“Against Democracy” lecture with Jason Brennan


Brennan explains how the individual’s eff ort towards improved political knowledge is wasted amongst the pool of voters. Below: About 31 students, faculty and community members attended the talk, held on the fourth. Photo provided by Hope Brusstar.

Georgetown professor of philosophy Jason Brennan discussed his current political theory and supporting research on Sept. 20 during a visit to the Earl K. Long library.“I’m actually a pretty big fan of democracy,” he said, “… we titled [my book] “Against Democracy” to sell more books, frankly.”

In the hour-long lecture, Brennan addressed some general complaints he had about democracy, and then took questions from an audience. He began by sharing the political behavior of his mother-in-law. “She watched [Bill O’ Reilly] in order to get mad at him,” said Brennan, “She turns into a kind of monster, almost, when it comes to politics. That’s normal.”

Though a fan of democracy, students recognized Brennan did have criticisms of the institution as well.“He thinks that democracy is fundamentally flawed because … most people lack any sort of political ideology, and … engaging in politics only alienates people more from one another,” stated Jennifer Lin, a senior student in psychology and philosophy.

Brennan aimed to point out the way that people in general treat politics, quoting Austrian political economist Joseph A. Schumpeter. In Schumpeter’s view, “The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. [The citizen] argues and analyzes in a way which he would rapidly recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes primitive again.”

One vote counts for very little, and no matter how educated it is, Brennan argues that it would be drowned out by all the other uneducated votes.

“The data largely backs up Schumpeter,” Brennan said. In a very basic multiple-choice political pop quiz, he explained, 50 percent of Americans would get only about one quarter of the questions right, and the bottom 25 percent would “systematically get more wrong than chance.” They would perform worse than if they had merely filled in bubbles at random.

“It’s because they don’t have an incentive to be better informed,” said Brennan. “[People] know that their votes don’t really matter all that much.”

Brennan framed it in another way: being a registered voter is like being in a massive class in which the professor declares that everyone in the class will receive the same grade as everyone else: the class average. Brennan claimed that social experiments have been held to model this, and the results are that no one would study — the entire class would earn an F.

“Deliberation doesn’t work,” Brennan added. He stated that in social science studies, researchers have tried to collect groups of strangers in a room to discuss politics. Brennan continued, “You get people in the room; they tend to avoid sensitive topics; they pretend to get to a consensus … [later,] they admit that they lied about their views; they didn’t want an argument.”

Brennan questioned whether democracy was the only fair procedure for a government, and discussed some of the ways we might view it.

“We’ll never have total equality,” he noted, stating that those who are rich or “have the right last name” will always have more power.

“Does democracy empower individuals?” he asked. “[No.] If I voted exactly the opposite way, same results. …That’s how democracy’s supposed to work.”

A “first-past-the-post” voting system is the one used in the U.S., and it means simply that the candidate with the majority vote in either the primary or run-off election is the one who wins.
“[It] statistically predicts for having two parties,” said Brennan. In other words, the fact that the U.S. government is characterized by two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, is just a byproduct of its voting system. Both parties would have to have existential motivations to reject new types of voting systems: if they approved a new voting system, they could become less important or event nonexistent.

Brennan referenced the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, who once stated, “If you have two religions in your land, the two will cut each other’s throats; but if you have thirty religions, they will dwell in peace.”

Brennan stated, “If you continue to take democracy as a sacred value, you’ll never be able to make reforms,” and followed with a discussion on some ideas on alternative methods to collect the American vote.

Futurarchy was one example; a voting system in which elected officials offer up means of attaining well-being for the people, and then the people in turn bet on the one they think would be the most effective.

A lottocracy would involve periodically selecting 500 Americans at random, and only those 500 people would be allowed to vote. Brennan asserted that because they would be the only eligible voters, the group would feel a moral responsibility to remain educated on their political views, and therefore would make well-informed votes.

In an epistocracy, “people get voting power proportionate to their knowledge,” stated Brennan, but “it’s gonna have certain demographic problems.” Instead he offered up a “better version” of an epistocracy, a creation of his own which he called a “government by simulated oracle.”
“I haven’t come up with a snappier title,” said Brennan.
In this version, “everybody can vote, even little kids,” he said. Everyone would be interviewed for three pieces of data: their performance on a quiz of very basic political knowledge, a list of their sociopolitical desires, and their demographic information. Then, all of this voter data would be open-source, to be analyzed by experts in the public sphere, who would make an estimate of how the public would vote if it were perfectly informed. Essentially, they would use the populace’s general desires to extrapolate their decisions.

“I thought it was an incredibly thought-provoking talk,” added student Jennifer Lin, “I definitely agree that we need to consider the idea of democracy from more pragmatic and consequentialist perspectives. … I think it’s essential to focus on educating citizens.”