The Conservative Argument for Democracy

In my view, what’s the most troubling argument against my view? I’m not impressed by any of the deontological arguments for democracy. But here’s a type of consequentialist objection which I’m not in a position to answer. From the end of chapter 8 of Against Democracy:



Whether we should prefer epistocracy to democracy is in part on an empirical question, which I am not fully able to answer. We can study how badly voters behave, and thus determine potential improvements epistocracy could produce. But we are not sure how well any epistocratic measures would actually work. There are good reasons to think epistocracy would produce better results than democracy with universal suffrage, but there are reasons to worry it will not.

Consider, by analogy, how weak the case was for democracy as of the mid 1790s. The French revolution was supposed to replace what was clearly an unjust regime with a better regime. In the end, the result was disaster. It led to war, mass tyranny, chaos, mass executions, and, in the end, the rise of Napoleon. Though Louis XVI’s reign was unjust and ineffective, the French might have done better putting up with it than trying to replace it with something better.

English politician Edmund Burke wrote a famous set of letters reflecting on what went wrong. He worried that people are imperfect, and there are limits on how much justice we can hope to achieve. He complained that human beings aren’t smart enough to remake society from scratch. He thought that the failures of the French Revolution showed us that many institutions and practices that seem unjust upon philosophical reflection turn out to serve useful purpose. This purpose is obscured to us, and we don’t discover it until we’ve destroyed the institutions. By then, it’s too late. Society and civilization are fragile. Society is held together not by reason, but by irrational beliefs and superstitions, include irrational beliefs in authority and patriotism.

These kinds of ideas are now often called “Burkean conservativism”. The basic thought is that we must be extremely cautious when making radical changes to existing institutions. Society is complex—more complex than our simple theories can handle—and our attempts to fix things often have deleterious unintended consequences. There is a presumption in favor of pre-existing social institutions. These institutions may seem unjust, but they at least have a history of working as well as they do. Moreover, existing legal and political institutions have evolved over generations—they have, in effect, adapted. Just as we should be wary of interfering with an ecosystem, the Burkean conservative thinks we should be wary of replacing existing political systems. Experimentation with new forms of government is dangerous.

Burke’s concerns about the French Revolution seem sound. A reasonable person in late 1793 might conclude that replacing monarchy with some form of democratic republic is a bad idea. Former British colonists living in the new United States were not in any obvious way better off than they had been under British rule, and the French republic was a nightmare. That said, in the more than two hundred years since, we’ve replaced most monarchies with democracies, and overall it’s been for the better. A similar point might apply to epistocracy. Or it might not.

Burke was worried about remaking society from the ground up, all at once.  He was not against attempting small improvements here and there.  He would tend to favor small-scale experiments.

Since we are unsure of the consequences, but have reason to expect them to be positive, we might experiment with voter examination systems on a relatively small scale at first. For instance, perhaps it would be best if one state in the U.S. tried the system first. We would want to start with a relatively non-corrupt state, such as New Hampshire, rather than a corrupt state, such as Louisiana. If the experiment succeeds, then the rules could be scaled up.

Similarly, remember that few hundred years ago, we had little experience with democracy. Some advocated democracy in part because they believed it would tend to produce better and more just outcomes than monarchy. Others worried that democracies would be even more corrupt, or would collapse into chaos. In light of their lack of experience, a democrat might reasonably have argued in favor of experimenting with democracy on a relatively small scale, and then scaling up only if the experiment succeeded.

Democracy, as we practice it, is unjust. We expose innocent people to high degrees of risk, because we put their fate in the hands of ignorant, misinformed, irrational, biased, and sometimes immoral decision-makers. Epistocracy might be able to fix this problem. If epistocracy works better, we should go with epistocracy instead.

But epistocracy might not work better. Or, it might be that trying to transition to democracy is too costly or dangerous—we can’t get there from here. In the end, then, the best argument for democracy is Burkean conservativism. Democracy is not a fully just social system, but it’s too risky and dangerous to attempt to replace it with something else.[i]

Burkean conservativism tells us to be careful, but we also have to be careful with Burkean conservativism. Burkean conservativism warns us that attempts to make things better might make things worse. It’s true that the world is complicated and our experiments may blow up in our faces. But we can repeat this line of reasoning for any proposed change.

[i] A good example of this kind of argument is Knight and Johnson 2011. Knight and Johnson call their argument “pragmatic,” and it is indeed that, but it ultimately rests upon Burkean conservative ideas.

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Author: Jason Brennan
  • Jameson Graber

    I think one could make the case that modern democracy would never have worked like it has, had it not been for the American colonies, which essentially were a lot of little experiments in democracy. The French Revolution was spectacularly different from the American Revolution in the sense that the Americans already had a tradition of democracy by the time they declare themselves to be one, whereas the French absolutely did not.

    Unfortunately, it’s harder to try similar experiments today, but I suppose it could be done. We just don’t have a lot of big open space where there will be relatively little interference from other governments.

