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Against Democracy

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Most people believe democracy is a uniquely just form of government. They believe people have the right to an equal share of political power. And they believe that political participation is good for us--it empowers us, helps us get what we want, and tends to make us smarter, more virtuous, and more caring for one another. These are some of our most cherished ideas about democracy. But, Jason Brennan says, they are all wrong.

In this trenchant book, Brennan argues that democracy should be judged by its results--and the results are not good enough. Just as defendants have a right to a fair trial, citizens have a right to competent government. But democracy is the rule of the ignorant and the irrational, and it all too often falls short. Furthermore, no one has a fundamental right to any share of political power, and exercising political power does most of us little good. On the contrary, a wide range of social science research shows that political participation and democratic deliberation actually tend to make people worse--more irrational, biased, and mean. Given this grim picture, Brennan argues that a new system of government--epistocracy, the rule of the knowledgeable--may be better than democracy, and that it's time to experiment and find out.

A challenging critique of democracy and the first sustained defense of the rule of the knowledgeable, Against Democracy is essential reading for scholars and students of politics across the disciplines.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published September 6, 2016

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About the author

Jason Brennan

24 books120 followers
Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. His books include Against Democracy and The Ethics of Voting.

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Profile Image for Charles Haywood.
496 reviews724 followers
September 20, 2016
Jason Brennan is The Man Who Was Born Yesterday. His book is incisive, insightful, interesting, funny, and well-informed. It delivers a sound and compelling case that democracy is fatally flawed. But everything he says in “Against Democracy” lacks depth, because he thinks that history began roughly twenty-four hours ago. So, while his analysis of democracy is good, his prescriptions are unbelievably shallow and poorly thought-out, making the book very like a delicious-looking piece of cake that is wholly stale upon the eating.

Perhaps this is not surprising, since Brennan is a Millennial (born in 1979), and the wisdom of the ages does not appear to figure heavily in his thinking. Moreover, Brennan self-identifies, not in this book but elsewhere, as a “bleeding heart libertarian.” This appears to be a libertarian who trims his views, especially on controversial social issues of the day, such that he continues to be invited to East Coast dinner parties, where history is apparently not a hot topic of discussion.

Beyond its shallow historical vision, though, the major problem with “Against Democracy” is an equally shallow and more centrally fatal conception of “knowledge.” The author claims his book is an argument for epistocracy—rule by the knowledgeable. (“Epistocracy” is a 2003 neologism, although the general concept is not new.) Brennan, in one of his very rare acknowledgements that anyone engaged in relevant political thinking prior to John Rawls, remarks that Plato, to the extent he endorsed a “philosopher king,” was an epistocrat. But when Brennan talks about “knowledge,” he means not wisdom, as Plato did, but a very specific set of very narrow and blinkered modern “social scientific” knowledge—which just so happens to exist only at the intersection of left-liberal and “bleeding heart libertarian” thought. This is perhaps the fatal problem of the book—not that rule by the knowledgeable is necessarily a defective form of government, but that Brennan’s definition of the required knowledge is circumscribed in a way calculated to raise as the new philosopher kings people who bear a suspicious resemblance to Jason Brennan. But pointing to a specific fatal problem in the prescriptions offered by “Against Democracy” is like pointing to which stab wound killed Julius Caesar—you can never be sure which one was fatal, but then, really, does it matter?

We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go through the author’s arguments, which Brennan lays out clearly—this is a very readable book. In his introductory chapter, “Hobbits and Hooligans,” he defines three cleverly named species of political participant: hobbits, who are “apathetic and ignorant”; hooligans, who are mostly ignorant but don’t know it, but are aggressively involved in politics; and vulcans, who “think scientifically and rationally about politics,” with their opinions being “strongly grounded in social science and philosophy.” Almost everyone, he claims, is a hobbit or hooligan; and trying to involve hobbits more in politics merely creates more hooligans.

In this brief introductory chapter, Brennan might as well build a graven image of the term “social science,” and worship it. On one set of two pages, he uses the term not less than eight times. For him, social science is the Alpha and Omega of allowable political thought. So, for example, ignorance is repeatedly defined in terms such as “not having a strong background in the relevant social sciences.” Brennan never defines “social science,” but throughout the entire book, his Venn diagram of “social scientific thought” and “epistocratic thought” has 100% overlap. No knowledge that is not “social scientific” is relevant or permitted to influence decisions in Brennan’s proposed new political order. You’d think that makes it essential to define “social science,” but as I say, that doesn’t happen. Presumably “social science” excludes anything that Jason Brennan finds not relevant to “competent political decision making,” such as appeals to tradition, any form of moral or religious belief not found cast in a positive light in modern “social science” journals, and generally anything not approved by the glitterati at Georgetown cocktail parties.

Anyway, Brennan then turns to his major thesis: that democracy is not a uniquely just form of political organization—in fact, it has tremendous defects, such that despite its visceral appeal, we can and should determine if a better system can be found. Among several problems, the biggest is that most voters are incompetent, and democracy enables them to impose their incompetent decisions on other people. His targets here are a range of professional philosophers who advocate the absolute or relative superiority of democracy on either proceduralist or instrumentalist grounds.

In the series of chapters following his introduction, Brennan first reviews the voluminous literature definitively proving that the vast majority of voters (by which he means American voters) are utterly ignorant of politically relevant book learning. This ignorance, as he shows, is actually rational, because it costs a voter to obtain knowledge, and the expected return for most people is less than the cost, given that the impact of their vote is very close to zero. This chapter is compelling, and damning of the quality of voter decision making, to the extent based on knowledge. But it’s not original and does not warrant writing a book. Everyone knows democracy is awful; as Churchill said (whom Brennan does not quote) and Brennan says, the question is what’s better, if anything?

This first chapter is also where Brennan’s lack of history (and other) knowledge shows up first. He says, talking of rational political choice, “Suppose one lived in a fundamentalist theocratic monarchy or something close to it, such as most of Europe in the Middle Ages or Saudi Arabia right now.” This is the height of ignorance. No European monarchy was ever a theocracy, or anything related to a theocracy. Zero. (Byzantine monarchs were caesaropapist, as was much of the historical Muslim world, which is vaguely similar in some ways to a theocracy, but the opposite in other ways. And the Anabaptists in Münster ran a theocracy, which was not a monarchy, for about three seconds in the 16th Century. Like I say—zero.) Nor is today’s Saudi Arabia a theocracy. It is a purely secular monarchy where the ruling family subsidizes the clergy for political gain, while at the same time tightly controlling it. Iran is the closest government to a modern theocracy, but Brennan seems unaware of that. (This quote from Brennan also shows a common but disconcerting tendency of Brennan’s—attempting to insulate himself from attack by using vague and undefined qualifying phrases that can be defined post hoc in the manner necessary, such as “something close to it” and “most of.”)

Maybe this type of gross historical error is meaningless in a philosophy book. But that Brennan does not see his historical errors, and none of his editors or his long list of thanked assistants and helpers did, suggests that they all live in a narrow, insular world, where historical, organic knowledge is undervalued and reasoning based on abstract knowledge, in a vacuum, or more accurately an echo chamber, regarded as admirable. Additional such historical errors in the book, along with lengthy, serious discussions analyzing the cut-rate thought of the bell-bottom flavored philosopher John Rawls, reinforce this feeling—the feeling that Brennan believes all relevant thought and political action began around 1970, to the tune of “Hey Jude” and the reek of marijuana.

In the next chapter, Brennan demonstrates that “Political Participation Corrupts.” Deliberation leads not to reasoned results and consensus; it instead leads to hardening of various forms of bias and a total lack of enlightenment. It is irrelevant that some theoretical forms of deliberation can theoretically lead to good results, for they fail to do so in practice, in the same way as the high ideals of fraternities in practice lead not to refined men but to drunken louts. Similarly, “Politics Doesn’t Empower You Or Me.” Democracy does not result in the consent of the governed. Nor does it lead to autonomy, nondomination, or moral development. Brennan goes on at some technical length regarding philosophical arguments put forward by John Rawls, rejecting most or all of what Rawls and his acolytes have to say regarding democracy as a basic liberty, therefore one essential for justice. (All you need to know about Rawls, though it’s not covered here since Brennan favors abortion rights, is that Rawls excludes unborn children, the original members of the “original position,” from the protection of his Veil of Ignorance—as far as I can tell, and Brennan seems unlikely to disagree, Rawls’s entire thought project was finding dubious “philosophical” justifications for left-liberal positions already arrived at.) In sum, Brennan shows that democracy fails to empower any given individual (although it can empower groups as a whole). All this is entirely convincing on the level both of philosophical argument, in which it’s quite rigorous, and of instrumentalist rejection of democracy as not achieving the goals for which its proponents put it forward.

