- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Princeton University Press (September 6, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0691162603
- ISBN-13: 978-0691162607
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 0.5 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 37 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #548,835 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Against Democracy Hardcover – September 6, 2016
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"A brash, well-argued diatribe against the democratic system. ...Brennan makes the compelling argument that politics as currently practiced make us 'situational enemies.' Sure to cause howls of disagreement, but in the current toxic partisan climate, Brennan's polemic is as worth weighing as any other." --Kirkus Reviews.
Brennan has a bright, pugilistic style, and he takes a sportsman's pleasure in upsetting pieties and demolishing weak logic. Voting rights may happen to signify human dignity to us, he writes, but corpse-eating once signified respect for the dead among the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea. To him, our faith in the ennobling power of political debate is no more well grounded than the supposition that college fraternities build character.
--Caleb Crain, The New Yorker
Jason Brennan's Against Democracy seems scarily prescient today. Writing well before the twin shocks of the Brexit and the U.S. elections, the Georgetown political scientist makes a powerful case that popular democracy can be dangerous--and, provocatively, that irrational and incompetent voters should be excluded from democratic decision-making. The case for elitism in governance never read so well.
From the Back Cover
"Jason Brennan is a marvel: a brilliant philosopher who scrupulously studies the facts before he moralizes. In Against Democracy, his elegant method leads to the contrarian conclusion that democratic participation prompts human beings to forget common sense and common decency. Voting does not ennoble us; it tests the virtue of the best, and brings out the worst in the rest."--Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter
"The great temptation of political philosophy is to sacralize politics, and we urgently need work that teaches us not to succumb. In this valuable and bracing book, Jason Brennan challenges comfortable pieties and debunks familiar myths about political life in general and democratic rule in particular. I expect that most readers will find plenty with which to disagree--I certainly do--but also that most will find Brennan's arguments unsettlingly difficult to resist with certainty."--Jacob T. Levy, McGill University
"Against Democracy makes a useful set of challenges to both conventional wisdom and dominant trends in political philosophy and political theory, particularly democratic theory. Engagingly written, it is a lively and entertaining read."--Alexander Guerrero, University of Pennsylvania
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He says there are three broad categories of voters, only one of which provides valid input. Hobbits know and are pleased to know nothing. Their input is worse than flipping a coin. Hooligans hold tightly to political positions despite the facts. Their votes are fixed and wasted. Vulcans analyze, are open to new sources and can convincingly take different sides. They seek correction so as not to appear in error.
Brennan’s solution is an epistocracy. The epistocracy is a collection of the brightest Vulcans. They have to pass a test: economics, immigration, environment – everything. Only they get to vote. It keeps politics away from the masses, and (in Brennan’s theory) leads to more effective government.
The main problem with epistocracy is visible today. The Supreme Court is made up of nine people: educated, bright, sharp, beyond politics (theoretically) or bribery. Yet they predictably come down on ideological sides every time. Most of them can stay home because we know how they’re going to vote. All we really need is to hear from the swing voter. This is epistocracy at work.
The other problem is that democracy was never intended to be the most efficacious system. It’s like the post office: never intended to be profitable, it was a service that united the country for the benefit of all. So with democracy; it gives voters the feeling of belonging and making a difference. Epistocracy addresses solutions democracy never intended to match. Brennan is right: the math for democracy doesn’t work. But it isn’t meant to.
There are two terrific reasons to read Against Democracy. Brennan is challenging. He attacks the sacred foundations fearlessly, logically and thoroughly. You are always on your toes looking for faults, loopholes and disagreement. And he is direct. I particularly like his critiques of other authorities. He just comes out and says they are wrong. And then he tells you why. It is not qualified with “I must take issue with” or “They might be missing a point here”. They are out and out wrong. That is refreshing from a philosopher.
The basic difficulty I have with Brennan’s quest is that it seeks truth. Voters don’t do that. They choose who they want, not what is correct or best. There is no analysis, no meeting of the minds, no informed decision. So yes, our democracy is mostly sham. Voters are not qualified to decide, and nothing they decide will affect the outcome anyway. It’s just an opiate. What’s wrong with Brennan’s whole thesis is that I might not want him in the epistocracy.
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.
He also makes a powerful argument that participation in politics makes us citizens worse not better. He provides empirical and theoretical arguments for this position as well but to me the evidence stares everyone in the face in contemporary America. I thought about taking off a star due to the weakness of his argument for his epistocracy, but overall the book is so good it deserves five stars. Highly recommended.