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Against Democracy
by Jason Brennan

Just over twenty years ago Francis Fukuyama declared


liberal democracy the end of history. But history
marched on, revealing rot in democracy’s roots. Around
the world, from radical leftists in Venezuela and Greece
to American Trump supporters, bitter voters wave their
banners around populist demagogues. Nationalist
movements, echoing those that lead to the first world
war, are on the rise. The working classes reject
globalization, immigration and economic liberalism. The
United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and
other countries may soon follow suit. In the United
States, the political parties are more polarized than ever
before, with the most right-wing Democrat to the left of
the most left-wing Republican. As a result, the United
States faces gridlock and tribal politics rather than
compromise solutions.

These movements are driven by low-information voters


and the politicians who serve them. The past few
decades have been perhaps the best in human history,
with more people around the world rising out of absolute
poverty than ever before. But many Western voters,
ignorant of the social sciences or even of basic political
facts, see change all around them, feel left behind and
neglected, and strike out in fear and resentment.

When we take a close look at the science of voter


behavior, we should not be surprised to see democracy
producing poor results on occasion. What’s surprising is
that democracies do not fare even worse.

Democracies contain an essential flaw. By spreading


power out widely, they remove any incentive for
individual voters to use their power wisely. In a major
election or referendum, individual voters have no greater
chance of making a difference than they do of winning
Powerball. They have no incentive to be well informed.
They might as well indulge their worst prejudices.
Democracy is the rule of the people, but entices people
to be their worst.

What if there were an alternative? In my forthcoming


book Against Democracy, I describe a new system of
government called epistocracy. Epistocracy is meant to
do what democracy does well, but guard against
democracy’s downsides.

In a democracy, every citizen automatically receives an


equal basic right to vote and run for office. Most modern
democracies are republican democracies, containing
checks and balances, with judicial review, constitutional
constraints, multicameral legislatures, contestatory
forums, bureaucratic autonomy, political parties and the
like, all intended to slow down politics, prevent
majoritarianism and protect minority interests.

Epistocracies retain such structures. The essential


difference is that in an epistocracy, the right to vote is
apportioned, to some degree, according to knowledge.
An epistocracy might grant everyone the right to vote,
but weigh some votes more than others, or more might
exclude citizens from voting unless they can pass a
basic test of political competence.

Democracy is the official religion of the West. Now is as


good a time as any to question the faith.

Democratic Triumphalism

Most Westerners, left and right, embrace what I call


Democratic Triumphalism. Triumphalism’s slogan is,
“Three cheers for democracy!” It holds that democracy is
a uniquely just form of social organization. People have
a basic right to an equal fundamental share of political
power. Participation is good for us—it empowers us, it’s
a useful way for us to get what we want and it tends to
make us better people.

Against Democracy attacks Triumphalism. Democracy


does not deserve at least two of those cheers, and might
not deserve the third, either.

I argue that political participation is not valuable for


most people: it does most of us little good, and
participating in politics tends to make us mean and
dumb.

I argue that citizens don’t have any basic right to vote or


run for office. The right to vote is not like other liberal
rights. A right of free speech gives a citizen power over
herself; the right to vote gives her power over others.

Democracy, I argue, is not an end in itself. It has the kind


of value a hammer has. It’s just a useful instrument for
producing just and efficient policies. If we can find a
better hammer, we should use it. Indeed, epistocracy
may be a better hammer. Perhaps a liberal republican
epistocracy might outperform liberal republican
democracy. It’s time to experiment and find out.

A Crash Course in Voter Behavior

Political scientists, psychologists and economists have


studied voter behavior for over sixty years. They’ve
conducted thousands of studies and amassed a huge
amount of data. Their findings are largely uniform and
depressing. In general, voters are ignorant, misinformed
and biased. But there is tremendous variance. When it
comes to political information, some people know a lot,
most people know nothing and many people know less
than nothing.

