The Expressive Meaning of Democracy (Plus: Why Are Philosophers so Enamored of Semiotic Arguments?)

In chapter 5 of Against Democracy, I attack “semiotic” or expressive arguments for democracy. These arguments try to prove that democracy is intrinsically just, or epistocracy is intrinsically unjust, because of what the equal right to vote communicates.

What Does Democracy “Express”?

Suppose I believe that in some sense every person’s life is worth as much as any others. Or suppose I believe that a just political system ought to treat every citizen as if her life and interests were equally important; a government ought not favor some over others.

There is no obvious logical entailment from these general commitments to equality to a commitment to democracy or representative government of any form. On its face, it looks like open, empirical question which political system best promotes these kinds of equality. It could turn out that epistocracy ends up being smarter than democracy, and for that reason, epistocracy does a better job promoting equal outcomes. So, for instance, American voters tend to be ignorant of the effects of the drug war on minorities, about how and why crime rates are falling, and on how being “tough on crime” tends to cause disproportionate harm to minorities. An epistocracy might alleviate this problem, because epistocratic voters are more likely to know that American crime and drug policies are counterproductive. [This isn’t speculation, by the way. That’s what the evidence shows.]

In an ideal, properly functioning democracy, every citizen has equal fundamental political power. So, democracy is egalitarian in that way. One might assert that in virtue of imbuing everyone with equal voting rights, democracy expresses the idea that every person is equal. But even if so, we have to ask, why think there is any moral require to express equality that way?

There are lots of ways to express that everyone is equal. Societies could put equality signs on their flags. They could put statues of equality in their port cities. They could have a national equality day in which every school child talks about equality. Or, they could even put their money where their mouths are, and commit to choosing whatever form of government turns out, as a matter of fact, to produce properly equitable results (even if that form of government turns out to be epistocratic).

The Contingency of What Democracy Expresses

As a matter of fact, most human beings tend to associate political power with a kind of majesty. They tend to think that a person’s fundamental moral standing is expressed through their political standing, and vice versa. Nation-states are like clubs, and people tend to treat the rights to vote and run for office as signifying full membership in the national club. Most people believe that citizens who lack these rights are like junior members of the national club. When people lack the political liberties, most people look down upon them. Those who lack the right to vote might then feel humiliated by their lesser status. And so, it seems plausible that the social bases of self-respect really do depend upon equal political power. But perhaps that is just a contingent feature of how we Western liberal democrats happen to think.

To illustrate why, imagine that in our culture, or in the human race in general, we tended to associate being given a red scarf by one’s government as a mark of membership and status. Suppose it were commonplace in every major country that upon turning 18, you receive a red scarf from your government, which marks you as an equal and full member of society. You aren’t fully in your national club until you get your government-issued red scarf at age 18.

Now, suppose the government gives red scarves to everyone, except homosexuals. Homosexuals would be upset—they would claim that the government’s refusal to grant them red scarves shows that homosexuals are considered second-class, inferior people. The government’s behavior would tend to induce people (including homosexuals themselves) to regard homosexuals as having low status and being less valuable. Homosexuals and their sympathetic allies would have reason to take to the streets and demand that homosexuals be granted scarves. Given how everyone thinks about red scarves, it in some sense becomes crucial to have one.

However, at the same time, we can say, “There’s no deep reason to attach status and standing to red scarf ownership. Human dignity doesn’t actually depend upon scarves. It’s just a silly, contingent psychological or cultural fact that people think this way. They needn’t think this way.” The red scarves are valuable only as a result of a social construction, and an odd one at that. In the absence of that social convention, they would lack the value they have.

Perhaps we can say the same thing about the political liberties and about associating moral standing with political power. (The political liberties are, after all, rights to political power.) Perhaps there is no intrinsic or essential connection between one’s fundamental status and political power. Perhaps it’s merely a contingent psychological or cultural fact that people tend to associate human dignity with the right to vote.

Bad Conventions Should Be Changed

Now, suppose we discovered something new about red scarves. Suppose it turned out that all forms of red dye were toxic, and so the practice of giving everyone a red scarf at age 18 had a tendency to shorten lives, cause serious illness, and cause crime (as the dyes reduced people’s inhibitions or whatnot.) If we discovered that, the right thing to do would be to stop using red scarves as a marker of membership, and to stop distributing them to everyone at age 18.

In other words, if we discovered that certain cultural conventions and semiotic codes are harmful, we should stop using them or revise them. In the same way, when the Foré tribe of Papa New Guinea discovered that their practice of showing respect by eating their dead spread the fatal disease kuru, they gave up the practice and replaced it with something else.