    • jdkolassa

      As a computer programmer, I wonder if we could create a computer model and do a bunch of Monte Carlo simulations with virtual voters. I have no idea how to code that — my work is in web apps, not systems like this — but it could potentially help.

  • TracyW

    I remember Thomas MacCaulay, the 19th century historian and MP, arguing that the French Great Terror happened because the French political leaders were so inexperienced that they knew no better way of enforcing their will, while, say, someone like Elizabeth I could get her way with a lot less death. He traced back their inexperience to the centralisation of the French monarchy meaning there was limited experience amongst the people at governing, then the first revolutionary government wrote a new constitution which ruled them out from standing so that lost everyone else with experience.

  • Phil Magness

    “A good example of this kind of argument is Knight and Johnson 2011. Knight and Johnson call their argument “pragmatic,” and it is indeed that, but it ultimately rests upon Burkean conservative ideas.”

    The political deployment of the term “pragmatic” is usually shorthand for “policies that I personally believe to be sensible and desirable.” Same goes for the even more explicitly Burkean term “prudent.”

    • Jason Brennan

      Most people who say they are pragmatists are actually just dogmatists. Knight and Johnson are not that, but they are basically resting their argument on giving heavy weight to certain consequences and less weight t others.


    You say, “Whether we should prefer epistocracy to democracy is in part on an empirical question, which I am not fully able to answer.” Sorry, but I’m not convinced you’re even able to ask the right empirical question, because you have studiously refused to say what counts as success or failure for your proposal. In what political direction should epistocracy move our polity to be counted as a success? And, doesn’t your answer simply beg the question against those with different views. I’ve asked a number of times, with no response, so I’m done. Enjoy whatever little echo chamber you’re ensconced in.

    • Jason Brennan

      Or maybe read the book? I mean, it’s not like I’m hiding it.


        Alright, thanks. But I remain mystified, just as I was before, about why a Nozickian should support epistocracy if it moves his polity in a Cohen-like direction. Do I need to read the book for an answer to that?

        • Jason Brennan

          I wouldn’t say that Nozick should support epistocracy because it would move the polity in Cohen’s direction.

          FWIW, empirically, it looks like making US epistocrat would make it more classically liberal. But my case for epistocracy doesn’t rest on that point.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Right, so epistocracy will likely–and predictably according to you–move our polity in some direction on the ideological compass. And my point is that only those who hold a theory of justice that will be instantiated at least slightly by this movement should support it. If I believed, for example, that it would make our society more classically liberal then definitely count me in. But, by the same token, this gives about 90% of the electorate an excellent reason to reject it.

          • But isn’t it an odd coincidence that by making the US political system more like Jason wants it, we predict the US political outcome to be more to Jason’s liking?

            It’s almost as if he’s arguing that making the electorate look more like him will result in more of the policy changes he prefers. Doubtless that this is true, but there’s just one little problem with that…

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            If that’s his game, then I badly underestimated him, and hereby apologize. But, I would still offer this friendly amendment. The epistocracy test consists of just one question: “Do you believe that the state has too much control over the lives of its citizens.” If, “yes,” then–whether you have a Ph.D. or third grade education, “Congratulations, and here’s your ballot.” If “no,” then, “You’ll just have to sit this one out.”

          • Well, to be clear, I don’t think that’s his “game.” I just think that whenever people consider what would be politically optimal, they always end up envisioning a scenario that overrates their own knowledge and underrated everyone else’s. Mises wrote something about this that always stuck with me.

  • p nelson

    Burke’s concerns about the French Revolution seem sound. A reasonable person in late 1793 might conclude that replacing monarchy with some form of democratic republic is a bad idea.

    And indeed, it was a disaster. The French suffered through the Reign of Terror and nearly a century of wars and emperors and petty emperors before anything like the modern form of democracy emerged there. Similar results were obtained in other revolutions that swept across Europe in 1815 and 1848. Other violent revolutions in other parts of the world in the 20th century, e.g., Russia in 1917 and Cuba in 1959 and elsewhere show how rarely a sudden overthrow of the existing order results in a new system that’s better than the old. In that respect the American revolution of 1775-1783 is an outlier, because it did, by 1789 produce a stable form of government that was an improvement over the Old World governments the Americans were descended from.

    So we should be extremely cautious of upsetting the old order for something new. As an engineer with a science background I have long advocated prototypes and scale models to test out alternative economic or political models. I’ve wasted much breath trying to talk libertarian or anarchist friends into focusing their efforts on just setting up their scheme in a small place – a town , a small city, a state or province, an island somewhere – instead of trying to convert a whole country the size of the US to their way of thinking.

    There is a wonderful book, Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America 1680-1880 by Mark Holloway (Dover Press ISBN-13: 978-0844622675) detailing numerous experiments in creating communities based on novel theories, which should be required reading for anyone interested in alternative systems. On a happier note, the Pirate party came in second in Iceland’s (pop. 330,000) recent elections and they have some radical ideas of how to ‘do’ democracy. So it may be that Iceland, which already has the world’s oldest parliament (the Allthing, 930 AD), may yet give us some new ideas. Watch that space.