In “Politics Is Not A Poem,” Brennan rejects that democratic systems have a symbolic, or semiotic, value. For example, democracy does not need to signal non-superiority, because some people ARE superior—namely, the people Brennan wants to rule in an epistocracy. And in a later chapter, “Civic Enemies,” Brennan posits that involvement by most people in politics is corrosive of civil society, because the incompetence of most members of society makes them incapable of decent deliberation. Plus, society is unnecessarily divided by issues that are almost all not worth fighting about (although Brennan conveniently ignores all controversial social issues, ranging from guns to gay marriage to abortion, presumably because no Right Thinking Person can think there is an actual controversy about those, and only cretins who should be denied the vote would take any other position than the left-liberal one).

Brennan then pivots to what politics is supposed to provide—namely, “The Right To Competent Government.” He posits that it is unjust to “forcibly deprive [a citizen] of life, liberty, or property, or significantly harm [his] life prospects, as a result of decisions made by an incompetent deliberative body. . . . Political decisions are presumed legitimate and authoritative only when produced by competent political bodies in a competent way and in good faith.” An incompetent monarchy, which is unjust because incompetent and because a monarchy, is not made just by becoming a democracy and remaining incompetent. If we don’t let children vote because we think on average they’re incompetent to govern, why do we let adults who are incompetent govern? And, as Brennan has already shown, most adults are systematically incompetent to govern—so they should not be allowed to govern.

Finally, Brennan has a brief chapter, “Rule Of The Knowers,” pushing an ill-defined epistocracy as an alternative to democracy. He makes modest claims not focused on an ideal system: “Given what we know . . . which is likely to deliver better results, some form of epistocracy or some form of democracy?” He suggests the possibility of restricting voting to “citizens who demonstrate a basic level of knowledge,” that is, to eliminate those “who lack basic social scientific knowledge.” He suggests possibly allowing everybody to vote, but giving more votes to the knowledgeable. He suggests trying universal suffrage with a veto by an “epistocratic council” (naturally, composed exclusively of those who can “pass rigorous competency exams in which they demonstrate strong background knowledge in the social sciences and political philosophy”—welcome your parade of overlords who look just like Jason Brennan!)

Here, again, Brennan demonstrates historical ignorance. Even more jarring than simple historical error, he repeatedly fails to make any historical reference where one would both be apt and instructive, leading the reader to believe he is probably unaware of the relevant historical point. For example, the Spartan gerousia was an actual epistocratic council. Its performance and characteristics seem highly relevant—but of it, there is no mention. Similarly, early America, as conceived and implemented by the Founders, had a sharply restricted franchise, which in many ways mirrored Brennan’s epistocracy, in practice if not in intent. But again, this is not mentioned, even though any informed reader would think of the parallel. This reinforces the reader’s suspicion that in Brennan’s epistocracy, abstract ideology will be rewarded, and concrete, incrementalist, tradition-respecting government will be punished.

In any case, Brennan’s epistocracy suffers from the wholly fatal flaw that not only does Brennan never define “social scientific knowledge,” he nowhere attempts to show why it is superior to any other kind of knowledge. Brennan habitually conflates all knowledge with “social scientific knowledge.” He literally seems unaware that any politically relevant knowledge that is not “social scientific” can exist. He equates abstract knowledge with competence—but scoring high on a civics exam does not equal good decisions. Good decisions, as any ancient philosopher could tell him, come from wisdom, which can informed by abstract knowledge, but is not the same thing as abstract knowledge. Brennan relies on decisions made based on the statistics of social science, rather than decisions based on the knowledge created by historical experience, which may be less presentable in charts but is much more relevant to human experience as actually lived.

That’s not the only fatal flaw of the book, though. For another, Brennan seems to think that the only players in a human society are the governors and the governed. But this is like the two-dimensional view of a citizen of Flatland, who really lives in a three-dimensional world he cannot see. Any actual society has between the government and the individual society a range of intermediary institutions—churches, labor unions, clubs, associations, and so forth, upon which the real strength of society is based. An epistocracy based on abstract knowledge must necessarily oppose intermediary institutions; they are a drag on the rulers’ ability to get things done by exercising their superior knowledge in an efficient manner. And a society that destroys its intermediary institutions is merely a society headed down the stainless steel chute of the abattoir. Those in line can’t always see what lies ahead, but they can tell from the screams it’s not going to be good.

Yet another flaw with Brennan’s scheme is that those possessing abstract knowledge are frequently the most maleficent at governing in practice, because they believe their knowledge, which would be validated as supreme in Brennan’s scheme and therefore become even more overweening and pernicious, SHOULD lead them to DO SOMETHING. One hundred percent of the time, the epistocrats in Brennan’s scheme would implement Utopian ideological schemes, unrooted in reality and ignoring prudence and tradition. Brennan even makes a nod to Burke to note that changing from democracy to epistocracy should not be done precipitously wholesale—but he does not seem to grasp that his epistocracy would inherently be a Burkean nightmare, no different than the French Revolution, any post-independence African country, or Twitter’s odious Trust & Security Council. It would be rule by the abstractly knowledgeable, who are always really a prideful, unrooted, amoral group, tainted by groupthink and inflamed by the human lust for power and dominance over others, lusts fully enabled and validated by the new testing regime that divides society into the rulers, creatures of abstract thought who must necessarily reject all tradition and rootedness, and the ruled.

“Against Democracy” would have benefited from considering, whether, if we are going to restrict universal equal suffrage, we should focus less on abstract knowledge, and more on increasing the power of those with organic knowledge. This distinction was a core distinction in most of the original Greek democracies (which, of course, were not universal suffrage democracies), which mostly found abstract philosophies something between dubious and contemptible. A system preferencing organic knowledge would offer more power to those with a stake in society, who are likely to be more knowledgeable about what really matters for a society, even if they cannot match wits with philosophy Ph.Ds. As Robert Nisbet said, “rootless men always betray.”

