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RS 176 - Jason Brennan on "Against democracy"

Release date: January 22nd, 2017

Jason Brennan

Churchill famously called democracy "the worst system of government, except for all the others that have been tried." Could we do better? On this episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia chats with professor Jason Brennan, author of the book "Against Democracy," about his case for why democracy is flawed -- philosophically, morally, and empirically.

Jason's Book: "Against Democracy"

Jason's Pick: "Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy" by Diana C. Mutz

Edited by Brent Silk

Music by Miracles of Modern Science


Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (19)

Brennan mentions that for 150 years, we've had a test of what 'universal participation’ brings, and the results 'get things backwards'. Politics have become dumb and mean'.

His choice of 150 years isn't a coincidence. He must be referring to the end of the Civil War almost exactly 150 years ago.The South was a society in which votes were largely limited to White landowners, who voted for secession and then total war to maintain their hold on the levers of power. If political leadership is improved by limiting the vote to the ‘Vulcans,’ we should expect to see superior decision-making in the South. This was empirically not the case.

Maybe the pre-War south wasn’t exclusive enough in its limitations on political participation. But after the Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction, voter competence exams in the form of tests prevented most Blacks and poor Whites from voting. The South hardly came to dominate the North politically and economically due to superior leadership.

Brennan is clearly aware of the historical parallels and the danger of test capture. He then proposes a system far more complex than a simple test, as if added complexity would make the system more difficult to manipulate. Wouldn't the creation of the tests themselves devolve into 'dumb and mean' politics? If no, how?

The stalwart Libertarian then suggests testing his ideas in the well-managed welfare state of Denmark, a country with one of the highest tax rates in the world. Why open a conversation claiming to provide empirical evidence that democracy is inferior to a limited-voting system, then ignore a mountain of historical evidence from the world’s oldest democracy?
January 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Bukhari

> Brennan mentions that for 150 years, we've had a test of what 'universal participation’ brings, and the results 'get things backwards'. Politics have become dumb and mean'. His choice of 150 years isn't a coincidence. He must be referring to the end of the Civil War almost exactly 150 years ago

Brennan wasn't referring to the American Civil War; he was referring to Considerations on Representative Government by John Stuart Mill (1861), in which Mill made the prediction Brennan is responding to.

> If political leadership is improved by limiting the vote to the ‘Vulcans,’ we should expect to see superior decision-making in the South. This was empirically not the case.

Brennan doesn't assert that white land-owners are Vulcans. The suggestion he gave for finding good voters was "a hybrid system in which democracy with universal suffrage gets to choose the voter competence exam, and then you get to vote on the other stuff only if you pass that exam". The South didn't use this system.

> Wouldn't the creation of the tests themselves devolve into 'dumb and mean' politics? If no, how?

He speculates a little on a mechanism, but trying it would be more revealing than theorizing. The speculation is this: "A cute analogy I use is, if I ask my five-year-old what makes for a good spouse, he could actually come up with a pretty good theory of what a good spouse is, but then it's actually quite difficult to apply that theory. I think similarly, the average voter has a pretty good intuitive sense of what makes somebody a competent voter. They just happen not to be good at applying that theory to selecting good politicians and so on."

But Brennan's suggestion is to try things. We're already dumb and mean; maybe we'll still be dumb and mean afterwards, or maybe we'll be differently dumb and mean. But if we find that this system makes us less dumb and mean than the existing system, we'll have gained greatly.
January 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Keenan
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January 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Hassan
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January 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMark Septiceye
@Michael Keenan

I understand that Brennan was not referring to the American Civil War, or more specifically its aftermath. My point was any discussion of a restriction of voting rights in America which does not consider Jim Crow laws is incomplete at best and disingenuous at worst.

Universal suffrage was retracted on large part through the mechanisms of tests democratically implemented, in the sense that a majority of voters approved of them. The requirements for voting certainly weren't high, in many cases requiring only the ability to read and write. Still, the number of Black voters in Southern states dropped by a minimum of 90%, approaching 99% in Alabama and Louisiana. The laws didn't mention race, but had a disproportionate effect on Blacks and the Republican Party in general. We have a term for that - disparate impact.

Given this sad history, which remains in living memory, talking about any limits to suffrage is a non-starter. This year alone the Supreme Court upheld an injunction against a series of laws in North Carolina that would have had a disparate impact of 'surgical precision' on Blacks. I guarantee that any system designed to promote the "Vulcan" vote over the "sheep" vote would intrinsically fail the disparate impact test and be struck down in the same way.

But you wouldn't even need 'surgical precision' to manipulate election results. Let's say somehow New Hampshire manages to implement some form of test to separate the 'good' votes from the 'bad' votes. Tests could be subtly manipulated such that even a few points either way can decide an election. Look at the progression of gerrymandering in the US. The same lobbyists and politicians who drew such absurd district lines as Florida's Fifth District or Illinois' Fourth District to tweak election results by a few points are now to be trusted with deciding whose vote should count? How could a system which produces such nonsensical district boundaries be trusted to produce a fair test?
January 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Bukhari
Could you give a concrete reference (or link) to the Kaplan study mentioned? The one in which it is shown that education has little effect on political opinion.

Thank you
January 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Dear
How about having voters pass the same naturalization test that immigrants have to pass to become citizens?
I guarantee, it will result in "disparate impact" on blacks, poor people, any group that's less educated.
The elites may be educated yet out of touch with common people, like when President H W Bush and Rudy Giuliani didn't know the price of a gallon of milk. And the elites have different interests to protect. The only illegal immigrants they interact with are their nanny and gardener, not drug cartels and street gangs. Then there are educated useful idiots, "smart idiots," and radical professors like conspiracy theorist Michel Chossudovsky and Stalinist Grover Furr. Lastly, you have the pundits who can't forecast worth a damn, as demonstrated by the presidential election.
January 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax
Just shift the weight of epistocracy from the voters to the candidates and most of your concerns about ethics, morality and social convenience go away. Because everyone expects to be a voter, but only a small fraction of voters aspire to be actually voted. And that is not just a voluntary act, but also one which is already far from taken for granted.

