Book review – Against Democracy

9-minute read

This review is one half of a two-parter. Against Democracy has been sitting on my shelves for a while now. After I recently received a review copy of Roslyn Fuller’s book In Defence of Democracy, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally read it. Two books, two opposing viewpoints, two reviews, back-to-back.

Against Democracy

Against Democracy, written by Jason Brennan, published by Princeton University Press in September 2017 (paperback, 312 pages)

As the title of this book already suggests, Jason Brennan (a Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University) here offers a strident critique of democracy and argues in favour of epistocracy: a rule of the knowledgeable. Pull up your comfortable debating chair, because things are about to get controversial.

Brennan’s argument

Universal suffrage (an expensive way of saying the right to vote for everyone) is a hard-won freedom denied to many until not so long ago. Surely, it is a proud achievement? Of course, Brennan concedes, democracy beats most other forms of governance we have tried (dictatorships, oligarchies, etc.), but can we do better? Despite the strongly-worded title, Brennan does not know for sure there is a better alternative, but we ought to try and find out. And if there is one, then we ought to practice it. That alternative could very well be a rule by the knowledgeable – an epistocracy. Why? Because, Brennan writes, most people are ignorant, irrational, misinformed nationalists.

Against Democracy first charts how bad the situation is (quoting political theorist Jeffrey Friedman: “The public is far more ignorant than academic and journalistic observers of the public realize“) and lays bare the irrationality, tribalism, and cognitive biases affecting voters. Some of this feels questionable – is your ability to recall factoids really a good proxy for political knowledge? – and Fuller makes minced meat of these arguments in In Defence of Democracy. After this, Brennan spends a significant chunk of the book disarming three so-called proceduralist arguments often used to defend democracy. What they share is to claim that there is something intrinsically just about democracy. The going here gets quite technical, so without going into too much detail: democracy ennobles us, empowers us, and signals and expresses respect for us. Brennan finds fault with all three.

I found the first argument, that political participation would ennoble us, particularly interesting. Notably, many theorists argue for some form of a deliberative democracy, where voters come together to discuss and debate. Fuller, for example, promotes an Athenian-style direct democracy. Despite her confidence in voters, I have my doubts about the competencies of the average citizen. Brennan argues the empirical track record is terrible: such debates polarize, are frequently unbalanced, depend on manipulation and status, and rarely achieve consensus.

“If we agree that children should not have a vote because they have no idea what they are doing, why does this not apply to other groups?”

Having made the claim that there are no good reasons to prefer democracy over epistocracy on proceduralist grounds, Brennan continues to see if there are reasons to prefer epistocracy over democracy. He argues we have the right to a competent government. If we agree that children should not have a vote because they have no idea what they are doing, why does this not apply to other groups? Similarly, we demand our doctors and judges to be knowledgeable and competent, to study and pass exams. Why should this be any different for voters, whose choices have consequences that affect us all? I will admit that, superficially, this line of reasoning sounds incredibly appealing to me.

A final chapter then examines various forms that an epistocracy could take. In essence, Brennan proposes several variations where we either take voting power away from people deemed too ignorant, or give more voting power to those deemed sufficiently knowledgeable. But many things would remain untouched: there would still be elections where we choose representatives, and we would still have to choose between political parties.

So far, so good. Brennan’s presentation of his arguments is clear: he introduces what he is going to talk about, talks about it, and then summarises what he just talked about. Frequent bullet-point lists clearly structure the text. Even for someone like myself who lacks a background in political philosophy, I found I could follow Brennan’s line of thought and only occasionally had to look up some jargon.

Logical gaps, curious omissions, and tough questions

But what of the arguments themselves? Here I was, to my surprise, ultimately less convinced. There are some glaring logical gaps, curious omissions, and tough questions thrown up by this book.

I will highlight two things that seemed illogical to me. First, Brennan agrees with empirical democratic theorists who point out that democracies actually function quite well, despite an uninformed public. “There are a large number of “mediating factors” that prevent the electorate from getting its way“. But if voters are not that influential anyway, what difference will an epistocracy make? Second lapse in logic: the comparison with doctors and such falls flat because they actually apply their knowledge themselves. The electorate does not, they choose politicians who do, so that would shift the competency burden to politicians. If democracy fails, isn’t this rather a case of incompetent politicians? In defence, Brennan claims that low-quality electorate delivers poor-quality candidates.