So, suppose for the sake of argument that it turns out that universal equal suffrage performs worse than epistocracy. Suppose it leads to harmful government–more war, worse welfare policies, worse policing, worse drug policies, more poverty, etc. In that case, just as the Foré modified the symbolic meaning of eating the dead, so we would have presumptive grounds to change the meaning we assign to the right to vote. We’d have presumptive grounds to stop treating the right to vote as a magical marker of full citizenship, and instead treat it as nothing more significant than a plumbing license.

Semiotic Essentialism

Democratic theorists who rely on semiotic arguments (such as Estlund, Rawls, Christiano, and Anderson, among others) are caught in a dilemma.

Assume for the sake of argument epistocracy performs significantly better, producing more substantively just outcomes. They say nevertheless we must not have epistocracy because of what it expresses.

Now ask: Is what democracy expresses merely a contingent code, a mere social construction, a feature of how we happen to think, of meaning we impute and project rather than find? If so, then we should judge our semiotic codes by their consequences. In this case, the semiotic code is defective, and we should change it. Failure to do so would be immoral, just as it would be immoral for the Foré to stick to their code and to continue eating the dead.

Or is it essential to democracy that it expresses the right attitudes? To show that, one would need to prove it’s written in to the fabric of the universe that democracy expresses the right things or epistocracy expresses the wrong things. As I review in the book, the arguments that try to establish this conclusion are not impressive. But, even if the arguments did go through, it’s not obvious that this would vindicate democracy. Suppose democracy performs much worse than epistocracy, but democracy nevertheless expresses equality while epistocracy involves making “invidious comparisons” or whatnot. All things considered, it might still be better to have epistocracy.

Why Do Philosophers Love Semiotic Arguments?

If there’s a consistent theme in my work, it’s that symbolic arguments for policy suckMarkets without Limits was a big attack on symbolic arguments against life-saving markets, and Against Democracy is a big attack on symbolic arguments against life-saving forms of government.

Why are philosophers so impressed with symbolic arguments? Here’s some speculation: Political philosophers want to be able to provide conclusive defenses of their favored regimes and policies. But most professional political philosophers haven’t taken any social science classes since they were first year undergraduates. They don’t read, and don’t want to read, AER or APSR. They want to be about to defend their favored regimes and policies using the tools of philosophy alone. To do so, they need to come up with deontological arguments that try to show that certain regimes and policies are essentially just or unjust, regardless of their consequences. (After all, discovering their probably consequences requires engagement with the social sciences and the contingent facts.)

  • Jeff Sylvester

    One thought I had while reading your book (not completely done with it, but past this chapter), was what if the “value” of democracy is not in the decisions that are made, but that the illusion of power and control over policies it gives to people provides greater buy in? That is, people are more willing to fall in line and get along if they believe they were part of the decision than if they decision was foisted on them against their will.

    Not really a semiotic argument, but it does come from a similar place- that the value comes from people being equally valued and contributing to the process.

    • Jason Brennan

      Yes, that’s an important consequentialist argument in favor of democracy.

      1. Empirical claim: Democracies enjoy greater perceived legitimacy.
      2. Empirical claim: Epistocracies will lack perceived legitimacy.
      3. Empirical claim: As a result of 1+2, democracies will be significantly more stable and will enjoy overall better consequences than epistocracies.
      4. Moral claim: If so, then democracy is more just than epistocracy.
      5. Therefore democracy is more just than epistocracy

      • j_m_h

        Does 3 really follow from 1 & 2? I agree it would be an empirical question to look at but we seem to be going from perception and acceptance that what we get is better then actually showing what democracy produced was better than epistocracy. I see where we might get significantly more stable from ! & 2 which might lead to 4 so maybe it doesn’t matter.

        • Jeff Sylvester

          The perception is what causes the benefit. So I’d think it naturally flows in this aspect. If people are more willing to get along, even though the basis for that willingness is a sham, then a better outcome is produced.

          Not sure how “moral” it is. I guess if the ends justify the means. But it’s kind of a depressing thought.

          I see every day that the power of buy in is enormous. People will increase their contributions way more if they believe they have control over their own destinies. It’s not that people deserve to be on the team, but when they perceive they are they do better things.

          I guess you could boil this down to “we make crappy decisions, but our follow through is amazing”. You’d think we could do better.

  • IllyC

    Does Brennan “I am so smart! I type that! I am smarter than economists! They only study factories! I figure out marginal value through analogy! Let’s imagine a mismanaged movie theater, where no one wants to know what show times earn what…. ” publish a bunch of repetitive posts in order to bury the posts of his colleagues on this blog? What else explains the rash of repeat posts on top of posts from the other bloggers?
    Let social scientists engage with philosophers themselves. Oh, wait, this is already done over at Crooked Timber. Just not anywhere on this blog, where those doing the social science are superfluous, kept out of sight. Why would that be? Same reason all the posts from other bloggers get buried.

