Paul Slovic ‘Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government’ Behavioural Public Policy 2017, vol. 1, issue 1, pp 54-86.