Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Jason Brennan's "Against Democracy"

Jason Brennan is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He is the author of Markets without Limits, with Peter Jaworkski, Compulsory Voting: For and Against, with Lisa Hill, Why Not Capitalism?, Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know, The Ethics of Voting, and, with David Schmidtz, A Brief History of Liberty.

Brennan applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Against Democracy, and reported the following:
From page 99:
…if tomorrow everyone in my country decides they want to interfere with me or subject me to their collective will, my political rights provide me no more protection than a bucket provides against a flood.

Further, it’s unclear why republicans should favor democracy over epistocracy. Epistocracy appears to be compatible with republican liberty. Consider a form of epistocracy in which suffrage is restricted only to citizens who can pass a test of basic political knowledge. Suppose the top 95 percent of citizens pass the exam, but the bottom 5 percent fail. Will this top group of voters thus dominate the others? It seems unlikely. An epistocracy could retain the other “enhancements” republicans favor—deliberative forums, citizens’ courts of appeal, limits on campaign spending, and so on. If these procedural checks and balances would prevent government officials or special interest groups from dominating citizens when everyone is allowed to participate, it is not clear why they would suddenly fail if the most ignorant or misinformed citizens were not allowed to vote. The republican idea is that one enjoys freedom as nondomination when there are sufficient institutional checks in place that prevent anyone from just dominating you at will. But there’s no plausible reason to think your individual right to vote or participate is essential to stopping domination.

Republicans might complain that even in an epistocracy that copied their favored institutions (checks and balances, contestatory deliberative forums, etc.), citizens would lack equal status. But that’s a complaint about equality and status, about the expressive meaning of unequal political rights. It’s not a complaint about freedom or power, and so I put it aside here. I consider these issues at great length in the next chapter.
In chapter 5 of Against Democracy, I’m trying to refute a number of arguments which attempt to show that your right to vote empowers you in some morally significant way. This particular section is a response to the “republican” political theory the philosopher Philip Pettit defends, a theory that has its roots in Cicero and other Roman political philosophers. (The “republicanism” referred to here has nothing to do with the Republican party, by the way.)

Pettit proposes a new conception of liberty, which he calls “liberty as non-domination”. On this conception, to be free means to be in a situation in which no one can arbitrarily, and with impunity, interfere with you.

For the sake of argument, let’s grant Pettit that liberty is best conceived of as non-domination. For the sake of argument, let’s also grant him that many of the “enhancements” to representative democracy that he and other theorists favor—such as deliberative forums, citizens’ courts of appeals, and so on—are necessary to prevent political officials from dominating over citizens.

Even if so, it’s not clear to me why republicans have any grounds to favor democracy over epistocracy. In a democracy, every citizen has an equal right to vote. In an epistocracy, political power is apportioned according to knowledge and competence. For instance, an epistocracy might not grant citizens the right to vote unless they can pass a test of basic political knowledge, or it might allow everyone the right to vote, but give additional votes to citizens who pass a test, or it might allow panels of experts to veto democracy legislation.

In Against Democracy, I’m trying to convince readers that the choice between democracy and epistocracy is purely instrumental. That is, democracy is not inherently just and epistocracy is not inherently unjust. We should just use whatever political system, despite whatever flaws it might have in practice, turns out to produce the most overall just results.

Your individual right to vote does not stop you from being dominated, simply because your individual right to vote makes no difference. How we vote matters, but how any one of us votes does not. That’s why I say, at the beginning of the quoted passage, that if the rest of us decide to try to dominate you through politics, your right to vote provides you no more protection than a bucket provides against a great flood. Perhaps a better metaphor would be that your right to vote protects you from being dominated no better than a random lottery ticket protects you from dire poverty.

There may be other reasons to favor democracy or to hold that every citizen ought to have an equal right to vote. (I examine and debunk a bunch of these purported reasons elsewhere in the book.) But, my point here is just that republican political theorists have no particular reason to favor democracy over epistocracy. Or, more precisely, their arm-chair, a priori arguments give them no special reason to do so.
Learn more about Against Democracy at the Princeton University and Jason Brennan's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Ethics of Voting.

--Marshal Zeringue