For example, perhaps those with children should be given 10X votes per child, so those with five children would be given 10^5 votes, or 100,000 votes, compared to one vote for the childless. Similarly, property owners, especially owners of real property, which is not portable, might be given extra votes. Recent immigrants would get no vote at all until they proved integration into and worth to society. Voting power could be reduced for those who are value takers, not value creators. So recipients of significant government benefits (mostly the elderly and the middle class, not the poor), as well as anyone working for the federal or state governments, directly or indirectly, would be stripped of most or all votes (regardless of their amount of children or holdings of real property). Anyone with an advanced degree in a worthless and loathsome topic like Gender Studies would be wholly and permanently stripped not only of the right to vote, but also of the privilege of working in government, and therefore exercising power over others, at any level. But Brennan never adverts to any other possibility for the measure of epistocratic fitness, other than a paper test for compatibility with Jason Brennan. Too bad. Maybe in the second edition.
Profile Image for Elliott.
328 reviews59 followers
September 7, 2016
Libertarianism is bullshit not to mention it's all bunk.
There. That's something that needs to be said rather plainly before I go into specifics.
Now, don't think that I'm just getting my angries out over 'not seeing the mystic truth' of some particular cult-and libertarianism is a cult- I rate this book one star because libertarianism and Brennan's book is just a collection of bad ideas.
So, there are some fundamental assumptions that libertarianism makes that need to be addressed:
1.) Humans are NOT inherently selfish. Indeed it's quite remarkable how inherently UNselfish people truly are. The easiest example of this is how if someone gets lost in the woods there are ALWAYS scores of volunteers to assist even though such volunteers themselves are often injured or killed in the process. Same thing where people go to rescue people trapped in burning buildings or cars for no other reason than someone is in jeopardy. Libertarians have never really succeeded in answering 'why?' these things occur with any convincing explanation. Science however has identified "empathy." Great concept-totally exists- brain scans have proved it. At best I'll warrant that libertarians have identified how people sometimes behave under capitalism-which goes to assumption...
2.) Capitalism is not a "natural..." anything. Markets are old- true. People have traded, and bought and sold things for millennia. Capitalism however is completely a man made, state created entity no more "real" than childhood "floor is made of lava" games. Indeed as children "believe" the floor is real lava is about the same as how anyone "believes" that the market is somehow any kind of already existing eddy or current. Money for instance-fiat or metal backed-pick your poison-is inherently worthless. You can't eat gold, you can eat paper although you'll not gain much from it. The presence of a state and debt behind it is all that makes it worth anything.
3.) Libertarians automatically assume that they are worth something in their "productive based society." There's an undercurrent (definitely present with Brennan) that should the libertarian rapture happen they are gonna be among the "saved," productive Titans who'll prove their superiority through their hard work... blah blah blah. You think Howard Roark's ability to design buildings, mine stone (on occasion), and raping Dominique is going to do him one modicum of good when winter comes and his grain harvesting abilities don't match his handiness with a compass? I have my doubts. I also doubt that L. Ron Hubbard found his Thetan in the sky but alas skepticism will do that to you.
4.) I guess I am being a bit cruel "glorious free, free market" of no regulation and every man for himself has made Somalia into the economic powerhouse it is to- oh, wait, it seems no regulation has predictably led to a collapse of the fictitious free-market entity as well as the nation itself.
Now on to the meat here. Brennan like Plato before him holds that mass democracy is a waste of otherwise perfectly good rulers. He cites some fairly unconvincing statistics that prove that the uncaring and rambunctious are screwing things up. Not particularly addressing that it is just as likely the uninterested may just be resigned to the fact that since either "microloans" (Clinton), or "Ameri-wallistan" (Trump) will be elected as will their clones and neither particularly puts bread on the table or fire in the hearts much less the hearth for the very poor. The rambunctious are to be expected both inside and outside of politics. The rambunctious are annoying, yes-and they propagandize but cutting them out of the political process for their illogical rambunctiousness is what every middle schooler has thought in gym class similarly without ever considering that they themselves may also be rambunctious at times for other reasons. Surprise! Back to empathy.
But while we're here this is as good a time to disagree with the three categories: Hobbits (the uncaring), Hooligans (the rambunctious), and Vulcans (the logical, and rational). The problem is that when it comes to politics one can be be simultaneously very rational and yet rambunctious. One can be very rambunctious about non-participation and one can be very logical in non-participation. These are terrible categories that are so loose it makes the DSM look ironclad. Besides of course the rambunctious have their place too. Who inaugurates change but the rambunctious? Who often holds back change but the logical? Where Brennan merely swiped the name the Vulcans that I know (Spock) have used the illogical to achieve what could not be achieved simply via contemplation. Besides categorizing people and dishing out rights by behavior is a bit unsettling in the implications I'm thinking of.
We're assured several times that Brenner really cares about inequality and racism. He does after all score lower on several biases scores than the average person which means Brenner will be one of the "saved" of course. But giving a damn is not the same as actually doing something and on top of that here's the dirty secret about capitalism: it was conceived, built, and made possible by the extermination of the Americas and the enslavement of Africans. Then to convince those poor Europeans who might empathize with slaves the lorded gentry created racial differences and mixed it in with some predestination-'Africans,' these rich men swore 'deserved to be treated like cattle and murdered and abused for profit.' For profit is the bottom line. Which reminds me of another historical event. These lorded gentry considered themselves the only competent rulers of the land. Accordingly come the Constitutional Convention only property owners could vote and while white labor was counted as a whole person to elect more rich men to office slaves were downgraded to 3/5ths. Reading Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson entertained some ideals that Africans' reasoning was subpar and that they could not live or prosper in the American Republic. It's true that Jefferson entertained highly prejudicial views even for his time, and while he only talks about slaves it sounds similar to Brennan's views on the uncaring and rambunctious members of society he would like to exclude.
Am I saying that Brennan harbors racist thoughts? No. For one he scores very low on biases! But Brennan omits or is sparse on his history and how his ideas have been applied in the past. Combined with his rather unconvincing statistics and assumptions on humanity I cannot see any real logic being applied here much less any effective way to benefit society.
Profile Image for Kate.
120 reviews9 followers
September 4, 2016
A fascinating discussion of whether democracy is unjust. Brennan compares political decision-making to jury deliberations, in which a decision is deemed unjust when the jury proceeds incompetently because they either ignored the facts or acted corruptly. He argues that perhaps voting should be more like driving, or becoming a judge, where certain levels of competence are required.

I wish there had been more focus on possible epistocracies (governance by the competent), rather than only one chapter, but it makes sense that it should take nearly a whole book to convince people of the downsides of democracy. For instance, one astonishing fact was that a large majority of people thought that the Marxist slogan "From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs" might be part of the Constitution. Egads. Apparently, there are numerous other studies that show a significant amount of population knows very little about who they are voting for, some even confusing the party platforms.

It's a book well worth reading, both for the overview of various political science studies and for the thoughtful look at alternative forms of government that might better protect people's rights. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Lia.
144 reviews40 followers
March 9, 2019
First saw this here: https://read.dukeupress.edu/common-kn...

I don’t have much to add beyond Cartledge‘s review/ commentaries (and I’m going to read Cartledge’s book next). This book is exhibit-A of missing the forest for the trees. It’s full of details, anecdotes, examples, metaphors to support one argument: democracy is only a tool, and if there are better tools for the job, we should consider those other tools, if we don’t, we’re not being fair.

My problem: like Cartledge, I think democracy is more than just a procedure or an instrument, it’s also a practice beyond just politics. By focusing on pros and cons based on measurable metrics and technical details in one very specific area, we entirely miss the human dimension of it. By that I don’t mean being sentimental. By that I mean not bowling alone, I mean citizens attending drama and games and be educated towards practicing and developing civic virtues. By that I mean the whole regime that encompasses way more than just how we vote, who gets to vote, how we weigh the votes. Dismissing all that is no doubt very handy, because it’s so complex it’s not easily reducible to metrics and positivist conclusions.


BTW, “epistocracy” is a neologism coined by Estlund in 2008. As of 2019, there are already a dozen papers published about “epistocracy” citing (or critiquing) Brennon. My point is: you should still read this, lest it becomes “common knowledge” that democracy is just one tool among many in the box, a subset of all known tools that are clearly defined and measurable. And if the data indicates so, it could easily, readily, reasonably be replaced by something new and strange, something like a wolf in wolf’s clothing.
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,401 followers
November 10, 2020
This is about as close as you can get to writing a blasphemous book in the United States, although the purpose is to make a serious moral philosophy argument rather than to merely provoke. Brennan's critique of democracy seems exclusively aimed at mass democracy and definitely lands some blows. The average voter is systematically uninformed and its not clear that deliberative processes at any level result in people making better choices. We do not allow unqualified people to serve us as doctors or mechanics but we seem fine allowing them control over life and death political choices. The reason for this is largely cultural. At some point it was decided was that universal suffrage is a badge of equal humanity in the way that giving everyone a medical or mechanic license isn't. Like any other cultural construct this one could theoretically be deconstructed, though it isn't entirely clear how.

In lieu of mass democracy Brennan favors epistocracy. This could be described as rule by experts, or rule by a class of people who have met some minimal competence testing. This would improve government outcomes and also generate greater equality, he argues. In the United States such a system would be difficult to implement fairly because society is heavily divided along ethnic lines and such a setup could easily become a tool for some groups to suppress others. It strikes me that there is no way to implement any of Brennan's ideas which makes the book as a thought exercise less interesting. Having said that he does raise the interesting point that participation in politics generally makes us worse as individuals. It leads us to hate one another over things that often have nothing to do with us personally and that we cannot change. As such it'd be best if we all spent less time in political deliberation and minimized our exposure to politics generally. This is advice worth pondering and by raising it in this book Brennan generates some food for thought.
Profile Image for Yngve Skogstad.
94 reviews20 followers
September 6, 2018
Suppose you start with an understanding of politics not as a struggle for power between interest groups, but as a choice between competence and incompetence, and you couple it with an absence of theory on the operations of the state or how people relate to positions of power. Then you add some cherry-picked studies from the most dysfunctional democracy in the West (while claiming these are universally applicable) and spice it up with an endless string of de-contextualized and ahistorical thought experiments for good measure. What do you end up with? Concluding that approximately 95 % of black people in the U.S. should be stripped of their right to vote. Racist, you say? No no, not at all, you see, contrary to voter suppression laws of the South, that have a racist intent, Jason Brennan only wishes to make sure that exclusively informed people are allowed to “exercise power over him” (i.e. voting). In fact, minorities should favour this system, seeing as “excluding the bottom 80 percent of white voters from voting might be just what poor blacks need”.