So why bother with so many embarrassing issues to propose such delicate, complex selection of voters instead of a much simpler and improved way to appoint candidates?

(Of course if you'd rather take shortcuts you'd not be a philosopher, but anyway...)
January 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoão Campos
@João Campos

Because saying "Only let smart rich people vote" won't work in America yet.
January 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Bukhari
Funny you should mention Switzerland, since Switzerland is already an experiment in direct democracy with all their referendums. California has been criticized for having "too much democracy" as well: "We're being asked to vote too often on too many issues that we're too unqualified to evaluate." When people have no idea what they're voting for, they'll just vote party line, follow endorsements, or vote based on superficial information like the candidate's name.
But the U.S. isn't a direct democracy, it's a representative democracy. I thought the Electoral College was supposed to be elite to save us from ourselves, but instead we have radical electors like Bible thumper Art Sisneros, who couldn't bring himself to vote for Trump because Trump wasn't "biblically qualified," and 19-year-old Sanders supporter Levi Guerra, who was involved in politics for the first time and didn't have a bachelor's degree. Some elites.
January 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax
A problem with the Electoral College is that the select few electors can be bribed, blackmailed, or intimidated, but that's because their votes are public. If they were secret, that wouldn't be a problem, but you'd have to trust them to put the public's interests before their own, or for their interests to be the same as the public's.
As far as testing voters on things like unemployment rate, what if I'm retired and don't know or care about unemployment rate but do know and care a lot about Medicare? I wouldn't qualify to vote? Who'd represent my interests?
January 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax
I've thought about this not with respect to Democracy but the jury system, where the most rational and knowledgeable people are often quickly dismissed, and smart people who aren't compensated by their employer try to get dismissed, so you end up with retirees and government workers who actually want to be there. I thought, wouldn't it be better to draw from a pool of people who don't mind jury duty, and who pass some English and logic tests. It would be more elitist than drawing from random people, but less elitist than letting a judge or a judicial panel decide the case.
January 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax
So this episode comes two days after Trump's inauguration, and I initially thought that it was motivated by the liberal view that Trump's victory is a failure of Democracy. But Brennan appears to be a Libertarian disillusioned with Democracy, like Trump supporter Peter Thiel, who wrote, "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible," in a 2009 Cato Institute essay titled "The Education of a Libertarian." This view is in line with the neoreactionary movement and its populist bastard child, the alt-right. Somehow all these movements end up being anti-democratic.
January 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax
Aha! Joke's on you! Switzerland doesn't have a prime minister!

I think this is actually one of the positive aspects of Switzerland's system of government. There's no single head of the executive, which means that there is no winner-takes-all system, which decreases partisanship somewhat, and allows for more than just two strong parties at a time.
January 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLKM

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January 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Hassan
What about conflict of interests? The exam to have the right to vote could privilege only one side.
Interesting to work on the downsides of democracy.
February 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoxana Kreimer
Thought experiment - Let only autistic people vote. I'm serious.
February 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Lin
Very interesting discussion, but it seemed like there was an 800 lb. gorilla in the room that was never addressed squarely, although it certainly came up obliquely at variance points (and I'm not the first commenter to get at this). To wit, differences of interest. I was thinking about mostly during the discussion of values at around 35:00~40:00. Brennan argues that, if there's a value position X that is supported by high-information people and a value position Y that is supported by low-information people, then it's a reasonable place to start to guess that X might be a better value than Y. But, what if X also serves the economic &c. interests of the same people who support it? You'd expect high-information/high-IQ people to tend toward different career paths than low-information/low-IQ people. What if high information voters vote for policies that put money in the pockets of the people who have the jobs they tend to have and take money out of the pockets of other people? Or, the way this would tend to work more often, they develop values that quietly tend to result in policies that put money in their own pockets, and then they vote on the basis of those values. Even if I'm an indiviudal high-information voter with a job that is not typical of that cohort, I might expect my children to have typical high-information/high-IQ jobs. Moreover, I would probably tend to be socialised by my contact with other people in my cohort, so rather than feeling like I'm developing my own values which might be open to adjustment, I could simply act on the basis of what "everybody knows", i.e. the values that serve my cohort's interests.
Brennan asserts at around 38:45 that we can simply check for that, and studies have shown that education has no effect independent of information and IQ. I wish Galef and Brennan had gotten into this in a little more detail. No effect on what, precisely? It seems so obvious and unavoidable that high IQ people could easily have interests at odds with other people in society that I would need some really solid evidence to believe otherwise. Brennan says that <i>if</i> we do find a bias, we can simply adjust for that, but this is hardly an adequate response to what is possibly a fatal flaw in the whole project of epistocracy.
February 4, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Pandatshang
Nassim Taleb has put forth the notion of having "skin in the game". It used to be called responsibility. With greater power goes greater responsibility. The reverse is also true, with greater responsibility goes greater power. This doesn't play out and is a tell tale symptom that things are out of balance. Maybe if Mitch McConnell got paid the same as the average of his constituents, he might take more interest in their well being, or lack of it. If his health care was the same as theirs, or lack of it, then he might be more interested in it. It is sad that accountability seems to be more associated with assigning blame than with having skin in the game. Follow the money...
February 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterIkkyu

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