Politics Is Not a Poem: Against Semiotic Arguments for Democracy

Excerpted from the intro of chapter 5–perhaps my favorite chapter–of Against Democracy.



“The instinct of worship is still so strong upon us that, having nearly worn out our capacity for treating kings and such kind of persons as sacred, we are ready to invest a majority of our own selves with the same kind of reverence.”

—Auberon Herbert



Years ago, in a previous book on voting ethics, I wrote the following:


…the value of the right to vote consists in something [other than its instrumental value]. It is not that individual votes have much practical utility. It is, rather, that the right to vote is a badge of equal personhood. The Nazis made Jews wear the Star of David as a badge of inferiority. The right to vote is a metaphorical badge of equality.[i]


At that time, I accepted the common view that equal voting rights have some sort of symbolic value. Just as we might express the equal dignity of each citizen with a poem or a statue in the town square, so we might express their equal dignity by giving them each a right to vote. I now believe this way of thinking is seriously inadequate.

The previous chapter examined whether democracy empowers individuals in any significant way. I turn now to a difference class of arguments on behalf of democracy and political participation. These arguments focus broadly on the symbolic power of democracy, on what giving them equal political rights expresses, on what giving them unequal rights express, and on what effects such expressions have on people’s self-esteem and social status. These arguments are meant to show both A) the democracy and participation are good for individuals, and B) that individuals are owed the right to vote and run for office as a matter of justice.

Many people regard it as axiomatic that all people share a fundamental moral equality. At the very least, many are convinced that just governments ought to act as if everyone’s life is of equal worth. Many want to ground their arguments for democracy or arguments against epistocracy on this fundamental equality. As Elizabeth Anderson says, “Pressure toward universal inclusion [in the franchise] follows from the demands of equality…whereby each adult actively recognizes everyone else’s equal authority to make claims concerning the rules under which all shall live…”[ii]

In this chapter, I primarily attack what I will call “semiotic” arguments for democracy and against epistocracy. Semiotic arguments for democracy rely on the idea that imbuing everyone with equal fundamental power expresses, communicates, or symbolizes respect. Relatedly, semiotic objections to epistocracy rely on the idea that failing to imbue people with power (or with equal power) expresses, communicates, or symbolizes disrespect. Many philosophers and laypeople alike find it plausible that imbuing each citizen with the same fundamental political power rightly expresses the idea that each citizen has the same fundamental moral worth. Many also find it plausible that formally imbuing citizens with unequal power wrongfully expresses the idea that citizens have unequal moral worth.

Proper semiotic arguments, as I define them, are independent of other arguments for democracy or other arguments for democracy or against epistocracy. Semiotic arguments are about what democracy signals, not about whether democracy performs better than the alternatives or about whether democracy is especially fair.

To test semiotic objections, we have to put non-semiotic objections to the side. Thus, when comparing democracy to epistocracy or other forms of government on semiotic grounds, we must imagine that there are no others worries about epistocracy other than what it signals or expresses.

Suppose it turned out that some sort of epistocracy—say one in which some low information voters were excluded from voting—consistently outperformed democracy. Many democratic theorists and laypeople would be still be tempted to conclude that there is just something plain disrespectful about labeling some citizens as more politically competent than others. Epistocracy seems to express a kind of immoral elitism. This kind of worry seems to be a genuine semiotic objection to epistocracy. Something like this could be used to ground a proper semiotic argument for democracy.

As an example of a semiotic objection, consider the following passage from political theorist Pablo Gilbert. Gilbert says that non-democratic political structures by their very nature would insult the dignity of citizens.

Being rendered a second-class citizen (which is normally the case in a nondemocratic regime) is arguably injurious to an individual’s dignity, or a failure of due consideration. It is insulting to be told, or treated in a way that pragmatically implies, something like the following: “Our fundamental collective decisions are yours just as much as everyone else’s, although you deserve fewer rights to participate in shaping them than some others.” …Regardless of whether one actually takes offense, it is in fact an affront to one’s dignity to be subject to a basic political structure within which one has less than equal rights of participation.[iii]

Here, Gilbert is not talking about whether democracies do a better job protecting liberty or promoting social justice than other forms of government. Instead, he means to say that unequal political power signals inferiority and sends an offensive message.

Similarly, philosopher Christopher Griffin says that a “denial of an equal share of power in the context of disagreement about the basic ground rules of social life is a public declaration of second-class citizenry.”[iv] David Estlund complains that epistocracy involves “invidious comparisons,” as it relies upon the idea that some are more fit to rule than others.[v] Or, consider this passage from Robert Nozick, who in the middle of his philosophical career became impressed with symbolic arguments:

Democratic institutions and the liberties that coordinate with them are simply effective means toward controlling the power of government and directing these toward matters of joint concern; they themselves express and symbolize, in an pointed and official way, our equal human dignity, our autonomy and powers of self-direction. We vote…in part as an expression and symbolic affirmation of our status as autonomous and self-governing beings whose considered judgments or even opinions have to be given equal weight to those of others.[vi]


Though Nozick remained a libertarian throughout his career (talk of his apostasy is incorrect) one of the things he found inadequate about his earlier expressions of that philosophy was his inattention to expressive value of politics.

Political theorists, philosophers, and laypeople have adduced an impressive range of symbolic or semiotic reasons to prefer democracy to the alternatives:

  1. Democracy is necessary to express that all citizens are equal.
  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.

