Against Democracy

[Amazon Link]

Against Democracy? 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 or science.

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.