Michael Chwe: Can democracy be saved by those who have been historically excluded?

Election 2016

by Michael Suk-Young Chwe

If only whites could vote, or only men could vote, Donald Trump would be elected president. The people we rely upon to save democracy are exactly those people whom the United States historically excluded: women and people of color.

Women and people of color have been fighting all these years not just for inclusion in U.S. democracy, but for democracy itself, it turns out. Trump’s candidacy is evidence that the project of Western liberal democracy is not self-sustaining; the ethnic and gender group that claims to have originated it has been unable to maintain consensus around its ideals, and must be bailed out by newcomers who actually take those ideals seriously. Women and people of color have been reluctantly invited to a storied and elegant social engagement, only to have to clean up after the hosts trashing the place.

Only since 2008 has our country’s choice of president differed from the choice of a majority or near-majority of white voters. In 1976 Jimmy Carter won 47 percent of the white vote compared with Gerald Ford’s 52 percent, and in 1992 Bill Clinton won 39 percent of the white vote compared with George H. W. Bush’s 40 percent (the remaining 20 percent of the white vote went to Ross Perot). In all other elections from 1972 to 2004, the candidate who won the white vote won the presidency. However, in 2008 Obama won 43 percent of the white vote compared with McCain’s 55 percent, and in 2012 Obama won only 39 percent of the white vote compared with Romney’s 59 percent.

White men have consistently voted Republican since 1972. When has their favored candidate lost? In 1976, 47 percent of white men voted for Carter and 51 percent voted for Ford, a 4 point “gap.” In 1992, Clinton won 37 percent of the white male vote compared to Bush’s 40 percent, a 3 point gap. In 1996, Clinton won 38 percent of the white male vote compared to Dole’s 49 percent, a much larger 11 point gap. In 2008, Obama won 41 percent of the white male vote compared to McCain’s 57 percent, a 16 point gap. In 2012, Obama won only 35 percent of the white male vote compared to Romney’s 62 percent, a 27 point gap. If only white men could vote, Romney would have been elected in a landslide. But the US elected Obama. As the population of color grows, and the power of women only increases, white men become less important.

How will whites, especially white men, adapt to the new demographic reality: gracefully, petulantly, or destructively? Even ostensibly liberal whites (for example Academy Awards voters, who are overwhelmingly white and male) will have to make changes far outside their previous experience. For example, the relatively liberal Bernie Sanders campaign never tried very hard to reach black voters and focused on working-class whites, an error which should have been obvious. Perhaps the U.S. avoids confronting global warming because of deeply-ingrained American consumer habits. But the U.S. has been led by white men longer than it has been a consumer society.

In a democracy, your goal is to get more votes than your opponents. So if you must offend one group in order to ingratiate yourself to another group, you should try to offend a small group. When Romney famously remarked in a private fundraiser that he was not going to “worry about” 47 percent of the U.S .electorate, what surprised me was not his callousness but his apparent belief that 47 percent was a small number. Maybe you can write off 10 percent of the population, but if you write off 47 percent, you have to win almost all of the 53 percent remaining to win a majority.

Trump insults very large groups such as women, Latinos, and veterans; indeed there are few groups whom Trump has not personally offended, including Republican voters. It is as if Trump does not realize that he should be trying to get votes, not express dominance over other people. His behavior is more consistent with an authoritarian strongman operating in pre-democratic times, or a vindictive mob boss seeking to defend territory in an autarkic free-for-all, not a candidate seeking to win an election. Perhaps Trump supporters, who tend to have authoritarian personality traits, also don’t really believe that we are operating in a democracy.

Much has been said about how Trump supporters are racist, anti-immigrant, and Islamophobic, but it is possible to be racist or anti-immigrant and still support basic democratic values such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, and equal protection, and basic norms of civil society such as politeness, mutual respect, and avoiding threats of violence. What particularly delighted Trump supporters, and distinguished Trump from other Republican candidates such as Ted Cruz who took equally bigoted positions, was Trump’s demonstrated willingness to violate democratic values and basic norms of civil society. Evidently for Trump supporters, the “racial and gender order,” enforced by the authoritarian tactics of bullying, harassment, intimidation, and violence, is more important than democratic values. Trump has endorsed violence against protestors at his rallies, tried to intimidate the news media, called for his opponent to be jailed, and most recently stated that he will not necessarily respect the outcome of the election. Each statement crosses a new “red line” but should not be surprising; violating democratic norms is the essence of Trump’s brand and what attracts his supporters. Among Republican voters, 84 percent say that listening to Trump brag about sexually assaulting women does not change their support for him.

Elizabeth Warren has said that Trump is the “natural consequence” of Republican extremism. But this does not go back far enough. Democracy and protection of basic human rights are valued by people who seek protection from persecution. Perhaps the roughly 40 percent of U.S. voters who support Trump are willing to sacrifice democratic values because they never expect to be in need of the protection that democratic values provide; they have always been part of the ruling coalition, and believe they always will be. Trump is struggling among Mormons, who are normally solidly Republican but have a fear and real history of being persecuted, and is struggling among white Catholics for partly the same reason. Part of Trump’s weakness with women voters is that women understand being victimized by men in a way that men do not.

Another possibility is that Trump supporters fear being outside the ruling coalition so much that they feel they must resort to authoritarian means to preserve their ruling coalition. In other words, if they truly believed in the strength of democratic values and institutions, they would not fear becoming a numerical minority. But perhaps they never believed in the first place.

What we are seeing in the widespread support for Trump is not just right-wing extremism but a deep, almost fatal, weakness in the Western democratic project. Despite constant promulgation of democratic values in its civic, educational, and cultural institutions, the majority of the largest ethnic and gender group in one of the world’s most powerful democracies are willing to dispose of those values when their historical dominance is slightly threatened. In a country founded on the ideals of welcoming immigrants and religious tolerance, with even a national holiday celebrating these values, the majority of the members of the largest ethnic group support a candidate who calls immigrants murderers and rapists.

This weakness has always existed, but Trump’s candidacy has revealed it more fully and shockingly. Trump has taken more extreme positions than any major candidate has taken before, not on the left-right spectrum, but on the desirability and legitimacy of democracy itself, and we observe roughly 40 percent of America in support. A person’s preferences over two outcomes can be observed only when she chooses among those outcomes. For the first time in modern history, Americans have been offered a clear choice between democracy and authoritarianism, and 40 percent are choosing authoritarianism. Not all of this 40 percent are Trump enthusiasts; for example, some might support Trump out of Republican party loyalty. But in some sense the existence of reluctant Trump supporters is even more alarming: a reluctant supporter is willing to vote for authoritarian values and tactics despite revulsion for Trump, and might become enthusiastic if a more polished authoritarian comes along.