I expected the title to be a clickbaity exaggeration, but it really isn’t. Jason Brennan simply dislikes democracy. Fair enough, as it functions today it has a lot of problems. However, we don’t exactly see eye to eye on what these problems constitute of...
It should be said, this book doesn’t really deal with democracy as I would define it, rather it deals more narrowly with the “universal” right to vote and run for office. The author thinks the main problem with democracy is that stupid people have too much of a say. He substantiates this point by citing some studies that purportedly show how un-/misinformed the average American voter is. Instead of asking why this might be and how it can be fixed, he just concludes that most people are inherently irrational, uninterested and cognitively inferior and therefore shouldn’t have any chance to infringe on how he lives his own life. As an alternative Brennan proposes “epistocracy”, which he defines as a political system where, by law, political power is distributed according to knowledge or competence. Mind you, he never explicitly embraces epistocracy over democracy, as he is an “instrumentalist”, meaning he prefers the political system that delivers the best results (he never substantiates on what the “best” results are, or how we would adjudicate on such a thing). So Brennan thinks democracy delivers bad results, but he also believes it is bad for us because it is divisive, and that people would be happier if they just stayed out of it and let the experts get together and concoct the right policy response, seeing as his ideal view of politics is simply bringing the right "facts" into the hands of the “hyper-cognitive elite”.

In the next to last chapter, where Brennan lays out some concrete proposals for how an epistocratic system could look like, the whole book essentially collapses. One of his proposals (an epistocratic veto-system) is almost an exact copy of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Guardian Council, while the others are chiefly concerned with finding the right proxy for stripping the undesirables of their vote and/or increasing the amount of votes for the elite by a factor of anything between two to twenty.

While I agree with author that electoral democracies don’t work the way they’re prescribed by political theorists, and that the “right to vote” is kind of fetishized, I think this book does a horrible job of explaining why this is a problem, and what should be done about it. The book’s an easy read (though it still took me some time to finish as I constantly had to lay it down because I got so mad) and sort of useful in the sense that I had to think through my counter-arguments. Other than that, it was pretty worthless.
Profile Image for Shawn.
Author 6 books40 followers
April 10, 2017
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.

Profile Image for Arup.
212 reviews9 followers
November 17, 2016
My first serious book on political science. Must read in current times. Perils of ignorance and the consequent incompetent rule of democracy. Well crafted arguments. Fun to learn how democracy works because it doesn't work.
Profile Image for Sven Gerst.
48 reviews10 followers
April 13, 2017
As promised, Brennan provides a strong (almost devastating) critique of democracy—and the theories surrounding it. It is a great read and Brennan is a witty writer, but after all the book appears to be unbalanced (his defense and outline of epistocracy only makes up for tiny part of the book) and incredibly repetitive (certain statistics, thought experiments, and quotes appear 3-4 times throughout the 250 pages).
Profile Image for Kenny Smith.
34 reviews4 followers
March 23, 2019
This book doesn't deserve the praise it has received from both academic and public audiences. To me, its seeming popularity rests more in our current faith in democratic systems than any particular virtues of Brennan's argument. To save you some time, he spends the vast majority of the text arguing for a functional view of democracy, which is basically the idea that we should judge a particular form of government based on its practical value. If you agree with this argument - like most people coming from a background in pragmatic/continental philosophy - you're going to be exposed to hundreds of pages critiquing ridiculous arguments that, at least in Brennan's view, amount to claiming that we should support democracy because it's aesthetically pleasing or that it "empowers" individuals. I already thought these views were silly before I read this book, and perhaps the main thing I learned was that large groups of people in philosophy departments advocate them. That is, so long as you want to trust Brennan as a careful reader of texts, and enough in this book made me fairly suspicious that he's offering an accurate summary.

The reason I'm suspicious is because, quite frankly, Brennan has a fairly high opinion of himself, not to mention social science and academics. He complains quite often about the competence of undergraduates - apparently, he teaches in different places than me! - and also seems to have nothing but contempt for his fellow citizens, who, as he claims at the end of the book, have the audacity to force him to wear a bicycle helmet. What drove me over the edge, though, was this nugget at the end of the book: "The problem here isn't that I'm racist, sexist, or classist. My moral credentials are of course impeccable, and on implicit bias tests, I score many standard deviations lower than the average person" (228). The whole book is filled with that kind of pretentiousness.

There's three big issues with the book, though, which I think make it almost impossible for me to take it seriously:

1. Brennan's book purports to be about which systems do best empirically, but he only draws on a narrow range of social science research, most of which seems to involve polling on basic public knowledge. He seems very impressed that people aren't able to identify mercantalism, even though people have continually challenged this way of determining "competence" through basic knowledge tests. Most importantly, though, is that Brennan never talks about history. Almost none of the book is devoted to talking about real governments, looking for historical parallels to "epistocracy," or any such things. For example, he might have looked at the CCP, which doesn't necessary have a testing system but might be construed as an epistocracy of a sort. He dismisses the problematic history of literacy tests in the US by just saying, "Welp! They are bad tests!" He doesn't acknowledge all the times that "experts" have supported crazy things, like eugenics. You don't even need to go back that far for these kind of examples.

2. His definition of "competence" is ridiculously inadequate, which is problematic given his whole book rests on the idea. The closest he gets to touching the psychological literature on "competence" comes from an analogy he makes to patients being competent to make their own decisions. This is a problem, of course, because he has excessive amount of faith in our ability to judge competence in any particular domain, and he seems to think we can handle this task with a simple set of standardized tests.

3. And, finally, his faith in academics is completely misplaced. Personally, I'm amazed that anybody who has ever worked as an academic thinks it is smart to put us in charge of a country. The problem, of course, is once again his idea of competence - studying and having knowledge about policy, of course, is different from having the ability to enact it, which requires skills and expertise that you don't learn in graduate school. That's the reason that medical doctors spend significant time as residents before they move forward to become doctors. Certainly, academics play a role when partnered with politicians, but it's ridiculous to think they have the expertise to run a country just because they've written some articles about economics.

I'm just scratching the surface here. There's a lot of problems with this book. The only reason I gave it two stars is because I was somewhat compelled by the idea of an "epistocratic veto" in the final chapters. Otherwise, I found it to be just a fancy spin on a different kind of authoritarian regime.
Profile Image for Jana Light.
Author 1 book40 followers
April 19, 2017
Plato's Republic Redux -- long live the Philosopher King!

Well, not quite. But Jason Brennan makes a solid case for replacing democracy (power of and by the people) with epistocracy (power of and by the most knowledgeable and competent). Democracy, he argues, is dangerous. It has significant flaws and drawbacks that endanger the rights and well-being of the population, flaws and drawbacks that a properly established epistocracy could avoid.

Brennan isn't arguing that epistocracy would absolutely produce better results. He can't -- epistocracy has never been implemented and therefore has never been tested. There are no empirical results to point to. He simply argues that considering how damaging democracy can be (and has been, in some cases), epistocracy is worth a try.

Overall, I found Brennan's arguments against democracy and for epistocracy clear, sound, and well-reasoned. (And not just because they fit with my own current musings on the dangers of democracy.) A lot of people are simply too ignorant to know which decisions are the best/right ones to make. Not only that, but millions of people are affected by the decisions we make at the ballot box -- there is a LOT at stake in our democratic elections and we are putting lives at risk by insisting on giving power to ignorant, incompetent people. It seems completely rational to me to want mostly smart, wise, competent people -- those who know the issues, have a good understanding of the possible consequences, and who are committed to ethical ends -- making these huge and complex decisions. In a sense, we vote a (supposed) epistocracy into power through representation. A true epistocracy would simply install that system one level down the power chain.

Of course, no system is perfect. The biggest danger of epistocracy, one that would need to be corrected perhaps even before epistocracy is attempted, is how poorly "leadership by the knowledgeable" would represent the demographic diversity of the US. Our education and economic systems have prioritized and privileged white men over everyone else. As a result, rich white conservative men (as Brennan has the results to demonstrate) simply know more about politics today than any other demographic. As a nation we have made great strides in civil rights and in evening the playing field for the disadvantaged, but we have a LONG way to go and it will take decades for the knowledgeable class to reflect the demographics of the US as a whole. (Just as diversity in Fortune 500 CEOs is taking a long time to unfold.) Installing epistocracy now would risk putting the already disadvantaged at a further disadvantage, a risk we should be loath to dismiss. We need to focus on training up all peoples for possible inclusion in the knowledgeable ruling set. Ultimately, knowledge and competence are more important than demographics, but an unjust system has determined who has those two qualities, and injustice begets injustice unless it is actively stopped. Some of our systemic inequalities must be addressed in order for epistocracy to work as well as it can.

In this age of overexposure to information (good, questionable, and downright false), I think Brennan's argument gains real power. People are demonstrably less interested in finding out what is real or true and more interested in finding confirmation of their existing beliefs. And unfortunately, confirmation of any belief can be found somewhere on the internet, though the sources may be deeply flawed and suspect. People do not know (and often do not care) how to evaluate sources, arguments, and evidence. Considering the vast echo chamber in which most people tend to enclose themselves and by which they make their voting decisions, and considering the millions of lives at stake for the decisions we are making as a democratic body, I think Brennan is correct in advocating for a system that evaluates, selects, and gives most of the voting power to those who demonstrate a defined minimum level of knowledge, competence, and integrity.

