It is fitting that this virus is named after its crown-like shape, for like a king, it has exerted control over us and challenged our way of thinking.
Jason Brennan’s provocative new book, Against Democracy, divides people into three groups based on their orientation to politics: “Hobbits,” who are apathetic and ignorant; “Hooligans,” who are engaged but hopelessly biased, convinced that fans of other political teams are “stupid, evil, selfish, or at best, deeply misguided”; and “Vulcans,” who “think scientifically and rationally about politics” and whose “opinions are strongly grounded in social science and philosophy.”
Brennan ably trots out a growing body of political science research (almost all of it U.S.-centric) documenting the knowledge and biases of voters. This record will be familiar to readers of previous libertarian broadsides against democracy (for example, Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter, Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance), and it is currently attracting the attention of some other scholars who believe it calls into question our conventional views of democracy (Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, for example, use this research in their Democracy for Realists).
One’s first encounter with this material is likely to be unsettling: Brennan’s mostly fair characterization of our population is that it is about evenly split between Hobbits and Hooligans. (Who is a Vulcan is less clear, a point to which I will return.) It strikes Brennan as perverse and intolerable that such people, who in political matters seem so “straightforwardly incompetent,” wield the political power in our country. He seeks to convince readers that they should abandon their inherited reverence for democracy, since it props up a form of government that leads to bad policies with destructive consequences.
Brennan’s attitude makes some sense. If democracy means that the people “rule” and our best attempts to assess their abilities are profoundly discouraging, it seems to follow that democracy must be fundamentally morally defective.
But what does it mean to say the people rule? Is it a descriptive claim about real democracies, or even an aspirational goal? Is there any sense in taking such a conceit literally? Brennan mostly gives it a try. Although he treats voting as insignificant when it suits his argumentative purposes, more often he treats voting as a potent and therefore often dangerous act. A formulation he uses several times is that voters are “his boss” in a democracy, and that supposed power relation deeply rankles him; after all, “those people” (emphasis in original) are Hobbits and Hooligans.
So who are the Vulcans that Brennan wishes were exercising power instead—and what would it look like if they did politics?
Vulcans, Brennan tells us, would squarely confront their own ignorance. They would “seek out information from credible sources . . . conform their beliefs to the best-available evidence . . . change their minds whenever the evidence called for it . . . take disagreement seriously . . . [and] gladly accept criticism, since they want to avoid error.”
All admirable qualities we would like to see play a greater role in our political life, no doubt. But of course stating things in these terms just raises a new set of questions. What sources and kinds of evidence are credible? What criticism is worth taking seriously? How much contrary evidence should be enough to change one’s mind? Brennan never says.
Nor does he ever come right out and says who he thinks the righteous Vulcans among us are. But we can infer that he thinks Vulcanization is mostly a matter of acquiring extensive education. At the height of his passion, he makes the following pronouncement:
I justifiably believe that Quantas [sic] pilots have superior judgment about piloting than I do. And while I no doubt suffer from some degree of confirmation and self-serving bias, perhaps I justifiably believe that I—a named professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at an elite research university, with a PhD from the top-ranked political philosophy program in the English-speaking world, and a strong record of peer-reviewed publications in top journals and academic presses—have superior political judgment on a great many political matters compared to many of my fellow citizens.
Virtuosic obnoxiousness aside, let’s say he’s right. What does he think that shows? After all, most named professors with fancy educations do not agree with Brennan, nor do they agree among themselves, about the right things to do politically. They may well be less likely to be Hobbits, but many have clearly refined and advanced their Hooliganism to impressive heights—complete with rhetorical maneuvers designed to encourage others to view them as disinterested truth-seekers. It isn’t at all obvious that confining voting to the more educated would produce a tidier, tamer sort of politics or better policies.
Nevertheless, as Brennan marches toward constructive alternatives to democracy, his main strategy is to exclude or deprioritize the less educated or poorly informed. He reaches for the grand-sounding term “Epistocracy,” meaning rule by the knowledgeable, but his concrete proposals are basically democracy with various sorts of restrictions on the franchise. Those allowed into the voting booth by Brennan would have to pass a political knowledge test, pass the equivalent of an IQ test (!), and/or undergo intensive citizen training.