Until Obama’s election, the conflict between democratic institutions and the “racial and gender order” was less apparent because the outcomes of national elections were consistent with overall white and male dominance. It is often said that the first test of a fledgling democracy is when the first peaceful transfer of power takes place. If we think of this transfer as occurring from one ethnic and gender group to another, democracy in the United States and in most western European nations has not yet passed its first real test. Instead of willingly giving up power to multiracial and multi-gender coalitions, a majority of whites and males support a candidate who wants to upend the democratic process.

It is sometimes claimed that people not in the Western cultural tradition are not “ready” for democracy. But the opposite is true. The majority of the ethnic and cultural descendants of Western Europe in one of the largest democracies are demonstrating their willingness to abandon democracy in an attempt to preserve their ethnic and gender authority. If a majority of Asians, Latinos, or African Americans, or a majority of women, supported an openly insurrectionist leader, this would be considered a national emergency.

What will Trump supporters do once Trump loses? By 2065, white men are projected to be between 20 and 25 percent of the US population, and by then would presumably realize the futility of an electoral strategy centered around themselves. But in the medium term, the 40 percent of the population who are Trump supporters will maintain power, especially in regions such as the southern and mountain states. Our federal system, which gives less populous states like Nebraska and Wyoming disproportionate representation and allows state legislatures to create congressional districts, creates safe seats for Republicans but makes the party unresponsive to national demographic trends. Republicans will not build multiethnic coalitions or appeal broadly to women and thus will not win the presidency, but they will maintain seats in Congress and lose them only slowly. Hence they will continue to use tactics of obstruction at the federal level and maintain “white enclaves” in certain states which will last even as the percentage of whites in the nation as a whole declines.

After the Civil War, the federal government found it too costly to enforce the rights of African Americans in southern states, and tolerated lynching, Jim Crow, poll taxes, and literacy tests. Only more than a century later, when the civil rights movement forced the issue, did the federal government intervene. In the coming decades, will the federal government find it too costly to intervene and “pacify” the enclaves of Trump supporters?

What will people who oppose Trump do once he loses? Most of us will feel like a bad dream is finally over and things will go back to “normal.” But “normal” no longer exists. We used to see people like the armed white supremacists who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as pathetic idiots, but now it is clear that circumstances exist in which 40 percent of the U.S. population would support people who are equally pathetic and idiotic, and much more dangerous. It is now obvious to everyone, including would-be demagogues, that these 40 percent are mobilizable, and that white male authoritarianism can attract much more than a fringe. Even before Trump, white nationalists enjoyed enough congressional support to force the dismantling of the branch of the Department of Homeland Security that monitored their activities. After Trump loses, will there be enough political will, for example among moderate Democrats, to confront the hatred and violence his campaign has legitimized?

The Republican party, which could have gone in the direction of multiethnic coalitions after its 2013 “autopsy report,” has gone in the opposite direction, and cannot really change course given its now close and radioactive (to women and people of color) association with Trump. Hence a large chunk of the U.S. political system is “locked in” to white male authoritarianism at least for a few decades.

Some recommend trying to understand and sympathize with Trump supporters, who feel like something is being taken away from them and have low education in an economy which increasingly rewards only smarts and favors “female” over “male” personality traits. This is of course necessary, but this sympathy and understanding is more expedient than fairly given; have you ever heard anyone advocating sympathy for the “Asian working class” or “Black working class?”

We need to think about how we can make whites, especially white men, feel that they can continue to be valued and respected members of society. The end of apartheid is a reasonable analogy: famously, Nelson Mandela appeared in full uniform for the 1995 world rugby final won by the South African team, lending his support to a sport and team that symbolized apartheid. For many, this gesture did more to unite post-apartheid South Africa than any other event. Perhaps Obama can go to Branson.

The danger to democracy itself from Trump supporters is real and must be confronted. It is the greatest danger to democracy since World War II, even perhaps since the Civil War, and completely internal. If we had done a better and earlier job with confronting, as opposed to accommodating, white and male privilege, and convincing people that what they feel is being taken away is something that they never should have felt they had in the first place, we might not have reached this situation. Combating white and male privilege is now not only about justice but also about steering democracy away from self-destruction. As it is, we made our society just inclusive enough to save it.

ChweMichael Suk-Young Chwe is professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge and Jane Austen, Game Theorist (both Princeton).

Jason Brennan: The right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge

BrennanWho should hold power: the few or the many? Concentrating power in the hands of a few – in monarchy, dictatorship or oligarchy – tends to result in power for personal benefit at the expense of others. Yet in spreading power among the many – as in a democracy – individual votes no longer matter, and so most voters remain ignorant, biased and misinformed.

We have a dilemma.

Republican, representative democracy tries to split the difference. Checks and balances, judicial reviews, bills of rights and elected representatives are all designed to hold leaders accountable to the people while also constraining the foolishness of the ignorant masses. Overall, these institutions work well: in general, people in democracies have the highest standards of living. But what if we could do better?

Consider an alternative political system called epistocracy. Epistocracies retain the same institutions as representative democracies, including imposing liberal constitutional limits on power, bills of rights, checks and balances, elected representatives and judicial review. But while democracies give every citizen an equal right to vote, epistocracies apportion political power, by law, according to knowledge or competence.

The idea here is not that knowledgeable people deserve to rule – of course they don’t – but that the rest of us deserve not to be subjected to incompetently made political decisions. Political decisions are high stakes, and democracies entrust some of these high-stakes decisions to the ignorant and incompetent. Democracies tend to pass laws and policies that appeal to the median voter, yet the median voter would fail Econ, History, Sociology, and Poli Sci 101. Empirical work generally shows that voters would support different policies if they were better informed.

Voters tend to mean well, but voting well takes more than a kind heart. It requires tremendous social scientific knowledge: knowledge that most citizens lack. Most voters know nothing, but some know a great deal, and some know less than nothing. The goal of liberal republican epistocracy is to protect against democracy’s downsides, by reducing the power of the least-informed voters, or increasing the power of better-informed ones.

There are many ways of instituting epistocracy, some of which would work better than others. For instance, an epistocracy might deny citizens the franchise unless they can pass a test of basic political knowledge. They might give every citizen one vote, but grant additional votes to citizens who pass certain tests or obtain certain credentials. They might pass all laws through normal democratic means, but then permit bands of experts to veto badly designed legislation. For instance, a board of economic advisors might have the right to veto rent-control laws, just as the Supreme Court can veto laws that violate the Constitution.

Or, an epistocracy might allow every citizen to vote at the same time as requiring them to take a test of basic political knowledge and submit their demographic information. With such data, any statistician could calculate the public’s ‘enlightened preferences’, that is, what a demographically identical voting population would support if only it were better informed. An epistocracy might then instantiate the public’s enlightened preferences rather than their actual, unenlightened preferences.

