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Who has the right to rule?

Against Democracy

Mauricio Rojas
Senior Fellow de la Fundación para el Progreso y Profesor Asociado de la Universidad del Desarrollo Santiago, Chile. Á - N.3

Title: Against Democracy

Author: Jason Brennan

Year: 2016 (2018 in Spanish translation, Contra la democracia).

Princeton University Press

Not long ago, during the last decades of the twentieth century, democracy seemed like the unbeatable political ideal, the one that would expand in a rapid and irresistible way throughout the whole world. Samuel Huntington spoke back then of a “third wave of democratization” that far surpassed the reach of the previous two. Francis Fukuyama came to declare, in a celebrated 1989 essay, that we would be contemplating “the end of history as such: that is, western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

This democratic optimism would not last, however, and would gradually change into its opposite with the advance of the twenty-first century. Democratic progress stagnated, and a significant number of new democracies adopted increasingly authoritarian forms, far from liberal democracy. In addition, a general increase of discontent was noted regarding the workings of the democratic system, and in numerous consolidated democracies populist leaders and movements successfully emerged with disquietingly illiberal discourses. Finally, there is the challenge posed by the rise of powers like China, which combine dynamic market economies and the growth of broad middle classes with forms of government totally at odds with the civil and political liberties of any democracy.

This is the background to the recent publication of an abundant repertoire of books and essays on the threats, problems, and even the crises that democracy is facing. Their tones have gone with remarkable speed from panegyrics and idealization to a position approaching pessimism, or at least, to the soberness of Churchill, who said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried”.

In this context, Against Democracy, by Georgetown University professor Jason Brennan, one of the most prolific and polemic contemporary authors, is a major challenge to those of us who continue defending democracy, in spite of its defects. What Brennan tells us in his book is, forthrightly, that we should abandon democracy to try a system which in his opinion could be superior in legitimacy and results to democracy and, certainly, “all the other forms that have been tried”.

This system, which can adopt several concrete forms, Brennan calls “epistocracy,” and defines as “the rule of the knowledgeable”, that is, a regime in which political power is formally distributed “according to knowledge or aptitude”. According to the author, “The big difference between epistocracy and democracy is that the people do not have equal rights to vote or run for election”.

This type of proposal has a long history, as much in theory as in practice. It refers to a tradition of thought that comes from Plato and his philosopher-kings, and a long praxis in which different bodies of “knowers” have been attributed the right to govern, based on their “superior” knowledge (this has been the basis of power for theocracies and professional bureaucracies, like that of China).

The requirement to know at least how to read and write in order to vote (which once excluded the majority of the adult population) and to have reached a certain level of education in order to be elected (which still applies in Chile) are also examples of this. Even as noted a liberal author as John Stuart Mill proposed an epistocratic plural voting system, where everyone would have the right to vote but different quantities of votes would be given based on voters’ knowledge level (for example, one vote for an unqualified worker, but five or six for a professional or functionary). For him, it was obvious that “all have the right to exercise certain influence, but the best and wisest ought to exercise the greatest influence”.[1]

What Brennan proposes is an epistocratic system that preserves all the civil liberties and politics of a liberal democracy, but limits the right to elect and be elected or, in the other variant, to submit the decisions of democratic institutions to the veto of the “knowers”. Central to Brennan’s program is protecting us from harmful decisions that ignorant people (who the author calls hobbits) or fanatics (political hooligans) might impose on us. This is what he calls “the right to have a competent government” or, at least, “to not be subjected to an incompetent one”.
Rational Ignorance

In my opinion, the most interesting and challenging parts of Brennan’s text are those that contain his critique of democracy and, more generally, political participation in same. In fact, as the author hints, at some point Brennan came to consider the title Against Politics as the most adequate one for his book. His critique is developed on a conceptual and, above all, empirical level, using a great number of results from the most varied studies in order to demonstrate that political participation “tends to idiotize and corrupt us, transforming us into civic enemies with reasons to hate each other.” Therefore, “If we want for our fellow citizens to see us as their friends who are involved in a common adventure that is mutually beneficial, and not as enemies, then we want to avoid politics as much as possible”.

