A review of Jason Brennan’s ‘Against Democracy’

Dickie Bellringer

Monday, 06 February 2017

Here we go again – another blow to our fondly-held beliefs about democracy! This book not only repeats many of the criticisms of democracy made in Democracy for Realists by Achen and Bartels, but actually argues that we should ditch democracy in favour of another form of government – not monarchy, oligarchy or totalitarianism, but something called epistocracy, otherwise known as the rule of the knowledgeable.

Brennan usefully outlines his formal argument thus:
1)There are no good procedural grounds for preferring democracy to epistocracy.
2)It is unjust to forcibly and significantly harm citizens’ life prospects as a result of decisions made by an incompetent deliberative body.
3)We ought to replace an incompetent decision-making method with a more competent one.
4)Universal suffrage tends to produce incompetent decisions, while certain forms of epistocracies are likely to produce more competent decisions.
5)So, we should probably replace democracy with certain forms of epistocracy.

He argues that most voters are ‘ignorant, irrational, and misinformed’ and ‘make systematic mistakes on many important issues’. He characterises people who don’t bother to learn about politics as Hobbits, those who do learn but are highly partisan are branded Hooligans and people who invest politics with scientific objectivity are Vulcans. He also argues that far from empowering us or making us more responsible citizens, political participation – including deliberative democracy – tends to make us worse.
Brennan says that democracy doesn’t empower ‘you or me’. It only empowers collectives not individuals – nor is democracy valuable for what it expresses or symbolizes. And he claims that an epistocracy, with all its faults and possibilities for abuse is, on the balance of probabilities, more likely to produce more competent governments than democracy.
In the light of the empirical evidence adduced Brennan claims that democracies ‘systematically violate the competence principle during elections’. As an instrumentalist, he argues that we should replace an incompetent model with a more competent one. And so we come to the conclusion that we should probably replace democracy with epistocracy.
There is a lot to unpack here and Tom Clark has begun that task in the February 2017 edition of Prospect. Clark is rightly to be sceptical about Brennan’s belief that individuals tend to vote altruistically, so that poor black communities should have nothing to fear from epistocracies packed with rich white people.
But Brennan is also inconsistent in his treatment of deliberative democracy, which actually leads to a conclusion suggesting that his bark is worse than his bite. And just in case his bite is worse than his bark there is an underlying philosophical assumption that I think undermines his argument.
Much of his empirical evidence regarding deliberative democracy is drawn from a paper entitled The Deliberative Citizen: Theory and Evidence by Tali Mendelberg. In doing so he seems at one point to be moving towards a cautious endorsement of deliberative democracy, although it should be said that subtle shifts in emphasis and omissions from the Mendelberg paper give an unjustified boost to his more negative comments. But just as you think deliberative democracy is making it through relatively unscathed he performs a volte-face by claiming that the ‘extant work on deliberative democracy is not promising’.
Then towards the end of the book he seems to perform another volte-face by favouring a version of epistocracy that combines democracy and epistocracy with deliberative democracy front and centre. Rather than restricting suffrage or allocating more votes to the educated, as some versions advocate, he leans towards what he calls Universal Suffrage with Epistocratic Veto. This model allows all to vote but with an ‘epistocratic deliberative body’ with the power to strike down, but not make, democratic decisions. This, he writes, is compatible with judicial reviews and Supreme Courts, but on a much broader canvas.

Within this matrix there is scope for many adjustments. The epistocratic council might, for example, be chosen at random but stratified to increase representativeness in line with the Southern Assembly organised in 2015 by Democracy Matters. Indeed, the executive summary suggests the possibility of a UK government up-scaling a deliberative body to national level. Clearly, this is far from endorsing Brennan’s epistocratic council with strike down powers but one can see how it is moving towards deliberative democracy along the lines piloted by Democracy Matters.
Nevertheless, the concern is that Brennan’s arguments might lead to more exclusive models in which the franchise is actually restricted, a concern that is not eased by his flip-flopping over deliberative democracy. So, we need a more fundamental critique to head this off. One area we can begin to do this is by attacking his underlying individualism.

An important part of Brennan’s argument for epistocracy rests on his belief that the vote does not empower individuals or make them more engaged citizens. According to him only collectives benefit from voting, but in Brennan’s world they do so in a completely occult way. For example, he writes that any attempt by him to cut his massive carbon footprint would not have a significant effect so he has no incentive to do so. He seems to be unable to see the wider picture because he is an individual with no connection to other individuals. This blindness would to a large extent dissipate if he saw voting in a more communitarian way, as at least in part a product of a society in which political participation and voting may be seen as an act of solidarity not simply an isolated and largely futile act. Such a world does not exist for Brennan – and it is a bleak world indeed.




IN an article for The Guardian entitled All About That Base George Monbiot www.monbiot.com begins the fightback for democracy which, he says, is ‘broken, debased and distrusted’.

There have been intellectual assaults on the very idea of democracy in books like Against Democracy by Jason Brennan. But Monbiot fights back against these positions with his reference to, among other things, Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education, which attempts to ensure that voters are well informed. The problem of voter ignorance lies at the core of those who either oppose democracy in favour of something like epistocracy (rule of the knowledgeable) or argue that we should drastically reduce our expectations of it.

In addition to my review of Against Democracy, it should be said that Brennan imposes an impossibly high level of knowledge that he thinks the electorate should be able to achieve before it can be said to make informed decisions. According to him this would include a good knowledge of economics and sociology. At the other end of the scale he acknowledges that those who do take the trouble to vote tend to know slightly more than those who don’t, but only by a few percentage points.

Brennan does not, however, address the paucity of objective information provided to voters nor the appalling misinformation spewed out by politicians, who should know better, and certain sections of the media. If simply voting improves one’s political knowledge, albeit slightly, imagine what a massive state-sponsored system of objective political information provision could do. The BBC and the Open University already collaborate in a number of areas and the OU has a wide range of free online courses available. Perhaps this could be the framework for such a provision.

It could even be linked in with the Universal Basic Income being conditional on some form of engagement with such an educational programme, with the usual exemptions of course. And one would also have to guard against demographic bias, but this is an idea that should receive some attention. It would not have to achieve the absurdly high levels of understanding that Brennan demands but it might help to engage people in politics, demonstrate its importance in everyday life and achieve a much higher level of understanding.

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