Rights Theory, Democracy

The Page 99 Test: Against Democracy

“Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” –Ford Madox Ford

The Page 99 Test is a website that has authors post the 99th page of their book, and then comment on how it relates to the book as whole. You can read page 99 of Against Democracy there today. Page 99 contains part of my argument against Pettit, in which I claim that “stopping domination” arguments gives Pettit and other republicans no special reason to favor democracy over epistocracy.

Excerpt from the commentary:

Your individual right to vote does not stop you from being dominated, simply because your individual right to vote makes no difference. How we vote matters, but how any one of us votes does not. That’s why I say, at the beginning of the quoted passage, that if the rest of us decide to try to dominate you through politics, your right to vote provides you no more protection than a bucket provides against a great flood. Perhaps a better metaphor would be that your right to vote protects you from being dominated no better than a random lottery ticket protects you from dire poverty.

There may be other reasons to favor democracy or to hold that every citizen ought to have an equal right to vote. (I examine and debunk a bunch of these purported reasons elsewhere in the book.) But, my point here is just that republican political theorists have no particular reason to favor democracy over epistocracy. Or, more precisely, their arm-chair, a priori arguments give them no special reason to do so.

  • Mike Huben

    Please save us some searching and let us know what theory/measure of justice you are using in your comparisons of democracy and epistocracy. I’d be happy to follow references.

    • Jason Brennan

      The correct one.

      • Mike Huben

        Ah, a foundation of sand.

        As if “commonsense moral principles” didn’t clash with each other, let alone democracy, epistocracy, economics, science and almost everything else you can name. As if “commonsense moral principles” were agreed upon, let alone agreed upon in all particulars.

        Is this really any better than Colbert (or Nietzsche) going with his gut?

        • CJColucci

          When I looked yesterday, Brennan’s response consisted solely of the first three words. I guess he consulted commonsense moral principles — like don’t be an asshole — and decided to add the rest later. That’s something, anyway.

          • Jason Brennan


            Thanks for coming and and writing snarky comments here from time to time. You’re a fine person.

          • CJColucci

            Why would I know or have reason to care about that?

        • Jason Brennan

          No shit commonsense principles clash with each other. That’s the whole point.

          But the idea here is that “Don’t hurt innocent people for no good reason” is much more plausible than any moral theory, so you make use of well-known mid-range principles rather than trying to derive a view from a controversial and implausible background theory like Kant’s, Rand’s , consequentialism, or what not. That’s the right way to do applied ethics and political philosophy. As evidence, not that every attempt to do otherwise sucks.

          • Mike Huben

            “Innocent”, “people” and “good” have no consistent commonsense meanings. “Plausible” is a subjective judgement. Is that really the best you can do? For example, the two sides on abortion would disagree on how that applies.

            It doesn’t matter if you pick crappy fundamental principles or crappy “mid-range” principles: you’re still trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And since you think you can pick and choose vague principles from all over the map without justification beyond your opinion that they are “commonsense”, why shouldn’t we believe that others can’t make equally valid or invalid arguments starting with other sets of principles? Why shouldn’t we simply assume that with a whole rainbow of “common sense” nostrums to choose from, you aren’t simply choosing the ones that help you argue your priors and ignoring contrary ones?

            Indeed, why not start with equal vote democracy as commonsense and make it a very short book?

            Judging from your index, you don’t even consider equal votes as having value as a Schelling point (we could argue that Schelling points are literal examples of commonsense): that alone makes your whole argument from commonsense suspect.

            All in all, how do you defend yourself from the criticism of Jeffrey Friedman:

            “In editing a journal that has received manuscripts from virtually every libertarian scholar, famous and unknown alike, I have long been struck by the consistent juxtaposition of what another observer delicately calls the “intermingling of positive statements and normative pleadings”: the coincidence of libertarian philosophical sentiments with weak empirical research, leaps of logic, and contempt for nonlibertarian points of view (of which the authors usually appear ignorant). The polemical tone and deficient evidence, however, and the tarnishing of often-good ideas by doctrinaire rhetoric and low scholarly standards, are only the least of it. The worst thing is not the waste of effort that goes into producing propaganda barely veiled by the robes of scholarship. The greater tragedy is what libertarians could produce, but do not.”

          • Dave2

            So how exactly should we do applied ethics? What approach do you think has a strong foundation?

          • Mike Huben

            I am an amateur, and do not presume to know what is a strong foundation for applied ethics. But I don’t need that knowledge to identify a weak foundation any more than the little boy needs to understand fashion when pointing out that the emperor’s new clothes leave him naked.

            Recently, I browsed the terms Moral Ecology and Pragmatic Ethics. I haven’t read much about them yet, but the moral ecology term fits my notions of ethics as attempts at adaptive solutions for living and my observations of the multiplicity of ethics people actually live by.

            That’s actually one of the things that strike me as funny about most libertarian philosophers. They are generally attempting to codify one libertarian philosophy for everybody: one size fits all. Yet that’s their best argument for preferring markets to government, because with markets you don’t need one size to fit all. You can have a diversity of products within a market. There’s no more freedom under their constraining philosophy than there is under a government’s law.