Thursday, November 3, 2016

Is there a Case Against Democracy?

In The New Yorker, Caleb Crain has a long and thoughtful look at Jason Brennan's Against Democracy and some other anti-democracy literature. These books make all the usual points:
Roughly a third of American voters think that the Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” appears in the Constitution. About as many are incapable of naming even one of the three branches of the United States government. Fewer than a quarter know who their senators are, and only half are aware that their state has two of them.
Blah, blah.

I have two responses to this stuff.

1) Name a system of government that works better.

In the past one might have pointed to aristocracy + tradition, with or without monarchy, as a quite effective system. But then we had the Enlightenment and all such systems were swept away, leaving the modern world without that option. Since 1800 the record of stable democracies is just vastly better than anything else. In parts of the world a stable democracy has failed to establish itself, and one might argue that for Thailand or Egypt democracy has not worked very well. But even if we grant that, we in the US, Japan, and western Europe do have stable democracies, so why would we want to risk losing these amazingly successful systems?

2) Where is the evidence that any particular group would do better at governing than the mass of the ignorant, feckless people, with all their bad opinions? As Lord Acton famously said, "The danger is not that some particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern."

Brennan likes an idea he calls "epistocracy," which would mean rule by the well-educated. Of course this doesn't exist and never has, although various governments have imposed literacy tests and the like, so its actual performance can't be judged. I am extremely dubious of such notions, because of the actual behavior of the well-educated. For starters the smartest and best educated political party in America right now is the libertarians. In the Britain of 1935 it was the communists. The intelligent and well-educated seem to have a fatal attraction to extreme political movements based on totalistic theories of society. As a fan of offbeat political ideas I regularly read the blogs of libertarians, neo-Marxists, conservative Catholics, communitarians, and the like. These are intelligent, educated people, far more thoughtful and better read than the average Democrat or Republican, and I wouldn't want them anywhere near to power.

For my whole life, Republican voters have been better educated on average than Democrats. (Or, if you prefer, have had more years of schooling.) College-educated Americans went strongly for George W. Bush over Al Gore. Thanks folks! The oh-so-successful Iraq war was launched by a fabulously well-educated crew (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, Addington, etc.) We would have been better off with (as someone else famously said) the first dozen names in the Boston telephone book.

The preference of educated people for Republicans is related to opinions about the fairness of capitalism. Basically, the richer people are, the more they think the economy is fair, and since better educated people make more money, they are more pro-capitalist. Poor people may be ignorant about economic theory, but they care about their own interests in a way that nobody else does. Democracy, by soliciting the opinions of the poor, forces the government to consider the interests of people outside the ruling elite better than any other system.

I would make another point about democracy at a more theoretical level. To function effectively, a government must command legitimacy, and democracy is the best system ever created for getting the people to support the government.

Democracy is the best system of government ever attempted, period. And I will still be insisting on this next week even if Donald Trump wins.


G. Verloren said...


"Democracy is the best system of government ever attempted, period."

Ehh... I'd agree it's the best system ever attempted, overall. But not full stop, flat out, absolutely the best ever, period. There have been other systems, however rare or short-lived, that arguably worked much better for their respective need and circumstances than our system does for ours.

I'd also argue that the term "democracy" gets used too often and with too little as a sort of blanket phrase for what is in reality many vastly different kinds of government.

The ancient Greeks, particularly the Athenians, enjoyed a direct democracy - but one with heavily limited suffrage. We operate today under an indirect democracy - but we allow a larger number of people to vote for their representatives. They're clearly both "democracy", but surely one must be a better system than the other?

Hitler was democratically elected. Stalin was democratically elected. Yes, their respective elections and the governments that operated them were highly flawed, but they were inarguably democratic - they just weren't the sorts of democracies you or I might want to live under. Democracy itself is no safeguard against catastrophe - it can always go horribly wrong, given the proper systemic flaws and societal conditions.

And the eternal question always remains - how do we determine who gets to vote?