The reason for this is that politics is not carried out in the realm of voluntary cooperation, but in that of coercive imposition ,by means of the law and governmental decision, of some wills over others. This power to coerce others polarizes us and can turn us into fierce enemies of one another. We must dominate or be dominated, which puts stress on human relations in what is essentially “a zero-sum game, with winners and losers”. Therefore, the more we participate in politics and the more we deliberate, the more extreme and manipulative (or manipulated) we become in order to convince others of the rightness of our point of view, and defeat the adversary. Studies show, contrary to what is usually believed, that: “Deliberation tends to move people toward more extreme versions of their ideologies rather than toward more moderate versions […] there is ample empirical evidence that deliberation often makes us stupid or corrupt, that it usually exacerbates our biases and leads us to greater conflict”.

Furthermore —and this is the ultimate basis of Brennan’s critique of democracy— what will be imposed, and who will be those elected to impose it, will ultimately depend on a group of people —the citizenry— who, according to extensive empirical evidence, “are incompetent, ignorant, irrational and morally unreasonable in political matters”. On this point Brennan provides a significant amount of evidence. But the problem isn’t voter oversight or a lack of civility, rather it is something highly rational. The cost of informing oneself adequately is not in any proportion to the utility —the real possibility of influencing the result, which is infinitesimal— of that effort. Therefore, Brennan concludes that the problem is, quite simply, a “rational ignorance”. What ought to be explained, according Brennan, is not so much why the majority are neither interested in nor informed on political matters enough to be able to decide in an informed and rational way, so much as why some actually are so informed, despite a lack of real utility. He finds a series of good reasons to explain this, but it doesn’t make us feel any better, seeing as according to empirical studies many who make an effort to be informed become political “hooligans”, that is, people unilaterally attracted to a point of view, who inform themselves in order to confirm and validate their biases.

This neither completes nor closes the list of objections to democracy raised by Brennan, but it gives us an idea of his critical method: setting a much-admired ideal alongside the reality of citizens and the true power that the democratic process gives them, which, in his opinion, is no more than an illusion or, worse still, a loss of their personal autonomy in favor of circumstantial majorities: “Democracy does not empower individuals. It disempowers them, in order to empower the majority of the moment. In a democracy, the individual citizen is practically impotent”.

Resting on this type of argument, Brennan presents his epistocratic alternative, based on the premise, which he argues at length, that democracy is only a tool (like a hammer, he tells us) to make collective decisions. In his opinion, “The value of democracy is purely instrumental; the only reason to choose democracy over any other system is that it is more effective at producing fair political results […]. Democracy is nothing more than a hammer, and if we find a better system we should adopt it”.

This instrumentalist conception collides with that which confers a procedural value on democracy, that is, procedure with value in itself. For example, it expresses the equal value and dignity of individuals, giving them the possibility of asserting themselves as such and creating a self-chosen political order. These and similar claims are all questioned by Brennan, drawing from real existing democracy, as well as questioning the civic value of democracy and political participation.

None of these points of view, or the studies that support them, are trivial, and democracy’s defenders should consider them seriously, as they point out real weakness and problems of that system. The alternative proposed by Brennan deserves the same treatment, although this alternative is nowhere near as strongly founded as his objections to democracy.

His basic assumption is, to say the least, doubtful: that those who know most about politics make better political decisions than those who know less. This seems obvious in the case of a professional, like a doctor or an engineer, but even so, it doesn’t give them the absolute power of decision about our health or our practical choices. In the end, the decision is, and must be, ours, however ignorant we may be. In the case of politics, the issue is even more debatable, unless we reduce it to merely technical decisions, thus eliminating what makes politics what it is: values, and diverse visions about how society should be organized.

Brennan himself even gives one of the best arguments against epistocracy: many of those who know the most about politics are, in fact, one-dimensional fanatics who process knowledge in such a biased way that it often confirms only one predetermined value option. After all, the worst political disasters have not been products of the delirium or ignorance of common people, but of intellectuals who let themselves be led by their dreams and their self-conviction that they have the key to truth and a marvelous future. We would have to start by selecting what knowledge and what type of person is suitable to govern the epistocratic republic, based on certain values and visions that they themselves would have to receive from someone. Aware of this dilemma, Brennan tells us that perhaps this selection and value-related part could be established democratically. Which, in fact, brings us right back to step one.
Against Democracy is a book well worth reading carefully which, at least in my opinion, only proves Winston Churchill right: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried”. Or thought of, we might add.



[1] Mill, J. S. (1861). Considerations on Representative Government.