A major question is what counts (and who decides what counts) as political competence, or basic political knowledge. We don’t want self-interested politicians rigging a political competence exam in their own favour. One might use widely accepted pre-existing tests; the Unites States citizenship test, for example, or the same questions that the American National Election Studies have used for 60 years. These questions – who is the current president? Which item is the largest part of the federal budget? – are easily verifiable and uncontroversial, plus an ability to answer them correctly is strongly correlated with the kind of political knowledge that does matter in an election.

One common objection to epistocracy – at least among political philosophers – is that democracy is essential to expressing the idea that everyone is equal. On its face, this is a strange claim. Democracy is a political system, not a poem or a painting. Yet people treat the right to vote like a certificate of commendation, meant to show that society regards you as a full member of the national club. (That’s one reason we disenfranchise felons.) But we could instead view the franchise as no more significant than a plumbing or medical licence. The US government denies me such licences, but I don’t regard that as expressing I’m inferior, all things considered, to others.

Others object that the equal right to vote is essential to make government respond to our interests. But the math doesn’t check out. In most major elections, I have as much chance of making a difference as I do of winning the lottery. How we vote matters, but how any one of us votes, or even whether one votes, makes no difference. It might be a disaster if Donald Trump wins the presidency, but it’s not a disaster for me to vote for him. As the political theorist Ben Saunders says: in a democracy, each person’s power is so small that insisting on equality is like arguing over the crumbs of a cake rather than an equal slice.

On the other hand, it’s true (at least right now) that certain demographic groups (such as rich white men) are more likely to pass a basic political knowledge test than others (such as poor black women). Hence the worry that epistocracies will favour the interests of some groups over others. But this worry might be overstated. Political scientists routinely find that so long as individual voters have a low chance of being decisive, they vote for what they perceive to be the common good rather than their self-interest. Further, it might well be that excluding or reducing the power of the least knowledgeable 75 per cent of white people produces better results for poor black women than democracy does.

Of course, any epistocratic system would face abuse. It’s easy to imagine all the things that might go wrong. But that’s also true of democracy. The more interesting question is which system, warts and all, would work best. In the end, it’s a mistake to picture epistocracy as being the rule of an elite band of technocrats or ‘philosopher kings’. Rather, the idea is: do what democracy does, but better. Democracy and epistocracy both spread power among the many, but epistocracy tries to make sure the informed many are not drowned out by the ignorant or misinformed many.Aeon counter – do not remove

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. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, Libertarianism and most recently, Against Democracy. He is the coauthor of Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. He writes regularly for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Hammer, Painting, Person: How to Value Democracy

Jason Brennan

What kind of value does democracy have? Should we value it the way we value hammers, paintings, or persons?

When we ask what makes a hammer valuable, we usually ask whether it is functional for us, as we are. Hammers have a purpose—to pound in nails—and good hammers serve that purpose. Hammers primarily have instrumental value. They help us achieve an independent goal. If some other tool better serves that goal, then we’d gladly replace our hammers with that other tool. No one insists on using a hammer when a driver or wrench works better.

When we ask what makes a painting valuable, we usually look to its symbolic value. We ask whether the painting is sublime, whether it evokes various feelings or ideas. We also value some paintings more highly because of how they were made, and who made them. An ugly Picasso scribble on a napkin might fetch a hundred grand, but if you or I drew the same picture, it wouldn’t fetch a dollar.

When we ask what makes human beings valuable, we will often say that they are ends in themselves. Sure, people can also have instrumental value—the person who makes you coffee serves a purpose—but they also have intrinsic value. People have a dignity, not a price, or so many philosophers insist.

What about democracy? Most political philosophers agree that democracy has instrumental value. It functions pretty well, and tends to produce relatively just outcomes. So, they think, democracy is valuable at least in the way a hammer is valuable.

They have a point. In general, the best places to live are liberal democracies, not genuine monarchies, sham democracies, oligarchies, or one party states. But, still, if democracy only has the kind of value a hammer has, then if we we’re able to identify a better functioning form of government, a form of government that better realizes procedure-independent standards of justice, we would happily replace democracy with this better functioning regime.

However, most philosophers—and many laypeople living in modern democracies—also think we should also value democracy the way we value a painting or a person. They claim that democracy uniquely expresses the idea that all people have equal worth and value. They claim that democratic outcomes are justified because of who made them and how they were made. They see democracy as an end in itself. Some philosophers think that democracy is an inherently just decision-making procedure. A few go so far as to hold that anything a democracy decides to do is justified simply because a democracy decided to do it. They deny there any procedure-independent standards by which to judge what democracies do.

Proceduralism is the view that certain political regimes are inherently just or that certain regimes are inherently unjust. Proceduralists about democracy tend to think democracy has the kind of value paintings and people have. For instance, the philosopher Thomas Christiano seems to think democracy is an end in itself, while David Estlund (in his 2007 Princeton University Press book Democratic Authority) argues most other forms of government other than democracy are inherently unjust.

Pure proceduralism, the most radical version of proceduralism, holds that there are no independent moral standards for evaluating the outcome of the decision-making institutions. Whatever a democracy does is just just because a democracy does it. This view—which is popular among certain democratic theorists—is on reflection rather absurd. For instance, suppose we had a dispute about whether citizens should be allowed to rape children. Suppose the majority votes, after following an idealized deliberative procedure, to allow adults to rape any children they please. They also vote to have the police ensure that no one stops adults from raping children. A pure proceduralist about democracy would have to say that, in this case, child rape would indeed be permissible. For that reason, pure proceduralism appears to be absurd. There are at least some procedure-independent standards of justice. It would be odd if there were independent moral truths about how to make decisions but not independent truths about what we may do.

Instrumentalism, in contrast, holds that 1) there are procedure-independent right answers to at least some political questions, and 2) what justifies a distribution of power or decision-making method is, at least in part, that this distribution or that method tends to select the right answer. So, for instance, in criminal law, we have an adversarial system, in which one lawyer represents the state and the other represents the defendant. There is an independent truth of the matter about whether the defendant is guilty. This truth is not decided by the jury’s fiat. Rather, the jury is supposed to discover what the truth is. Defenders of jury trials and the adversarial system believe that, as a whole, the system tends to track the truth better than other systems. If they learned they were mistaken about that, they’d stop advocating jury trials.

When it comes to democracy, do you advocate it on procedural grounds, instrumental grounds, or both?

In my forthcoming book Against Democracy, I argue that democracy is nothing more than a hammer. It is a means to an end, but not an end in itself. It is not intrinsically just. It is not justified on proceduralist grounds. Any value democracy has is purely instrumental. If we can find a better hammer, we’re obligated to use it. Further, I argue, there’s a good chance we know what the better hammer would be, and it’s time to experiment and find out.

