Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy

Months after misplacing it, I have finally found and finished reading Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy. I want to record a few notes on his argument for Epistocracy.

First, a fundamental foundation of his argument is that people deserve competent government. He agrees that democracy is generally more competent than authoritarian systems (or at least less incompetent) particularly in securing all important civil liberties. But democracy is a tool, a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Given the empirically demonstrated systemic knowledge biases of the public, perhaps there is a better means.

Second, he’s not engaging in ideal theory. After critiquing democratic theorists who ignore the real-world problems of democracy in favor of theoretical visions that depend on an electorate quite unlike what we have or can expect to have, he openly admits that epistocracy will also be imperfect.

Because of cultural and others differences, democratic institutions work better in [some countries] than in [others]. I’d expect something similar would hold true of epistocracy. Both systems will suffer abuse, scandal, and government failure.

Third, epistocracy is not a form of technocracy. He discusses several alternatives, all of which are notable for being reasonably democratic–the masses still participate in the choosing of those who govern us. In fact the extant institutions of governance and terms of office can remain exactly the same–it’s only the choosing process that changes, by restricting voting to those that demonstrate competence.

How to demonstrate that? He doesn’t insist on a method, but recognizes we could choose among multiple forms of testing, from demonstration of basic economic and political knowledge to a simple test of how informed prospective voters are about candidates, party, and issues, to passing an SAT style test, to simply identifying enough countries on a world map. It’s not that he thinks these are all equally good methods–it’s that he’s not building an ideal type system that has to have his specifically favored design.

What about demographic issues–would epistocracy produce de facto discrimination in potential to qualify as a voter? Brennan politely chooses not to note what a terrible condemnation of our public education system this fear is (and likely to be held by the same people who cling tenaciously to that system against proposed alternatives). He just notes that we can choose to create means for giving all citizens a reasonable opportunity to qualify. As one example he suggests a cash reward for everyone who qualifies, giving them incentive to learn. I would add that social service organizations like those that run GED and ESL classes could build the knowledge into their curriculum, or we could fund such classes publicly. How we do it is a choice of tool–find a tool or set of tools that work. He’s not suggesting qualifications so high that average adults are incapable of meeting them without effort. (We could, of course, choose such high qualifications, but I’d suggest the higher they are the less likely the prospect of getting public approval to implement them.)

Another alternative form continues universal suffrage (and Brennan actually appears to support broader suffrage than we currently have, favoring felons’ voting rights and suggesting giving voting rights to 16 year olds), but with an epistocratic council that has a veto over laws and perhaps even electoral outcomes (although I think he doesn’t address how much more politically charged the latter would be). The council would have no positive power to ceate laws or rules or place someone in office, merely a veto. How big a council? Whatever we choose. I’m sure he has some preference, but again he’s not insisting there is one and only one way to design this.

“There are many ways to fill in the details, some of which will be more defensible than others. The system might have just one council, for instance, or it might have multiple councils at different levels of government. The system might have a large council or it could be small, but have its members randomly drawn from all citizens who meet the competency requirement.”

And as yet another possible epistocratic structure he suggests we could give one vote to everyone at age 16, an additional vote (or votes) when they complete high school, more when they complete college, and still more if they complete a graduate degree (surely more for a PhD than an MA, Jason!). I specifically mention this because there are innumerable people with advanced degrees whose political views differ radically from Brennan’s. One can become a historian, or sociologist, or biologist, or even a philosopher like Brennan, without gaining the basic economic and political science knowledge he’d clearly prefer they have. But he’s not insisting on a system that excludes people who ideologically disagree with him.

In the end, epistocracy looks far less radical than I think people assume it’s going to be. It’s basic form, whichever we choose, is fairly democratic in nature, but with additional checks on the worst tendencies of the public. What really distinguishes it from democracy is that it doesn’t pretend voting power is fully equally distributed. It’s not anyway in the U.S., of course, although epistocracy would take this a step farther. But to the extent it disenfranchises people, it only disenfranchises those who least understand what they are doing with their vote.