A direct democracy would ideally be purer and more fair - except at the scales of our modern societies, it's completely impractical. We use indirect democracies out of sheer necessity. Our society is so complicated, we need to have specialists whose entire job is voting on major issues - and even they can't always manage to get it all done in a timely manner.

But that still leaves the question of enfranchisement. The Athenians could operate a direct democracy because of their small size, but they also restricted suffrage only to adult, male, non-slave, land owning citizens. Obviously we disagree with at least a couple of those restrictions - but we agree with at least one of them, and there are certain other restrictions we impose.

G. Verloren said...


We don't allow children to vote - presumably because we have qualms about their fitness for making important decisions. But once they manage to orbit the sun eighteen times, suddenly we deem them perfectly fit? That's our sole criterion for determining an individual's voting competancy - whether a completely arbitrary amount of time has passed since you were born. How absurd is that?

We also don't allow felons to vote - presumably either because we believe their criminal acts have demonstrated an unfitness to make important decisions despite the number of times they've orbitted the sun, or perhaps simply because we want to punish them or use them as a public example and deterant.

Except that while the age restriction on enfranchisement is established by the 26th ammendment to the constitution, felony disenfranchisement is unevenly established by state and local law.

In some states, felons aren't disenfranchised at all. In others, their disenfranchisement ends once they are released from incarceration. In still others, it ends only after both their incarceration and parole end. In others even still, it ends only after incarceration, parole, and probation do. And even other states have circumstantial limits, where not all felonies result in disenfranchisement. And sometimes a felon is never re-enfranchised at all, unless they file an individual petition to have their enfranchisement reinstated - and in some places that petition can be denied, with no appeal.

So clearly we don't agree on when, if ever, a person who has committed a felony should be given back their rights to vote. It's all rather arbitrary, really - except in cases where it is likely actually part of an agenda of manipulating election results one way or another.

In Florida, for example - where minor felons must wait five years after completing their incarceration, parole, and probation; and where major felons must petition the Florida Board of Executive Clemency to have their voting rights restored at all, as well as wait seven years, and may be at the end of that duration be denied by the board for effectively any reason without appeal - nearly 25% of African American citizens are ineligible to vote because of past felonies.

That's a staggering amount, especially when you consider that the same individual commiting the same crime in Maine or Vermont would never lose their right to vote at all. And even if re-infranchised, these individuals are still denied the right to vote for seven years longer than felons in even the strictest of other states. The only place I know of that's worse is Kentucky, where it's entirely up to the governor whether you can ever vote again or not - and the governor is neither particularly qualified for making such decisions, nor has a particularly large amount of time, energy, or resources to commit to performing such a duty.

G. Verloren said...


In this light, I have to admit I find that Brennan's advocation of "epistocracy" has a certain appeal to it. We currently decide who can and cannot vote for... less than stellar reasons, which arguably aren't terribly logical. Surely it would be an improvement to determine suffrage based on measurable demonstrated competancy instead?

Yes, it is true that such a thing has never existed. But does that mean we shouldn't consider creating it? Modern democracy itself was once considered revolutionary, something which had never existed and never worked at anything like the scale people proposed to try it at. Does that mean we should we have stuck with monarchies instead?

What you are right to point out, of course, is the fact that such a system wouldn't be simple. There are the extant philosophies and biases of the political parties, of course, and the disparities in worldview between the rich and the poor, and certainly other vitally important factors that would need to be considered.

And yet, surely our current system is itself not remotely simple? Surely a hypothetical "epistocracy" would not be significantly more complicated or difficult to manage that our extant system already is? And surely it would be a far more rational system, and far less susceptible to the pitfalls of ignorance in general, and to the efforts of those who would manipulate the ignorant for their own ends?

Of course, the great difficulty would be in getting everyone to agree on the rules for such a system of enfranchisement based on knowledge. Ironically, it seems the greatest obstacle to producing a less flawed democracy would itself be our current flawed one.