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Book Review: Against Democracy
(Jason Brennan)

Jason Brennan is The Man Who Was Born Yesterday. His book is incisive, insightful, interesting, funny, and well-informed. It delivers a sound and compelling case that democracy is fatally flawed. But everything he says in “Against Democracy” lacks depth, because he thinks that history began roughly twenty-four hours ago. So, while his analysis of democracy is good, his prescriptions are unbelievably shallow and poorly thought-out, making the book very like a delicious-looking piece of cake that is wholly stale upon the eating.

Perhaps this is not surprising, since Brennan is a Millennial (born in 1979), and the wisdom of the ages does not appear to figure heavily in his thinking. Moreover, Brennan self-identifies, not in this book but elsewhere, as a “bleeding heart libertarian.” This appears to be a libertarian who trims his views, especially on controversial social issues of the day, such that he continues to be invited to East Coast dinner parties, where history is apparently not a hot topic of discussion.

Beyond its shallow historical vision, though, the major problem with “Against Democracy” is an equally shallow and more centrally fatal conception of “knowledge.” The author claims his book is an argument for epistocracy—rule by the knowledgeable. (“Epistocracy” is a 2003 neologism, although the general concept is not new.) Brennan, in one of his very rare acknowledgements that anyone engaged in relevant political thinking prior to John Rawls, remarks that Plato, to the extent he endorsed a “philosopher king,” was an epistocrat. But when Brennan talks about “knowledge,” he means not wisdom, as Plato did, but a very specific set of very narrow and blinkered modern “social scientific” knowledge—which just so happens to exist only at the intersection of left-liberal and “bleeding heart libertarian” thought. This is perhaps the fatal problem of the book—not that rule by the knowledgeable is necessarily a defective form of government, but that Brennan’s definition of the required knowledge is circumscribed in a way calculated to raise as the new philosopher kings people who bear a suspicious resemblance to Jason Brennan. But pointing to a specific fatal problem in the prescriptions offered by “Against Democracy” is like pointing to which stab wound killed Julius Caesar—you can never be sure which one was fatal, but then, really, does it matter?

We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go through the author’s arguments, which Brennan lays out clearly—this is a very readable book. In his introductory chapter, “Hobbits and Hooligans,” he defines three cleverly named species of political participant: hobbits, who are “apathetic and ignorant”; hooligans, who are mostly ignorant but don’t know it, but are aggressively involved in politics; and vulcans, who “think scientifically and rationally about politics,” with their opinions being “strongly grounded in social science and philosophy.” Almost everyone, he claims, is a hobbit or hooligan; and trying to involve hobbits more in politics merely creates more hooligans.

In this brief introductory chapter, Brennan might as well build a graven image of the term “social science,” and worship it. On one set of two pages, he uses the term not less than eight times. For him, social science is the Alpha and Omega of allowable political thought. So, for example, ignorance is repeatedly defined in terms such as “not having a strong background in the relevant social sciences.” Brennan never defines “social science,” but throughout the entire book, his Venn diagram of “social scientific thought” and “epistocratic thought” has 100% overlap. No knowledge that is not “social scientific” is relevant or permitted to influence decisions in Brennan’s proposed new political order. You’d think that makes it essential to define “social science,” but as I say, that doesn’t happen. Presumably “social science” excludes anything that Jason Brennan finds not relevant to “competent political decision making,” such as appeals to tradition, any form of moral or religious belief not found cast in a positive light in modern “social science” journals, and generally anything not approved by the glitterati at Georgetown cocktail parties.

Anyway, Brennan then turns to his major thesis: that democracy is not a uniquely just form of political organization—in fact, it has tremendous defects, such that despite its visceral appeal, we can and should determine if a better system can be found. Among several problems, the biggest is that most voters are incompetent, and democracy enables them to impose their incompetent decisions on other people. His targets here are a range of professional philosophers who advocate the absolute or relative superiority of democracy on either proceduralist or instrumentalist grounds.

In the series of chapters following his introduction, Brennan first reviews the voluminous literature definitively proving that the vast majority of voters (by which he means American voters) are utterly ignorant of politically relevant book learning. This ignorance, as he shows, is actually rational, because it costs a voter to obtain knowledge, and the expected return for most people is less than the cost, given that the impact of their vote is very close to zero. This chapter is compelling, and damning of the quality of voter decision making, to the extent based on knowledge. But it’s not original and does not warrant writing a book. Everyone knows democracy is awful; as Churchill said (whom Brennan does not quote) and Brennan says, the question is what’s better, if anything?