During election years, most citizens cannot identify any


congressional candidates in their district. Citizens
generally don’t know which party controls Congress.
During the 2000 U.S. presidential election, while slightly
more than half of all Americans knew Gore was more
liberal than Bush, significantly less than half knew that
Gore was more supportive of abortion rights, more
supportive of welfare-state programs, favored a higher
degree of aid to blacks or was more supportive of
environmental regulation. When asked to guess what the
unemployment rate was, the majority of voters tend to
guess it is twice as high as the actual rate.

And so on. In general, voters in most countries can


identify the incumbent chief executive, but know little
else beyond that.

These kinds of surveys overstate how much knowledge


citizens have, in part because they only ask easy
questions, such as who the incumbents are or whether
crime is falling. But democracies ask citizens to choose
among political parties offering different policy
platforms. To evaluate these platforms, citizens need at
least some grasp of economics and political science.
There’s little reason to think they are informed about
these things. On the contrary, American voters, both left
and right, have systematically different beliefs about the
economy from professional economists, and these
differences are not explained by demographic factors.

Citizens aren’t just ignorant or misinformed, but


irrational. Few citizens process information with an open
mind; most citizens disregard any information that
contradicts their current ideology. Voters suffer from a
wide range of biases, including confirmation bias,
disconfirmation bias, motivated reasoning, intergroup
bias, availability bias and prior attitude effects.

It’s no surprise that most voters are ignorant,


misinformed and biased. Our individual votes make no
difference. When it comes to politics, smart doesn’t pay,
and dumb doesn’t hurt.

An individual vote for the worst possible candidate


produces the same results as a vote for the best
possible candidate. Abstaining from voting produces the
same results as voting. A well-informed vote produces
the same results as a badly informed, misinformed or
irrational vote. An individual vote after careful
deliberation produces the same results as voting after
flipping a coin or dropping acid.

Information matters. Which policies people prefer


depends in part on how informed they are. Even
controlling for the influence of sex, race and income,
highly informed citizens have systematically different
policy preferences from ignorant or misinformed voters.
For instance, high-information voters favor free trade,
globalization, immigration and civil libertarianism.
Low-information voters, regardless of their
demographics, favor the opposite: they tend to favor
Trump’s platform.

Political Liberty: Who Needs It?

The democratic faith holds that the right to vote is the


most important right of all. On reflection, it’s a strange
view. Consider: your rights to choose an occupation, to
control your sex life, to choose what and when to eat, or
to buy and sell as you desire, give you significant control
and autonomy over your own life. In contrast, your right
to vote does you little good.

Most people talk as if the right to vote has major


instrumental value. They say your right to vote allows
you to consent to government, to control and shape
political outcomes, and to protect yourself from being
dominated by others.

But none of this withstands mathematical scrutiny. How


we vote matters; how any one of us votes does not.
Casting an individual vote has roughly the same power
over political outcomes as praying to Jupiter or blowing
one’s nose. Democracy empowers the majority, but it
does not empower any of the individuals who form that
majority.

The probability that your individual vote will change the


outcome of a major election or referendum is roughly on
the order of the probability you will win the Powerball.
Winning the lottery is worth hundreds of millions, but it
still doesn’t make sense to buy a ticket. So it goes with
voting. Imagine Trump promises to pay you $10 million if
he’s elected. Though his victory would net you $10
million, it’s not worth the effort to vote for him, any more
than it’s worth buying a Powerball ticket.

Many people understand that individual votes matter


little. They instead invoke the symbolic value of the right
to vote. In Western democracies, we treat the right to
vote as a metaphorical badge of dignity and equality. We
imbue people with the equal right to vote in order to
express that they are full and equal members of the
national club. Many philosophers believe that democracy
necessarily expresses that all citizens have equal worth.

