Votes of No Confidence

Against Democracy BY Jason Brennan. Princeton University Press. Hardcover. 29.

Could there be a more propitious time to come out, as the title of Jason Brennan’s book announces, Against Democracy? From the Brexit vote to the Trump nomination, both liberal and conservative bien-pensants are grumbling that, if this is what the people decide, then maybe the people should not decide after all. If that is your mood, Brennan has catnip for you.

Brennan divides citizens into three gimmicky species: hobbits, who don’t care much about politics and just want to live their lives; hooligans, keenly interested in politics, who tend to be hyper-partisan and filter everything through their tribal loyalties; and vulcans, who just want to reason about the facts. He is fond of hobbits, but thinks they shouldn’t be encouraged to care about politics, because more civic engagement would probably just turn them into hooligans. In fact, most of political life is a twenty-four-hour hooligan party, bringing out the most strident and irrational in its participants. The trick is to make the world safe for hobbits by giving more power to the vulcans. So Brennan proposes to replace democracy—or at least leaven it—with “epistocracy,” rule by those who have knowledge.

This may seem to be a provocative argument launched from within the academy (Brennan teaches at Georgetown), but it’s hardly new, and it’s hardly confined to the ivory tower. The book rehashes familiar evidence that voters are dismayingly ignorant: They don’t know how American government works, what the parties stand for, or who their incumbent congresspeople are. They don’t know what’s in the Constitution, how basic economics works, or the outlines of the federal budget. Most—most!—know who the president is, but that’s about it.

Brennan gives a standard political-science analysis of why voters are ignorant: Ignorance costs them nothing. The chance that your vote will decide the election is vanishingly small. So casting a totally ignorant vote probably won’t make any difference in the world you face when you wake up the next day. Brennan compares our uninformed votes to pollution: A little more from my tailpipe doesn’t really hurt me, but the same goes for you and for everyone else, and soon we’re all choking on ill-informed political decisions.

We know why the ignorant voter drives his polluting car across the road (to get to the other side). But given that an individual vote seems to have no real effect, why does he bother to participate in elections? Brennan allows that most voters, in fact, are trying to advance the public interest as they understand it; they just don’t understand it very well. Besides that concession to good intentions lazily executed, he argues that politics mostly brings out the lesser angels of our nature: Our political reasoning is deeply tribal. We love to hate the other side. Our tribalism deepens our ignorance, because people who care about politics go looking for facts that support their views and interpret new information in ways that reinforce what they already believe.

In light of all this self-reinforcing ignorance, Brennan argues that democratic elections are a crazy way to make important decisions. No one would submit to an operation by a doctor who refused scientific evidence, or think a jury of fact-resistant partisans had any business sending them to jail. But by ultimately entrusting life-and-death decisions to our fellow citizens, we are launching wars, sustaining mass incarceration, and punishing people harshly for marijuana use and (until recently) same-sex relationships on the basis of ignorance and prejudice.

Brennan claims that we resist this conclusion because we think democracy is special: Voting shows our deep belief that everyone deserves equal respect; the right to vote is an important part of personal liberty, either intrinsically or because it keeps you free by keeping the government off your back. But according to Brennan, all of this is sloppy thinking. It’s totally arbitrary, a mere cultural convention, that voting is a special sign of respect. We should get over it. We don’t feel disrespected because we don’t get to conduct surgery on one another without training, and we should take the same attitude toward underqualified voting. As for freedom, considering the vanishing likelihood that your vote makes any difference, “you are more empowered by finding a five-dollar bill on the sidewalk” than by gaining the vote.

So, democracy doesn’t work very well, and there’s nothing morally special about it. So why not try something else? Some people—especially the well-educated, high-income, white, and male, as Brennan doesn’t shy from telling us—know more than others about the basics of politics, economics, and policy. Maybe, as John Stuart Mill suggested some 150 years ago, these highly competent citizens should get extra votes. Maybe no one should be able to vote without passing a rigorous civic-literacy test. Maybe there should be an epistocratic House of Lords (Brennan doesn’t use the analogy, but it is the same idea) with the power to veto democratic decisions that its highly qualified membership disapproves of. Brennan peppers his book with hints that his (presumably highly educated) readers would like the results of epistocracy: His epistocrats may be demographically unrepresentative, but they tend to be disproportionately skeptical of war, libertarian about personal morality, mistrustful of long prison terms, and supportive of free trade. On the face of it, neither the Brexit vote nor a Trump victory would survive an epistocratic veto.