BrennanJason 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. He has written numerous books including The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, and Libertarianism and is the coauthor of  Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. His most recent book is Against Democracy. He frequently writes for the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Jason Brennan: Justice isn’t “whatever democracy decides”

brennanThree cheers for democracy! Not so fast, says Jason Brennan, who argues that justice isn’t necessarily ‘whatever democracy decides’, and that participation in the political process all too often fails to produce citizens who are smarter, nobler, and more considerate of others. In his new book, Against Democracy, Brennan says democracy isn’t the only path to moral justice, and that it’s time to experiment with a new form of government called epistocracy. Recently, Brennan took the time to answer a few questions about his new book:

Your book is a response to a view you call “democratic triumphalism.” What is that view and what’s wrong with it?

JB: Triumphalism—a widely accepted set of conclusions—holds that democracy deserves three cheers. Cheer one: Political participation is good for us, makes us smarter, and produces fellow-feeling. Cheer two: We have a basic right to an equal share of political power. Cheer three: Democracy is a uniquely just form of politics.

I think democracy doesn’t deserve the first two cheers, and probably doesn’t deserve the latter. Politics is bad for us and we’re bad at politics.

Empirical work generally shows that participating in politics makes us worse: meaner, more biased, more angry. Ideally, I argue, we’d want to minimize our degree of political participation. Further, I examine about twelve major arguments for the claim that we’re owed the right to vote, and find them all lacking. In the end, the right to vote isn’t so much about giving individuals power over themselves, but power over others. The problem is that because individuals matter so little, most individuals use what little power they have unwisely. As a result, democracies tend to make bad decisions. Against the third chair, I suggest that epistocracy—a constitutional, republican form of government in which political power is to some degree, by law, apportioned according to competence—may outperform democracy.

What kind of value does democracy have, then?

JB: The best places to live right now are almost all liberal democracies. So, the point isn’t to argue that democracy is a disaster. But it’s not the end of history either. In my view, democracy has the same kind of value a hammer has. It’s an instrument for producing just and efficient outcomes, according to procedure-independent standards of justice. If we can find a better hammer, we should feel free to use it.

Some people deny there are procedure-independent standards of justice. Justice, they say, is whatever a democracy decides. But on reflection, I doubt anyone would accept that. Suppose the US has a referendum and unanimously votes to nuke Tuvalu. Or suppose 70 percent of voters decide to enact protectionist policies simply because they don’t understand economics. I don’t see either move as just.

We tend to treat the right to vote as a badge of honor, as a way of saying, “You’re a valuable member of our national club.” I think that’s a mistake. We should view the right to vote the way we view a fishing or plumbing license. We should view the president not as a majestic leader but as the chief public goods administrator. We need to downgrade the “status” we attach to political participation and power. If we did that, then differences in voting rights would carry no further stigma than the stigma I face for lacking a plumbing license.

You claim people have a “right to competent government.” What does that mean, and why think that?

JB: Political decisions are high stakes. They decide matters of life and death, peace and prosperity. Our decisions can deprive innocent people of life, liberty, and their rights, or greatly harm them.

Most of us think a jury owes the defendant (or owes the rest of us) a competent decision. They should decide a criminal trial by 1) being aware of the relevant facts, 2) processing those facts in a rational way, and 3) deciding on good faith rather than out of prejudice, malice, or bias. Similarly, I argue, any group that wields political power must act out competently and in good faith. Just as it would be unjust to enforce a jury decision if the jurors paid no attention to the fact and decided on whim, it would be unjust to enforce a vote made out of ignorance, misinformation, or whimsy.

Are democracies competent?

JB: Sixty years of empirical work show that mean, median, and modal levels of political knowledge among the electorate are low. In fact, voters aren’t just ignorant, but systematically misinformed about many issues, including simple issues like what the unemployment rate is, and complicated issues like basic economic theory. Further, empirical work shows that voters would have different policy preferences if they were better informed. In a world where every voter has high information, we’d never have an election between Trump and Clinton. We’d have better candidates.

That said, democracies do tend to have pretty good policies compared to, say, monarchies and oligarchies. But part of the reason for that is that democracies don’t just do what the people want. Instead, elites, parties, bureaucrats, and others have significant discretion to act against the will of the people.

Some political theorists have advanced ambitious arguments trying to claim that democratic electorates are highly competent as a whole even though most voters are ignorant. These arguments, however, are usually based on mathematical theorems that, while correct in principle, bear no resemblance to the reality of democratic behavior. For instance, Hélène Landemore’s book Democratic Reason (PUP 2012) isn’t a defense of any actual existing  or likely to exist democracy, but instead at most an argument about why democracies would be smart if only voters behaved in radically different ways.

Throughout the book, you talk about three species of voters: hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans. What are these?

 JB: I use these as terms of art to describe three classes of voters. In the Lord of the Rings, Hobbits are simply folk who don’t care much about the outside world, and just want to eat, drink, and be merry. The political analogue would be a person who doesn’t care much about politics, doesn’t have strong opinions, doesn’t know much, and doesn’t participate much. Roughly half of Americans are political hobbits. Think the typical non-voter.

Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. Consider: Soccer hooligans are pretty well informed about soccer, but they are biased and mean. They tend to be nasty toward fans from other teams. They only accept information that makes their team look good. Political hooligans are like that about Team Republican or Team Democrat. They have more information, and they participate frequently. But they are biased, and only accept evidence that confirms their own pre-existing views. They tend to think anyone who disagrees with them is mean or stupid. Roughly half of Americans are political hooligans. Think your typical activist or party member.

Vulcans are dispassionate, scientific thinkers. They have high knowledge, but are also aware of what they don’t know. They change their minds when the evidence calls for it. In the US, hardly anyone is a Vulcan.

Most political theories that defend democracy inadvertently do so by imagining how democracy would work if only we were all Vulcans (or on our way to becoming Vulcans). But we’re not Vulcans; we’re hobbits and hooligans. And so many proposals for making democracy better actually make it worse. For example, democratic deliberation not only fails to deliver the results political theorist say it would, but backfires.

 Your view is often criticized as elitist. What’s your response?

JB: We don’t say it’s elitist to think a plumber knows more about pipes than I do. We don’t think it’s elitist to say a truck driver knows more about driving than I do. But for some reason it seems elitist to say that I know more about economics than the average truck driver or plumber. Why? The issue here is that we treat truck driving and plumbing as low status, and political power as high status. But, I think, we should change that attitude. We should upgrade the status of non-political activities and downgrade the status of political activity. Once we do that, we can freely say something that’s, to be blunt, obviously true: The electorate doesn’t know what it’s doing, and putting so much power in the hands of a body that doesn’t know what it’s doing is dangerous.

