Democracy, Book/Article Reviews

NDPR Discussion of Against Democracy

The Pea Soup blog is hosting a discussion of Thomas Christiano’s review of Against Democracy here.

Some comments on the discussion:

  1. It’s clear Christiano and I have different views of some of the political science literature. Like Achen and Bartels or Somin, I don’t think the shortcuts literature does much to vindicate democratic voting–I think it shows democracy “works” only by positing very low standards for “working” or by extrapolating from contentious examples. Christiano disagrees.
  2. Christiano and I both agree, though, that democracy overall has been the best form of government we’ve had so far. It looks like we both also agree that democracy performs better than we’d expect if the crudest form of the median voter theorem were true. But we disagree about why democracy over-performs in that sense.
  3. I’m still puzzled about what Christiano means about me having a simplistic “micro-theory”. Before writing Against Democracy, I read all the major political science works on democratic functioning and on how voter preferences/behavior translates into policy. There is significant disagreement about just how much voters matter and in just what ways, but there is not much disagreement over the claim that how voters vote does have a significant impact. In particular, the literature supports the view that democratic ignorance/misinformation/irrationality is dangerous and leads to worse quality government. If I waved a magic wand which made the majority of voters advocate even worse policies, that would lead to worse government; if I waved a different magic wand which made the majority advocate much better policies, that would lead to better government.
  4. In Against Democracy, I critique the non-instrumentalist/proceduralist arguments for democracy. I argue that democracy is not intrinsically just, and the only reason to accept it is if it functions/works better (according to the correct procedure-independent standards, whatever they are) than other forms of government. Christiano disagrees, but he doesn’t seem to criticize this part of the book in his review. But suppose, as I argue, that democracy is not intrinsically just, but also suppose that Christiano is right that voter ignorance/misinformation/irrationality is not that harmful. If so, we should still feel free to pick epistocracy (or futurarchy or whatnot) over democracy, if those other forms of government turn out to function even better.
  • Our local university offers a summer program with the semi-creepy title “Future Leaders Institute”. This years theme is “Threats to Democracy”. ( ) I suppose it’s too much to hope that your book will be on their reading list.

  • HermanStone

    “If so, we should still feel free to pick epistocracy (or futurarchy or whatnot)…”

    Have you and Robin ever had an exchange comparing eoistocracy to futarchy? Privately or publicly? That would be a fun debate.

    More generally, if we grant the main arguments in AD, we are still left with some interesting conflicts between various plausible substitutes for democracy as it now exists. It would be cool to see some debates. I think Robin debated Mencius Moldbug on neocameralism* vs futarchy.

    *im pretty sure this was a model where the legislature owned salable shares of the state, entitling then both to decision and profit making.

    • urstoff

      I would definitely like to see an exchange between Jason and Robin on the relative merits of each approach.

  • Jerome Bigge

    The Greeks of Classical Athens created “democracy” over 2,000 years ago. Note that this was not based upon elections, but upon the selection of representatives by means of a lottery similar in some aspects to how we select jurors for trials. They had found that selection of representatives by elections resulted in representatives who tended to be the “representatives” of the economic upper class (their version of the 1%) due to the cost of running for office. They termed elective government as “oligarchy”, that is rule by the rich. The Roman Republic was also an oligarchy. As is our government here in the US today. The average net worth of every elected official in the federal government is now over one million dollars as is also the case with the justices of the Supreme Court. We thus have a government of the 1% that exists mainly to serve the interests of the 1%. Effectively the result is a constantly growing government that every year costs us more and more while at the same time making life “worse” for the rest of us. Runaway health care costs that make it more and more “unaffordable” as the last vestiges of the free market are legislated out of existence.

  • Peter from Oz

    I don’t live in a democracy, I am not just a citizen, but a subject. I live in a Constitutional Monarchy where we elect the legislature which carries on the government in the Sovereign’s name. Those elections a democratic in so far as they allow for the demos to appoint representatives to advise the Monarch. But it is clear that the Crown is the fount of all government. Hence, lands that are owned by the Government are known as ”Crown lands” and the Queen is the prosecutor in all criminal trials.
    This is a very good system, because it contains the better elements of democracy, monarchy and aristocracy, in that mix that Polybius and Aristotle favoured. It also separates the ceremonial from the political, besides giving the people a moral patron. This allows for the preservation of the third domain of Lord Moulton, that area between law and individual choice that really governs most of our interaction with our fellow men and women.
    Trading that ancient form of government, with its quirks and odd traditions, for a modern streamlined democracy would be no real improvement.
    Dr Johnson was right: ””I would not give half a guinea to live under one form of
    Government rather than another. It is of no moment to the
    happiness of an individual. Sir, the danger of the abuse of
    power is nothing to a private man.”
    The lust for democracy is often too the carapace under which those who would curtail our liberties hide their wish for power.
    Such people fetishise form of government over the substance. The real argument isn’t so much about how the government should elected but what it should be able to do once it is elected. We need to limit government, not encourage it to bloat even further because it has democratic legitimacy.

  • carl jacobs

    I would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University. ~WFB

    Because education is synonymous with neither virtue nor wisdom. The Old Bolsheviks were very well educated, after all. At least until they were shot.

    • Good to see you back blogging. Hope all is well, Carl. Jack is missing our “constructive disagreements”.

  • Yes, Jack does miss your comments and the blog is less due to your absence. It’s so humourless these days. Tell the truth, Carl, it’s because Man Utd had a very successful season and Man City such a poor one.