This brings me to what I consider two omissions. First, the book is US-centric but never stops to consider how broken the US political system is. Politics divides us, says Brennan. It is a zero-sum game where for someone to win, someone else has to lose. It turns us into situational enemies, the way Roman gladiators are unwillingly pitted against each other in a fight to the death. But in a two-party system with first-past-the-post voting, what else do you expect? Many of the objections to democracy given in chapter 9 would not go away in an epistocracy: they are a problem not of dumb voters but of a broken system. Second omission: his claim that money has little influence on politics just seems naive. This was a major point in Beasts and Gods, though Brennan refers to Martin Gilen’s work in Affluence and Influence. He is not convinced by that work and mentions the existence of a large body of literature showing that campaign contributions barely impact political outcomes. I am obviously no expert in political philosophy, but this sounds unlikely. What of all the special interest groups, think tanks, and other lobbyists representing wealthy and powerful corporations that erode laws and legislation? You do not have to look hard to find scandals. If one author points to a body of research saying A, and another points to a body of research saying B, then either someone is cherry-picking or the matter just is not that clear-cut as either would like.

“Many of [Brennan’s] objections to democracy […] would not go away in an epistocracy: they are a problem not of dumb voters but of a broken system.”

Then, two tough questions. First – and this is no doubt a really big one for many readers – what knowledge actually matters? Who is knowledgeable? And who decides on this? Brennan provides sketches here. It could be that voters have to pass a citizenship exam, or pass an economics and political science exam, or pass a test for a proxy of such knowledge, such as solving logic and mathematics problems. Clearly, this needs developing. To me, it sounds that the level of knowledge he would consider sufficient would take away voting rights from the vast majority. Second tough question: Brennan proposes running experiments with small-scale epistocracies, e.g. on state level. By what metric would you judge its success? How would you know it is performing better than a democracy?

Finally, Brennan highlights the risk that taking away voter rights will reinforce existing segregation and discrimination, though he thinks this points to underlying problems that we should fix. “If epistocracy, warts and all, performs at all better than democracy, warts and all, than we should have epistocracy. I am not arguing, and need not argue, that epistocracy will be wart-free“. Though in an academic debate this is a reasonable defence, it will likely not go down well with many and be seen as glib elitism. I think we should first address those underlying injustices before we start excluding voters. Why insist on being divisive? Why not rather make yourself strong for being inclusive and trying to raise everyone’s proverbial boat? Brennan will no doubt reply that excluding dumb voters will result in better decisions, which will achieve just that, but I am not so sure. History teaches us that oppressors rarely have the well-being of the oppressed at heart.

Conclusion: against or in defence of democracy?

Having now read both books, how do they compare? Brennan’s is certainly the more academic read of the two, though clearly structured. Ironically, Fuller and Brennan have one thing in common: they both agree that democracy, as it is currently practised, is broken. But they diverge as to the problem and the solution. Brennan argues people are the problem, and a rule of the knowledgeable the answer. Fuller argues the system is the problem, and mass-participation the answer. It reminds me a bit of the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, where each blind man touches a different part of the elephant and gives a different description of it. Democracy obviously being the elephant here.

On balance, I lean more towards Fuller’s ideas, though a hybrid approach might well be needed. I do think voter ignorance is a huge problem, but, compared to the other problems Fuller highlights in Beasts and Gods, not to the extent that Brennan makes it out to be. I will agree with Brennan’s point that we should not be shy about picking whatever works best (in turn opening a whole new can of worms about metrics for this, which is another topic).

Reviewing In Defence of Democracy and Against Democracy back-to-back was an intellectually stimulating and surprisingly fun exercise. It was both interesting and mildly disconcerting to observe my own opinion on the topic swaying first in one and then another direction. This goes to show that on a topic where there are no absolutes it is a worthwhile exercise to seek out contrasting viewpoints, so I recommend both books.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Against Democracy paperback, hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:




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