Rights Theory, Democracy

Hurting Low-Information Voters’ Wittle Feelings

Opinion-haver Claire Lehmann calls me out for calling low-information voters low-information:

A pernicious term used for those who voted for Trump and Brexit is the “low information voter”. Most likely uneducated, the low information voter doesn’t know much about “the issues”. He votes according to his gut feeling. He sabotages delicate democratic systems with the blunt exercise of his democratic rights.

Bob Geldof calls Brexit voters the “army of stupid”. US philosopher Jason Brennan describes Trump voters as “ignorant, irrational, misinformed, nationalists.”

It’s hard to see what the problem is. It’s just science. We have 65 years of data showing that most voters know almost nothing about politics. A few know quite a bit. Many know less than nothing.

Lehmann has some good worries about high-information voters:

Depending on how you spin it, however, low information people might also be less prone to rationalization and high information people might be more vulnerable to ad hoc hypothesizing. Being high in intelligence or a need for cognition does not automatically indicate that one is high in rationality. Nor does it tell us much about a person’s practical wisdom.

But this isn’t a critique of Ilya Somin or me. For all I know, she learned these points by reading our books. After all, in Against Democracy, I argued high-information citizens are mostly hooligans, (My guess is that Lehmann is a hooligan–she has high information, but she straw mans the people she argues against.)

Does she have an actual criticism? Here’s the most telling bit:

In Brennan’s epistocratic paradise, a twenty-three year old who has recently graduated with a degree in political science and who has passed a civics exam would be more entitled to vote than the Army veteran returning from service in Afghanistan. People with PhDs who call themselves “social scientists” and who use taxpayer funds to write papers on pilates being the embodiment of whiteness and the importance of understanding icebergs from a feminist perspective would have more authority to vote than the common taxpayers who pay their wage.

I think this illustrates what gets Lehmann’s goat. Perhaps Lehmann views the right to vote as a kind of honorific. And she’s right that it is. In most modern societies, people use the right to vote as a kind of public affirmation of who matters and who doesn’t. We load suffrage with all sorts of expressive value. Getting the right to vote is like getting a gold star and a pat on the back. Being denied suffrage is like getting a big fat middle finger in your face. That’s why it seems so sinister to say that an ignorant army vet shouldn’t get the right to vote even though he served in Afghanistan.

But–as I argue in Against Democracy and elsewhere–the reason the rest of you people load up the right to vote with all this symbolic majesty is that you are, to a significant extent, vicious and morally defective. See chapter 5. No mention from Lehmann of my argument there. My guess is she knows her audience won’t know better.

Let’s be clear: Part of my mission is to downgrade the status we attach to politics. I argue for elitism about politics in the same way I argue for elitism about plumbing. The average person knows jack shit about plumbing, but that doesn’t make him an inferior person. Still, the average person’s opinions on plumbing aren’t worth much more than the stuff we flush down the pipes. Same goes for the average person’s opinions on trade policy, immigration policy, and so on. To have a reasonable point of view requires knowledge of particular relevant facts (let alone social scientific knowledge), but we have 65 years of data showing most people lack awareness or are uninformed about even the most basic relevant facts. “It hurts my feelings when you say that!” Sorry, precious, but I ain’t your mommy.

Now perhaps an army vet coming back from Afghanistan is a hero. Let’s suppose he is. His experiences in Afghanistan no doubt taught him many things, but it’s not like they magically imbue him with an understanding of comparative advantage or allow him to estimate the deadweight loss of immigration restrictions. I’ve been in a lot of fistfights (I think I have a 21-1 record, thank you), if not gunfights, and done a lot of camping. I don’t recall learning a single thing from those activities that would help me vote better. Some soldiers serve our country–and, I’d add, so do nurses, motorcycle mechanics, teachers, coffee makers, daycare workers, and hot wings restauranteurs--but we should honor them for the service they did, not pretend they do us a service by voting out of ignorance or misinformation.

Lehmann spends a lot of time complaining about crackpot academic work. So do I! But that’s irrelevant to my thesis, since it’s not like I argued that only and all academics should be allowed to vote. Here’s a tip for Lehmann: When you argue against a person, argue against what they think. But, again, she probably knows better, but knows her readers won’t know better.

On Lehmann’s behalf, I admit there is something indeed mean about saying low-information voters are low-information. As Ruth Sample says, there’s no polite way to say that. But sometimes you have to say impolite things. Here’s a relevant passage from a draft of chapter 5:

To illustrate: my surgeon brother-in-law David correctly believes that he has superior medical judgment to most people. It is not morally wrong for him to have this belief. But that does not mean he should walk around Target, telling everyone meets that he has better medical judgment than they do. This would express arrogance or contempt.

However, there are times when something important is at stake. In such cases, it can become permissible or even mandatory that one publicly judge and express who is superior to others along some dimension. Indeed, democrats seem to agree—most seem to think that when we’re voting for elected officials, we’re supposed to look for the better candidates, those better fit to lead.

For instance, if someone starts choking in front of David during his Target shopping trip, he should not be modest. Someone’s life is at stake. He should declare that he is a doctor—thus expressing that he has superior medical judgment to others and should be charged with helping the choking customer.

Suppose bystander Bob, who has no medical training, says, “Hey, Doctor David, I want to help the choking person too! It’s disrespectful of you to insist you help him. You and I are equals. We should flip a coin to determine who will help. Otherwise you’re hurting my feelings.” In this scenario, Bob acts badly. David should take charge, and Bob should get over himself. Even if Bob sincerely believed he and David are equals, Bob is negligent in holding this belief, and shouldn’t act upon it.

It can be immoral or disrespectful under some conditions to express the view that some have better judgment than others, but in other conditions, it can be permissible or even mandatory. Let us apply this to a political example. Suppose an evil demon said, “I will cast a spell condemning all of you to lower quality government—and thus more unjust wars, bad economic policies that harm the poor, more bigotry, and more poverty and suffering—unless you do a moderately decent job identifying which citizens tend to have better political judgment from others.” In this case, under the demon’s threat, we would have good reason to try to distinguish the more from the less competent. If people feel insulted, it is just too bad, and they need to grow up. The point of distinguishing the more from the less competent is not to insult the incompetent, but to save us from the bad government the evil demon will inflict upon us.

Yet this is more or less the situation epistocrats claim we are in, except that in the real world, the evil demon is democracy.


  • King Goat

    I don’t think the argument is about an honorific or affirmation, but more about what someone deserves. The person that puts money or time into a venture deserves a say is the idea I think.

    And as to voting being an affirmation of who matters and who doesn’t, that doesn’t sound right- the group denied the vote that comes to most people’s minds immediately-children- are hardly treated as if they ‘didn’t matter.’

    • KevinDC

      I don’t think the issue of what one deserves undercuts what Brennan is saying here. If you know next to nothing about X, or are wildly misinformed about basic facts regarding X, then your opinion about X doesn’t deserve to be given weight, especially when giving weight to that opinion will have an impact on other people. This seems to be valid whether X is medical advice, designing a bridge, or casting a vote. At the very least we’d need an argument about why voting specifically should be exempt from the common sense idea that uninformed opinions deserve less weight than well informed ones.

      • King Goat

        I think we might be talking about two different senses of deserve. If you and I put in equal capital and effort in starting a company, you might say you ‘deserve’ a (equal?) say in company decisions *because* of your inputs. That would be different than saying one of us should have more (or only?) say because they know more about business matters and therefore their views on such matters ‘deserve’ more weight. Perhaps what this means is that there are senses of ‘deserve’ that don’t carry what seem to be the utilitarian assumptions of ‘are more likely to be ‘better for everyone overall.’

        Btw-I didn’t mean that the idea of ‘deserve’ does undercut Brennan’s ideas here, just that I think the argument he’s criticizing is perhaps better understood as being about what people deserve rather than something like an honorific or ‘affirming who matter and who don’t.’

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      • Lacunaria

        What are the goals of government that corresponds to X? What does X entail? How do you test expertise in X? How will you know once you’ve accomplished X?

    • Jameson Graber

      I like your point here, and it would be worth experimenting with the analogy to multiple owners of a company. Just because one of those owners is pretty sure his judgment is better for the advancement of the company, does that mean he would be justified in (somehow) denying his partners a say? Pretty tricky.

    • stevenjohnson2

      I am not so sure that children are always treated as if they matter. And yes, part of that I think is because they don’t vote.

  • urstoff

    Salty Brennan is best Brennan

  • Sonata Green

    Voting isn’t about prestige, it’s about power. Historically, when a class of people is systematically excluded from the process of government, the government tends to abuse them. Resisting disenfranchisement is completely rational even if one knows oneself to have inferior judgment.

    The theory of epistocracy is an interesting one, but I don’t see how it can survive Goodhart’s law; and even if it did, I don’t see how it could survive the resulting moral hazard. High-information voters are not enlightened Lockean rational philosopher-kings, they’re messy biased human beings like everyone else but with some extra data. Unless you can somehow cleanly separate values from beliefs a la Robin Hanson, and maybe even then, can you seriously expect that dividing people – which is to say humans, which is to say apes – into a sets-public-policy caste and a has-no-say-in-public-policy caste will have no ill effects?

    If you’re posting an article on this blog, then you must be a libertarian, which means you know that power matters. You compare policy-setting to plumbing or medicine – fine. But I, neither a doctor nor a plumber, should and must have the authority to judge whether my doctor or plumber are doing a good job, and to fire them and replace them with another, or even to try to do the job myself. I must have this power even if I will forseeably misuse it. Because, so long as the doctors and plumbers and the licensing boards that approve them are human beings, the alternative will always turn out to be worse.

    • urstoff

      Thus, a strong constitutional republic and a revolution ever few centuries.

      • Adam Bowers

        Which one are we closer to?

  • JaziZilber

    I think Claire has several arguments here:

    1) Sometimes, “low information voters” isn’t the technical intellectual definition Jason uses. But rather an umbrella term for “anyone voting the the bad guys”
    For some people just being republican. Or – worse – voting for Trump automatically defines you as “low info”. Which makes it a political rather than intellectual term.

    Obviously, not all Trump/brexit voters were low information folks. Even though they probably had a higher percentage.

    2) Marginal issues.
    The “23 year old gender studies graduate” is a marginal case of “information voter” this guy might be as clueless about policy and any pub goer.
    Yet, have a degree definitely signals *on average* better qualities.

    3) average vs. absolute.
    Claire is right that “high information” folks tend to have stupid opinions on some issues.
    Many “high” folks told us the dumb thing that “fences do not work”

    High info voters will have some mistakes. But on balance, their opinions will be more worthwhile.

    4) Morality does not map into high vs low information as readily.
    Where information is of lower criticality, is on moral and social issues.
    High information folks will be sharper on Brexit and the economy.
    But on the social norms of immigration, on morality of “we are all the same people”. No
    Morality isn’t as definitely ruled by calculations etc.

    And the high information class might simply have its own morality criteria, which are not elevated that much for their stronger IQ

  • SexyIsntSexist

    So most people vote on the issues which affect them directly and don’t vote on the issues which benefit elites? That is actually highly rational.

  • SexyIsntSexist

    lol. Yes, we all need to look out for those tyrannical plumbers.

    “the reason the rest of you people load up the right to vote with all this symbolic majesty is that you are, to a significant extent, vicious and morally defective.”

    This is the definition of vicious and morally defective. How up your own arse do you have to be not to know people (including you) vote in your own interests.

    • Lacunaria

      I’m not sure, but Brennan might be calling common uses of government (and thus our vote) to coerce as “vicious and morally defective”. This would go along with the intent of his following paragraph to “downgrade the status we attach to politics”.

      The problem is that we should disempower the government FIRST and THEN the status of voting will naturally decrease, rather than disenfranchising people first.

      Brennan’s attempts to diminish the majesty of an all-powerful, coercive entity which we have even minuscule influence over by voting strikes me as backwards and ill-conceived.

  • SexyIsntSexist

    “Repressive ideologies naturally provoke conservative backlashes.

    Even now we see the liberal elites, who are themselves the current versions of the Communist elite, both in their sheltered upmarket lifestyle and their disdain for the masses, who cannot seem to comprehend why no one is willing to hear their failed policies and diktat.”


  • Uriel Alexis Farizeli Fiori

    Jason, if we’re ditching universal suffrage, why not go straight to neocameralism (I’m sure you heard of it) and patchwork-style international relations?

  • j_m_h

    I continue to find these discussions of Jason’s elitist approach to voting simply misplaced. Voters do not vote on specific policies such that the type of knowledge it’s claimed they must know just doesn’t apply. Voters are voting on general principles about how they think we all need to relate to one another within the society and legal system — it’s the politicians and talking heads that then cast the discussion into more specific and narrow scope.
    Moreover, the results we get in terms of the representatives (who seldom honor their promises, or simply cannot given the joint production nature of the legislative process) then always pass through the filter of the existing, non-elected policy experts who craft the particular implementation of those general principles the voters expressed their view about.
    It’s not at all clear that we get a better government or better policies if we require the voter be the informed policy experts that set about implementing the will of the people expresses as their general principles (just to pick a current topic — immigration. The voting is not really about building any walls but about the idea that a society and it’s government policies should really be about that societies citizens and not about the rest of the world’s population for the most part. The wall is simply a specific implementation of that general principle. Very loosely speaking.)
    If one understands how the idea that central planning in economics is a bad idea then they should see how it’s not going to work in our political institutions either. And lets not kid ourselves here. That is essentially what the argument (not clear that Brenan quite makes it) only the well informed should be voting comes down to.

  • A. Alexander Minsky

    Brennan ,as always, makes some good points and provokes some hard thinking. However, reading his article I am reminded of a speech the paleoconservative John Derbyshire gave to the H.L. Mencken Club a few years back. Derbyshire argued there are two groups we don’t want voting: The very dumb and the very smart. The dumb shouldn’t vote because they obviously can’t comprehend the issues. The exceptionally intelligent are dangerous in the voting booth because these are the people who are susceptible to grand ideological schemes and blueprints. The folks who we want voting are those who are capable of pursuing a career and raising a family, while not being interested enough in abstract ideas so as to vote in folks with grandiose plans for social engineering.

    At the very least an arresting argument.

    • Lacunaria

      But Derbyshire makes the same mistake of focusing on intelligence when the issue is actually simply the moral for limited government and against “grandiose plans for social engineering”.

  • Olmy Olm

    Well, there is one who is taking up your offer and is raising money for Your Highness to take your golden time and review his “crackpot” book. 320 dollars raised, 680 more to go.


  • Eelco Hoogendoorn

    Indeed the soldier knows nothing about trade policy; nor does the economist know a whole lot about what more or less boots on the grounds implies in the real world. By which I dont mean to say either of them voting is a good thing; but I mean that more as a general condemnation of the implicit social contract.

  • stevenjohnson2

    Brennan has never struck me as a deep enough thinker to be worth serious investigation. Thus I’m a little uncertain as to what’s going on with this kerfuffle. I suspect Brennan is anti-Trump because he’s a low-information voter fixated on free trade as part of his magical free market panacea. But being Brennan he accuses Trump voters of being low information for being economic nationalists. Assuming for a moment that I’ve guessed right…

    Protective tariffs and industrial policy work differently in countries with a high wage economy providing a healthy domestic market, than in a highly stratified society with a weak domestic market that needs to be supplemented by foreign purchasers…while neither tariffs nor industrial policy are directly relevant to raw materials exports/imports, which tend to be volatile markets in the short run but more like geography in the long run. The thing is of course, it’s the supposedly high-information voters who’ve been systematically misinforming, at least as well as they can, supposedly low-information voters about how well they’re doing, that is, strenuously denying the US isn’t an increasingly stratified society where decreasing share in national income is shrinking the market. I’m not sure the supposedly high-information voters can even admit this is an obstacle to extensive economic growth at all.

    Dropping the assumption that I’ve guessed Brennan’s particular beef with Trumpists correctly (which is whozis’ problem with Brennan,) there is still the way that low-information and high-information are ideologically defined. Further, there is the difficulty that low-information voters are systematically misinformed by supposedly high-information voters. Apart from the difficulty of distinguishing how much knowledge counts as adequate from the perspective of a political professional (practical or academic,) the thing is, why should anyone follow closely a process in which they have no influence, regardless of how much at stake in the long run? Wealthier people are indeed informed about the details of a process they are motivated to investigate by the prospect of personal monetary gain. Many people like to follow baseball, but most cannot talk “inside baseball” with any great success. Not so for the players and the owners.

    Brennan’s general notion of Vulcans is dubious in the extreme, relying on a bizarre notion of science as some sort of skepticism. It is philosophically incoherent to present science as somehow lacking in strong and fixed opinions, inasmuch as well-established and long known facts are a species of said strong and fixed opinions. A supposedly scientific approach without facts is good philosophy, but bad science. And politics is frequently a business where whole classes or nations of people get hurt. The insistence that being able to take the other side is morally obtuse.

    As to the question of whether it’s desirable to call low-information voters low-information voters? Well, I’m pretty sure that on economics, no matter what Brennan thinks, he’s extremely misinformed. Did it help to call him low-information?

    • jdkolassa

      “Brennan has never struck me as a deep enough thinker to be worth serious investigation.”

      Philosophy professor at Georgetown University vs. some random dork on the Internet.

      Which one is a deeper thinker, I wonder?

      • stevenjohnson2

        Machiavelli, Hume, Spinoza, Ibn Khaldun, maybe Locke, Mill, Algernon Sidney, “Cato” of Cato’s Letters…just to name some deeper thinkers close to hand.

        Of course everyone with a lick of sense knows the commenters aren’t the competition to the professors doing PR (politely, outreach) on the internet, but other professors doing the same, and all their predecessors in print.

  • Bill Othon

    What do Bob Geldorf and Rush Limbaugh have in common? They both use the idea of low-information voter to understand how their side has lost! So first, the biggest problem with the initial idea of the article is that low-info involves one side or the other. It is a recourse for anyone who loses.

    The Founding Fathers knew about low-info. Thus a federal government with enumerated powers where the will of the majority is bounded.

    And is a President knowledgeable about all the technical and political elements that must be dealt with? Of course not! We can’t possibly vote for someone who is high-info (and as was suggested, high-info is not necessarily high-value). So voting based on general principle and intention is the best course of action, and then watch the hell out of them so they don’t feel too comfortable…

  • Lacunaria

    Do you know who is the most ELITE, educated, and informed about policy?

    Central planners. Lobbyists. People who want to control everything in great detail. People who see market failures everywhere they look, believing that they can use force to get people to do better. People who make their living off of the complexities and “reforms” of government.

    That is the educated “elite”. And it takes a strong moral foundation (which need have little basis in the depth or duration of specific policy education) to fight that tendency to control others through government.

    If politics is first and foremost a moral problem, then Brennan’s analogies are deeply flawed. Because then the question isn’t whether a doctor or a soldier would be best at healing or fighting, the question is which goals we should accomplish through government in the first place.

    Get those moral political priorities right FIRST, and then we can discuss whether we’d be willing to leave the details up to some specific-policy-test high scorers.

    Professor Brennan, do you have a sample test for people to take to see if they would qualify as “elite” enough to lead or vote in your democracy?

  • Lacunaria

    Prof. Brennan, why do you focus on testing voters rather than testing eligible candidates?

  • sandy

    Mr. Brennan, the reason people react strongly against the idea of disenfranchising “low information” voters, is that this label is being used as a cudgel against anyone who doesn’t vote Democrat.

    Don’t want the government to engage in massive regulation, redistribution, currency control, and wage fixing? Then you’re just too “uninformed” to know that Krugman is an infallible deity and left-wing views on economics and the purpose of government are the only valid ones.

    Want to secure our borders? Then you’re just too “uninformed” to know that you should accept left-wing globalist fantasies as realistic and benevolent.

    What’s important, is for people to know the platforms of the candidates they’re voting for or against – how one evaluate those platforms, is up to each voter. And I don’t think anti-Trumpers would come off very favorablly if you measured knowledge about the candidate’s platforms. At least at my university, none of the left-wing students who love to smugly proclaim that rural Trump voters “voted against their own interest” could correctly name or guess three items from Donald Trumps’ “Contract with the American Voter“, his 100-day action plan that he released before the election.

    Going off on that tangent: I read Trumps’s plan, loved a lot of it, and could live with or didn’t feel strongly about the rest. I’d consider myself a conservative with libertarian leanings, and am kinda surprised that “real” libertarians gave zero credit to a mainstream candidate running on…

    for every new federal regulation, two existing regulations must be eliminated

    hiring freeze on all federal employees

    lift [industry] restrictions

    cancel every unconstitutional executive action

    …and instead promoted a candidate with zero chances who looked liked he was high on marijuana in every interview (Johnson), or a big-government war hawk (Clinton).

    • jdkolassa

      I think it was the part where he said we should think about bringing back internment camps, kick out all the immigrants, put Muslims on a registry, mocked a disabled reporter, got into a fight with a Gold Star family, and then bragged about grabbing women by their genitals.

      There is more to libertarianism than just economics.

      • sandy

        he said we should think about bringing back internment camps, kick out all the immigrants, put Muslims on a registry

        He didn’t actually say those things, made no indication that would suggest to a reasonable person (i.e. one not suffering from Trump Derangement Sydrome™) that he wants those things, the action plan he released after winning the election doesn’t include those things, and he couldn’t pull off those things even if he wanted to. So relax.

        mocked a disabled reporter

        No, he mocked a reported for his hypocritical and partisan actions (and being caught and then trying to write himself out of it), using the same “Oooh what am I going to do??” hand gesture that he has used various times before, on people who weren’t disabled and even on himself.

        Trump probably wasn’t even aware of the reporter’s disability at the time, nor does the hand motion in action resemble at all how the reporter moves.

        It was a classic smear campaign of Trump’s detractors, to take a specific freeze frame out of the video recording of the hand motion that happened to resemble the reporter’s disability. No better than the stupid “freeze frame of politician waving to supporters looks like Hitler salute” that exists of every politician ever.

        got into a fight with a Gold Star family, and then bragged about grabbing women by their genitals

        Unflattering, but has no real bearing on his presidential duties.

        I’ll take a crude & rude president who gets the right things done, over a slick & sophisticated one whose nominations/policies/orders would amplify everything that’s wrong with the government.

        There is more to libertarianism than just economics.

        Is there also more to it than superficial virtue/politeness/sophistication and trying to get the academic left to like you?

        • jdkolassa

          “He didn’t actually say those things”

          Yeah he did.


          At what point will people like you come back to reality and stop just making things up to justify your vote?

          “nor does the hand motion in action resemble at all how the reporter moves.”

          Riiiigggghhhttt. Is the sky pink on the planet you live?

          • sandy

            “He didn’t actually say those things”

            Yeah he did.


            A good case study. Here’s what happened:

            1) Trump says sometime in 2015 that as president he’ll consider a temporarily halt on immigration of Muslim foreigners as a counter-terrorism measure.

            2) Journalists try every dirty trick from leading question to blending different topics in one questions to try to squeeze a more radical statement out of him, but he doesn’t play along. (“Muslim registry”, “Ban Muslims” etc. are all inventions of those journalists, not Trump.)

            3) Trump’s opponents claim his plan would be unconstitutional because it discriminates based on ethnic origin or religion.

            4) Trump cites the WW2 internment camps as an extreme example of a policy that did not only discriminate based on ethnic origin, but also targeted citizens (!) and violated their rights (!!) — things that his policy doesn’t — and was still found constitutional.

            5) Journalists, bloggers and twitterers with Trump Derangement Syndrome loose it. They ignore what he actually said about the internment camps – him merely mentioning them acts like a “trigger” for them to go bersek. They let their imaginations run wild about how the terrible evil doomsday Nazi dictator Trump who only exists in their heads, would complete the sentence about the internment camps — and then pretend that that’s what actually-existing Trump said. Countless indignant think pieces, “news” articles, and tweets follow.

            …and so it comes that you probably honestly believe the lie that, as you wrote, “he said we should think about bringing back internment camps”.

            PS: Also, Trump ditched his 2015 idea of temporarily halting Muslim immigration (which I didn’t agree with), long before the election — and replaced it with a promise to temporarily halt immigration from certain countries (which I consider tenable). And from the looks of it, he’s keeping that promise and not doing any of the crazy things you accuse him of wanting.

  • martinbrock

    You accuse Lehmann of a straw man argument and then launch a straw man argument at her. Where does she say a word about hurting anyone’s feelings?

    People with PhDs who call themselves “social scientists” and who use taxpayer funds to write papers on pilates being the embodiment of whiteness and the importance of understanding icebergs from a feminist perspective would have more authority to vote than the common taxpayers who pay their wage.

    Lehmann apparently wants more to hurt the wittle feelings of “social scientists” than to protect the feelings of rubes fighting in Afghanistan. How could you possibly miss it?

  • pollachoslegomena

    You have been in 22 fistfights? This might actually explain some things about you. In a (mostly) good way.

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  • Jeff R.

    Smug condescension is the surest way to gain support for your ideas, Brennan. Nice work.

  • CJColucci

    I’ve been in a lot of fistfights (I think I have a 21-1 record, thank
    you), if not gunfights, and done a lot of camping. I don’t recall
    learning a single thing from those activities that would help me vote

    Obviously, we have to take you at your word on this, but it does bespeak a lack of capacity to learn from actual life that I wouldn’t have thought you’d want to reveal.

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  • Jack Knudson

    Dr. Brennan,

    I read and agree with Against Democracy. I think your stance holds, and democratic theorists should seriously consider the premises within it. That being said, do you ever worry about the PR branding side of neoclassical liberalism or your stance on democracy? Do you think that the layperson or even the average academic could be turned off by the confrontational tone presented in your more informal work like this? I realize that we are in a kind of back alley enclave within the academic community here at BHL, so this obviously is different than what you write for Newsweek, Washington post, etc. But the Jacobin magazine was able to find your writing on here and same with Stossel. The Jacobin viciously attacked it (lacking any substance to their argument and in a barrage of weak ad hominems).

    As concerned individuals who understand the power of markets and socially liberal policy in impacting the lives of our society’s weakest, shouldn’t we do our best to present the information in a politically digestible way? After all, it is a matter of justice. The more people that recognize the validity of neoclassical liberal arguments, the more people who will be helped.

    You of all people should recognize the importance of branding. The masses were swayed so easily by symbolic branding which invoked the flag and images of burning buildings. They rallied around those as a justification for killing 3000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. You are the one who understands how much power laypeople assign to political arguments because it makes them feel good or their in-group supports it. You were the one who taught me to resist the branding temptations of politicians and to emphasize results over intentions when choosing policy.

    I suspect that no matter how sharp your logic is, no matter how conclusive the arguments you propose are, no matter how much empirical evidence you are able to pack into your writing, it will fail if it doesn’t make people feel good. We in the BHL community recognize how unfortunate and flawed this is, yet we must recognize the reality.

    If I am not mistaken the original end goal of bleeding heart libertarians was partially to advance libertarian ideology with positive liberty, but also to address the branding problems within libertarianism. You tried to show that we aren’t just some band of thinkers with sharp tongues looking to set dissenters straight. We are the new compassionate libertarians who want to help. We want to change the way people approach politics. We are not the politically unappetizing anarcho-capitalists or Ayn Rand selfish objectivists. We are the group that will influence libertarian ideology in vast ways. I worry that headlines like these and writing in an unnecessarily terse tone such as this, might do more harm than good. For further examples, in various places you’ve mentioned how you’ve taken on some of your positions at the detriment of your career. Instagram searching your name gives results of some people holding up against democracy saying “can’t wait to disagree”. We don’t want to give them any more reason to feel that way. Lord knows what kind of flawed motivated information processing proceeds after someone posts an instagram saying something like that. I never saw your twitter but I noticed you deleted your twitter after you ran into the consequences of your renegade style of run and gun logic that dismantles and provokes.

    I would never ask you to stop being you, that is why your writing is so entertaining (I laughed openly multiple times while reading against democracy, I also liked the dedications section of markets without limits). I really enjoy those characteristic pieces of your writing. But what I worry about now is that you represent us. You are our torch bearer. Hayek wrote about the distinguishing characteristics between an intellectual and an academic. An academic being someone originally researching and an intellectual being the purveyor of that information. Whether you want to assume the role of the intellectual or not, you are that now for us. You are becoming our David Brooks. Maybe it will be a slow transition to there, and maybe your colleagues have already discussed this with you. But I think it will be grossly difficult to navigate the transition from young aspiring academic to established intellectual while maintaining what the newyorker picked up on as your “pugilistic” demeanor (although the newyorker regarded it warmly). Approaching policy dispassionately and through the lens of reason is what you are about. You enjoy ripping the opposition a new one by nature, but for those prone to the romantic and emotional songs of politics you might seem like you’re singing their same song. You might look like a version of the rest, an emotionally driven hooligan. But the real way to make yourself into a dominant force as an intellectual is to maintain your emphasis on results and logic over intuition and emotion. When you position yourself as that in all arenas I can only imagine that the logic of your arguments must by default be absorbed into all those listening.

    I entered your reading partially sympathetic to your views. You successfully extended my thinking from a stance I previously held while maintaining your stylistic fist fight style. However I worry about the Bernie Sanders liberal who hasn’t had any priming in economics. What happens when they wash up on the beach of your writing, might they be even more turned off by your tone than they might have otherwise been? I don’t know but it would be a shame if they were.

    All in all, thanks for doing what your doing. Your writing is prolific and has shown me a lot. Any BHLers who see this and know Jason, consider sending him this way if you agree.


  • Jon Wiley

    This is what I posted on Ms. Lehmann’s article:

    I want to start out by saying that I’m not trying to silence anyone or any point of view. My opinion is that of one person and should be judged as such.

    There are numerous points in Ms. Lehmann’s piece that deserve further discussion and dissemination. We should definitely talk about cognitive biases and systematically unobserved types of information that give typical Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic individuals like myself a skewed view of the world. The truth is that every demographic group has substantial room for improvement in this regard.

    In particular, I feel extremely frustrated at how the protesters at US Berkeley responded to the potential presence of Milo Yiannopoulos on campus. Honestly, it enraged me. I felt like it damaged what I love about this country. More generally, I feel profoundly dissatisfied with the way my fellow US liberals conduct themselves and I devote a fair amount of thought to it. In that, I identify with Ms. Lehmann’s point of view.

    However, I think she’s too fast to dismiss the concept of low-information voters. I think it would be more sensible to broaden the term because it’s not about left-right ideology. Just as I feel that the anti-Yiannopoulos protesters at Berkeley used their rights in an irresponsible way, I think many people use their voting rights in an irresponsible way. I’m not saying that we should take away those rights, but I do think that we should have social norms that encourage people to make socially beneficial decisions. I think that includes voting behavior.
    To me, this line of argument isn’t anti-conservative or anti-liberal it’s anti-ignorance. There’s lots of ignorance to go around at the moment. In fact, we’re all ignorant about most things.

    Each of us knows a fair amount about some things and very little about a huge number of other things. A person with knowledge of sociology or physics isn’t necessarily less ignorant than a person who knows about fishing or fixing cars. I value what my doctor knows and also what the man who picks up my garbage knows. Their knowledge affects my life and the lives of other people and if they don’t inform themselves then they’re being irresponsible. Voting affects people’s lives too. If we use our voting rights without informing ourselves about the relevant issues and considering them in a thoughtful manner, then we’re being irresponsible. But, that’s just my opinion.