Book Review of “Against Democracy” by Jason Brennan
Recently, I heard interesting things about a new book “Against Democracy” by Jason Brennan. “A brash, well argued diatribe against the democratic system” and “Sure to cause howls of disagreement,” said one reviewer. “Reveals libertarianism’s bankrupt conscience,” said another. “Among the best works in political philosophy in recent memory,” said a third. I rarely review books; it’s a lot of effort, often for little gain. But in this case, I decided it might be worth my while to buy, read and comment on this book. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Jason Brennan is a professor in the School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington DC, a privately funded Catholic and Jesuit university. His background is in philosophy, and his primary interest is political philosophy. He also writes at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog I read occasionally, and which is generally seen as being towards the left of the liberty movement.
So, what qualifications do I have to critique such a book? I’m not an academic; I earn my bread (and wine) as a software consultant. But I’m also a regular teacher of the ideas of liberty at Glenn Cripe’s Language of Liberty Institute camps. My degree, long ago, was in mathematics from Cambridge. In philosophy, I’m an educated amateur, not a professional. But I take the philosophy of liberty sufficiently seriously to have written and self published a book on the subject, called “Honest Common Sense.” And I do most of my blogging at the UK’s Libertarian Alliance, where I’m one of the less conservative authors.
Now I knew, before I started, that I would probably agree with most of what Jason Brennan would say about the shortcomings of democracy. In fact, I expected to find his views on that subject rather softer than my own. And what I found was, indeed, as I expected. He thinks democracy is an ugly pig; but his disrespect for it is far less vehement than my own.
Jason Brennan gives the name epistocracy, meaning the rule of the knowledgeable, to his range of proposed solutions to the ills of democracy. Basically, he thinks that the views of more informed, more rational people should carry greater weight than those of the less informed and the less rational. I confess that my instant reaction to this idea was to paraphrase it as, “We’re the experts; trust us.” I’ve been on this planet a few years now. And I’ve heard lines like that far too many times to be anything but extremely skeptical. So, it was always going to be a tough job for Jason Brennan to convince me of his claims. But that said, I’m open to persuasion by good and rational arguments. So, here we go…
First, a few stylistic plaudits for this book. It’s clearly written. Whenever Jason Brennan introduces a technical word – such as “semiotic” – he always takes the trouble to explain exactly what he means by it. And I like the way in which he presents, in an indented section of the text and worded very concisely, a list of options, points or arguments to be discussed, then follows them through in a logical sequence.
I rather liked the idea, near the beginning of the book, of classifying people into hobbits (uninterested in politics), hooligans (political fans and cheerleaders) and vulcans (rational, scientific thinkers about politics). But unfortunately, I find the classification incomplete. I myself, for one, don’t fall into any of the three categories. While I have many of the characteristics of a vulcan, my only interest in politics is in trying to work out how to get rid of it. A term I might use to describe the group I belong to is the alienated. And I suspect that we are a considerably greater fraction of the population than most pundits would attest. For example, the turn-out in the recent Brexit referendum, in which I did vote, was far higher than the usual turn-out in general elections, in which I refuse to vote for any of the parties. I think I’m not alone!
My first substantive disagreement with Jason Brennan’s thesis comes towards the end of chapter 2 (whose title is: “Ignorant, Irrational, Misinformed Nationalists”). He says (and in his note 79 gives references) that voters don’t vote selfishly, but for what they perceive to be in the national interest. (Or, I presume, some other group interest, if the election isn’t a national one). I find this hard to believe, because it doesn’t tally with my own experience.
In the UK, for example, we have a Labour party which, historically, has always been the party of trade union power. Trade unionists used to vote en bloc for it; and many of that persuasion still do. That, to me, is selfish voting. Another reason large numbers of people (including many of my friends) vote the way they do, is that they hate one of the major parties so much, that they will vote for whoever has the best chance of beating them. This is generally known as voting for “the lesser of two evils.” Back in the 1980s, I myself twice voted Conservative for just this reason, believing (naively) that I was doing so in self-defence against Labour.
Not being an expert in political psychology, I can’t say categorically that Jason Brennan is wrong on this point. But my bullshit meter is triggered. I noticed, for example, that many of the papers cited were published before 2000, so would not take any account of the increased polarization of politics since then. I also wonder what methodologies were used to solicit the reasons why people voted as they did. If they were asked directly, for example, I wouldn’t expect the results to be valid; for how many people would be willing to supply an answer that could give others cause to think of them as selfish and unpatriotic?
Chapter 3, “Political Participation Corrupts,” is very good. And Chapter 4, “Politics Doesn’t Empower You or Me,” begins even better. The demolition of the consent argument had me chuckling; in places, it reminded me of John Locke’s First Treatise of Government. And soon after, I came to a key point. While democracy may (or may not?) empower us as a collective, it doesn’t empower us as individuals. Indeed, Jason Brennan says that democracy “is intended to disempower all the individuals in favor of large groups or collections of individuals.” In darts terms, that hits the very centre of the bull. But as I read on, I found this chapter becoming increasingly hard work.