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Policy at the McDonough School of Business in Georgetown University. He is the author of  The Ethics of VotingWhy Not Capitalism? and Libertarianism.

Along with these books, Brennan is the co-author of Markets Without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. He is a regular writer for the blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians.



Digital Keyword: “Participation”

digital keywords peters jacketThis post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

Christopher Kelty’s broad-minded and brilliant essay on participation is a welcomed participant in the Digital Keywords volume. It both intellectually broadens as well as analytically tightens the contemporary understanding of that classic concept and near constant discussion of it online. Marshaling together insights ranging from Parmenides to Polanyi, Kelty offers insights such as how participation proves a boundary function, excluding at the same time it constitutes community, democracy, and sharing, three towering keywords covered elsewhere in the volume by Rosemary Avance, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, and Nicholas A. John.

If, as Kelty clarifies, to participate is to belong but not always voluntarily, what does it mean to participate in public life?

Christopher Kelty: Participation


This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197

James Campbell: Just how polarized are our politics?

campbellThe United States of today is a divided nation, with two sides resting on opposite ends of a political spectrum.  James Campbell’s new book Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America provides a new and historically grounded perspective on the polarization of America, systematically documenting exactly how and why the current divide came to be. James Campbell recently answered some questions about his book, what exactly has lead to such bitter disputes in the American system, and what this has meant throughout political history.

What is political polarization?

JC: Polarization concerns the level and organization of political conflict in society generally or between groups such as the political parties. Political differences can vary in severity and their relation to one another: cross-cutting or reinforcing. A high level of polarization is one in which there are substantial differences in political perspectives on a wide range of issues organized along an ideological spectrum. Polarization intensifies rather than diffuses conflict. It establishes an “us versus them” politics and it is always the same “us” at odds with the same “them.” High levels of polarization are the basis for bitter disputes, making political compromises more difficult to achieve.

What are Americans polarized about?

JC: The short answer is government. The extent and use of governmental powers is the underlying and organizing subject that causes two sides to be set up for most issues in American politics. It is the great divider setting up quite consistently “us versus them” sides in disputes about public policy. Those with liberal political inclinations tend to be more inclined to see problems as public in nature and best solved by the use of government powers and programs. Conservatives tend to take a more restrained or “last resort” view of the use of government. Views about government and individual responsibilities unify liberals and conservatives against each other.

Why is polarization even an issue? Don’t we know that Americans are polarized?

JC: Most political observers believe that the public and the parties are polarized, but many social scientists doubt that the public is highly polarized. Reviews of survey data of public opinion indicate that extreme views on issue questions are no more likely today than they were 40 years ago. This leads some to believe that polarization of the public is a myth. They suspect that activists and the political parties are polarized, but that the general public is predominantly moderate and not ideological. My research, however, presents evidence that the public is highly polarized, has been so for some time, and has become more so in recent decades. The political parties used to do a poor job representing these polarized views. The realigned parties of the last couple of decades, for better or worse, now represent and accentuate those polarized views.

How can Americans be ideologically polarized when research indicates that they are not very politically sophisticated or informed?

JC: There is no doubt that most Americans are not highly informed about politics or very sophisticated in their political thinking. This does not mean, however, that they cannot be ideological in the sense that they have some fundamental perspectives or values they apply to politics. Pretty much everybody has a sense about what they think is politically right or wrong and that is, at its core, what ideology is about. Unfortunately early studies of political thinking labeled the highest level of political conceptualization as ideological. But ideologies can be based on vastly different levels of political thought, from philosophies to gut instincts. If nothing else, knee-jerk liberals and wing-nut conservatives are both ideological.

How do you know that Americans are highly polarized?

JC: Good question. I examined the extent and change of polarization in the public using three types of evidence. The first was the direct evidence of how people identify their ideological perspectives–liberal, moderate, conservative, or they don’t know. The second type of evidence was the reported attitudes of the public on various public policy issues. In a sense, this is indirect evidence, since attitudes on the issues may reflect an underlying sense of political values and perspectives. The third type of evidence was circumstantial evidence. It is widely accepted that the political parties in government have become more polarized in recent decades. Assuming that this is the case, a largely moderate public would be expected to react to this change in the parties differently than a highly polarized public. A polarized public would likely respond better to more polarized parties than would a largely moderate public. The analysis of all three types of evidence supported the same set of conclusions: the American public was fairly well polarized in the 1970s and has become more so since then.

Did polarized politics develop from the top-down or from the bottom-up? Did political leaders and activists cause the public to become more polarized or did the public lead the way?

JC: The conventional view has been that the increase in polarization was a top-down process. The idea is that leaders are more sophisticated and attentive to political issues and, therefore, ahead of the curve when it comes to political change. At least in this instance, I found the opposite to be the case. The increased polarization of our political system was instigated by the increased polarization of the public in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The polarization of leaders lagged that if the public. Leaders are more attentive to political change, but elected leaders also have a vested interest in preserving the status quo and the tools (incumbency advantages) to help them do so. The lack of a viable Republican Party in the South also impeded a good deal of leadership change until the early 1990s. The public was not so encumbered. The increase in polarization, at least initially, was a bottom-up process.

James Campbell is UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. He is the author of such works as The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National Vote and The Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections. His most recent book is Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America.

Ethicist Jason Brennan: Brexit, Democracy, and Epistocracy

By Jason Brennan

The Washington Post reports that there is a sharp uptick today in the number of Britons Googling basic questions about what the European Union is and what the implications of leaving are. This is a bit like deciding to study after you’ve already taken the final exam.

Technically, the Brexit referendum is not binding. Parliament could decide to hold their own vote on whether to leave the European Union. Perhaps they should. Perhaps the UK’s leaders owe it to the people to thwart their expressed will.

Leaving the EU is no small affair. It probably will have enormous effects on the UK, Europe, and much of the rest of the world. But just what these effects will be is unclear. To have even a rudimentary sense of the pros and cons of Brexit, a person would need to possess tremendous social scientific knowledge. One would need to know about the economics and sociology of trade and immigration, the politics of centralized regulation, and the history of nationalist movements. But there is no reason to think even a tenth of the UK’s population has a basic grasp of the social science needed to evaluate Brexit.

Political scientists have been studying voter knowledge for the past 60 years. The results are uniformly depressing. Most voters in most countries are systematically ignorant of even the most basic political facts, let alone more the social scientific theories needed to make sense of these facts.

