The smartest person in the voting booth

Nick Cassella

November 07, 2016

Democracy’s recent ubiquity is remarkably novel in human history. Yet even in its infancy we are unhesitatingly willing to crown it as the universal ideal of good and just government. To the critical mind, democracy’s virtues can appear overindulged.

After all, unless you came to this democratic nation under your own power, we have not actually chosen to live under this form of rule. Rather, we have awakened to the situation and tacitly consented to our present state. We are like David Hume’s seaman who is roused from sleep to find himself on a ship in the middle of the sea. Like the drowsy seaman, we are forced into a choice: we can either remain where we are or object to our circumstance and “leap into the ocean.” Our decision is quite obvious; we stay put.

That choice is, to say the least, constrained — and it raises the question: why exactly should we stick with democracies? Beyond mere coercion, what justifies this form of government over another? These valid questions prompted Jason Brennan, a libertarian professor from Georgetown University, to write Against Democracy. Such a contrarian treatise could not have arrived at a better time for Brennan’s publicist. The recent successes of Donald Trump and Brexit have shaken proud, democratic nations and have underlined two of the most glaring deficiencies related to collective rule:

1) people are susceptible to supporting positions and politicians that do not serve their best interests


2) public discourse tends to the lowest common denominator of society.

Once you cut through the fat of Brennan’s analysis, these two points animate Against Democracy. And, in all honesty, these are two very real issues that plague politically inclusive societies. Brennan is not pointing out anything unfamiliar here. A large part of his book, where he bemoans the stupidity of the median voter, can be summarized through the words of the 20th century thinker Joseph Schumpeter:

The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes primitive again.

Faced with the brutish nature of our electorate, Brennan offers a different system of governance. He calls it “epistocracy,” which essentially means the “rule of the knowledgeable” should determine all. Brennan stresses that the idea behind epistocracy “is not that knowledgeable people deserve to rule – of course they don’t – but that the rest of us deserve not to be subjected to incompetently made political decisions” by our ill-informed countrypersons. His analysis is purely focused on how we produce the most effective and just results. To his mind, “democracy is nothing more than hammer” — a means to a desired end. “If we can find a better hammer, we should use it.”

How does one create an epistocracy, though? How do you determine who “knows more” than another? Brennan clearly knows a lot about the subject. He enumerates various epistocratic models in great detail, including a “restricted suffrage” system where voting becomes limited to “citizens who demonstrate a basic level of knowledge” through an SAT-like exam. He acknowledges that there would be a “political battle to control what goes on any voter qualification exam” and that “people who pass the exam would be disproportionately white, upper-middle- to upper-class, educated, employed males.” These qualms are moot, in his mind, because these injustices already exist in democracy. So why not try epistocracy, where smarter individuals get more power, and see if the results turn out better?

He also toys with the idea of an epistocratic council; a formal deliberative body (not totally unlike the Supreme Court) which can veto unsavory decisions made by the people. His final arrangement, “government by simulated oracle,” is a rather farcical idea that should have stayed on the scrapheap.

In one way or another, all forms of epistocracy that Brennan endorses either try “to screen for the most competent voters or, alternatively, screen out the least competent ones.” And by doing so, he advocates for a heavy amount of government regulation and interference into the politic decision-making process.

If your viewpoints are not convincing voters, what better way to succeed than by limiting democratic participation?

This is an odd turn for a libertarian. They are notoriously stubborn in their acceptance of the free market, and the implications which arise from that faith. Yet what is a democracy but unfettered access to the marketplace of politics? Politically speaking, it is a uniquely inclusive kind of politics, just as free markets are a uniquely inclusive economic framework. It is incredibly peculiar that someone of libertarian leanings feels that it is suitable to regulate the political market but not the economic one.

Brennan endeavors to squirm out of this contradiction by saying that “in civil society, most of my fellow citizens are my civic friends, part of a great cooperative scheme [the market]. One of the repugnant features of democracy is that it transforms these people into threats to my well-being.” In Brennan’s view, democracy allows for citizens to interfere in our lives in “risky and incompetent ways.” Here, one can see him channeling Edmund Burke’s belief that, “in a democracy the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority.”

I find his Burkean defense lacking. Yes, mobocracy means that people can act together and “exert power over other market participants.” But we have laws and institutions in place that safeguard against the tyranny of the majority.

