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.
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 suck. Markets 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.)