This brings us to the central injustice of democracy, and why holding a referendum was a bad idea. Imagine, as an analogy, that you are sick. You go to a doctor. But suppose your “doctor” doesn’t study the facts, doesn’t know any medicine, and makes her decisions about how to treat you on a whim, on the basis of prejudice or wishful thinking. Imagine the doctor not only prescribes you a course of treatment, but literally forces you, at gunpoint, to accept the treatment.

We’d find this behavior intolerable. Your doctor owes you a duty of care. She owes it to you to deliver an expert opinion on the basis of good information, a strong background knowledge of medicine, and only after considering the facts in a rational and scientific way. To force you to follow the decisions incompetent and bad faith doctor is unjust.

But this is roughly what happens in democracy. Most voters are ignorant of both basic political facts and the background social scientific theories needed to evaluate the facts. They process what little information they have in highly biased and irrational ways. They decided largely on whim. And, worse, we’re each stuck having to put up with the group’s decision. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who has the right and means to emigrate, you’re forced to accept your democracy’s poorly chosen decisions.

There’s a big dilemma in the design of political institutions. Should we be ruled by the few or the many? What this amounts to is the choice between being ruled by the smart but selfish or dumb but nice. When only a small number of people hold power, they tend to use this power for their own ends at the expense of everyone else. If a king holds all the power, his decisions matter. He will likely use that power in a smart way, but smart for himself, rather than smart for everybody. Suppose instead we give everyone power. In doing so, we largely remove the incentive and ability for people to use power in self-serving ways at the expense of everyone else. But, at the same time, we remove the incentive for people to use power wisely. Since individual votes count for so little, individual voters have no incentive to become well-informed or to process information with any degree of care. Democracy incentivizes voters to be dumb.

Going back to the doctor analogy, here’s the dilemma: Suppose you could choose between two doctors. The first doctor prescribes you medicine based on what’s good for her, not you. The second is a complete fool who prescribes you medicine on whim and fancy, without reference to the facts. Roughly, with some exaggeration, that’s what the choice between monarchy or democracy amounts to. Neither is appealing.

What if there were a third way, though? In my forthcoming book, Against Democracy, I explore a way of splitting the difference. The trick is to find a political system that both 1) spreads power out enough to prevent people from using power selfishly and 2) weeds out or at least reduces the power of incompetent decision-makers.

In some sense, republican democracy, with checks and balances, was meant to do just that. And to a significant degree it succeeds. But perhaps a new system, epistocracy, could do even better.

In an epistocracy, political power is to some degree apportioned according to knowledge. An epistocracy might retain the major institutions we see in republican democracy, such as parties, mass elections, constitutional review, and the like. But in an epistocracy, not everyone has equal basic political power. An epistocracy might grant some people additional voting power, or might restrict the right to vote only to those that could pass a very basic test of political knowledge. Any such system will be subject to abuse, and will suffer from significant government failures. But that’s true of democracy too. The interesting question is whether epistocracy, warts and all, would perform better than democracy, warts and all.

All across the West, we’re seeing the rise of angry, resentful, nationalist, xenophobic and racist movements, movements made up mostly of low-information voters. Perhaps it’s time to put aside the childish and magical theory that democracy is intrinsically just, and start asking the serious question of whether there are better alternatives. The stakes are high.

brennanJason 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. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, and Libertarianism. He is the coauthor of Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. His new book, Against Democracy, is out this August. He writes regularly for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog.

Highlights from the Election 2016 Blog: What’s next?


This election season, Princeton University Press has been featuring discussion from a variety of authors on the candidates and issues. Here is an overview of the fantastic posts we’ve featured to date. Is there something you’d like to see discussed here? Tweet your suggestions to @PrincetonUPress


Paula S. Fass wrote on Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Get the Youth Vote as well as why she thinks that Young Americans need required national service.

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Amy Binder addresses the surprisingly inciting tactics of Republicans in the past in The Provocative Politics of the Republican Party.

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George C. Edwards III explicates the important traits and knowledge necessary to any candidate in What do We Really Want in a President?


Thomas Knock lists major books about presidents and politics in his article, Classic Presidential Reads.


Lynn Vavreck examines John Kasich’s campaign and the power of television ads in Can Kasich Accentuate the Positive?

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Wendy Schiller talks about how other elected positions will affect the winning candidate in her article, The Supreme Court and the battle for the U.S. Senate.

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Jason Stanley discusses how Clinton has accused Sanders of being A Single Issue Candidate and in another article speaks on Donald Trump and Mass Incarceration.

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Simon Reich looks at each of the major candidates and their experience on foreign policy in his article, Does it matter who wins the election when it comes to the Middle East?

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Jonathan Zimmerman contrasts the secrecy and unreliability that follow Hillary Clinton against the undeniable authenticity of Bernie Sanders in his article on Hillary Clinton and the Perils of Authenticity.

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Zoltan L. Hajnal discusses how despite creating controversy and outrage over his racist and sexist remarks, Trump has only gained popularity, in his article on how Trump’s strategy is nothing new for the GOP.

The Loneliness of the Black Republican

Leah Wright Rigueur discusses the disappointing suspension of Rand Paul’s campaign in Rand Paul’s failed appeal to black voters.

When Movements Anchor Parties

Daniel Schlozman questions why all of the Democratic party’s support has gone to Hillary Clinton in Why Bernie Sanders is getting movements’ cold shoulder.

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Jason Brennan insists that our notions about democracy are completely unreliable in his article, Our relationship to democracy is nonconsensual.

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Ellen Wu on the issue of a ‘model minority’ and Nikki Haley’s current position in that political stereotyping in her post, Nikki Haley and the American Dream.

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Nancy Woloch speaks about women’s healthcare and the laws currently being considered that may negatively affect women nationwide in The Explosive Potential of the Whole Women’s Health Case.

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Nicholas Bloom discusses poverty housing programs and how presidential candidates have recently been addressing these areas in The Perilous Politics of Housing Poor People.

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Chirstopher Kutz points out how loudly the silence of candidates’ speaks on drone strikes and taking responsibility for them in his article Drone warfare: The real moral debate.


Christopher Kutz on drone warfare: The real moral debate


By Christopher Kutz

Despite all the sound and fury of the Presidential primary campaign, the candidates have been effectively silent on one issue: our use of drone strikes as the central tool of security policy. Perhaps they could watch Eye on the Sky, by director Gavin Hood. The film vividly imagines two nations’ officials confronting a classic military dilemma, whether to kill an enemy at the risk of civilian life. In the movie, British officials, using drone-based cameras, have identified the home of two al-Shabbab terrorist leaders (one of whom is a British woman) in Kenya as they prepare young militants for a suicide terrorist mission. Given al-Shabbab’s history, which includes the attack on a Tanzanian shopping mall, the British officials have good reason to suspect an attack against large numbers of civilians. Because local forces are unable to storm the compound, the officials request support from an American drone with a Reaper missile.

