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Against Democracy

3.69  ·  Rating details ·  723 ratings  ·  102 reviews
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 d ...more
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published September 6th 2016 by Princeton University Press
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David I imagine what's obvious depends on your background. It's a philosophy book, not a how-to manual for politicians, so some of your questions are left v…moreI imagine what's obvious depends on your background. It's a philosophy book, not a how-to manual for politicians, so some of your questions are left vague or undefined. I'll attempt to convey what I took from the book:

1) He makes the case that we should only measure the success of a government by how just its decisions and actions are... as if government itself were a tool. This is not how all political philosophers judge governing systems, and he explains why he does so at length. But he doesn't address the stability of a real world implementation of this system. Presumably people at large would find the decisions of epistocracy more just than of democracy, but it's not explored if they would rebel more under than system for feeling a lack of control. He also has many forms of epistocracy listed, including one with universal suffrage + epistocratic veto, which would presumably alleviate that rebellion impulse a bit, since it's very close to judicial review in our current system.

2) He explicitly states that this is a risk, but the goal is not to argue for a perfect form of government, just a better one than our current form of democracy (where vote suppression and even sheer disinterest prevent "true" universal suffrage and give skewed results). If the assessments are demonstrably wrong, we can iterate on them over time. That said, the validity of assessments is outside the scope of the book aside from acknowledging that someone will have to do it, and it will be a thorny issue.

3) Specific issues are not explored in the book, just the framings for making the decisions. I'm not certain what you're referring to here, but assuming you're alluding to "wedge" issues which are less intricately policy oriented and more sheer belief oriented, there is no answer here. The most Brennan might argue is that democracy currently gives everyone a stake in such issues, and inclines them to be enemies as a result. If they were not all given that power, perhaps society would be more harmonious as a result. That said, that's a pretty big inference on my part from the writing.(less)

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Charles Haywood
Sep 20, 2016 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Aug 20, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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 chapte
Mar 09, 2019 rated it it was ok
First saw this here:

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
Aug 30, 2016 rated it did not like it
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 a
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 ...more
Apr 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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
Yngve Skogstad
Sep 06, 2018 rated it it was ok
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 ...more
Sven Gerst
Apr 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
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).
Nov 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Jana Light
Apr 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 31, 2016 rated it liked it
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 y ...more
Ken Cartisano
Feb 17, 2018 rated it did not like it
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 Russ
Kenny Smith
Mar 23, 2019 rated it it was ok
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 co ...more
Daniel Cunningham
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 ep
Jan 25, 2020 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Students of politics
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 scie
Dec 13, 2016 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Pavol Hardos
Can't wait to hate-read this. ...more
Nov 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: re-read
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 epis
A Man Called Ove
Sep 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
"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 de
Jul 04, 2020 rated it it was ok
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 ci
Andrés Álvarez Fernández
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 m
Kyle van Oosterum
Jan 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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.
Clara Kammeringer
Definitely an interesting book. The strongest point Brennan makes for me, is that we should not stick with democracy just because. His critiques seem mostly valid and in some way epistocracy might be a good (or better) alternative.
The book is very easy to read and sometimes this might be what makes his arguments (seem) superficial. His writing style is very colloquial and some of his examples and claims I don’t agree with.
The book does give food for thought and discussions and that is worth read
Oct 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book is quite different than others I have read in recent years about how we might fix our clearly struggling democratic republic. Most of them involved sound suggestions regarding needed structural changes, such as ending gerrymandering, voter suppression efforts, and expanding voter education and the need to focus on policies rather than personalities.
In his “Preface and Acknowledgements” Brennan states, “that if the facts turn out the right way, some people ought not have the right to
Luis Henrique Sacchi Guadagnin
Extremely interesting critique of democracy, though in my view falls short of proposing a coherent and feasible alternative.
Oct 11, 2016 rated it it was ok
Some interesting aspects covered in this book and some good arguments made, others addressed and still others overcome. It is no secret that democracy has its shortcomings; the author acknowledges that it still may be the best form of political structuring. Yet the epistocratic models he pushes us to try out don't really adhere to his conclusions on democracy. But I think the most overlooked option for epistocratic selection is not the voting public, but those running for office. It's a tall tas ...more
Stefan Schubert
Jul 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
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.
Feb 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
I'll admit that the 2016 presidential election and ensuing events really soured me on politics and the American experiment. It's one thing for people to act in ways that are not in their best interest. It's another when large groups of people simultaneously act in ways that are not in my best interest either. Maybe there's something better than democracy out there. Maybe this was a book I needed to read to blow of some steam. Either way, Brennan's arguments for an epistocracy are fun and thought ...more
Alper Çuğun
Apr 25, 2017 rated it did not like it
Shelves: do-not-read
I listened to the author explain the core ideas of his book in a podcast and that was so ridiculously awful, I'm making a note here to never read the book.

The author uses reductive and disingenuous arguments wrapped in academic veneer that don't amount to much more than begging the question.
Oct 10, 2016 added it

Amusing at times, but ultimately lacking the skeptical modesty of science.
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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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25 likes · 5 comments
“To justify democracy takes more work: we have to explain why some people should have the right to impose bad decisions on others. In particular, as I will show in later chapters, to justify democracy, we’ll need to explain why it’s legitimate to impose incompetently made decisions on innocent people.” 5 likes
“In civil society, most of my fellow citizens are my civic friends, part of a great cooperative scheme. One of the repugnant features of democracy is that it transforms these people into threats to my well-being. My fellow citizens exercise power over me in risky and incompetent ways. This makes them my civic enemies.” 3 likes
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