This widely held view is odd. Democracy is not a poem


or a painting. Democracy is a political system. It is a
method for deciding how and when an institution
claiming a monopoly on legitimate violence will flex its
muscles. Government is supposed to protect the peace,
provide public goods and advance justice. It’s not in the
first instance an institution intended to boost, maintain
or regulate our self-esteem.

Political theorist and British MP Auberon Herbert said,


“The instinct of worship is still so strong upon us that,
having nearly worn out our capacity for treating kings
and such kind of persons as sacred, we are ready to
invest a majority of our own selves with the same kind of
reverence.” In feudal times, we regarded the king, in
virtue of holding power, as possessing a kind of majesty.
In a democracy, we instead imagine every voter, in virtue
of sharing what was the king’s power, as possessing that
same majesty. But there’s no obvious reason why we
should think that way.

Instead of viewing a president or prime minister as


majestic, we could just regard her as the chief
public-goods administrator. Instead of viewing the right
to vote as signaling that a person is an equal and valued
member of society, we could regard it as possessing no
more status than a plumbing or hairdressing license. Or
instead of considering that such rights signify
membership in the national club, people could just
regard these rights as licenses—no different from
driving, hairdressing or plumbing licenses.

Here’s the dilemma: suppose epistocracy tends to


perform better—to produce better, more just, more
efficient outcomes—than democracy. We could conclude
that, nevertheless, epistocracy “expresses” contempt,
and so have deal with suboptimal government in order to
protect people’s feelings. Or we could conclude that
treating the right to vote as a badge of dignity is silly, and
instead pick the system that works better.

The Injustice of Incompetent Government

Democracies do not just choose mundane things like


flag colors or national anthems. They decide matters of
peace and war, prosperity and poverty, growth or
stagnation.

When a democratic majority picks a policy, this is not


akin to you picking a sandwich from a menu. When the
majority chooses, it chooses not only for itself, but for
dissenting voters, children, foreigners, nonvoters and
others who have no choice but to bear the
consequences.

Ample empirical research shows that voters are


systematically ignorant, misinformed and irrational.
That’s not just a bad thing. It might be an injustice.
As an analogy, suppose a jury were deciding a capital
murder case. But suppose instead of carefully
considering the evidence, the jury found the defendant
guilty out of caprice or malice. Suppose a third of jurors
paid no attention to the evidence, and just decided, by
coin flip, to call the defendant guilty. Suppose another
third decided to find the defendant guilty because they
dislike his skin color. Suppose the final third paid
attention to the evidence, but found the defendant guilty
not because the evidence suggested he was, but
because they subscribed to a bizarre conspiracy theory.

If we knew a jury behaved that way, we’d demand a


retrial. The defendant’s property, welfare, liberty and
possibly life are at stake. The jury owes the defendant
and the rest of us to take proper care in making its
decision. It should decide competently and in good faith.

This line of reasoning applies even more strongly to the


electorate as a whole. Political decisions are high
stakes. The outcomes—including all ensuing laws,
regulations, taxes, budget expenditures, wars, and so
on—are imposed upon us involuntarily. These decisions
can and so harm us, and can and do deprive many of us
of property, liberty and even life. At first glance, we
should think that voters, like jurors, have a moral
obligation to vote in a competent and morally reasonable
way. But when we look at actual voter behavior, it seems
like they systematically violate this obligation.

Forms of Epistocracy

In a democracy, every citizen receives an equal basic


share of political power. It’s a small share indeed. In an
epistocracy, some citizens have greater voting power
than others. Each individual citizen at most receives only
small share. What makes epistocracy different—and why
it might perform better—is that it reduces the power of
the least informed.

Democracy tends to prevent citizens from dominating


one another because it spreads out power widely. But
this requires that literally every citizen have equal power.
An epistocracy could produce the same results so long
as it avoids concentrating power in just a few hands.