This first chapter is also where Brennan’s lack of history (and other) knowledge shows up first. He says, talking of rational political choice, “Suppose one lived in a fundamentalist theocratic monarchy or something close to it, such as most of Europe in the Middle Ages or Saudi Arabia right now.” This is the height of ignorance. No European monarchy was ever a theocracy, or anything related to a theocracy. Zero. (Byzantine monarchs were caesaropapist, as was much of the historical Muslim world, which is vaguely similar in some ways to a theocracy, but the opposite in other ways. And the Anabaptists in Münster ran a theocracy, which was not a monarchy, for about three seconds in the 16th Century. Like I say—zero.) Nor is today’s Saudi Arabia a theocracy. It is a purely secular monarchy where the ruling family subsidizes the clergy for political gain, while at the same time tightly controlling it. Iran is the closest government to a modern theocracy, but Brennan seems unaware of that. (This quote from Brennan also shows a common but disconcerting tendency of Brennan’s—attempting to insulate himself from attack by using vague and undefined qualifying phrases that can be defined post hoc in the manner necessary, such as “something close to it” and “most of.”)

Maybe this type of gross historical error is meaningless in a philosophy book. But that Brennan does not see his historical errors, and none of his editors or his long list of thanked assistants and helpers did, suggests that they all live in a narrow, insular world, where historical, organic knowledge is undervalued and reasoning based on abstract knowledge, in a vacuum, or more accurately an echo chamber, regarded as admirable. Additional such historical errors in the book, along with lengthy, serious discussions analyzing the cut-rate thought of the bell-bottom flavored philosopher John Rawls, reinforce this feeling—the feeling that Brennan believes all relevant thought and political action began around 1970, to the tune of “Hey Jude” and the reek of marijuana.

In the next chapter, Brennan demonstrates that “Political Participation Corrupts.” Deliberation leads not to reasoned results and consensus; it instead leads to hardening of various forms of bias and a total lack of enlightenment. It is irrelevant that some theoretical forms of deliberation can theoretically lead to good results, for they fail to do so in practice, in the same way as the high ideals of fraternities in practice lead not to refined men but to drunken louts. Similarly, “Politics Doesn’t Empower You Or Me.” Democracy does not result in the consent of the governed. Nor does it lead to autonomy, nondomination, or moral development. Brennan goes on at some technical length regarding philosophical arguments put forward by John Rawls, rejecting most or all of what Rawls and his acolytes have to say regarding democracy as a basic liberty, therefore one essential for justice. (All you need to know about Rawls, though it’s not covered here since Brennan favors abortion rights, is that Rawls excludes unborn children, the original members of the “original position,” from the protection of his Veil of Ignorance—as far as I can tell, and Brennan seems unlikely to disagree, Rawls’s entire thought project was finding dubious “philosophical” justifications for left-liberal positions already arrived at.) In sum, Brennan shows that democracy fails to empower any given individual (although it can empower groups as a whole). All this is entirely convincing on the level both of philosophical argument, in which it’s quite rigorous, and of instrumentalist rejection of democracy as not achieving the goals for which its proponents put it forward.

In “Politics Is Not A Poem,” Brennan rejects that democratic systems have a symbolic, or semiotic, value. For example, democracy does not need to signal non-superiority, because some people ARE superior—namely, the people Brennan wants to rule in an epistocracy. And in a later chapter, “Civic Enemies,” Brennan posits that involvement by most people in politics is corrosive of civil society, because the incompetence of most members of society makes them incapable of decent deliberation. Plus, society is unnecessarily divided by issues that are almost all not worth fighting about (although Brennan conveniently ignores all controversial social issues, ranging from guns to gay marriage to abortion, presumably because no Right Thinking Person can think there is an actual controversy about those, and only cretins who should be denied the vote would take any other position than the left-liberal one).

Brennan then pivots to what politics is supposed to provide—namely, “The Right To Competent Government.” He posits that it is unjust to “forcibly deprive [a citizen] of life, liberty, or property, or significantly harm [his] life prospects, as a result of decisions made by an incompetent deliberative body. . . . Political decisions are presumed legitimate and authoritative only when produced by competent political bodies in a competent way and in good faith.” An incompetent monarchy, which is unjust because incompetent and because a monarchy, is not made just by becoming a democracy and remaining incompetent. If we don’t let children vote because we think on average they’re incompetent to govern, why do we let adults who are incompetent govern? And, as Brennan has already shown, most adults are systematically incompetent to govern—so they should not be allowed to govern.

Finally, Brennan has a brief chapter, “Rule Of The Knowers,” pushing an ill-defined epistocracy as an alternative to democracy. He makes modest claims not focused on an ideal system: “Given what we know . . . which is likely to deliver better results, some form of epistocracy or some form of democracy?” He suggests the possibility of restricting voting to “citizens who demonstrate a basic level of knowledge,” that is, to eliminate those “who lack basic social scientific knowledge.” He suggests possibly allowing everybody to vote, but giving more votes to the knowledgeable. He suggests trying universal suffrage with a veto by an “epistocratic council” (naturally, composed exclusively of those who can “pass rigorous competency exams in which they demonstrate strong background knowledge in the social sciences and political philosophy”—welcome your parade of overlords who look just like Jason Brennan!)

