Against Democracy at the National Interest

Today at the the National Interest, I have a 300o-word adapted version of Against Democracy.


Just over twenty years ago Francis Fukuyama declared liberal democracy the end of history. But history marched on, revealing rot in democracy’s roots. Around the world, from radical leftists in Venezuela and Greece to American Trump supporters, bitter voters wave their banners around populist demagogues. Nationalist movements, echoing those that lead to the first world war, are on the rise. The working classes reject globalization, immigration and economic liberalism. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and other countries may soon follow suit. In the United States, the political parties are more polarized than ever before, with the most right-wing Democrat to the left of the most left-wing Republican. As a result, the United States faces gridlock and tribal politics rather than compromise solutions.

These movements are driven by low-information voters and the politicians who serve them. The past few decades have been perhaps the best in human history, with more people around the world rising out of absolute poverty than ever before. But many Western voters, ignorant of the social sciences or even of basic political facts, see change all around them, feel left behind and neglected, and strike out in fear and resentment.

On the symbolic value of the right to vote:

Many people understand that individual votes matter little. They instead invoke the symbolic value of the right to vote. In Western democracies, we treat the right to vote as a metaphorical badge of dignity and equality. We imbue people with the equal right to vote in order to express that they are full and equal members of the national club. Many philosophers believe that democracy necessarily expresses that all citizens have equal worth.

This widely held view is odd. Democracy is not a poem or a painting. Democracy is a political system. It is a method for deciding how and when an institution claiming a monopoly on legitimate violence will flex its muscles. Government is supposed to protect the peace, provide public goods and advance justice. It’s not in the first instance an institution intended to boost, maintain or regulate our self-esteem.

Political theorist and British MP Auberon Herbert said, “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.” In feudal times, we regarded the king, in virtue of holding power, as possessing a kind of majesty. In a democracy, we instead imagine every voter, in virtue of sharing what was the king’s power, as possessing that same majesty. But there’s no obvious reason why we should think that way.

The Competence Principle

Ample empirical research shows that voters are systematically ignorant, misinformed and irrational. That’s not just a bad thing. It might be an injustice.

As an analogy, suppose a jury were deciding a capital murder case. But suppose instead of carefully considering the evidence, the jury found the defendant guilty out of caprice or malice. Suppose a third of jurors paid no attention to the evidence, and just decided, by coin flip, to call the defendant guilty. Suppose another third decided to find the defendant guilty because they dislike his skin color. Suppose the final third paid attention to the evidence, but found the defendant guilty not because the evidence suggested he was, but because they subscribed to a bizarre conspiracy theory.

If we knew a jury behaved that way, we’d demand a retrial. The defendant’s property, welfare, liberty and possibly life are at stake. The jury owes the defendant and the rest of us to take proper care in making its decision. It should decide competently and in good faith.

Read the whole thing here.

Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan
  • King Goat

    “It is a method for deciding how and when an institution claiming a monopoly on legitimate violence will flex its muscles. ”

    Because when it flexes its muscles it effects all those in its jurisdiction, all of those so effected should have a say. Their equal say is warranted because they equally and all have to abide by that say. The justification for why they have to abide by that say is that they had an equal part in determining it, what justification could exist otherwise?

    • Jason Brennan

      Well, see chapters 4 and 5, or see Huemer’s book on authority or Simmons’s work on authority.

      • Student

        Why don’t you say what your point is rather than directing to someone else’s opinion?

        It sounds like you’re saying not everyone should get an equal vote, but you’re afraid to say it.

  • Jerome Bigge

    Perhaps we’d be better off with a lottery system to pick those who should represent us. Similar to what the Greeks of Classical Athens used to select those who would represent the citizens. To be honest, very few of those running for office are even willing to consider such ideas as repeal of our drug laws. Laws that have given us the largest per capita number of people in prison of any nation on Earth. Unfortunately only libertarians today believe in personal freedom as our two major political parties appear to be totally opposed to the idea that people should have the right to decide these matters for themselves.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      One of the most saddening things to me is when I encounter an obviously intelligent and well read person who has ignorant retrograde views of the drug war. Their arguments are nearly 100% emotion based.

  • Inkheart

    An interesting debate that needs to be given far more debate in academic circles. How would we give more power to Vulcans? Who would agree to it?

  • Student


    When you get to a place where the world isn’t how you want it to be because other people are stupid, you are losing.

    Re: the symbolic value of the vote – what’s your point? Who cares how it makes us feel. It’s something each of us *should* have.

    Re: the competence principle – You get paid to know things. Most people don’t. When Washington has the ability to regulate virtually all of American life, and even those who are informed appear to be either fools or unable to fix a broken system, how exactly do you think things would be different if everyone were equally well informed? You sound like every other ideologue – “if only . . . [INSERT BOGEYMAN] . . . everyone would think like me and the world would be great.”

  • Jeff R.

    But many Western voters, ignorant of the social sciences or even of basic political facts, see change all around them, feel left behind and neglected, and strike out in fear and resentment.

    That’s a strange sentence. Can’t you be informed about social science and still feel “left behind and neglected?” Is it only ignorance that leads to fear and resentment? “You only feel that way because you’re a moron” is what that boils down to, which is certainly true in many cases, but at the very least, stupid people can still most certainly have legitimate grievances re: government policy caused by the voting habits of other stupid people.

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    Of course I do not think you are entirely correct in your diagnosis of our modern ills. I think that incredible amounts of corruption and significant deterioration in trust are mainly to blame for what you describe than nationalism, racism, anti-intellectualism or any other left wing bugaboo.