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About James Hanley

James Hanley is Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The views expressed here do not reflect the views of either organization.
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8 Responses to Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy

  1. ppnl says:

    I have not read the book but I have followed some of the comments at the Volokh conspiracy.I have to say I’m just not impressed.

    First there are practical problems. You would have to do major surgery on the constitution. Even if you had vast popular support for such a thing the dangers of screwing it up are extreme. Also any system that tells a significant number of people that they can’t vote is doomed.

    Second, it is scary how much this looks like the old Soviet Union’s “dictatorship of the proletariat”. I know that it isn’t intended to be that authoritarian. But it is human nature that the system either dissolves or it marshals the forces necessary to protect itself. The Russian started off authoritarian and became ever more authoritarian but that was not how it was suposed to be. The state and its power was suposed to disolve away.

    But finally I think it misunderstands the problems with our modern democracy. The problem isn’t that stupid and uninformed people are voting. The problem is a failure of leadership in the political parties. It is hard to look at our current president and believe that the republican party has any intellectual or moral authority over its voters. It is simple tribalism run wild unrestrained by any actual principles that the party was suppose to uphold.

    This is just Madison’s factions and majorities and it is a sign of a structural problem not a problem with stupid voters. I think a combination of districting and the electorial college has created a breeding ground for factions and majorities. Tribalism. We need to do away with the electorial college and for national offices there should be no political division smaller than the state.

    I compare our right to vote to our right to free speech. It is likely that most of the people most of the time would do themselves and the world a favor if they would just shut up. Free speech is not founded on the idea that all or most speech is good. It is found on the principle that controling speech is a power that you must not give government.

    The same for the right to vote. Most people may do the world a favor if they would just stay home. But you cannot give the government the power to make that decision for them. Such a system either becomes authoritarian enough to protect itself or it gets voted out.

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  3. Murali says:

    @ppnl

    Hold on a minute. It is a known fact that voters are deeply misinformed about a lot of things. One of the reasons they are deeply misinformed may very well be that they are just irrationally tribal. It doesnt follow that misinformed voters is not a problem. There is no doubt that epistocracy would be less than perfect. the question is whether it is an improvement over the status quo.

    But you are also missing a key point in Brennan’s argument. The claim is not that people may use their vote badly. The claim is that people have a right not to have poorly justified policies/politicians inflicted on them. Ignorant voting is a rights violation.

  4. I sign on to most of ppnl’s reservations. (However, like him/her, I haven’t read the book, either, just James’s summary and a few other commentaries here and there.)

    I do understand Murali’s point, but I think it’s possible to be an informed voter and still vote tribally. I’ve confessed elsewhere that Trump has a certain appeal to me even though my better (and better-informed) angel of my nature tell me that he’s a disaster. (Of course, I’ve voted against him, but it took me a little more effort than it would have had I relied only on the extent to which I’m informed.) None of that means misinformed voters isn’t a problem, just that it’s not (in my opinion) the main problem that needs to be addressed.

    One question I have for those who have read Brennan’s book. How does Brennan address the very checkered history of literacy requirements for voting? I’m referring primarily to Jim Crow style disfranchisement, although I realize literacy tests were a progressive era “solution” in some places in the North, too.

  5. Murali says:

    Brennan’s point is that the mere fact that literacy tests have in the past been used as an excuse unjustly exclude people from voting doesn’t mean that tests designed now in today’s political environment would do the same. Moreover, he envisions a two tiered system. The literacy test is subject to democratic control while everything else is subject to epistocratic control.

  6. ppnl says:

    Murali,

    The claim is not that people may use their vote badly. The claim is that people have a right not to have poorly justified policies/politicians inflicted on them.

    Why can’t we have the same kind of limitations on free speech? People are saying stupid and harmful things all the time. Let the klu klux clan march? Are you crazy? Allow the American communist party to publish a newspaper? Madness. Allow Mein Kampf in the public library? Insanity. Surely you wouldn’t allow a person to shout fire in a crowded theater.