In this chapter, I argue that these kinds of symbolic, semiotic, and esteem-based claims fail to show that democratic rights have any real value to us. These do not provide good reasons to choose democracy over epistocracy, or to think that democracy is more inherently just than epistocracy.



That’s the end of the excerpt.

If you’ve read Markets without Limits or “Markets without Symbolic Limits,” you’ve seen one of the moves I end up making here. We imbue the right to vote with all sorts of symbolic value–we treat it is a metaphorical badge of equality and full membership. But we don’t have to do that. The rest of you could and should think of political power the way I do, that having the right to vote has  no more inherent special status than a plumbing license. Further, I argue that we can judge semiotic/symbolic norms by their consequences. In this case, if it turns out that epistocracy produces more substantively just results than democracy, this would mean we’re obligated to change the semiotics we attach to the right to vote, not that we’re obligated to stick with democracy because the right to vote has special meaning. I push hard on the claim that it’s probably just a contingent social construction that we imbue the right to vote with symbolic value. At least, no one has successfully shown otherwise.

I don’t say it in the book, but to be frank, my real view is this: The reason we imbue political participation and the right to vote with so much status and special symbolic significance is because we’re jerks. When Rawls and others defend semiotic arguments for democracy, I see them as lionizing assholedom. From my 2012 paper “Political Liberty: Who Needs It”:


I’m not just saying that we have no good reason to think this way. I want to go further: I think it’s a vile, contemptible fact about human beings that we associate dignity with political power. The fact that we associate dignity with political power—even the tiny amount of power one gets with the right to vote—is a base, disgusting feature of human psychology, a feature which morally superior people would learn to overcome.

In the U.S., new parents sometimes say, “Why knows? Maybe my child will be president!” Implicit in such daydreams is the assumption that holding political power—and holding the most political power—is the most prestigious thing one can do.

Imagine a world otherwise like ours, in which people lacked these kinds of attitudes. Instead of viewing the president as majestic, or the office of presidency as deserving reverence, they just thought of the president as the chief public goods administrator. Instead of thinking of the rights to vote and run for office as possessing a lesser kind of majesty, and as signifying membership in the national club, they thought of them as licenses akin to hairdressing or plumbing licenses. Imagine if people did not associate national status with international political power, and did not associate personal status with power.

This would be a better world than ours. We tie esteem to political power. But we shouldn’t; it has a terrible track record. Just think of the abuses and injustices entire nations, kings, emperors, presidents, senators, district attorneys, police officers, and average voters have gotten away with throughout history, all because we attach standing, reverence, and status to political power, and we defer before such majestic standing. Moreover, one reason why kings, presidents, and district attorneys commit such abuses in the first place is that they associate status with power. For example, Henry VIII’s wars had no chance of increasing his (or most of his subjects’) personal wealth or comfort. He committed these atrocities in large part because he wanted the prestige and status that attach to increased political power. Most people revere power, more than they would admit to themselves. The romance of power and authority partly explains why people have so often willing to collaborate with government-sponsored injustices.

The tendency to tie status to political power has other bad effects. Because people tend to use political power—and the right to vote in particular—as a way of signifying who is a full member of the national club and who is inferior, political power has tended to be distributed for bad reasons. For example, many countries have denied voting rights to women and ethnic minorities in order to signify their lesser status. If people had divorced standing from power, perhaps they would not have denied others their political liberties on such bad grounds.





[i] Schmidtz and Brennan 2010, 189.

[ii] Anderson 2009, p. 215.

[iii] Gilbert 2012, p. 13.

[iv] Griffin, Christopher. “Democracy as a Non-Instrumentally Just Procedure,” Journal of Political Philosophy 11 (2003): 111-21, here p. 120.

[v] Estlund 2007, 37.

[vi] Nozick 1990, 286.

  • King Goat

    Is it just symbolic? If, as the Declaration seems to state, we are ‘politically’ equal, we’re all owed an equal say.

    • Hollis Butts

      The subject is not the extent of compliance with the Declaration but the most effective form of governance.

    • CJColucci

      Yes. Though it is desirable that a government pursue good policies, it is essential that a government be broadly acceptable to the governed. And how much of the former to give up for the latter is not a matter on which there is expertise. Only the governed can determine this.

  • jdkolassa

    You need to put all your academic papers into a book, like a short story collection for a philosopher. That second excerpt is gold.

    • Pajser

      He probably transferred copyright on journals.

      • jdkolassa


  • David Rondel

    Interesting piece, but a quick erratum: the political theorist you cite is Pablo Gilabert, not Pablo Gilbert.

    • Jason Brennan

      Thanks. I believe I caught that in the final.

  • Pajser

    People are hurt if they are treated worse than others without justification. Maybe you have justification, but burden of proof is on your side.

    “The fact that we associate dignity with political power—even the tiny amount of power one gets with the right to vote—is a base, disgusting feature of human psychology, a feature which morally superior people would learn to overcome.”

    Bold claim. It appears root of your belief in it is that you believe that political power necessarily does more bad than good. Only anarchists can agree with that.

  • Gary

    This is my proposal for replacing the UN with a United Democratic Nations…

    So tell me…does this idea match with libertarian thinking?


  • hgfalling

    BHL is just plain better when Brennan is defending his papers and books.
    Just. Plain. Better.