The movie’s theme is that while drone technology appears to make war ethically easier, by reducing risks to civilians and soldiers, it mainly shifts the scene of responsibility, from the battlefield to the conference room and control center. The movie gains its dramatic power by reintroducing the dilemma, in the form of a little girl who comes to sell bread outside the compound during the crucial moments. The British and American officials and drone operators must now decide how to weigh the likely death of this concrete and identified girl against the unidentifiable civilians who might be killed in a terrorist attack. The film very effectively personalizes this debate by foregrounding a few of the officials and soldiers with clear views, for and against the strike, against the majority of officials who seek only to refer judgment to other layers and departments in government. (The movie indulges in a – perhaps accurate – stereotype of Americans as callously decisive and Brits as hand-wringingly nuanced and unsure.)

Eye on the Sky is right to remind us that the ethical dilemmas of war survive the shift to drone warfare. But I believe it makes a dangerous mistake about the real ethical problem with drones. The real problem is not that officials are too rarely courageous or principled. The problem is that we citizens have given up our own responsibility for the choices of war. What ought to be a wrenching decision for a democracy, about when to kill foreigners in pursuit of its interests, has been confined within the consciences of a few.

Few doubt that a state can use lethal force in the classic circumstances of national self-defense, with an invader at the border or missiles and bombs raining in. But drone campaigns are not like this: they involve decisions made through national security bureaucracies about killing people (or categories of people) identified through disparate intelligence as members of hostile networks, whose hostilities are often directed not at the US but at local and temporary allies of US security policy. According to public information, far from strapping suicide vests onto would-be martyrs or assembling dirty bombs, most of the targets identified in intelligence or surveillance reports are, essentially, young men with rifles. What used to be a strategic decision to go to war, with Congress involved and citizens rallied, has become a matter of executive decision making at the tactical level, made by the President and his security team, and the director of the CIA.

The personalization of the decision to kill is not unique to the drone program: special forces killing teams have been part of US security policy for decades. But the emergence of drone warfare has both let the policy of secret killing come out of the shadows on the one hand, while keeping it even more deeply in the shadows in another respect, placing it largely within the confines of the CIA, with White House oversight. While even former CIA Director Michael Hayden acknowledges the myth of the surgical strike, since inevitably non-combatants, including women and children are killed, the lesson we citizens are asked to accept is that these are difficult but reasonable choices for the President, not for us.

We should fear the loss of our accountability as citizens more than the myth of the surgical strike. Presidents and CIA advisors, not to mention drone operators, may well agonize over the potential deaths of innocents. But I fear our own complacency, in wanting these dilemmas to be theirs, and theirs alone. The deaths of civilians and militants alike belong to us as citizens, and we must be prepared as citizens to deliberate about our killing policy, and accept its consequences. Instead, the complicity of the media in personalizing drone warfare keeps us citizens in a fraudulent innocence.

How can we stop the fraud we are perpetrating on ourselves? We must put ourselves in the imaginary position of the drone warriors, and come to think of ourselves as making the decision when to kill. President Obama has done little to make good on his promises of greater transparency in the drone program. To the extent the primary candidates have addressed the issue at all, Bernie Sanders has said only that he would seek to use drone strikes rarely, while Hillary Clinton has praised drone strikes as a critically effective counter-terrorism tool. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, on “carpet bombing” and killing terrorist families, does not suggest much reticence on their parts. Only John Kasich has offered a specific position that moves in the right direction: to effectuate the transfer of the drone program from the CIA to the Pentagon — a shift that was promised two years ago by President Obama but later abandoned. Such a move would work to increase accountability for drone killings, and to locate decisions within an institution historically better suited to considering legal and ethical limitations on the use of force. (Recall that the use of torture in interrogation was much more firmly resisted by military than CIA officials.)

We need to force our candidates, and our media, to do better than this, to discuss what we citizens must know if we are to take honest responsibility for the deaths of the children and other bystanders in our security policy. While Eye on the Sky does a terrific job of provoking a debate on the way out of the movie theatre, we need a debate that extends all the way to the voting booth.

kutz on war and democracy jacketChristopher Kutz is the C. William Maxeiner Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the Kadish Center for Morality, Law, and Public Affairs at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age.

What do sharks have to do with democracy? Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels explain

democracy for realists achen jacketAre modern ideas of American democracy fundamentally misguided? Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels examines the faults of current democratic logic that have led the majority of people to make misinformed opinions about politics.  As Achen and Bartels note, “politics is often not very cheery. But facing our problems honestly is the first step toward doing something about them.” In this spirit, the authors have taken time to explain their reasons for writing this book, what conventional ideas about democracy they oppose, the presidential primaries, and even shark attacks.

Why did the two of you write this book?

CA & LB: Working at different universities in the late 1990s, we discovered that we had come to quite similar intuitions about how American democracy works. Those intuitions were very different from what most people think, including most of our political scientist friends. We decided to write a book together. But turning those preliminary, unconventional thoughts into a serious argument backed by detailed evidence took more than a decade.

What are the conventional American ideas about democracy that you oppose?

CA & LB: Fundamentally, we Americans have abandoned the ideas of the Founders as expressed in the Federalist Papers, and we have substituted notions derived ultimately from the French Enlightenment. We think of ourselves as thoughtful, informed, rational, fundamentally decent people. We imagine that the problems of government are due to bad politicians and corrupt institutions. Thus most of us believe that, to the extent possible, government should be turned over to all of us as citizens, with as little role for governmental institutions and elected officials as possible. We think of that as “democracy,” and we believe that the more democracy, the better.

The problem is that a mountain of social science evidence has accumulated about our human capacities to run the government solely from the voting booth. That evidence shows that people are just people, with all the limited horizons, prejudices, and mistakes that characterize all of us as human beings. The judgments of the voters are an important part of democracy, but they cannot be the only part. Just as the various branches of government require balancing by the others, so also the judgments of voters need to be balanced by other societal and governmental institutions, including parties and elected officials. To think otherwise is to delude and flatter ourselves with an inflated view of our capacities, as the Founders understood.

We heard that there is something about shark attacks in this book. What do sharks have to do with democracy?

CA & LB: Many thoughtful scholars believe that a democratic election is primarily a referendum on the performance of the incumbents. If the people in office have performed well, the voters re-elect them. If not, the voters throw the bums out. That sounds good until one realizes that the voters have to know whether the incumbents really are bums. If things have gone badly lately, is that the government’s fault? Can the voters sort out credit and blame?

This is where the sharks enter our book. In the summer of 1916, New Jersey was plagued by a series of shark attacks along its Atlantic shore. Four people died. Just as in the “Jaws” movies, which were based on the New Jersey events, people stayed away from the beach in droves, and the Jersey Shore economy was devastated. Woodrow Wilson was running for re-election that summer. He and his administration did everything they could to solve the problem, but then as now, no one could control sharks. The attacks were no one’s fault, but the voters bit back anyway. In the Shore towns, Wilson’s vote in November dropped precipitously.