    It would do no harm if you only limited the speech of evil people. But once you give government the power to decide you have committed an evil vastly beyond what any speech could do. In the end these types of authoritarian tactics outgrow any limitation.

    The vote is pretty much an exact analogy. Look what happened in communist Russia when the vote was limited to the approved voting class. An evil beyond words.

    Brennan’s point is that the mere fact that literacy tests have in the past been used as an excuse unjustly exclude people from voting doesn’t mean that tests designed now in today’s political environment would do the same.

    Yeah, good luck with that. Americans are pretty relaxed about voting. But tell a measurable fraction of them that they can’t vote and watch the shit storm. You will either have to enforce it with authoritarian measures or you will have to abandon it. If you resort to authoritarian measure you will recreate the horror of communist Russia.

  7. ppnl says:

    What no tags? let me repost….

    Murali,

    “***The claim is not that people may use their vote badly. The claim is that people have a right not to have poorly justified policies/politicians inflicted on them.***”

    Why can’t we have the same kind of limitations on free speech? People are saying stupid and harmful things all the time. Let the klu klux clan march? Are you crazy? Allow the American communist party to publish a newspaper? Madness. Allow Mein Kampf in the public library? Insanity. Surely you wouldn’t allow a person to shout fire in a crowded theater

    It would do no harm if you only limited the speech of evil people. But once you give government the power to decide you have committed an evil vastly beyond what any speech could do. In the end these types of authoritarian tactics outgrow any limitation.

    The vote is pretty much an exact analogy. Look what happened in communist Russia when the vote was limited to the approved voting class. An evil beyond words.

    “***Brennan’s point is that the mere fact that literacy tests have in the past been used as an excuse unjustly exclude people from voting doesn’t mean that tests designed now in today’s political environment would do the same.***”

    Yeah, good luck with that. Americans are pretty relaxed about voting. But tell a measurable fraction of them that they can’t vote and watch the shit storm. You will either have to enforce it with authoritarian measures or you will have to abandon it. If you resort to authoritarian measure you will recreate the horror of communist Russia.

  8. (I’ve already submitted this comment,so my apologies if two or more come into the thread. Feel free to delete any extra ones. For that matter, feel free to delete the comment. It’s not like it’s my blog.)

    I guess I’ll need to read the book before critiquing the argument, but thanks for clarifying that point for me.

    Here are an additional thought (but again, going off only James’s summary). It seems that in practice, what Brennan’s plan would accomplish would be twofold:

    1. Limit suffrage but giving those who seek it a greater stake in the process because they’d have to jump through hoops or get certain credentials and thereby would probably “want it more.”

    2. Establish another veto point (with one epistocratic council) or several veto points (with several epistocratic councils). Depending on how it works out, it might be, in a sense, a “third house” of the legislature. It’s this feature that made ppnl’s comparison to Soviet-style governance resonate with me, although I do share his/her caveat that Brennan’s plan isn’t really a revolutionary takeover.

    I see the rationale for no. 1, but think the potential for abuse is still too high. I agree that just because such tests have been used in the past to ill effect doesn’t mean they’ll be so used now. But in an age of voter i.d. laws and turning people away because they’re allegedly on the felony roles, I’m skeptical. (I realize from what James said that Brennan supports voting rights for felons–as do I–and while that would solve the one problem of turning away legitimate voters, the same people will still be in charge to administer the newer tests.) While I’d probably never sign on to this limitation of suffrage, I would probably dislike it less if there were several pathways to acquiring suffrage, so if one’s knowledge of economics is deficient, perhaps a demonstrated skill in a trade could be a route B, (and I’d prefer there’d also be a route C, D, E, etc….of course, that might limit what Brennan is trying to accomplish).

    For no. 2, I’ve been convinced that government regulation can be bad and can too easily creep where it oughtn’t. But I think we have enough veto points already. And while the members of the epistocratic councils may be smarter along some margin, I’m assuming they’ll be comparably smart (and comparably venal and self-serving) to the lawmakers we already elect.

    Again, though, I haven’t read Brennan’s book so perhaps my take is different from he’s actually proposing, or he addresses some of my concerns.

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