Skip to content



Against Democracy by Jason Brennan, Princeton University Press, August 2016, 304 pages.

This is certainly one of the most provocative books I’ve read in a while. And now, after the horror of the 2016 election, is a good time to read it. Note that the book was published before the election and that nothing in the book specifically has to do with the 2016 election.

Brennan’s argument is that democracy does not work. The reason that democracy doesn’t work is that most voters don’t know a damned thing. Are you with him so far?

His argument is that we should consider epistocracy as an improvement on democracy. Epistocracy is government by those who do know stuff — government by wonks.

The moment you propose such a thing, all sorts of arguments — both obvious arguments and arguments that are not so obvious — come up. Brennan attempts to deal with those arguments.

Speaking strictly for myself, I find Brennan convincing, even though his tone is testy and somewhat condescending. I’m not going to get into the arguments here pro and con. There are many points on which I would disagree with Brennan. Nevertheless I take him seriously, as I believe we all should. I’d also give Brennan high marks for heresy, for thinking outside the box, and for hitting the nail on the head on the matter of democracy’s ability to cause train wrecks. If given the chance, idiot voters will elect idiot candidates after campaigns aimed at idiots. All we have to do is point to Donald Trump and then rest our case.

Brennan gives a powerful — and terrifying — account, based on research, of just how little voters actually know. Though I have always understood that voters are idiots, I have underestimated just how little they really know. And it’s actually true that many voters — propagandized voters — know less than nothing. The 2016 election has shown us just how dangerous it is when people can vote but can’t distinguish between real news and fake news. Not only that, but they greatly prefer the fake news.

I will mention three points that come to mind:

1. Brennan’s emphasis is on the competence or incompetence of voters. I don’t think the problem is incompetence. Our right-wing North Carolina legislature, for example, and our Republican Congress, are entirely competent to accomplish what they want to accomplish — namely handing everything over to corporate interests for maximum exploitation by private profit, with the speediest possible transfer of wealth upward to the rich and super-rich. In my view, the question is not so much whether voters or candidates for office are competent, but whose interests are they concerned with.

2. Brennan never points this out, but one advantage of epistocracy would be that candidates for office would no longer have to pander to the stupidity and base instincts of the deplorables. If voters had to prove, before earning the right to vote, that they have appropriate knowledge and the ability to reason, then candidates for office would have to base their campaigns on things that actually matter.

3. Brennan says that politics makes people bitter enemies over small stakes. Not much, really, is at stake in elections, he says. I strongly disagree. Much is at stake. People die if we elect people who love, or profit from, war. People die if we see health care as a privilege meant only for those who can pay for its high costs. If we continue to elect Republicans, they will soon finish the job of allowing corporations and the rich to suck all the value out of the country and make peasants of the rest of us with no civil rights, other than the right to own guns with which to shoot each other. I strongly suspect that the reason the deplorables make a religion of the Second Amendment is that it’s the only part of the Constitution their tiny minds can understand.

Epistocratic government is such a radical idea that it would take a generation or two or three for us to get there. Maybe we should get started, before we become completely enslaved to billionaires. We’ve already reached a dangerous tipping point. More than half of Americans (or, at least, enough to swing the electoral vote), are living in a world of lies, horse shit, and propaganda — and loving it. How can that end well?

One Comment

  1. Dan wrote:

    Changing away from democracy will take more than a couple generations. We can’t even get the electoral college to die since it’s so effective at representing the less populated parts of the country which happen to strictly vote Republican.

    Tuesday, December 6, 2016 at 9:20 am | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *