You might think this might be a very short book. Page one:
Democracy has given
us Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as major party nominees this year.
Democracy sucks. Q.E.D., baby!
But Jason Brennan, a professor at
Georgetown U, probably wanted to deliver a more scholarly takedown, and
he has. It's difficult to avoid noting that, even though
a lot of the book was probably written before 2016, it's
hard to read it without finding current events illuminating and
supporting his thesis.
Brennan is immune to the feel-goodness and bovine sacredness of
the word "democracy". Let's ignore all that, he says, and ask the sober
question: what does democracy have to recommend it? Not that much, he
argues. As individuals, the democratic poltical power we wield is
insignificant, but it does tend to "stultify and corrupt" us, turning
us into "civic enemies" with excuses to despise our neighbors.
Worse, our votes are woefully outnumbered by the thoughtless and
irresponsible. (The data is irrefutable.)
What possible argument could there be allowing those
masses to hold political sway over us? We wouldn't pick a random person
from the phonebook to do our plumbing or to remove our appendix — why do
we entertain the idea that they're entitled to have a say in national
issues of peace, prosperity, and liberties?
Brennan's an entertaining and accessible writer, aiming (I think) at the
bright-undergraduate level. I appreciated the Monty Python reference to
the "women lying in ponds distributing swords" form of government. More
seriously, he divides the populace into "Hobbits", "Hooligans", and
"Vulcans". Hobbits are apathetic and ignorant about matters political.
Hooligans are the "rabid sports fans of politics"; they are too
interested, cheering on their side, unable or unwilling to consider
alternatives. Finally, Vulcans are the holy grail of political
participants, making their views dependent on evidence, self-aware of
their own limitations and uncertainties. (But even Vulcans, I think, can
have incompatible political visions and values.)
Brennan convincingly argues that Vulcans are nearly invisible and have
at best minor influence.
The cliché is: democracy is the worst system of government, except for
all the others. Brennan feels the force of that argument, but asks us to
consider various possible schemes of epistocratic government;
granting a larger share of political powers to those who (in some
manner) shown themselves more likely to exercise them responsibly.
One approach I wish Brennan would have considered more carefully:
instead of restricting the political power of voters, approach
things at the candidate side. A requirement for running would be to
subject yourself to a battery of tests to measure your intelligence
(maybe an IQ test); general knowledge and academic achievement (something
like the SAT); maybe a quiz on current affairs (where's Aleppo?) or
general civic knowledge; maybe specialized queries on economics
You wouldn't disqualify anyone based on test scores, but you would
publicize everyone's scores. Would voters pay attention? Maybe enough on
the margin to improve results.