Debate: is democracy dead?

Posted on March 28th, 2017 by Amy Fedeski

Crick Centre Associate Fellow Dr Hayley Stevenson gives her view on Professor Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy following his recent Crick Centre lecture.

Is democracy an idea whose time has come and gone? Was it always fanciful and misguided to entrust important public decisions to masses of uninformed and uninterested people? In today’s political climate there are apparently abundant reasons to denounce democracy (the presidential election of a misogynistic, ignorant, ‘reality’ TV star being the most obvious). If ever there was a time for an anti-democracy philosopher to attract an audience outside the ivory tower, this is definitely it. Enter Jason Brennan. His book, Against Democracy, argues that most people don’t have a right to vote, are too incompetent to make good decisions, don’t care about politics or current affairs, and shouldn’t be allowed to impose their bad judgements on the rest of us. We sell ourselves short, he says, by assuming that democracy is the best political system to which we can aspire. Brennan wagers that some form of epistocracy (whereby power is entrusted to a knowledgeable few) would produce better outcomes. I believe he’s wrong. I can’t offer an exhaustive critique of his 288-page book in this short piece. Instead I’ll summarise three reasons why we should reject epistocracy and devote our energy to thinking more creatively about democracy.


First, Brennan is wrong to assume that politics is about making decisions purely on the basis of objective knowledge. He advocates a voter qualification exam to separate the competent from the ignorant and disinterested. But the sort of knowledge required for fair and effective decision-making cannot be detected by administering a multiple-choice test. Such a test would completely devalue the knowledge that people accrue in the school of life. Decision-making on most issues of public concern implicates elements of objective truth and subjective judgement. Consider the World Health Organisation’s consultations on circumcision as a preventative health measure. They had to contend with objectively falsifiable claims about the relationship between circumcision and HIV contraction, as well as subjective claims about the relationship between circumcision and religious/cultural purity, risk and proportionality, children’s rights, etc. In this case, the verifiable fact that circumcised heterosexual males are 60% less likely to contract HIV could not be the sole basis for a decision. To take another example, the scientific basis for taking action on climate change is exceptionally strong. But atmospheric scientists aren’t the best people for deciding what sort of action we should take. Even if we add economists and engineers into the mix, we still can’t be confident that they’ll deliver just, effective, and socially desirable outcomes. On such issues we need expert input, but we also need what Jeremy Waldron calls “practical wisdom”: the knowledge, experience, judgment, and insight that cannot be reduced to true or false. This is certainly not a defence of ‘alternative facts’ (which are lies), but simply a statement that not all knowledge is reducible to falsifiable facts.


Second, even if it were possible for political decisions to rest purely on objective knowledge, the idea that there is a small group of enlightened people with superior judgement on all matters of public concern is implausible. I know a lot about environmental degradation, but little about maternal healthcare. Should I be disenfranchised? Of course not: the wisdom of the many is infinitely greater than the wisdom of the few. Yet, Brennan is convinced that some people are just more competent to make political judgments (i.e. vote) than others, and that we should set aside moral uneasiness and trust their judgment. In one profoundly upsetting sentence, Brennan states: ‘There is ample and persistent evidence that right now, rich white men know more about politics than poor black women’ (p.133). Therefore, the advice of the former should take priority. We don’t need to run experiments to know how this would play out; we’ve seen rich white men running countries for a very long time. Under their power, racial and gender inequalities remain obscene – on national and global levels. One is reminded of the recent photograph of Trump and his white male administration signing an Executive Order to deny funding to NGOs who include advice on abortion. The idea that these men have superior political judgment to poor black women will strike many as patriarchal and racist – and wrong.


Thirdly, in building a case against democracy, Brennan effectively blames people for political failings and makes them responsible for their ignorance. Most people, he argues, are political ‘hobbits’: ‘apathetic and ignorant about politics’ and lacking ‘strong, fixed opinions about political issues’ (p.4). They should be left alone and certainly not encouraged to vote. Many people do indeed say they aren’t interested in politics, but political scientists and philosophers have a responsibility to understand their reasons not just accept this as an inevitable condition (often it’s the antics of political parties that alienate people from politics). In any case, we shouldn’t take a self-declared disinterest in politics to mean that most people have no interest or insight into matters of public concern (education, health, community cohesion, public spaces, transportation, environment, arts etc.). This is not to say that certain forms of ignorance are not widespread, they are. But addressing this as a problem should be a priority in a democratic society, not a reason to abandon democracy. Brennan believes that ‘individuals decide for themselves’ whether to become knowledgeable and informed ‘in light of their individual incentives’. This ignores the structures that shape whether people get decent educations; whether they have access to reliable media sources; whether they have enough time to think about matters of public concern (or not because, for example, they are working two jobs to make ends meet). The fact that 40% of US citizens don’t know that the US fought in WW2 (p.26) is a shocking indictment of that country’s education system. By accepting ignorance, Brennan is addressing the symptoms rather than diagnosing the problems of democratic decline.