He thinks this kind of “licensing” for voting would be no more remarkable than licensing for doctors. Reverting to his idea that voters are very powerful and potentially dangerous, he thinks it’s obvious that incompetents shouldn’t be admitted. Acknowledging that actual restrictions of the franchise might be a heavy political lift, he is similarly enthusiastic about adopting John Stuart Mill’s proposal for some kind of weighted voting, in which screening processes would give some people extra votes rather than taking anybody’s away.
It is genuinely hard to understand why Brennan thinks that fiddling with the franchise in these ways would have much of an effect at all on our political system. Because, of course, the voters are not “the boss,” even if the populist democratic mythology that currently suffuses our political discourse says they are. Our constitutional system is filled with mediating institutions that are meant to channel democratic energies into workable governing agendas. The biggest questions are about how these institutions should work.
Brennan belatedly acknowledges this, at least a little. “The Supreme Court is a kind of epistocratic council,” he discovers about two-thirds of the way into the book. Without explicitly realizing it, he reinvents many features of our current (and past) political system: notice and comment rulemaking, responsible parties, even a legislature working on a trustee basis. You’d think that Publius’ vision for the Electoral College would be an obvious object for him to support, but it never comes up.
Once we start reckoning with the kinds of “epistocratic” devices that democracies already employ, we run into a host of questions that Brennan doesn’t address—the same ones that typically get asked concerning a much more familiar term, and one that is often used pejoratively: “technocracy.”
All the interesting action is in the particulars. What would lead the Hobbits and Hooligans of the world to treat as legitimate the Vulcans’ working the technocratic levers of power? What devices could be employed to make voters (even Vulcans) trust proceedings they don’t understand? And how exactly could the structures of government be used to achieve something approximating Brennan’s epistocratic ideal, given the complexity and opacity and interest-blanketed state of the world? These are hard questions, and voting procedures are mostly irrelevant to them.
Brennan’s most interesting contribution comes from his clever rhetorical strategy of saying that we all have a “right to competent government.” Past the headline declaration, he doesn’t actually insist on this being a positive right, but he says “it is presumptively unjust to use an incompetent political decision-making system when there is a more competent one available.” This is not the standard libertarian approach to thinking about government legitimacy, to say the least; but is it an appealing way of thinking about what governments owe citizens?
Competence is the capacity to deal adequately with a subject—in human resources, “the ability of an individual to do a job properly.” I have argued that the purpose-specific, concrete nature of competence makes it a good value around which to build a realistic notion of good statesmanship, but this quality also limits the value of talking about it as an abstract value.
Brennan’s quintessentially ivory-tower philosophical treatment of competence breezes right past the ways that defining the concept can be controversial. The question of whether Brennan’s preferred sort of refined fanciness is important to providing competent government—whether we ought to have, or can trust, government by an “aristocracy of merit”—has often been an explosive one.
Andrew Jackson and other proponents of the spoils system in the 1820s considered “competence” a fairly low bar to clear to obtain a job in the federal civil service; pretending otherwise was only a way of privileging certain kinds of people and interests. Jackson wanted to replace the civil service with less fancy people, who he thought would fulfill their duties as clerks just as competently as their predecessors and would be more morally in tune with the nation, since they’d be his people.
Civil service reformers and later Progressives reacted against this attitude. One way to frame their vision of administration would be to say that they thought it of vital importance that Vulcans be the ones figuring out the particulars of government policy. That belief was often complemented by a desire to limit the domain of political decision-making. Today’s libertarian technocrats share these desires—Brennan tells readers that he nearly titled his book “Against Politics”—believing that right-thinking experts would steer clear of harmful interventionist policies more often than anyone influenced deeply by the ignorant demos. It would be worthwhile for someone to trace the resonances between these two styles of technocratic thought.
The libertarian technocrats’ ideas about competence appear to be completely out of step with the dominant mood of our current still-hard-to-interpret political season, but that is hardly a criticism. Even if Brennan’s prescriptions seem mostly beside the point, his book provides a useful opportunity to reflect on the functions that mass democracy can and cannot perform as we look for institutional configurations capable of organizing our politics so as to enable competent government.