Review of Jason Brennan’s “Against Democracy”

(This essay originally appeared at 3 Quarks Daily. Reprinted with permission.)

“Political Hooligans” by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Although the word “democracy” is commonly used to denote all that is good in politics, democracy is a dubious proposal. It is the thesis that you may be required to live according to rules that you reject, simply because those rules are favored by others. What’s more, democracy is the proposal that you may be rightfully forced to live according to rules that are supported only by others who are ignorant, misinformed, deluded, corrupt, irrational, or worse. Further still, under democracy, you may be rightfully forced to live according to the rules favored by a majority of your fellow citizens even though you are able to demonstrate their ignorance and irrationality, and despite the fact that you can debunk the rationales they offer in support the rules that you oppose. Democracy apportions political power to citizens as such rather than according to their ability to wield it responsibly.

The aspiration of democracy is that with its freedoms, we allow reasons to be exchanged so that the best will come to be recognized. Note that this is true of democracy at its best. And we know that real-world democracy is far from the ideal. We are in fact forced to live according to rules that are favored by ignorant, misinformed, and irrational citizens; and many of the rules we are forced to live by are defensible only by way of the flawed rationales embraced by the ignorant. In real-world democracy, we are indeed at the mercy of our irrational and ignorant fellow citizens. Knowing this, politicians and officials cater to majority irrationality, and, once in power, they govern for the sake of gaining reelection.

It’s difficult to see what could justify democracy. Maybe this is as it should be? Even under ideal conditions, political orders are always coercive, and so the task of justifying any mode of politics should be onerous. And the difficulty of justifying democracy should increase under non-ideal conditions such as those we currently face. Part of the task of democracy, even in its most ideal versions, is to critically assess the prevailing democratic order. And one way to assess a democracy is to envision alternative arrangements that might be superior.

In a recent book, provocatively titled Against Democracy, Jason Brennan takes up the chore of assessing existing democracy. His central contention is appropriately modest. He claims that if there is a workable nondemocratic political arrangement that can reasonably be expected to more reliably produce morally better policy decisions than existing democratic arrangements, we ought to try that alternative arrangement. Ultimately, he identifies a range of alternatives that he alleges will outperform democracy, all of which instantiate a political form he calls (borrowing a term coined by David Estlund) epistocracy, the rule of the knowers.

Hence Brennan’s argument is comparative; he aims to identify epistocratic alternatives that are better than democracy. Accordingly, he proceeds from a fairly dismal depiction of the state of the democratic citizenry. Brennan proposes a taxonomy of democratic character types: hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans. Hobbits are uninterested in politics and so lack political information, frequently are devoid of stable political opinions, and tend to not vote. Hooligans, by contrast, consume political information and have strong and stable political views. However, they reason and gather political information in biased ways; they tend to be politically active, but they also tend to regard their political opposition as evil, ignorant, deluded, or worse. Vulcans are properly-behaved political epistemologists; they have well-grounded views, know the relevant social science and philosophy, and are able to disagree respectfully with others. However, as the requisite knowledge and dispositions are difficult to acquire, Vulcans are scarce.

According to Brennan, the trouble with democracy is that it is teeming with hooligans, “the rabid sports fans of politics.” More than this, democracy tends to encourage political hooliganism. And as the citizenry is hooliganized, it is mobilized in the direction of policies that are increasingly unjust and harmful; hence, according to Brennan, democracy turns us all — including Vulcans — into civic enemies. Hence democracy rots from the inside.

Brennan’s account of the corruption of democracy is undeniably resonant. Still, his depiction of the hooligan raises a difficulty. Unlike the images of the hobbit and the Vulcan, the portrayal of the hooligan is strictly second- or third-personal. That is, only the hobbits and Vulcans can embrace Brennan’s rendering of their political character. That is, hobbits are capable of assessing themselves as hobbits, and the same goes for Vulcans. Not so with the hooligans.

The trouble with the hooligans is not simply that they form political opinions in epistemically irresponsibly ways and then behave badly in the political arena; it’s also that they take themselves to be Vulcans. From the inside the hooligan takes himself to be a paragon of wisdom. His biases look to him like principles, his vices look like virtues, and his tribal allegiance to his political team looks to him perfectly rational. Political hooligans cannot understand themselves as such. To sincerely assess one’s reasoning as plagued by bias is to lose confidence in one’s reasoning. To assess one’s belief as the product of systematic epistemic dysfunction is to see the belief itself as corrupt. Delusion and self-deception are ineradicable parts of the political hooligan’s profile.