The irrational voting due to the sharks is not a special case. We also show that the voters blame the incumbents when it rains too much or too little. We estimate, for example, that Al Gore lost seven states in 2000 because they were too dry or too wet—more than enough to cost him the presidency. In these cases and in many other ways, the voters are often overwhelmed by the challenges of casting a well-informed, sensible vote.

In light of those ideas, how are you thinking about the presidential primaries this year?

CA & LB: We finished our book well before this year’s primaries began. We feel that every primary season illustrates the problems and the political forces that we have identified, although this year may furnish particularly clear examples. Our central argument is that people primarily vote their social, religious, and political identities, not their ideas or their policy preferences. The identities create the preferences, not the other way around. Voters typically know a candidate only from television and the Internet, and they look for a politician who reinforces and validates their own group loyalties. Particularly when economic times are hard, those identities can become quite antagonistic.

As a result, neophytes, demagogues, and extremists often do well in primaries. The people in politics who know them personally, and who know how unsuitable they are to be president, are cut out of the process, or have only a limited role, perhaps as convention super-delegates. The result is many foolish, even dangerous choices. We Americans think that this way of hurting ourselves is “more democratic.” But again, the authors of the U.S. constitution knew better.

That certainly doesn’t sound very cheery. Why should we read this book?

CA & LB: Politics is often not very cheery. But facing our problems honestly is the first step toward doing something about them.

As one important example, the way we pick presidents now is worrisome. It’s been worrisome, even scary, for several decades now, and yet we have drifted along pretending that all is well. It’s like skipping inoculations and then finding yourself, too late, in an epidemic. The usual ways of thinking about democracy have brought us to this point, and most of the reform proposals we have seen miss the fundamental issues and will make little or no difference. In our view, we need to rethink in a much deeper way. That is what this book is about.

Christopher H. Achen is the Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences and professor of politics at Princeton University. His books include The European Union Decides. Larry M. Bartels holds the May Werthan Shayne Chair of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University. His books include Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton). Their most recent book together is Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government.

Jason Brennan: Our relationship to democracy is nonconsensual

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Democracy Doesn’t Rest on the Consent of the Governed

By Jason Brennan

There’s a popular idea—an idea you might get from middle school civics classes—that democracy is based on the consent of the governed. Now, democracy is more responsive to what people want than other forms of government, and it gives the governed a large say in what happens. However, it’s a mistake to say that the relationship individual citizens have to their government in a democracy is consensual. Let’s think about why.

Recently, I purchased a Marshall JVM amplifier from a dealer. It was an archetypical consensual transaction. It had each of the following features:

A.       I performed an act that signified my consent. In this case, I ordered the amplifier. The outcome—that I lost money but gained a JVM—would not have occurred but for my performing the act that signified consent.

B.       I was not forced to perform that act—I had a reasonable way to avoid doing it.

C.       Had I explicitly said, “I refuse to buy a Marshall JVM at that price!” the exchange never would have taken place.

D.       The dealer was not entitled to take my money unless it sent me the amplifier—it had to hold up its end of the bargain.

Now, imagine that any one of these conditions didn’t happen. Suppose, instead of A, that the dealer just extracted money from my bank account and sent me the amp, even though I’d never placed an order. In that case, that would be strange kind of theft. The dealer would have taken my money without my consent. Suppose, instead of B, the dealer (or someone else) had said, “Buy this amp or I’ll murder you.” In that case, we still wouldn’t call it consensual—it would be a weird form of theft. Suppose, instead of C, I tell the dealer, “I absolutely refuse to buy a JVM!,” but the dealer just sent it to me anyways. In that case, it would have been like it had given me a gift without my consent. If they then sent me a bill, I wouldn’t have any duty to pay it, since I’d told them I didn’t want to buy the amp. Suppose, instead of D, the dealer takes my money but never sends the amp. In that case, it would be fraud. In each of these cases, the transaction would not be consensual.

In general, our relationship as individuals to our government doesn’t look much like a consensual relationship.

If you don’t vote or participate, your government will just impose rules, regulations, restrictions, benefits, and taxes upon you. Except in exceptional circumstances, the same outcome will occur regardless of how you vote or what policies you support. So, for instance, I voted for a particular candidate in 2012. But had I abstained or voted for a different candidate, the same candidate would have won anyways. This is not like a consensual transaction, in which I order a JVM and the dealer sends me the amp I ordered. Rather, this is more a like a nonconsensual transaction in which the dealer decides to make me buy an amp no matter whether I place an order or not, and no matter what I order.

If you actively dissent, the government makes you obey its rules anyways. For instance, you can’t get out of marijuana criminalization laws by saying, “Just to be clear, I don’t consent to those laws, or to your rule”. This is unlike my relationship with my music gear dealer, where “no” means “no”. For government, your “no” means “yes”.

You have no reasonable way of opting out of government rule. Governments control all the habitable land, and most of us don’t have the resources or even the legal permission to move elsewhere. Governments won’t even let you move to Antarctica if you want to. At most, a privileged few of us can choose which government we live under, but the vast majority of us are stuck with whatever government we’re born with. This is unlike buying an amp from Sweetwater.com, which, by the way, I highly recommend as a dealer.

Finally, governments require you to obey their rules, pay taxes, and the like, even when they don’t do their part. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the government has no duty to protect individual citizens. Suppose you call the police to alert them that an intruder is in your house, but the police never bother dispatch someone to help you, and as a result the intruder shoots you. The government still requires you to pay taxes for the protection services it chose not to deploy on your behalf.

So, in summary, it looks like in general our relationship to our governments lacks any of the features that signify a consensual transaction.

None of this is to say that governments are unjust or illegitimate, or that we ought to be anarchists. There are other reasons to have governments. Nor is it to say that democracies are not in some way special. Democracies in fact do a much better job than alternative forms of government of responding to their concerns and interests of most of their members. But it’s a stretch to say that democracy rests on the consent of the governed, or, more precisely, it’s a stretch to say that you consent to democratic rule.

Check out Jason Brennan’s recent post on Why Smart Politicians Say Dumb Things.

Jason Brennan is Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of Markets without Limits, with Peter Jaworski (2015), Why Not Capitalism? (2014), Compulsory Voting, with Lisa Hill (2014), Libertarianism (2012), The Ethics of Voting (2011), and A Brief History of Liberty, with David Schmidtz (2010). He is currently writing Against Democracy, under contract with Princeton University Press, and Global Justice as Global Freedom, with Bas von der Vossen.