And doesn’t such unfair power exertion exist in the economic market? Do I think a six-pack of Corona should cost $10? No. I think that is not a fair price for a standard beer. Yet through my countryperson’s buying patterns (which I have no control over), Coronas are simply more expensive than equally good beer. Yet if I were to suggest that we needed to regulate the “incompetency” of my fellow beer drinkers, libertarians like Brennan would cry foul. How dare I distort the inherent wisdom of the market?

The cynic in me wonders if Brennan’s epistocracy argument is a desperate attempt to create a society where his way of viewing the world prevails. Who could really blame him? Libertarianism keeps losing at the ballot box across Western societies. Social Security, wage floors, government-mandated health care, and income tax have become bedrocks of our political lives, yet they represent political malpractice to the libertarian mind. And so, if your viewpoints are not convincing voters, what better way to succeed than by limiting democratic participation?

And lest you think that I’m being too conspiratorial, you only need to look at two of the most powerful libertarians in the world: Charles and David Koch. The Kochs have funded organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council to draft a “flurry” of mock photo ID legislation whose sole purpose is to reduce participation. These efforts have been labeled by the Brennan Center for Justice as the “biggest rollback of voting since Jim Crow,” and the former NAACP president claimed that, “folks like the Koch brothers are attempting to ensure that as few people of color and as few young people show up as possible.”

To be fair to Brennan and the Kochs, political exclusion as a tactic is not an idiosyncratic tic of the libertarian wing. I remember Thomas Friedman (hardly a libertarian) wishing in Hot, Flat, and Crowded that America could unshackle the burdens of democracy and be “China for a day…but only one day…” If this happened, Friedman believed the US government would be able to “order all the right changes” by avoiding “all the pleading special interests, all the bureaucratic obstacles, all the worries of a voter backlash.”

Imposing one’s beliefs through exclusionary means is a human reflex that has contaminated minds throughout time and across the political spectrum. You can understand why: giving power to a small group of knowledgeable people appears enticing in theory. However, when you think about the great and many societies which have crumbled due to the imprudence of a narrow class (who thought they knew best), you start to forgive democracy for its relatively innocuous shortcomings.

I agree with Brennan that democracy has become fetishized in our society. The USSR’s collapse convinced the West that democratic rule was not only supreme, but it was also inevitable. Many thinkers today thought we had arrived at the end of history. President George W Bush, in many ways, “made global aspirations of democracy the animating force of his presidency.” And the jaw-dropping nature of the Arab Spring further persuaded us that military states and dictatorships simply could not withstand the lure of collective rule. To many, democracy is destiny.

Such opinions reek of ahistoricism and display our blindness to the power of social norms. And for this reason, I found Brennan’s challenge a noble pursuit, even if I disagree with his prescription. We should always welcome thinkers that make us question the unquestionable.

But by going for the jugular of democracy, Brennan misses an opportunity to have a richer and more realistic dialogue about how we can circumvent the many pitfalls of collective decision-making. Instead of discarding democracy, why not first debate which matters should and should not be subject to collective rule? Or discuss how we can better educate the populace to make more rational civic choices? These are questions which are far more practical and could lead to healthier developments in our society.

Brennan bypasses these significant questions because he argues democracy “doesn’t actually empower you or me” — a debatable point that I only wish he’d been able to make to a suffragette in 1920 or a black person in 1964. Through his eyes, political engagement, rather than developing bonds between fellow citizens, is most likely to “corrupt and stultify than to ennoble and educate people.” He would scoff at Thomas Jefferson’s claim that “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Instead he thinks that “sometimes it is better for a person” to “remain ignorant and apathetic” because often “people gather information…in a biased and corrupted way.” In short, there is no saving the incompetency and irresponsibility of the masses.

Call me delusional, but I’m not convinced that democratic citizens are irredeemable. That is ultimately why I could not get myself to subscribe to Brennan’s epistocratic model. His analysis appears disturbingly eager to abandon democracy — especially considering that mankind has really only played with this form of government for a very short time. If I may return to Hume’s metaphor of the sleeping man, if Brennan wanted his theory to be taken more seriously, he should have endeavored to change the course of the ship instead of immediately jumping overboard.

Books in this review:
  • Against Democracy
    by Jason Brennan
    Princeton University Press
    August 23, 2016
    304 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

A human that almost exclusively reads non-fiction and has a particular fondness for political theory.

Follow Nick Cassella on Twitter: @Nick_Cassella

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