One might wonder, then, who Brennan’s audience is. The hobbits don’t read books about politics and don’t care about arguments in political philosophy. The politically-engaged all take themselves to be Vulcans (or at least not hooligans), and most of them are frustrated by the current state of democracy. But only a few of them (i.e., the true Vulcans) are actually moveable by reason and argument. Hence the hooligans will welcome Brennan’s call for epistocratic alternatives, but this is because they take themselves (and their fellow tribesmen) as especially strong candidates for leadership roles in whatever epistocratic order might take shape. Being hooligans, they believe themselves to be Vulcans, and they also are not susceptible to rational demonstration of their hooligan nature. Therefore any attempt to design an epistocracy that does not empower them (or members of their political tribe) will be regarded by them as yet another corrupt power-grab by their incompetent and sinister political enemies.

Accordingly, given Brennan’s diagnosis of the trouble with democracy, the prospect of designing and implementing an episocratic alternative, even as an experiment to be tried, seems doomed. Given what hooligans are, any epistemologically responsible selection of an epistocratic body will be perceived by the majority of politically-active citizens (who are hooligans) as either rigged to favor their enemies, or designed to oppress their enemies. The hooligans of the former stripe will oppose the epistocratic innovation, and, as they’re hooligans, their opposition will take unwelcome forms. The hooligans of the latter kind might at first embrace the epistocracy, but then rebel once it’s clear that the epistocrats aren’t ruling in the favored ways.

The point here is that epistocracy among a population comprised mostly of hooligans likely will be unstable. Yet part of what makes for a well-performing political order is stability, and stability is a matter not only of the substantive justice of the policies that the governing body implements, but also of the ways in which the policies — and the bodies that make them — are generally perceived. Brennan may be correct to hold that hooligans ruin democracy. But that’s because hooligans ruin everything, including epistocracy.

A good deal of democratic theory is devoted to devising ways to transform hooligans into Vulcans. Brennan provides reasons for thinking that this project is unlikely to succeed. He proposes an epistocratic departure from democracy that aims to empower the Vulcans by constraining or eliminating the power of the hooligans and the hobbits. But this strategy invites social instability. Perhaps the better response is to sustain democratic political conditions but create ways to transform hooligans into hobbits?

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8 thoughts on “Review of Jason Brennan’s “Against Democracy”

  1. I agree that democracy is no longer capable of directing society effectively. I attribute this to the fact that society has grown too complicated for most citizens to understand. Inasmuch as no better form of government exists, the collapse of society is the indisputable consequence.

  2. Chris

    I agree with your first two sentences. I disagree with the first clause of the last sentence. I think Plato imagined a much better system of government in his Republic and I think ancient Chinese civilizations based on the imperial exams themselves based on Confucianism are examples of something better than democracy. (Besides the fact that democracy can’t work with an uneducated, misinformed populace.) Unfortunately though I agree with the last clause of the last sentence.

  3. Gets one to thinking.

    But as with Twain, perhaps the death of democracy is being exaggerated. The old saw: ‘the truth is somewhere in between’; in this case in between the idealistic goal of genuine Progress, and the rotting from the inside of hooliganism.
    America is similar to ancient Rome (you-know-who as Caligula) however if we’d listened to extreme pessimists, we’d have reached our 476 long ago.

    Could it be that Vulcans are more common than we know, are simply keeping low profiles?

    Don’t know about other nations; but there is slight hope for this November if– I say
    IF– a full human being can become president and the truncated un-person now occupying the presidency can be voted out. (That is, he leaves office voluntarily without tanks surrounding government buildings.)
    Sometime in the future, no one can predict when, our 1789 Constitution would have to be changed to a 21st century constitution. Can be done. Will it be done? Do not know at this time.

    We can change the Constitution and try to change the way people think and act. Will take patience; patience being something scarcer than Vulcans. Without evidence, one can only guess that things wont change much in our lifetimes; yet perhaps 50- 100 years from now, with patience, improvements can indeed be made.

    People excessively wanting so many things Now, without patience, can and does ruin both the Now and the future. An uninformed, mal-educated populace wants Now regardless of the consequences. THAT would have to change.

  4. I like your emphasis on patience, it is indeed a virtue. But hard to maintain in the face of so much injustice and hypocrisy. JGM

  5. Ranked-choice voting would smooth out many rough edges in elections, and weaken party machines. But it would require a substantial overhaul of the Constitution through amendment. I don’t see that happening short of a nationwide existential crisis, and in such circumstances, “proper” solutions might be drowned out by revolutionary angst.

  6. Democracy is just there abstractly. This is a system whose structure is admired by political thinkers and philosophers and it is the most practiced system today.
    Now my question is this: is the problem of the state the system of government or the human person?
    The system of government cannot be causing harm to the state, but rather it is the human person who is in the state, that causes harm to the state. and so I feel it’s time to pay more attention to the man who is an ontological problem of the state, rather than the system of government.
    If the persons in Athenian Direct Democracy were to be good, then Plato wouldn’t have had problem with democracy.

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