Two downsides to the book: 1). The idea of establishing an epistocracy in America is rather wishful thinking, and therefore a bit depressing. What are the chances we can convince people that giving up what they perceive as a fundamental right to vote will increase their chances of a safe, productive, well-provisioned life (as far as government is concerned, anyway)? It's a request that may feel decidedly offensive to those whose vote is taken away. That's a huge hurdle, even if we were to get as far as considering epistocracy.

2). I wish Brennan had talked more about the moral commitment and fortitude needed in epistocratic leaders. He talks a lot about expertise and competency, but not so much about the kind of character traits needed to put those into best use. Moral character is just as important in a leader as knowledge. Morality defines our ends and the goals we aim for. Character is woven into much of what Brennan says and suggests, but I wish it had been made part of his overall framework in a more explicit way.

Also, I want to make clear that while I am totally on board for epistocracy, I honestly don't think I would qualify as a voter in that system! I am woefully ignorant on foreign policy issues and do not know nearly enough about economics to be able to determine whether or not a proposed policy has a good chance of being effective. Just as I look to experts to help me figure out those issues, I would look to those same experts to make decisions at the ballot box and to enact policies as elected representatives in my stead. So my endorsements of epistocracy and Brennan's position are not self-promoting. They are deeply self-serving, as I think epistocracy would lead to higher well-being for me and for the US (and world) as a whole, but it is not self-promoting. I simply agree with Brennan: democracy has proven to lead to ineffective, immoral, incompetent leadership and policies, and the course correction needed could very well be epistocracy.
Profile Image for P.
133 reviews18 followers
October 21, 2021
First off, I can’t remember the last time I actually enjoyed reading a work of analytic philosophy this much. Brennan argues with a genuinely accessible clarity, not to mention humor, and he argues forcefully: democratic institutions (particularly in the US) are instrumentally incompetent and corrupt, due to policies put in place by an electorate that is overwhelmingly ignorant, irrational and misinformed. Terrifying statistic after terrifying statistic is cited. His tentative (for there is as yet no empirical data on the matter) solution is epistocracy, i.e. rule by the knowledgeable elite.

The argument for epistocracy suffers for at least two reasons. First, Brennan rails against political philosophers who would argue along idealized lines – sure, democracy would work perfectly if individuals were fully informed, unbiased in their opinions, and open to deliberation with fellow citizens. Of course we don’t live in that world, and Brennan argues against democracy from a nonidealized, realistic position: groups of incompetent and biased persons are imposing their uninformed wills on otherwise innocent individuals. But when it comes to positive claims for epistocracy (which, as presented in the penultimate chapter, is vague at best), Brennan himself slips into an ahistorical idealization. How would the world’s liberal democratic citizens – even those that don’t vote – feel about universal suffrage being stripped from them? Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of epistocracy in a philosophical vacuum, it seems inconceivable from a realistic social perspective.

The second objection is that Brennan takes it for granted that expertise in empirical social scientific knowledge is the fundamental marker of intelligence and political competence, and should therefore set the bar for voting rights. A definition of what constitutes “social scientific knowledge” is never provided. Moreover, even if one assumes intuitively that empiricism and the social sciences provide one with the truth, where do we draw the line? Is each individual in the epistocratic body expected to be an expert in economic, environmental, educational, land use, and foreign policies? War theory? Property regimes? Central bank interest rates, tariff impositions, trade restrictions, industrial and commercial regulations, wealth transfer, professional licensing and restriction, and taxation? School curricula, drug regulation, immigration, law, moral philosophy and ethics, history, sociology, criminology, &c.?

Overall, Against Democracy is a controversial and legitimately fun book that offers a thoroughly damning critique of democracy and its defenders, and will likely force you to question and defend your basic political assumptions.
Profile Image for Emanuela.
Author 4 books67 followers
September 11, 2018
Tre stelline perché l'organizzazione dei contenuti è piuttosto contorta, se non ritorta e, spesso, ripetitiva. Poteva essere strutturato in una forma più semplice dicendo le stesse cose, guadagnando in chiarezza.

Nei contenuti si fa un'analisi macroscopica dell'elettorato nelle democrazie occidentali, suddividendolo in hobbit, hooligan e vulcaniani dove, solo gli ultimi, una stretta minoranza ha conoscenze sufficienti per riuscire ad esprimere una scelta razionale durante il voto.
Degli altri, una massa che vota, quando vota, è più spinta da convinzioni fideistiche che da analisi ragionate.

La conclusione dell'autore è che sarebbe più opportuno pensare a una epistocrazia in modo da essere governati da persone competenti e più razionali anche se, di solito, le organizzazioni degli Stati prevedono già che le azioni governative siano attuate da un gruppo ristretto di persone.

Un altro motivo di critica nei confronti della democrazia è che impone, nel bene e nel male, a sottostare a decisioni che non si condividono, prese a volte da incompetenti che dettano comportamenti, pena una risposta "violenta" dello Stato.
Il concetto democratico si basa più su una eterna lotta, che non sull'obiettivo del raggiungimento del bene comune.

Complessivamente l'analisi dell'autore è condivisibile, basta vedere come si svolgono le campagne elettorali che creano fazioni da stadio (hooligan), con condizioni di contrasto che proseguono oltre e esacerbano gli animi, che lasciano la maggioranza dell'elettorato (hobbit), in una condizione di ignoranza che è rimasta tale nel tempo, perché capire la politica, materia difficile, richiede tempo e fatica.
Le soluzioni che propone, però, non sembrano facilmente realizzabili, come ad esempio sottoporre l'elettorato ad esami per valutare le conoscenze minime dell'organizzazione dello Stato affinché si voti con un po' di cognizione di causa o dare un peso diverso al voto degli elettori in base alle proprie competenze. Esattamente il contrario di "uno vale uno" a cui si fa credere all'elettore di acquisire potere, mentre nei fatti non è così, basti pensare che le cariche di governo non sono elettive.

In conclusione, se la democrazia risulta al momento la forma migliore per governare un paese, non è detto che non possa essere migliorata ma, come detto sopra, basterebbe avere dei governi composti da nuclei epistocratici competenti (non sempre è così) e che all'interno delle istituzioni ci siano validi sistemi di controllo e previsione degli effetti dei provvedimenti legislativi (speriamo sia così).
Profile Image for Ken Cartisano.
111 reviews6 followers
February 18, 2018
Democracy isn't defective, it's an endangered species. And thinking like Brennan's is the reason why. This book sounded interesting when the author was being interviewed on NPR. But in the harsh glare of my bathroom light fixture, this thing smells worse than almost everything else in my bathroom.
Several other reviewers have gone to great lengths to detail the many flaws in this books architecture, foundation, structure and plumbing. I won't bother.
This book is the literary equivalent of a Russian dash cam video. It provides about twenty minutes of entertainment before it becomes repetitious. This is one of only two books (possibly three) that I couldn't force myself to finish. As flawed as our American government is, it became clear after about six chapters that Mr. Brennan, like many who seek and hold political office, has no clear, practical solutions for the vague and menacing pitfalls our present form of government must face. If he did, he certainly didn't include them in this book.
Five obvious typos in the first chapter led me to conclude that Mr. Brennan could not find a decent editor for this otherwise professionally printed, published and promoted book.
Finally, what this book really does, is promote yet another terrible philosophy of unilateral exceptionalism that distracts and divides people, while adding nothing useful, constructive or realistic to the sum total of political discourse. Buyer beware.
Profile Image for Giovanni84.
231 reviews53 followers
March 30, 2021
Non me lo aspettavo che mi sarebbe piaciuto così tanto, essendo io un fervente democratico e spesso infastidito da discorsi antidemocratici.

L'autore sostiene che un'epistocrazia sarebbe migliore di una democrazia. La parte più debole del libro è quella in cui propone delle forme possibili di epistocrazia, che secondo me decisamente non reggono.
Ma questa è anche una parte residuale del libro (un solo capitolo su 9).

Il libro è principalmente una critica alla democrazia, ed è maledettamente interessante.
Quando si parla di queste cose, spesso sono infastidito perché si dicono cose stupide o banali.
Brennan invece costruisce bene le argomentazioni, e prova a smontare delle convinzioni che credo siano radicate nel pensiero comune (e di certo lo sono nel mio)

Ad esempio: ho sempre pensato e sentito dire che la partecipazione politica,interessarsi di politica e votare,sia una cosa positiva. Per Brennan è invece una cosa negativa e dannosa, e prova a spiegare perché.