Don’t confuse epistocracy with technocracy. When


people talk about technocracy, what they usually have in
mind is a cadre of experts who use government to
manage the citizens and engage in massive social
engineering projects. Technocracy is not so much about
who rules but about how they rule and what they do.
Many democrats advocate technocracy, and an
epistocrat can reject it.

Don’t confuse epistocracy with totalitarianism.


Totalitarianism isn’t about who rules, but what they rule.
Totalitarian governments stick their noses in everything.
Liberal governments leave many issues off the political
bargaining table.

Any reasonable form of epistocracy will spread power


out among rather than concentrate it. Any reasonable
form will retain all the republican checks and balances.
No modern epistocrat advocates the rule of philosopher-
kings. Instead, the reasonable forms of epistocracy,
those worth considering, include:

Restricted Suffrage: Citizens may acquire the legal right


to vote and run for office only if they pass a test of basic
political knowledge.
Plural Voting: As in a democracy, every citizen has a vote.
However, some citizens, such those who who pass a test
of basic knowledge, or who meet some other criteria
correlated with political competence, can acquire
additional votes.

Epistocratic Veto: Just as in a democracy, all laws are


passed by a democratic legislature elected through
universal suffrage. However, an epistocratic body with
restricted membership retains the right to veto rules
passed by the democratic legislature. Just as judges can
veto legislation for being unconstitutional, so, perhaps, a
board of economic advisors might have the right to veto
legislation (such as protectionist policies) that violate
basic economic principles.

Weighted Voting: During the election, every citizen may


vote, but must at the same time take a quiz concerning
basic political knowledge. Their votes are weighted
based on their objective political knowledge, all while
statistically controlling for the influence of race, income,
sex and/or other demographic factors. With such data
(which will be made public), any statistician can then
calculate or estimate, with a high degree of certainty,
what the public would want if only it were informed. The
epistocracy does what the informed public would want,
rather than what the uninformed public in fact wants.

The big question, of course, is what counts, and who


decides, political competence or basic political
knowledge. I’m less troubled by this question than many.
We could just use the type of questions we’ve been using
on the American National Election Studies. We could use
the questions we’ve been using on the American
citizenship exam. These are easy, objective, easily
verified questions, but we have good grounds to think
that the capacity to answer them is correlated with the
kind of social scientific knowledge that really matters.

One somewhat paradoxical-sounding, but surprisingly


reasonable, idea is that we could use democratic
procedures to choose a public definition of political
competence, which we in turn use to selected
epistocratic voters. For instance, imagine that to vote for
president, one must pass a “voter qualifying exam,” but
then imagine that this exam itself was selected through
a democratic vote. This may seem strange—if
democracies are competent to choose a legal definition
of competence, why aren’t they also competent to
choose a president? But there are two reasons why this
is less paradoxical than it sounds. First, the problem with
democracy is not that citizens fail to understand, in the
abstract, what counts as a good president. Rather, they
have good abstract standards, but they are bad at
applying their standards, at selecting a person who
meets them. Second, the question “What counts as
political competence?” is a much easier question than,
say, “Should we have free trade or protectionism?” The
latter question requires social scientific knowledge most
voters lack, but the former question does not.

Conclusion: The Better Hammer

There’s no doubt that in the real world, any epistocratic


system would suffer government failures and abuse. But
the same goes with democracy. In the real world,
special-interest groups would try rig both systems for
their benefit at the expense of everyone else. In the real
world, both epistocracy and democracy will be imperfect
and flawed. The question we should ask is which system
would work better

Governments are like hammers, not poems. The point of


a government is to produce good outcomes. Democracy
has had a good run. But it has an endemic design flaw.
It’s time to experiment with a new system, to see if we
can improve upon the design.

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan


Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics,
Ethics and Public Policy at the McDonough School of
Business at Georgetown University. This article was
adapted from his new book Against Democracy
(Princeton University Press), released September 7, 2016.

Image: Voting booths in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, for the


general election held on November 3, 2015. Flickr/Tim
Evanson