It’s undeniable that our contemporary democracies have many shortcomings. On the whole they are not delivering sustainable conditions upon which human lives can flourish. But this calls for us to think much more imaginatively about how to do democracy differently – including how to confront the forces that undermine democracy. I outline my ideas of epistemic democracy here. Many others are carrying out innovative theoretical and experimental work on deliberative democracy (for a flavour see here, here, and here) – a tradition that Brennan rides roughshod over by cherry-picking the literature, and ignoring almost the entire past decade of research. I urge Brennan’s readers to resist the false lure of epistocracy and instead join the conversation about democratic innovations.


Hayley Stevenson is a Reader in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield, and a Crick Centre Associate Fellow. Between 2016 and 2019, she is leading a project with Professor James Meadowcroft called Ecosystem Services: Valuing Nature for Sustainable Development and a Green Economy. The project aims to understand how the idea of valuing nature has developed, been taken up into policy, and the implications of this for sustainability and justice. Her research is motivated by an interest in enhancing the democratic quality of global governance, which involves questioning which voices are represented in planning and decision-making and how organisations make themselves accountable to affected people. She has authored two monographs on global climate change politics: Institutionalising Unsustainability (University of California Press, 2013), and Democratizing Global Climate Governance (with John S. Dryzek, CUP, 2014). She has also published numerous articles in journals including Review of International StudiesEnvironmental Politics, and Critical Policy Studies.

Jason Brennan responds

Thanks to Hayley Stevenson for reading Against Democracy and writing a critique. She brings up a number of important points, though I think these weigh against democracy rather than leading to a defence of it.


To begin, Hayley says that making good political decisions requires more than mere objective political knowledge. She’s right about that—indeed, I say the same at various places throughout the book. Experts may have more objective knowledge, but they are not necessarily wiser. I agree—as I say in the book, high-information voters also tend to be “hooligans,” i.e., biased and tribalistic.


However, this doesn’t help democracy much. The problem is that when it comes to politics, the masses (including most low and high information voters and non-voters) lack practical wisdom. In fact, they suffer from a wide range of documented biases which cause them to reason about politics in unwise ways. (See chapters two and three for a summary of the research, or check out the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology.) It’s pretty clear why they do this: In a democracy, individual votes count for very little, and voters know this. Accordingly, they are not punished for being unwise or rewarded for being wise. They are free to indulge their biases and use politics as a way of forming tribes or rallying around emotional causes. And, as a matter of fact, that’s what they do. So, to be clear, as I argue in the book, the problem with democracy isn’t just that it incentivizes many citizens to be ignorant, but that it also incentivizes them to be irrational.


Stevenson claims that the less informed many sometimes have more wisdom as a group than the well-informed few. That’s correct. But we need to be careful and scientific about this. There are three mathematical theorems—the Miracle of Aggregation, the Hong-Page Theorem, and Condorcet’s Jury Theorem—which purport to show that under special circumstances, having a large crowd of relatively uninformed people making a group decision can outperform allowing only a small number of people to make the decision. But these theorems hold only under special circumstances, and, as I explain in chapter seven, we can easily show that these circumstances do not obtain in mass democracy. Rather, at most, what these theorems show is that an epistocracy with a widespread voting base will outperform a technocracy with highly concentrated power. That’s why I endorse epistocracy instead of the rule of experts.


Stevenson also invokes what I call, in the book, the Demographic Objection to Epistocracy. In the book I admit that this is one of the strongest objections to my view. Stevenson doesn’t really critique my argument or present it fairly; rather, she engages in some self-righteous moral posturing. I don’t take that kind of thing seriously. But if you want to know more about the Demographic Objection, email me at I have a paper which outlines the three strongest versions of the Demographic Objection and then tries to carefully explain why they are not as powerful as they seem at first glance.


Finally, I’m not sure why Stevenson thinks I blame people for their ignorance or irrationality. I go out of my way to blame it on the incentives created by the political structure. To illustrate: Imagine a university lecturer tells his students, in giant 1000-person class, the following: “Three months from now, you will take a final exam, worth 100% of your grade. I will average all of your individual exams together, and you will each receive the same grade in the class.” In this scenario, we’d expect the average grade to be an F. The problem isn’t that the students are vicious, stupid, or bad, but instead that the class’s grading rules incentivize students not to study. If we want to blame anyone, we’d blame the professor. So it goes with democracy. Democracy averages everyone’s votes together, and the result is either A) people don’t study, or B) the ones that do study do so not to learn the truth but instead to form in-groups and out-groups. For the most part, I blame the system, not the voters.


All the said, democracy performs surprisingly well, though as I explain in chapter seven, that may be because elites manage to reduce the power of the masses. At any rate, in my view, democracy is merely an instrument for producing just outcomes. It has systematic flaws. If we can find a better system, we should feel free to use it.


Jason Brennan portrait.jpg

Professor Jason Brennan is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of numerous papers and books, including: Against Democracy (Princeton University Press); Markets without Limits, with Peter Jaworski (Routledge); Compulsory Voting: For and Against, with Lisa Hill (Cambridge University Press), Why Not Capitalism? (Routledge); and Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press).

Notes: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.

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