La sua tesi è tutt'altro che inattaccabile, ma il libro è ricchissimo di spunti e informazioni interessanti.
Ed è pure scritto bene, l'autore mostra un'eccellente capacità argomentativa e a tratti è pure divertente grazie a dei paragoni buffi.

Penso sia una lettura arricchente, e ve la consiglio, se vi interessa l'argomento.

(ovviamente, io sono ignorante di filosofia politica; magari, per chi già conosce l'argomento, questo libro può risultare banale)
Profile Image for Gee.
16 reviews
March 17, 2023
Long winded way of saying "low IQ people should not be voting" which I wholeheartedly endorse
Profile Image for ehk2.
356 reviews
December 13, 2016
I'm not against the critique of democracy on account of the ignorance of voters. But the writer is himself so ignorant about "social scientific knowledge" and he misses his own ignorance.

1) There's not even a single mention of the ages-old epistemological controversy over truth vs. ideology! The author is simply ignorant on the philosophy of social sciences or years of disputes in sociology of knowledge. He has a very childish, positivist confidence the existence of some "social scientific facts and truths" over somewhere there. (yes, I also have a PhD on sociology and political science). There is not a non-trivial conclusion that social science can provide without producing a very strong theoretical objection or counter argument. I do not want to say that it all adds up to rhetoric, but yes, it is more or less rhetoric. All I want to say is, not all economists agree on economic policies on Greece or Venezuela!

2) Identification of "cognitive biases" does not equal to an ideology critique, which the author does not even consider...

3) He thinks he manages to refute procedural arguments for democracy, but he simply does not. He crudely equates political field to any other specialist field of expertise, like driving or medicine!

4) He repeats "lack of social scientific knowledge" over and over again! What is that? Can anyone give example to that?

5) Finally, epistocracy is not practical. For it to be effective, it has to exclude too many people (speaking statistically); and that is what the author has in his mind. That would raise too many objections. That cannot be put into practice for a very long foreseeable future with our conventions of rights.

6) When we exclude some voters, still the remaining ones will vote for the same reservoir. Brennan will vote for his libertarian candidate, while he has successfully excluded the man who would vote for the same candidate, but because of incumbent's eye colours.

In conclusion, the central idea could be debated; but let us first exclude the ones who think themselves as more informed than others.
Profile Image for Daniel Cunningham.
229 reviews26 followers
October 22, 2016
Levels serious critiques at American democracy in particular (though, as a work of political philosophy it clearly aims at 'democracy' in general) and proposes 'epistocracy' as a replacement... though what epistocracy means in practice is left loose, and how we get there from here is barely waved at.

To really argue against this I'd have to re-read it. But a first major objection would follow the outline that, while the criticisms are entirely valid -in my experience, anyway- and the merits of epistocratic government plausible, the empirical vs. theoretical argument leveled at democracy hasn't been thoroughly explored re: epistocracy (e.g. we have some analogous experience with judicial review, as covered for different purposes in the book.) Secondly, while Brennan cites plenty of evidence that our voting doesn't really give us choice, really improve us, or genuinely invest legitimacy in the government, he seems to fail to address how actual people really feel about that (a fairly glaring oversight, given the repeated insistence on empirically lead thought.) Even if I shouldn't feel that e.g. my voting makes the government legitimate, I certainly do feel that way... and I can imagine defending that physically should it be threatened (e.g., with a gun, going to war, etc.) I imagine that a lot of other people feel similarly. Could we convince people otherwise?

Maybe. But it seems like that this second issue will be incredibly difficult, making real testing re: the first issue next to impossible.

But... the critiques are worth discussing. And the solutions, even if theoretical, are too.
Profile Image for Juan Fco.  Faundez.
4 reviews2 followers
February 10, 2023
De fácil lectura, Brennan nos introduce en su teoría política a través de los primeros dos capítulos que son los estudios realizados por psicólogos políticos que observan de diferentes formas como los votantes en una democracia (EE. UU.), votan con sesgos, prejuicios y desinformados. Luego va repitiendo sus propuestas a través de todo el libro, así que se te quedan en claro sus principales críticas a la democracia.
Profile Image for Valentin Roussarie.
20 reviews1 follower
May 29, 2023
Can one oppose democrarcy ? Yes, Jason Brennan says. This books is an attempt to justify his position.
Nevertheless, the argument is not as strong as it may seem at first glance.
Basically, Brennan considers a political system to be judged by its capacity to make good decisions, i.e. decisions that are best for the most. In that sens, Brennan fully fits the utilitarian thought. If such a "best" solution were to exist, power should be restricted to the ones who will most probably find it. Hence Brennan's favour for a technocracy.
But in politics the question is not whether a decision is good or bad, but rather for whom such a decision is good and for whom it is bad. The very existence of conflicting interests leads us to ask: what interests will these governing experts defend ? Whatever the solution is, some will be favoured and others not, so that there is no better solution, and thus the idea of a system more able to find it is non-sense.
Profile Image for Alex.
73 reviews32 followers
January 26, 2020
I'd been looking forward to reading this book for some time. My first encounter with Brennan's work was his appearance on the Rationally Speaking podcast in January of 2017. From memory he argued his position well, and intrigued me enough to want to buy his book and read the full thesis.

This experience has been a great example to me of always reviewing the source material before making up one’s mind.

The book is divided into 9 chapters. Briefly:
- Chapters 1 and 2 lay out the relevant social science illustrating that far from Mill's ideal of the engagement of politics making people in better versions of themselves, it in fact makes us worse. Nearly half of the population are 'Hobbits' who don't care for politics and know little about it. The other half are 'Hooligans' who tribally engage in politics, like a team sport. Finally a small fraction are 'Vulcans' who reason about evidence and policy rationally with little bias. Around 50% of people know nothing about politics, and a further 25% know *less than nothing* due to systematic misinformation. We’re in a poor state as far as electorate competency goes. Forcing people to stand in line for a few hours once every 3-4 years doesn’t make them feel civically engaged, only resentful (voting is compulsory in Australia).
- Chapter 3 discusses the game theory of political participation, and how it ultimately corrupts even people who have the best of intentions. An incompetent electorate selects for candidates who can court that electorate, and they tend not to be our best and brightest (though are often among our wealthiest and most well connected).
- Chapters 4 and 5 lay out just how little political power the typical voter has in a democracy. This is in fact by design, as political power has been atomized in a democracy. The logical consequence is that the expected utility of one’s vote is a fraction above zero. Various arguments for democracy being a tool of empowerment or moral status symbol are reviewed and rebutted. I tend to agree with most or all of them.
- Chapters 6 and 7 lay out Brennan's argument for a right to a competent electorate, and then examines whether present democracies uphold that right. Spoiler alert: they don't, most of the time.
- Chapter 8 is the main event, spelling out the five broad kinds of epistocracy that have been considered in the literature.
- Chapter 9 is a coda on how politics, being a zero sum game, turns neighbours into enemies. We'd all be better off with engaging less of it to preserve our social bonds.

The 2016 hardcover edition is riddled with typographical errors mostly in the form of missing words - 'and' is frequently missing, as are plural forms - and other errors such as 'irrational' when he meant to say 'irrationality'. While this doesn't detract from the content of the argument, it does feel rather poor for a published work. If you're making an argument that others should be more competent in their endeavors, it's best not to throw stones in glass houses. A handful of proofreaders could have found every one of these errors.

I am sympathetic to the idea of wanting a competent electorate. Cumulative embedded processes of competency is what our society has been built on. Even an electorate where only the bottom 5% of the citizenry is disenfranchised would be considered an epistocracy, barely distinguishable from a democracy in which certain members of the population are already excluded from voting on grounds of incompetence (e.g. children). I'm frequently appalled at the state of education of my fellow Australians and can occasionally be heard muttering under my breath that something should be done about it, if only we had a good solution.

But then again, I was once one of those fools. In my teenage years I was a hobbit. Then in my early and mid-20s became a left-wing hooligan. These days as a 30-something I strive to be a centre-right Vulcan, and hope I succeed more than I fail. I look back on my past voting self with a measure of pity and disdain, for that fool had no process for determining a good candidate. He had a set of moral values and a belief about which party best aligned with those values. He was rooting for his side, and whatever policies they had were by definition the ones he should endorse. He believed there were straight lines between moral values, stated beliefs, and policy prescriptions. While my political sophistication has evolved over the last 18 years, that of many people I know and am related to has not. They are as ignorant, irrational, and misinformed as I once was. In virtue of you reading this review, I can make an educated guess that you, dear reader, may have had a similar experience.

