Against Democracy by Jason Brennan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Against Democracy, as the name suggests, is a devastating critique of democracy both in terms of the efficacy of real-world democracies to provide competent government and the moral justifications for democracy (more precisely, universal suffrage as a moral right). It is at its best when it challenges and debunks our cherished assumptions about and views of democracy.
I find the book less convincing when it comes to Brennan’s proposed alternative: epistocracy. This is the rule of the knowers; or more precisely, the idea that in some way voting or governing is restricted by some kind of test of knowledge. For example, you only get to vote if you can pass an exam like the citizenship test or everyone gets a vote, but people who can pass such an exam get extra votes. Brennan briefly discusses several possible ways epistocracy might work (and there are many), but without any actual full-blown epistocracies to look at, it is hard to get a feel for just what such a system would really look like and how such a system would actually work. This is hardly Brennan’s fault; there just aren’t any real-world examples to present.
He does discuss some of the epistocratic elements already in place (e.g. Supreme Court) and this helps make things clearer. Nevertheless, I think he might have spent more time fleshing out a few of the more promising alternatives in greater detail. After all, the discussion of epistocracy proper is only one chapter (I would assume Brennan is saving this for his next book.)
Without the more fleshed out alternatives, it is harder to evaluate them and compare them to democracy (which is what Brennan wants us to do). It also makes it harder to determine whether some of the objections raised against epistocracy are answered adequately. For example, I am not sure the demographic objection is satisfactorily met. This is the concern that epistocracy would, given the current demographic realities, disenfranchise individuals that are part of already disadvantaged groups. Brennan’s response boils down to the claim that since epistocracy should yield better policies (especially for such groups, who have been ill served by democracy), these individuals will be better off under epistocracy. This might be true but it sure doesn't seem like it would convince someone deeply concerned about this issue. Of course, that doesn’t show that Brennan is wrong, but it tugs at how deep the perceived value of voting is and that at least from a rhetorical point of view more work needs to be done.
Another practical concern is that Brennan never addresses how we get there from here. What is the realistic path to adopting his vision? If democracies are as incompetent as he convincingly argues, then how do we get democracies to change and implement epistocracy (peacefully)?
Another concern I have, and this runs through a lot of Brennan’s work that I have read, is that he has way more confidence in empirical social science than I tend to think is warranted. I am not denying the value of this science or its importance in making these kinds of arguments. Nevertheless, I think more humility and caution is needed when using it. The empirical data seems to me to be more limited in terms of scope and generalizability than Brennan seems to treat it. That said, he is explicitly cautious at times, just not as much as I think he needs to be.
I am sympathetic to Brennan’s arguments against democracy and for epistocracy. But I worry that's because I am not part of the groups that are disenfranchised by Brennan's proposals: my position in society is not likely to be affected. Would someone in those groups find the view as appealing? Probably not. But, then, such people aren't reading books like these I (and maybe that’s part of the problem).
As a realistic alternative, I don’t think epistocracy will win the day anytime soon. But I think the book has important value in the present forcing us to rethink the way see democracy and by making the case that more epistocratic elements need to be added or strengthened in our republic.
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