Democracy, Current Events

Trump Will Probably Lose. Does that Mean American Democracy Works?

Most predictions markets and election forecast models predict Trump will lose. One might be inclined to say, “Ah ha! See, democracy works!”

Two problems with that:

1. HRC isn’t that great. Using the enlightened preference method, we see that HRC diverges significantly  from the policies a fully-informed public would want. Yes, she’s closer to those policy preferences than Trump is. But, still, if the American voting public were fully-informed about basic information, we’d either have someone much better than HRC, or HRC herself would be pushing a better set of ideas.

2. Suppose a dad was choosing a nanny for his children. He narrows it down to two candidates, whom he’s still interviewing. One of them is mediocre. The other appears to be grossly incompetent, frequently says horrible things, has a terrible record of dishonesty, appears to be abusive, and has terrible ideas for raising children. Right now, the dad admits he’s got about a 55% chance of picking the better nanny over the worse one. You probably wouldn’t conclude that the dad is doing a good job and “works”. You’d conclude that even though he’s more likely than not to pick the better of the two finalists, the facts that A) the second finalist is obviously terrible, and B) he’s still giving serious consideration to this finalist, shows that there’s something seriously wrong with the dad. Even if he ends up picking the better candidate, there’s still something wrong with him. “In the end, I decided to pick the mediocre nanny over the child-abuser,” isn’t a display of competence.

Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan
  • JW Ogden

    Hillary Backed 9 of the Last 7 U.S. Military Interventions

    Add that she is a drug warrior. She is awful maybe just a little less bad than Trump.

    • LLC

      9 out of 7? That’s pretty impressive — even if one doesn’t ‘get’ the ‘new math’. Our system, for better or worse, has evolved to render third party candidates little more than spoilers in, what is for this political season, an astonishing race to the bottom.

  • stevenjohnson2

    “Suppose a dad was choosing a nanny for his children. He narrows it down to two candidates…” Always, always beware of philosophers doing thought experiments and analogies.

    The dad cannot serve as a placeholder for abstract democracy, because there is no restriction to just two candidates in the abstract. Nor is there a requirement in abstract democracy for an imperial presidency to act as sales manager for the owners. To even have a chance of being relevant, the “dad” has to stand in for the population at large.

    But then, where does this “He narrows it down to two candidates…” come from? The system as currently constituted here and now de facto (partly de jure!) restricts choices to two candidates. And the narrowing down process takes place with only a limited portion of the population. In practical terms, what people euphemistically call serious candidacies undergo a winnowing process from large donors, monopolistic media and a professional political class of officeholders and professional consultants. Voting, even partisan voting tends to come fairly late in the process.

  • LLC

    I just don’t think the analogy drawn in the thought experiment holds up well enough to be of value. Our nanny-seeking father is under no legal obligation to choose by a certain date and he has virtually unlimited sources from which to draw candidates. He has no vetting process outside his control analogous to the party system and the media. He can entertain as many candidates as he wishes, without artificial time constraints. Maybe there’s a better analogy to illustrate what I think you’re trying to say?

    • Jason Brennan

      That to me sounds like an explanation rather than an objection. That’s part of why the system sucks.

      • A. Alexander Minsky

        Of course, as an epistocrat you would probably believe that those knowledgeable about child rearing, early childhood development, and early childhood curriculum development and implementation should get to make the decision in place of the father. Heck, you might even be right. I do ,however, have a hard time reconciling libertarianism and epistocracy.

        • HermanStone

          I can’t tell if your post is serious. It would be hard to read Jason’s work and honestly come away with this assessment of his views.

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            I greatly enjoy Jason Brennan, and respect him as an original and challenging thinker. Nonetheless, there does seem to be an inherent tension between his self-designation as a libertarian, and his advocacy of epistocracy (at least in the political realm). Is this tension something I am imagining?

          • HermanStone

            One way to look at it is that the tension is no worse and no better for a libertarian democrat than for a libertarian epistocrat. Both favor liberty among other things, and both favor particular forms of government. But neither is committed to supporting everything done in the name of that sort of government. The (small “d”) democrat may favor democracy because he thinks it leads to liberty, ditto for the epistocrat.