In Chapter 5, “Politics Is Not a Poem,” I found myself disagreeing with the idea that equal voting rights don’t (or shouldn’t) have any value to those who enjoy them. I agree with Jason Brennan that the right to vote is all but worthless in objective terms. But he seems to neglect the fact that individuals make their value judgments subjectively. As the proverb goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” So, this chapter left me somewhat underwhelmed.
But it was in Chapter 6, “The Right to Competent Government,” that my alarm bells really started ringing. We have a right to “competent” government. That sounds fair enough. But what is “competent?” The dictionary says “having requisite or adequate ability or qualities.” In essence, competence is fitness for purpose. But fitness for what purpose? To produce just outcomes, seems to be Jason Brennan’s answer. But just (sic) what does “just” mean?
I’ll park that for now, and turn to the other side of the coin, the idea that political decisions must be made “in good faith.” Again, this sounds fair enough. The dictionary defines good faith as “honesty or lawfulness of purpose.” I think I know what honesty means; but “lawfulness?” If a political government makes a law – such as apartheid, or Prohibition – does that necessarily mean it was made in good faith? I think not. Indeed, I contend that most things done by political governments today, democracies included, are done in bad faith. Re-distribution of wealth from the productive to the lazy? Using non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” as an excuse to invade Iraq? Spying on us with cameras, and intercepting our e-mails? Bad faith, all of them.
And there’s an egregious example of bad faith, which Jason Brennan touches on, but fails to spear as he should have done. This is where he talks about “carbon emissions.” That he devotes the following paragraph to energy use, suggests to me that he is actually talking not about carbon emissions, but about carbon dioxide emissions. (School chemistry: at room temperature, carbon is a solid; carbon dioxide is a gas. Any vulcan should know the difference.)
Now, carbon emissions which find their way into the air – such as soot – can, indeed, be a real environmental problem. But carbon dioxide, despite what many politicians and politicized “experts” say, isn’t a pollutant. In fact, it’s essential for plants to survive; and the more of it there is in the atmosphere, up to several times greater than the amount that’s there today, the more the plants will thrive.
An accusation against carbon dioxide, which might carry some weight if true, is that human emissions of it (from using fossil fuels) might cause dangerous, even catastrophic “global warming.” But this accusation, while supposedly “scientific,” is actually purely political. Bad “science” that supports it, and scares about its bad effects, are hyped in the media. While science that contradicts it, and independent, objective cost-benefit assessments on the issue, are suppressed or ignored. Further, the precautionary principle has been subverted, and the burden of proof has been inverted. And those who, like me, have looked objectively at the evidence and found the accusation wanting, are called nasty names like “flat earthers” and “deniers.”
To those who study such things, it’s clear that the political establishment planned today’s green policies – such as cutting use of fossil fuels, and forcing us out of our cars – decades ago. And that scientific truth or falsehood, and what we the people think or want, are of no importance to them. Google “Our Common Future” if you don’t believe me. Bad faith, bad faith, bad faith.
It’s unfortunate for Jason Brennan’s case for epistocracy that he unwittingly shows here how hard it is to be an epistocrat, or even a vulcan. Not only does such an individual need to be expert in political philosophy, ethics, law and social sciences. But he also needs to know about history, psychology, economics, chemistry, physics, engineering, farming and all the other branches of knowledge he might need in his duties. (Not to mention vulcanology). And he needs to be absolutely honest and scrupulous. In short, he needs all the characteristics of a philosopher king. But, as Aristotle told us, such individuals do not and cannot exist.
A little later, Jason Brennan appears to cop out in a big way, when he says: “It’s not clear I need to defend a precise theory of political competence.” But to make his case for epistocracy, it’s absolutely necessary for him to explicate such a theory. For his arguments for epistocracy are instrumental, not procedural. So, if epistocracy is ever to be adopted on a large scale, it must first be trialled; a suggestion he does indeed make in a later chapter. And how should we judge the results of those trials? By measuring how competent epistocratic government is, compared with democratic; how just its outcomes are, and how good the faith in which they are made. But you can’t measure something if you can’t define it precisely. And you can’t persuade others that your system is better than theirs, unless you can agree on how to measure the two against each other.
Chapter 7 is entitled “Is democracy competent?” Jason Brennan answers “No,” and I’m very much in agreement with him on this. But there’s one issue on which I disagree with him fundamentally. He says that the political parties choose candidates they believe will appeal to typical voters. He then uses this to blame the failings of politicians on the failings of the electorate. But I think this should be the other way around.
Recently, I was looking at a standard test used by psychiatrists to detect psychopathic tendencies. I asked the question, how well (or badly) would the typical politician score on this test? What I found supported the idea that politicians will tend to score much higher on the test – that is, they are much more likely to have psychopathic tendencies – than members of the general population.