Here, again, Brennan demonstrates historical ignorance. Even more jarring than simple historical error, he repeatedly fails to make any historical reference where one would both be apt and instructive, leading the reader to believe he is probably unaware of the relevant historical point. For example, the Spartan gerousia was an actual epistocratic council. Its performance and characteristics seem highly relevant—but of it, there is no mention. Similarly, early America, as conceived and implemented by the Founders, had a sharply restricted franchise, which in many ways mirrored Brennan’s epistocracy, in practice if not in intent. But again, this is not mentioned, even though any informed reader would think of the parallel. This reinforces the reader’s suspicion that in Brennan’s epistocracy, abstract ideology will be rewarded, and concrete, incrementalist, tradition-respecting government will be punished.

In any case, Brennan’s epistocracy suffers from the wholly fatal flaw that not only does Brennan never define “social scientific knowledge,” he nowhere attempts to show why it is superior to any other kind of knowledge. Brennan habitually conflates all knowledge with “social scientific knowledge.” He literally seems unaware that any politically relevant knowledge that is not “social scientific” can exist. He equates abstract knowledge with competence—but scoring high on a civics exam does not equal good decisions. Good decisions, as any ancient philosopher could tell him, come from wisdom, which can informed by abstract knowledge, but is not the same thing as abstract knowledge. Brennan relies on decisions made based on the statistics of social science, rather than decisions based on the knowledge created by historical experience, which may be less presentable in charts but is much more relevant to human experience as actually lived.

That’s not the only fatal flaw of the book, though. For another, Brennan seems to think that the only players in a human society are the governors and the governed. But this is like the two-dimensional view of a citizen of Flatland, who really lives in a three-dimensional world he cannot see. Any actual society has between the government and the individual society a range of intermediary institutions—churches, labor unions, clubs, associations, and so forth, upon which the real strength of society is based. An epistocracy based on abstract knowledge must necessarily oppose intermediary institutions; they are a drag on the rulers’ ability to get things done by exercising their superior knowledge in an efficient manner. And a society that destroys its intermediary institutions is merely a society headed down the stainless steel chute of the abattoir. Those in line can’t always see what lies ahead, but they can tell from the screams it’s not going to be good.

Yet another flaw with Brennan’s scheme is that those possessing abstract knowledge are frequently the most maleficent at governing in practice, because they believe their knowledge, which would be validated as supreme in Brennan’s scheme and therefore become even more overweening and pernicious, SHOULD lead them to DO SOMETHING. One hundred percent of the time, the epistocrats in Brennan’s scheme would implement Utopian ideological schemes, unrooted in reality and ignoring prudence and tradition. Brennan even makes a nod to Burke to note that changing from democracy to epistocracy should not be done precipitously wholesale—but he does not seem to grasp that his epistocracy would inherently be a Burkean nightmare, no different than the French Revolution, any post-independence African country, or Twitter’s odious Trust & Security Council. It would be rule by the abstractly knowledgeable, who are always really a prideful, unrooted, amoral group, tainted by groupthink and inflamed by the human lust for power and dominance over others, lusts fully enabled and validated by the new testing regime that divides society into the rulers, creatures of abstract thought who must necessarily reject all tradition and rootedness, and the ruled.

“Against Democracy” would have benefited from considering, whether, if we are going to restrict universal equal suffrage, we should focus less on abstract knowledge, and more on increasing the power of those with organic knowledge. This distinction was a core distinction in most of the original Greek democracies (which, of course, were not universal suffrage democracies), which mostly found abstract philosophies something between dubious and contemptible. A system preferencing organic knowledge would offer more power to those with a stake in society, who are likely to be more knowledgeable about what really matters for a society, even if they cannot match wits with philosophy Ph.Ds. As Robert Nisbet said, “rootless men always betray.”

For example, perhaps those with children should be given 10X votes per child, so those with five children would be given 10^5 votes, or 100,000 votes, compared to one vote for the childless. Similarly, property owners, especially owners of real property, which is not portable, might be given extra votes. Recent immigrants would get no vote at all until they proved integration into and worth to society. Voting power could be reduced for those who are value takers, not value creators. So recipients of significant government benefits (mostly the elderly and the middle class, not the poor), as well as anyone working for the federal or state governments, directly or indirectly, would be stripped of most or all votes (regardless of their amount of children or holdings of real property). Anyone with an advanced degree in a worthless and loathsome topic like Gender Studies would be wholly and permanently stripped not only of the right to vote, but also of the privilege of working in government, and therefore exercising power over others, at any level. But Brennan never adverts to any other possibility for the measure of epistocratic fitness, other than a paper test for compatibility with Jason Brennan. Too bad. Maybe in the second edition.

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