The meat of my disagreement with Brennan comes down to this point: he contends that the more educated, higher earning citizens tend to be those who would make the most competent voters. These competent voters would then vote for candidates who would make the best overall decisions for everybody. I find the first part likely and reasonable, but the second part suspect.
At the risk of dating this review and making enemies (which, deliciously, would prove Brennan’s point about political polarization) let’s take a quick detour.

The process of globalization has been, overall, a force for good in the world. Between the technological revolution we’ve seen since the 1960s, and China exporting deflation off the back of its cheap labor, the world as a whole has benefited tremendously. However some groups have benefited at the expense of others. The developing world has seen a boon in income and standards of living, while the developed world middle class has seen its share proportionally dwindle (while still growing, just not growing as fast as others or in many place the cost of living). Middle and working class families in the West are now looking at a future in which their children are not likely to be as wealthy as their own parents. They feel betrayed by the top end of town that continues to allow the operation of corporate tax loopholes, and ever more immigration to shore up flagging local birth rates. Those extra warm bodies compete for low-skill jobs, putting downward pressure on wages. Low wages are great for companies but bad for low and middle class workers.

The Brexit referendum, and the Johnson government election 3 years later, were arguably the lower and middle classes finally getting their democratic way after decades of going along with what the educated elite would have voted for them in an epistocracy (a friend of mine contests this, but allow me the premise for now). The middle class want protectionism. They want reduced immigration (for a number of reasons, and no, racism isn’t at the top of the list). They want a rejection of establishment economics they feel has failed them. Who can blame them? With inequality rising, they rightfully feel left out of the globalization bounty. They want to enact some reverse of globalization, at least for a time. I find it difficult to believe that such a result would have been achieved in an epistocracy that had more than a token of restricted suffrage. Truckers and taxi drivers put out of work can’t simply learn to code. But they can throw their political weight around and reduce the local competition for their jobs.

I’m sure many readers of this review who don’t share my Euroskepticism will be clicking off right about now. I implore you to continue a moment longer. I’m skeptical that Brennan appreciates this point of view. At least twice in the book he gives away his own politics as preferring a kind of near-anarcho capitalism with a world wide open-borders policy. Presumably he would qualify to vote in whatever epistocracy we ended up with, and these are the kinds of policy prescriptions he would vote for. Furthermore, he states plainly on page 197 that whenever we implement a policy there will inevitably be winners and losers, but the goal is to create more winners then *financially compensate the losers*. Maybe this was a gaff, but I was aghast that he seems to think that the only thing working class people care about is how many dollars are in their bank account. This is a common attitude among professional economists who fail to appreciate that $65,000 in annual salary is not equivalent to receiving a $65,000 welfare payment in any way that really matters. People want to feel useful. They want to feel like they can provide for their families. They want good, honest work they can be proud of. If all of this is lost on many of the academic elite (whom Brennan and I are both part of) it’s little wonder they can’t appreciate that the middle and working class might prefer protectionism over free trade. That doesn’t make them necessarily wrong (though I concede they often are) it just means they value something other than Pareto efficient outcomes. They value a community they have strong ties to. I suspect this is largely ignored by neoliberal economists because it’s difficult to quantify. Dismal science, indeed.

This tension between educated and uneducated opinion raises the question of what should go on a voter application test, and who should decide the criteria. Brennan presents a handful of options, but I suspect none are satisfactory. If the people decide it via referendum, suffrage is likely to be broadly dispersed; a high proportion of people will still vote and the expected benefit of transferring from a democracy to an epistocracy will be minimal (though perhaps, more just, and that’s not nothing). If it’s decided by more restricted means, suffrage is likely to also be highly restricted, meaning political outcomes like Brexit or Trump (whatever you think of either of them) may have never been possible. And if the test is ideologically neutral, it’s essentially an IQ test which will disproportionately enfranchise the upper classes, again to the possible detriment of the working and middle class (see my review on Murray and Hernstein’s ‘The Bell Curve’).

Having said all that, let’s try the experiment. One US state. One micronation. Let’s put the idea to the test and then have the debate with real empirical data.
Profile Image for Arcesio.
Author 2 books78 followers
November 17, 2022

Hace años se consideraba que la democracia era la una forma justa de gobierno y generaba los mejores resultados en materia de bienestar. Pero en día, ese axioma se pone en duda, tal cual lo demuestra Jason Brennan en su libro Contra la democracia (Deusto, 2018). El economista se apoya en la «Teoría ingenua de la democracia» para mostrar la decadencia de la democracia debido al bajo índice de participación y el poco compromiso cívico de los electores. El autor soporta la tesis de que los ciudadanos no se están tomando en serio la responsabilidad del autogobierno.
La democracia es una herramienta. Si encontramos una mejor, deberíamos sentirnos libres de usarla. Porque, aunque es posible que existan algunas formas de gobierno intrínsicamente injustas, la democracia no es exclusivamente justa. Uno de sus principales defectos es el sufragio universal no restringido e igualitario, en el que cada ciudadano tiene derecho a un voto de forma automática. El problema es que este tipo de sufragio incentiva que la mayoría de los votantes tomen decisiones políticas equivocadas y luego imponen esas decisiones a gente inocente.
En referencia a los bemoles de la democracia, John Stuart Mill se preguntó: la participación política, ¿ennoblece o corrompe? Una respuesta apropiada a este interrogante se apoya en la tesis de que la democracia empodera a cada persona con la misma cuota básica de poder político. Pero se trata de una porción muy pequeña. Como la porción es tan chica, los ciudadanos tienen pocos incentivos para utilizar su poder de una manera responsable y son motivados a seguir siendo ignorantes e irracionales.
Brennan define que la democracia es el gobierno de los hobbits y los hooligans, y detalla los tres modelos del comportamiento del votante en función del grado y la forma en que participa:
Los hobbits son «ciudadanos poco informados, con escaso interés y bajos niveles participación en política. Normalmente, tienen compromisos ideológicos volubles o débiles». En contraste, los hooligans son ciudadanos muy informados que tienen sólidos compromisos con la política y su identidad ideológica. Están cerrados por sus sesgos cognitivos, como el sesgo de confirmación o el sesgo intergrupal. Para ellos, la política es en buena medida un deporte de equipo. Sus opiniones políticas forman parte de su identidad. Tienden a menospreciar a quienes no están de acuerdo con ellos y poseen una visión distinta del mundo. Y finalmente, se encuentran los vulcanianos, el ideal del votante. Este grupo está conformado por pensadores perfectamente muy informados. Piensan en la política de una manera científica y racional. Sus opiniones están sólidamente fundamentadas en la ciencia social y la filosofía. Son conscientes de sí mismos y están seguros de algo solo en la medida en que las evidencias lo permiten.
Estos son meros arquetipos conceptuales. Algunas personas encajan mejor que otras en estas descripciones. Nadie consigue un vulcaniano auténtico; todo el mundo es al menos un poco parcial. En nuestro país, como en varias democracias, casi todos los ciudadanos están dentro del espectro hobbit-hooligan. El abstencionista medio es un hobbit y el votante medio es un hooligan.
Una alternativa a la democracia es la epistocracia, un sistema el poder político es conferido a los ciudadanos más competentes o con mayor conocimiento. Y reitera el autor en la definición del gobierno de los expertos: «… un régimen político es epistocrático en la medida en que el poder político es distribuido formalmente de acuerdo con la competencia, la habilidad y la buena fe para actuar según esa habilidad». La epistocracia no es gobierno de los vulcanianos. Al respecto, el autor plantea una propuesta epistocrática, el llamado «gobierno por oráculo simulado», donde se utiliza a los votantes hooligans y hobbits para estimar lo que querrían los vulcanianos. Asevera, además, que para lograr votantes vulcanianos se debe superar la ignorancia racional con procesos educativos y cambios en la cultura cívica la población, partiendo de la premisa, que la mayoría de los ciudadanos no nos están haciendo un favor por el hecho de votar.
El libro precisa una falencia de la mayoría de los sistemas epistocráticos: el conocimiento político no es compartido de manera equitativa por los miembros de todos los grupos demográficos. Una preocupación que conlleva al «riesgo democrático» de la representación demográfica desigual. Disparidad asociada a la segmentación de los votantes por el nivel de conocimientos, en especial en las zonas geográficas apartadas y habitadas por minorías étnicas, convirtiéndolas de plano en poblaciones electoralmente marginadas y vulnerables. Un sesgo que a nuestro entender se puede corregir con las circunscripciones especiales y los sistemas diferenciados de representación popular.
De la resolución del debate epistocrático y su conveniencia sobre otras formas de gobierno se encargó Aristóteles, quien le respondió a Platón que «aunque el gobierno de los reyes filósofos fuera el mejor, nunca tendríamos reyes filósofos». Pues en razón a tal devenir, de la frase del pensador polifacético se sobreentiende que las personas reales simplemente nunca son tan sabias o lo suficientemente buenas para ocupar ese papel, ni, al contrario de lo que creía Platón, podemos formarlas de manera fiable para que lleguen a ser sabias o buenas.
Por último, es bueno recordar que las decisiones políticas son de gran trascendencia. Luego, es válido preguntarse: ¿Cómo se atreve alguien a tomar decisiones de manera incompetente, tal cual ocurre en las democracias? Como contestación, varios economistas y teóricos del derecho han sostenido que deberíamos utilizar formas más racionales de gobierno como la «futarquía», una propuesta del economista Robin Hanson basada en la elección de oficiales por votación, los cuales, posteriormente son encargados de definir las medidas del bienestar nacional, dejándoles a los mercados de predicción la determinación de las políticas con efecto más positivo para toda la población.

