Rights Theory, Democracy

Arbitrary vs. Non-Arbitrary Grounds for Political Inequality

From Against Democracy.


Many take it as an unquestionable, non-negotiable axiom that everyone ought not to have an equal share of political power. Unequal political power is a marker of injustice.

They have a point. For most of civilized history, political power was distributed unequally, on the basis of morally arbitrary, repugnant, or evil reasons. We’ve made progress, and we’ve realized what our past mistakes were. We shouldn’t imbue someone with power just because he’s white, Protestant, or male. We shouldn’t forbid someone from holding political power just because that person is black, Catholic, Irish, Jewish, or female, because she doesn’t own a house, or because her parents were street sweepers. A person doesn’t have the right to rule just because he’s the great-grandson of a conquering warlord. In the past, inequality in political power was almost always unjust. Past movements towards democracy were usually a step in the right direction.

That said, even if past political inequality was unjust, it does not follow that political inequality is inherently unjust. Even if, in the past, people were excluded from holding political power for bad reasons, there might be good reasons to exclude some people from holding power or to granting them a smaller share of political power.

In comparison, we should not exclude citizens from driving because they are atheists, or gay, or Dalits. However, that does mean that all restrictions on the legal right to drive are unjust. They might be just reasons to forbid some people from driving: they are incompetent drivers who impose too much risk upon others when they drive.

So it might be with political rights as well. Countries used to exclude citizens from holding power for bad reasons, such as that they were black, female, or didn’t own land. But though this was unjust,[i] it remains open that there could be good grounds for restricting or reducing some citizens’ political power. Perhaps some citizens are incompetent participants who impose too much risk on others when they participate. Perhaps some of us have a right to be protected from their incompetence.

[i] Strictly speaking, it might be that excluding people for the wrong reasons was not the injustice, but rather that including people for the wrong reasons was the problem.

As I make it clear in the book, I am not doing ideal theory. I am not arguing that epistocracy would be perfectly just. Asking what kind of government a perfectly just society people would have is like asking what kind of criminal courts a perfectly just society would have. The answer is: they wouldn’t need it.

As I discuss in later chapters, of course any epistocratic policies will be abused, including in some cases for racist ends. Nevertheless, by the end of Against Democracy, I should have converted you to being a pure instrumentalist about democracy vs. epistocracy. Thus, the question will just be which system, abuses and failures and all, better produces just outcomes as judged procedure-independent standards.

There are lots of arguments trying (and failing badly, in my opinion) to show (on deontological grounds) that democracy is intrinsically just and/or that individuals should have the equal right to vote. I attack the following arguments in chapter 4 (“Politics Does Not Empower You or Me):

  1. Consent: Your political liberty and participation allow you to consent to government.
  2. Interests: Your political liberty and participation make government responsive to your interests.
  3. Autonomy: Your political liberty and participation give you increased autonomy.
  4. Non-Domination: Your political liberty and participation prevent others from dominating you.
  5. Moral Development: Your political liberty and participation are essential for you to develop and exercise a sense of the good life and a capacity for a sense of justice.

I then attack these arguments in chapter 5 (“Politics Is Not a Poem”):

  1. Democracy is necessary to express that all citizens are equal (or to avoid wrongfully expressing that some are superior).
  2. Democracy is necessary for proper social recognition or recognition of one’s agency.
  3. Democracy is necessary as a social basis for self-respect.
  4. Democracy is necessary as a social basis for being respected by others.
  5. Democracy is necessary for proper inclusion as a full member of society.
  6. Non-democratic structures, regardless of how well governed they are, are an affront to citizens’ dignity.



  • Is there an unwanted “not” in the first sentence?

    • Sebastian Nickel

      And a missing “not” in this sentence:
      “However, that does mean that all restrictions on the legal right to drive are unjust.”

      • Jason Brennan

        Probably. IIRC the copy editor fixed all that.