    • King Goat

      Meh, I disagree with him here, but I can’t buy these faults. There’s lots of possible non-nefarious reasons why Brennan might be posting more than his colleagues (he has a book out, maybe he likes it more, maybe he has less preps this semester). And if you read him regularly he often cites to social science research, something quite a few philosophers do far less.

    • Jason Brennan

      You are a bad person and will die alone.

  • King Goat

    “There is no obvious logical entailment from these general commitments to equality to a commitment to democracy or representative government of any form.”

    There’s no obvious logical entailment from the idea that is everyone is politically equal to,,,actually then giving everyone an equal say?

    “Guys, we’re all stranded on this island. Now, there’s no question we’re all politically equal as the Founders said, but there’s also no question that if I give you lunkheads an equal say you’ll just muck everything up, so how about I have all the say? Don’t worry, I’m committed to taking all of your interests equal to mine as I rule us.”

    ‘There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.’

    • Jason Brennan

      There’s no commitment from the claim that people’s live are of equal value and worthy of equal respect to claim that they should have equal voting rights.

      I thought that was obvious but I forgot you like to come on here, misread stuff on purpose, and then criticize it.

      • King Goat

        To be sure, the line between a strawman and a reductio ad absurdum can be a fine one. Maybe you’d like to explain why my characterization of your argument in, say, my marriage/household example falls into the former rather than the latter? Most people think that spouses are of equal value and worthy of equal respect in a healthy marriage/household, but according to you there flows no commitment from that claim that each spouse should have an equal (or maybe any) say in household decisions. After all, one of them might be much more knowledgeable about these matters. As I take it, and I’m happy to be corrected if wrong, you’re not even arguing something like that it would be a good idea for one spouse to think that since the other spouse is more knowledgeable about these matters, it might be a good idea for the first spouse to defer her rightful say to the second. Rather you seem to be saying that the rightful say belongs in the more knowledgeable partner because they’d more likely exercise it in ways beneficial to both’s equal interests.

        So really my marriage analogy might not be the most apt, because consent is not important in your plan. Instead maybe one like this would be: imagine a government saying that in lieu of something like social security, groups of ten neighbors will be identified and each of the ten will have to put their life savings into a group investment account, which will then be managed by one of the neighbors, the neighbor who scores the highest on a test of investment knowledge and acumen, and he has to manage the account with a fiduciary duty to maximize the money of everyone and take each person’s interest into equal consideration. Even though each person has to put in an equal share (just like in government everyone is equally bound by laws made and equally obligated to contribute to it’s maintenance), they’re not warranted an equal say in the management of the fund.

        • Jakob Mainz

          I guess the household analogy fails, since the decisions made in the household only affects the husband and wife, while a decision in a democracy might affect millions of people.

          • King Goat

            In both cases, for the good of the unit in question, some in the unit are supposed to defer decision making power to others in the unit on the grounds the latter are better at representing everyone in the unit. The spouse that gives up their say is in the same position as the citizens that do the same, of course there’s more of the latter because polities are bigger than households numerically. They’re not bigger relatively though.

  • Taylor

    I was recently listening to a Podcast on Econtalk. And in the South, the intellectuals were able to create some very horrible justifications for slavery and it became normal for everyone to support it. In the hypothetical case of an Epistocracy, the epistocracy would likely continue to vote for Slavery. Is it not possible that the Epistocrats would use their power unfairly to oppress their lesser knowledgeable citizens, which their lesser knowledgeable citizens would be unable to prevent due to being prevented to vote.

    I don’t know how plausible the scenario is, but I worry strongly about these Epistocrats potentially abusing their power.

    • Jeff Sylvester

      I believe Brennan’s idea is that the number of Epistocrats would be VERY large which would tend to limit their abuse of power. It’s very different to be ruled by a handful of so-called “wise’ people vs thousands of them. In the latter case, they will tend to think of what is genuinely good for the nation, rather than only what benefits them. Or this is what Brennan suggests in his book.

  • justhinkin

    The question I have regarding epistocracy is why we would believe the views of putative “knowers” represent anything but a system of power grounded in self interest of the knowers. There have always been epistocratic systems, whether we call them “theocracies” , “hereditary monarchies”, or “oligarchies”. They would always believe they are entitled to choose. Democracy has many flaws, but does represent a form of accountability which cannot be reproduced by groups of epistocrats. We will always have both leaders and lead, and the key is dialogue between them to see what can be improved.