The appeal is clear. But Brennan ignores perplexities and, worse, fatal contradictions. Trump, after all, is running as an epistocrat: True, he famously declared that he loves less-educated voters, but his consistent attack on the Obama administration is that it is incompetent and doesn’t understand how the world works. This minor irony points to a more basic problem: An epistocracy is not a way out of politics, because it will always have a politics of its own. Who will set up the standards of knowledge? Which aspects of economics, or constitutional law, will be treated as uncontroversial? And unless the competency test focuses on highly apolitical areas like mathematics or the natural sciences (a possibility Brennan notes, although he prefers “basic facts” and “largely uncontested social scientific claims”), the people with the requisite knowledge will almost certainly be erudite hooligans, who care enough about politics and policy to know the ins and outs. Anyone who spends time with law professors and political theorists, who would likely be well represented on epistocratic councils, knows that they are not less partisan, or even less tribal, than others; they simply have more time to work on their arguments. In other words, epistocracy has the same problems as democracy, but lacks the countervailing virtue of treating people as equal citizens and the authors of their own laws.

With this in mind, some of Brennan’s other claims merit a closer look. They do not entirely hold up. Is voting worthless? People are not necessarily wrong to believe that, in voting, they can be the authors of the rules they live under. And although Brennan is right that there is a vanishingly small chance of being the decisive voter in any election, there is a good chance that your vote is one of the many that were each necessary to reach a majority. This seems to be what people mean when they say, for instance, “We elected Obama,” and there is no decisive case that they are mistaken.

Is it arbitrary that we associate the franchise with civic and moral equality? It may be arbitrary in some deep sense that we show equal respect by granting the vote rather than, say, allowing everyone to wear purple (once reserved to nobles). But there is too much accrued history for a vulcan argument to persuade black voters, women, or the poor and less educated that they should accept selective disenfranchisement because, from Brennan’s perspective, a vote is worth less than a serendipitous five-dollar bill. There just is no stripping the vote of its symbolic meaning.

Brennan might deny that this last point takes his argument seriously. He is trying to be rational, after all; telling him about people’s feelings is beside the point! Nonetheless, the practical and symbolic barriers to Brennan’s proposals are insurmountable. His book is styled as a reformist argument for epistocracy, but there is no plausible scenario in which it succeeds in inspiring sweeping reform. Its likely effect, if any, is to give heart to little coups against democratic judgments, from talking smack about “the people” in quiet rooms to burying the Brexit vote. Brennan’s arguments tend to reinforce today’s meritocratic and technocratic elites in thinking that, when they ignore the will of the people, they are doing something heroic, saving democracy from itself—which, in his telling, is probably more than it deserves.

Although Brennan devotes most of his pages to the perversities of politics, his overall argument is equally concerned with economics. According to Brennan, market decisions should replace political judgments as often as possible. In market transactions, he tells us, we give genuine consent and must deal with the consequences of our decisions—whereas in politics we are subjected to laws we never consented to in any meaningful way, and that ultimately arose from the votes of ignorant citizens and their hooligan representatives. Economics is Brennan’s consistent example of nonpolitical expertise. Generally speaking, the promise of epistocracy is that it would take more decisions out of politics and hand them over to the market.

In the end, Brennan’s argument for markets over politics is a moral one. Supporting regulation, he tells us, means supporting violence, because violence is what the state ultimately deals in, whether it is enforcing fair employment laws or sending people to war. It’s bracing to be reminded of this, but Brennan is wrong in drawing such a stark contrast between the coercion of politics and the informed consent of market transactions. The fact is that markets bring their own share of state violence. Supporting private property means endorsing violence against determined trespassers. Supporting market-based health care means endorsing violence against people who try to get the care they need without money—or, more plausibly, letting them suffer and die. Supporting the repayment of public debts over political calls to repudiate them, as the European Union has done in Greece, means endorsing violence against those who try to get food for their children in a country where reports of widespread malnutrition are growing. These are not intended to be sentimental arguments: They are precisely as rigorous as Brennan’s point that political regulation implies violence. There may be good reasons to support the market in some, even all, of these circumstances, but the market will always be a product of political and legal decisions, with legislatures and courts behind it and a policeman at its side. The market is not a way out of politics, but one of the products of politics.

There is no way out of politics, really. The way to defend democracy against epistocracy is concrete and historical, not merely conceptual. Democracy has been aligned historically with breaking apart the various caste systems that exclude minorities, laborers, and women from full participation in social life. For more than a century, democratic mobilization and elections have been the major counterforce to the accumulation of economic power and privilege under capitalism. That, and not a gentle, consensual, freedom-protecting “market,” is the field in which we have to think about choices for or against democracy now.


Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke University and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015).