For example, they are more likely than ordinary people to be superficially charming, arrogant, foolhardy (particularly with others’ resources), lying, insincere, selfish or manipulative. And they are more likely to try to deny accountability for their actions, and to lack remorse towards their victims. This, I think, can help to explain why so many politicians do so much of what they do in bad faith. In a nutshell, power attracts psychopaths. Jason Brennan shows he is aware of this problem, when early in the book he says: “In the real world, if we imbued an office with the discretionary power of a philosopher king, that power would attract the wrong kind of people.”
The electorate, on the other hand, have been gradually corrupted over decades by the perverse incentives and ideas offered to them by the political system, particularly through welfare and through politicized education and media. Jason Brennan is right to say that the electorate as a whole aren’t what they ought to be. But in my view, it’s the political system that has corrupted the people, not the other way round.
And so to Chapter 8, “The Rule of the Knowers,” where Jason Brennan puts forward a range of proposals for how epistocratic government might work. One thing that surprised (and disappointed) me was that most of his proposals involve imposing restrictions on the electorate rather than restrictions on power seekers. If I were designing such a system, I would look to set it up so that the more power an individual wishes to exercise, the higher the bar they have to clear. Thus the level of qualification required to stand for office would be far higher than the level required to vote. And the level of qualification needed to become a president or prime minister would be far higher again than the level required to be a congressman or an MP.
To detail. Christiano’s values-only voting idea doesn’t pass Jason Brennan’s smell test; nor mine. As to suffrage restricted by exam qualification, I immediately see two major drawbacks (beyond the two which Jason Brennan mentions, ideological manipulation and cramming). One, it would be very expensive, requiring as it does the testing of everyone who wishes to vote. And two, it’s liable to spark conflict between the enfranchised and the disenfranchised. Plural voting, on the other hand, doesn’t address the first of these issues, and might be even worse on the second. Plural voting could easily lead to two wolves and ten chickens voting on what’s for dinner!
López-Guerra’s “enfranchisement lottery” seems to me both complicated and naive. He himself admits that it increases the risk of manipulation and agenda control; and that’s the very last thing we need. I suspect the same problem would apply to the “simulated oracle” proposal at the end of the chapter; in particular, there would be risks of hacking of the program or its database.
Epistocratic veto seems, at least at first sight, more promising. The electorate lose no perceived rights, and the politicians’ worst excesses are restrained. Unfortunately, Jason Brennan fails to mention that this particular proposal has already been tried; and it doesn’t work any more, if indeed it ever did. The institution in question is the UK’s House of Lords. Its denizens, originally, were aristocrats rather than epistocrats; but there’s not much difference there. And, prior to 1911, it had pretty much the veto power that Jason Brennan suggests. Today, though, the Lords has not only lost much of its erstwhile power, but it’s also packed full of party hacks and political appointees. Even fifty years ago, the Lords was still a bulwark for the people against bad government; but today, it’s almost as bad as the Commons, and in some ways worse.
Towards the end of the section on epistocratic veto, however, a far more radical and interesting idea appears. In this scheme, epistocratic screening is to be applied to all the winning candidates for offices. To avoid interminable re-runs, I think it would be better to do the screening before the election takes place, on all the candidates. Only those who pass the test may stand for office.
There’s still an issue to be addressed; the selection of panel members. In my view, merely being a vulcan, and having objective expertise in relevant areas, shouldn’t be enough to qualify for epistocratic power. We also need to apply ethical standards. And we need to apply strict quality control to prevent corruption. Jason Brennan doesn’t say anything about these aspects.
All that said, I really do like this idea of epistocratic screening. For, if done properly, it has the potential to stop the politicization of our lives right at source. Even better (as I’ve suggested elsewhere), we could include a psychopathy test as part of the screening process, and qualified psychiatrists on the screening panel. Then the panel could bar from office anyone with even the slightest trace of psychopathy, or at the least with a higher psychopathy test score than the median of the population as a whole. We could even apply the screening test retrospectively to existing office holders! Heh, heh.
Finally, I’ll make a couple more tongue half in cheek proposals along somewhat similar lines to Jason Brennan’s. (1) Create a “hooligan test” to identify political hooligans. Bar all hooligans, including current and past politicians, from voting, and from holding or standing for office. (2) Plural voting, with votes in proportion to the taxes each individual has paid minus the benefits he has received. (I call this the “shareholding model.”)
To sum up. This is a very thought provoking book, with many fine ideas and insights. But Jason Brennan doesn’t manage to convince me to give up my (objectively worthless) political rights to him and his vulcan colleagues. Nice try, my friend, but no cigar. Nevertheless, the book was worth far more to me than the purchase price and the time I spent to read it. And so, I thoroughly recommend Jason Brennan’s “Against Democracy” to all those looking for a better politics.