Calificación; 5/5
Profile Image for Stefan Schubert.
17 reviews66 followers
July 23, 2017
Forceful book. The author has a thesis and argues for it pretty heavily. This makes the book very clear, but in some passages the author comes off as a bit biased. Perhaps a bit more focus on empirical data and a bit less on refuting pro-democracy armchair political theory would have been good. Overall I recommend reading this book.
Profile Image for Eric.
93 reviews5 followers
November 2, 2020
I'll be honest that I'm fairly convinced, with some very important caveats.

Number 1, I need a disclaimer. The author (Jason Brennan) advocates for a system called epistocracy: rule by the knowledgeable. I should say that in the absence of trying that I'm a strong advocate of making our current democracy more fair and more democratic. I'm appalled at gerrymandering and voter and vote suppression and intimidation. I'm taking steps to try to be part of the solution for those issues.

So, what is epistocracy? There are many forms, but think of it like you have to pass a test showing knowledge before you get to vote. Or people who pass a test get veto power. Or people who pass the test get more votes. Or a small sample of people gathers together to be educated more before being the only voters. Point being, that democracy is the worst form of government in existence, except all the others that have been tried. Epistocracy hasn't been tried though.

The basic idea is that voting isn't an inherent good/right, it's an instrumental good. If we couldn't vote but had a government that did a much better job at protecting our rights and providing what we need then our actual rights aren't violated. We have more of a right to competent governance. Voting applies your will to other people. That needs to be justified. And it turns out the average voter is very uninformed and/or biased. He says voters are either hobbits (ignorant and don't care), hooligans (informed but highly biased), or vulcans (dispassionate and educated).

The obvious first criticism that I had was that this will unfairly impact the poor, blacks, the disadvantaged. It's true they'll have less say. But he addresses this in a few ways:
1. Statistics show that people don't actually vote in their self-interest, they vote for what they perceive is the public good. Unfortunately, most people are just wrong about what is the public good, vulcans would be better.
2. The disadvantaged don't know enough to actually know which policies and politicians would be better for them. Think of rural whites voting for Trump in large numbers.
3. The same thing applies to licensing (medical, plumbing, hair dressing) but we don't say we should get rid of licensing.
4. The issue should be addressed at the root of the problem: inequality, education, housing, etc. But not in a "right" that impacts everyone else who is more informed.

Overall I find myself pretty convinced that an epistocracy would be better. But I do still have a nagging doubt that those selected to vote will be wise and representative enough to consider those less fortunate in sufficient detail and empathy. It sounds a bit like how the Supreme Court has said monopolies aren't a problem in and of themselves unless you can show it hurts the consumer. We all know of monopolies that are hurting us but it's exceedingly difficult to prove that they're hurting us. I fear the same would happen with the disproportionately white, male, educated class who would be the ones who can pass this knowledge test, despite the rebuttals listed above. Even so, he has some good points as to why it might not be as much of an issue as you might think.

If we made the test a little easy and knocked off the bottom 5% of voters it might favor Republicans. If we made it very hard and restricted to a top level class (he said people who pass the AP economics test and a few others - I forget which ones) then it would probably favor democrats. I think if we chose the epistocracy such that it would have prevented Trump and Brexit then that would have been a major win (barring the unruly and unknowing masses causes riots and revolt).

It's a very utilitarian/instrumentalist argument. We have a right to a competent government, and it's likely that the most competent government isn't had by allowing all adults to vote. The reduction we get in utility from not voting (which is minuscule - nobody influences an election) is much less than the increased utility from a more competent government.

Profile Image for A Man Called Ove.
915 reviews219 followers
September 21, 2019
"Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." - Winston Churchill
There has been a (finally disproven ?) theory that once non-democratic countries get richer they also become liberal democracies. So, once China crossed say per capita income of $5000, it would become democratic. It has achieved a per capita income of $8000 and it has remained the same ! On the contrary some in the liberal democracies of the West have started debating whether a liberal democracy is actually the best possible form of government and hence "The End of History".
This book was written before Trump and Brexit and anyways, it keeps away from commenting on current affairs. The book does a very good job of enumerating the ills of democracy today - the ignorance of voters, ugly partisanship, irrationality, special interest groups etc. As far as being "Against democracy" goes, it is perfect.
The book's central idea is that universal suffrage should be done away with and we should have some kind of epistocracy. Since votes made by ignorant voters are binding on every1, there must be some mechanism to keep them out. Voters can be made to pass a civics test or there can be other arrangements like plural voting for the college-educated. There would be no discrimination based on gender, identity, race etc as the rules would apply to everyone. Seeing that a person like Trump has been elected (after the book was published), the idea is very appealing.
However, I would like to read the history of movements for universal suffrage before making up my mind. Secondly, while it maybe feasible for an authoritarian regime moving towards democracy to do so, how can a democracy with universal suffrage disenfranchise a significant percentage of its population ? Thirdly, the book assumes that all citizens have equal political power. Nope. Wealth gives you influence in a no. of ways. Fourthly, in India, where entire castes have been discriminated against and are backward, will disenfranchising the ignorant be merely a pretext to keep them subjugated once again ? I am sure others can think of many more objections.
To sum up, it is a very thought-provoking book that unfortunately has not yet received its due. Maybe future events will bring the spotlight on it. Highly recommended !
23 reviews
July 5, 2020
I appreciated the "provocative" task of assaulting one of our sacred cows. I suppose this book didn't do it for me on two counts: 1) it was too damn long for its contents and 2) it was too caveated and soporifically derivative to spark much interest.

Ever since I descended from post-literacy, I've found an overwhelming trend that really sucky books that go on for too long are usually two to three hundred odd pages. This seems like some publishing sweet-spot. Brennan seems to provide redundant citations, quotations, and (perhaps most offensively) little references to or regurgitations of what was written in the prior chapter(s). Stylistically I was not a fan.

One might say "spare me style. I want me some good content." Despair, despair hard. The title is provocative, but the argumentation (unless my reading was completely off which is of course always possible) was bland if not weak. I'm decidedly not an expert in political philosophy; hell I'm not even an undergraduate yet (Hoya Saxa btw, don't fail me professor Brennan if I take a class of yours), but even my ignorant nose couldn't smell anything particularly new or fresh. I've read Bryan Caplan, Hobbes, Hume, Haidt, Nozick, etc. I know that little bitty from ole' Winnie that "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried." Perhaps I was looking for something more than a new arrangement of familiar parts.

On the constructive side of the argument, my phlegmatic slumber was mildly disturbed by Brennan's maybe-or-maybe-not casing of other people's ideas on epistocracy. Many of my no doubt inductively developed and descriptively poor conceptions of psychological and sociological phenomena are in direct conflict with the various forms an epistocracy might take.
Profile Image for Andrés Álvarez Fernández.
16 reviews2 followers
March 26, 2020
For being a comparative analysis between democracy and epistocracy I was surprised the book does not pay any attention to historical models of epistocratic government and to what extent they could inform contemporary epistocratic politics.

Moreover, it is puzzling the author (an American citizen with a thorough knowledge the US political system) does not find time throughout 245 pages of reading to discuss the Electoral College (in essence an epistocratic institution designed by the Founders to mitigate the negative effects of democratic elections).

Interesting book, but lacking many elements.
January 5, 2019
An excellent and biting critique of democracy for its many, many flaws. It also introduces defenses for epistocracy - a system where experts rule with possible restrictions of suffrage based on citizens’ political knowledge. Certainly recommend it for anyone looking to take democracy off its pedestal.
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