            For instance, would you write, “Of course, as a democrat you would probably believe that the masses should get to make the decision in place of the father. Heck, you might even be right. I do, however, have a hard time reconciling libertarianism and democracy.” You might write that, and I think the argument would be just as strong, or just as weak.

            Another point, I think it’s a mistake to read Jason as saying that the wise should rule the unwise. He doesn’t actually have to take a stance on that. He merely has to show that the ignorant, misinformed, and irrational should NOT rule, which is a weaker claim. I read him as saying that IF anyone is to rule, there’s a good chance the best option is a reasonably large and diverse group of smart people. Or something like that.

  • Except the dad didn’t get to pick these two nannies, all of the other dad’s in the country did (well, about 7%), and he only was allowed to pick one nanny out of a bunch of nannies in different sub-dad groups. He actually picked one nanny from another group, but all the other dad’s are telling him that he can only pick these two. Maybe he would say fuck this I don’t even need a nanny I’ll parent myself.

    • HermanStone

      The word “except” makes this sound like you’re disagreeing with the post, but what you say is part of the point Jason is making.

      • I’m concurring

        • HermanStone


  • Rob Gressis

    Do you have a list of the policies voter would favor if we used the enlightened preference method? Is it in Caplan’s book or something?

  • Pajser

    Some measure of distance between political ideas is needed. If all political ideas are taken into consideration, even if only ideas that were strong enough that societies that tried to actualize them existed in history, including feudal, slave-owner, racist, genocidal, human sacrificing, fascist, theocracies with inquisitions, suicidal cults, eugenics, castes, Leninism, anarcho-communism, I’d guess that if Brennan, is perfectly, 100% right, Trump is on 80% and Hillary on 81% of that. Pinochet would be mediocre. Stalin would be child molester. For most of the voters, I would guess Trump or Clinton are 95% of their ideal president.

    • LLC

      I don’t think anywhere near ‘most’ of the people think that either candidate are anywhere near 95% of their ideal, much less both. This is an astonishing race to the bottom between two hugely unpopular candidates that will, I believe, go down in history as a nadir in American politics.

      • Pajser

        You are right, most of the voters do not think they are close to political candidates. I think they are close and that people exaggerate difference in their position and actual politicians, because these differences are actually controversial and discussed – while they do not think about large body of common ideas that gradually became almost consensual.

  • M S

    It would probably be helpful to put at least some sort of conceptual boundary on the word “works” if we are to actually try to evaluate your claim. If you claim that democracy doesn’t work because it doesn’t choose the ideal candidate for the job (whatever that means), that’s only true to the extent that democracy’s role in society is to ensure that the ideal candidate gets the job. If it’s not, or if there are lots of other things that democracy is supposed to be doing as well, then who cares?

  • King Goat

    Don’t we have these two less than ideal candidates because of a process where a small number of voters, namely primary and caucus voters, choose the major party candidates that everyone else has to choose from? I’d bet that those primary voters are, on average, better educated and more knowledgable than the average general election voter. Isn’t that a blow to epistocracy there?

  • LLC

    I remember reading a science fiction story in the late fifties or early sixties (dating myself) in which the premise was that there were no elections at all. We would all be in ‘the computer’, and the computer would randomly select officials from qualified groups based on their background and temperament. When you were selected to serve, you served. I’ve thought a lot about that story this political season.

    • AP²

      Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth? Most of the book was about other themes, but it did contain this allusion:

      “For the last century, almost all top political appointments [on the
      planet Earth] had been made by random computer selection from the pool
      of individuals who had the necessary qualifications. It had taken the
      human race several thousand years to realize that there were some jobs
      that should never be given to the people who volunteered for them,
      especially if they showed too much enthusiasm. As one shrewed political
      commentator had remarked: “We want a President who has to be carried
      screaming and kicking into the White House — but will then do the best
      job he possibly can, so that he’ll get time off for good behavior.”

      • LLC

        Thanks. I’d given up hope of pinning in down.

  • Mark Rothschild

    Yes, democracy is “working” as expected. The candidate supported by the establishment plutocracy will (probably) win. The deep problems of our society are the result of our democracy and only a fantasist would claim they are in spite of it.

  • SnarketinaJones

    So the American public is a child?