Consequentialism, Democracy

Tu Quoque: The Dictators Might Misuse You Objection to Against Democracy

A few times, political theorists—most recently Jeff Isaac at Indiana’s Ostrom Workshop—have raised a particular objection to Against Democracy. (I mention political theorists because I think it’s interesting that theorists, rather than philosophers, are the ones who always make this objection. I think it reflects differences in attitudes about what theorists and philosopher see themselves as doing.)

The objection goes roughly as follows:

The Dictators Might Misuse You Objection

In Against Democracy, you document at great length the pathological behaviors of voters. You argue voters are mostly ignorant and misinformed about basic political facts, about the social science needed to evaluate those facts, that they vote for non-cognitive reasons, that political participation exacerbates our biases, and that all this has a negative effect on the quality of government and policy.

But dictator, oligarchs, the Chinese Communist party, cronies, elites, and others are gonna salivate over such arguments. They’re going to use them to consolidate their power and justify excluding their enemies.

Sure, you, Brennan, aren’t arguing for such exclusions. (In fact, your preferred form of epistocracy—Government-by-Simulated-Oracle—might not even qualify as epistocratic, as it actually allows everyone, even children, to vote, and doesn’t really give any individual extra weight.) But nevertheless, if your ideas became popular, people are going to use your language to justify their abusive, cronyist, oligarchical, or authoritarian behavior. You can’t ignore the context you find yourself in. You aren’t just writing this stuff for other philosophers, but are getting read and interviewed by the mass media and laypeople around the world.

Let’s write this out in premise-conclusion form. The objection contains both an empirical claim and a normative claim:

The Dictators Might Misuse You Objection


  1. Empirical premise: Bad people will use your rhetoric to justify their bad behavior.

  2. Normative premise: If bad people will misuse your rhetoric to justify their bad behavior, then it’s wrong to write what you wrote.

  3. Normative conclusion: Therefore, it’s wrong to write what you wrote.


Don’t get this objection confused with two closely related objections:


  1. Reductio ad absurdum: In fact, Against Democracy implies that the Chinese Communist Party is just, so therefore it’s false.

  2. Government failure: In the real world, the institutions you recommend we investigate and experiment with would lead to massive abuse and government failure, and so would be even worse than democracy. (I bring that objection up myself and it’s why the book ends up being so cautious and modest in the end.)


A is just wrong. B is an important worry, but I’ve already covered B in the book.


The Dictators Might Misuse You Objection doesn’t say that AD in fact justifies dictatorship or authoritarianism, or that in practice the institutions I recommend would unfortunately decay into that. Rather, it just says that the anti-democratic stuff about voter pathologies, etc., will be used by dictators to justify themselves.

Premise 1 of the objection is probably true. What about premise 2?

I don’t buy it. Two major problems:

First, this seems to suggest that there is a heckler’s veto in philosophy. Nietzsche didn’t defend fascism—on the contrary, he sort of anticipated it and critiqued it before it came about—but fascists and Nazis nevertheless misused his rhetoric to defend themselves. Does that mean Nietzsche, had he known that, should have shut his trap?

In general, it’s implausible that just because other people react badly to what you write or say, you therefore have a duty not to write it or say it. Otherwise, we’re saying that other people get to veto our permission to write and speak because they misbehave.

Second, and this I think is fatal to the objection, is tu quoque! All around the world, for well over a hundred years, dictators, fascists, communist totalitarian states, oligarchs, rent-seekers, and others have already been misusing democratic theory to justify their abuses. They hold sham elections. They name their countries the Democratic People’s Republic of this and that. They claim to represent true democracy. They quote liberally from democratic theorists to justify their anti-democratic activity. They sometimes even pay democratic theorists (hi, Ben Barber) to consult for them, and sometimes even get those theorists (still here, Ben?) to shill for them. Sometimes the theorists even do it for free, as they celebrate a Mugabe as a democratic revolutionary for a while, until it becomes too obvious that the democratic revolutionary is actually just another dictator.


So, in short, my basic response to the objection is:

Okay, what you’re saying is that if the ideas in Against Democracy become really popular, then dictators will start using my language the way they currently use yours. According to your objection, in the future, my rhetoric might be as dangerous as yours actually is right now. My book and rhetoric could be evil because it could, if I get popular enough, suffer from all the same problems your books and your rhetoric already suffer from. I might become the unwitting and unintentional and unwitting handmaiden of evil, just like you people currently are.


In short: the democratic political theorists are unwittingly my ideas are dangerous because dictators might do to epistocratic theorists what they currently do to democratic theorists. So, their objection is radically self-effacing. (Maybe that’s why many of them are such bad writers—They want to avoid dictators quoting them?)

Look, we all face this problem. If an economist explains that trade barriers might be efficient under unusual conditions C, then cronyist politicians will lie and say C obtains all the time. If just war theorists say that defensive war is permitted under conditions D, then George W will claim we’re in D when it suits him. If environmentalists say that certain regulations will help the environment, then John Deere will misuse their arguments to get a rent that forces their competitors to license a John Deere patent. Etc.

Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan
  • Sean II

    It’s funny anyone would think that noticing and talking about the ignorance and irrationality of voters is more dangerous than the actual ignorance and irrationality of voters.

    If you’re an aspiring dictator taking stock of his assets, what seems more valuable to you:

    1) The fact that voters are ignorant and irrational

    2) The fact that someone wrote a book about it.

    Compared to 1), 2) seems pretty trivial. Hard to imagine a dictator out on the margin saying

    “Okay, boys. Get ready. The people are unfit to govern themselves. They need a firm hand. We must prepare for a putsch, and know that our window of opportunity may be very small.”

    “We’re with you, boss! How will know when the moment to strike has arrived?”

    “Trust me, you’ll know. When major university presses start publishing takedowns of cherished democratic myths…”

    • King Goat

      It’s interesting…Sean is one of these folks who thinks THE ESTABLISHMENT has all of these disproportionately amazing powers in society, yet when called upon he can also blithely say ‘university press writes a book, pfft, nothing to see here, Tom Dick and Stalin don’t take that seriously, so ignore!’

      • Rob Gressis

        Can’t he say both? I don’t see the disconnect between saying:

        Major Hollywood films, major media outlets, major book “events”, and almost all academics, artists, politicians, and journalists all say X
        Some academic books say ~X

        Therefore, the establishment view is X.

        • Sean II

          Classic example: home ownership as an investment. An establishment view enshrined in policy and culture for 75 years. But it’s not hard at all to find dissent among academics. Indeed economists are probably the only people who don’t automatically tell everyone buying = the epitome of responsible adulthood, while renting = “throwing your money away”.

        • King Goat

          Well, I do think the idea that ‘the Establishment’ is a view, rather than a group, is more on target with what people who throw that term around really mean. And the defining characteristic of that view for those people is, it’s one they disagree with…

          But you’re of course leaving out a word before your first sentence, it would be something like ‘most.’ But once you get into ‘most’ and ‘some’ then I submit you’re into a nuance that most people who throw the word ‘the Establishment’ around aren’t interested in. Part of the appeal to ‘the Establishment’ is this idea of it’s monolithic elite power.

          • Rob Gressis

            And you think this is how Sean is using the word? Such that if only most intellectually or culturally elite people believe X then it’s not the establishment view?

          • King Goat

            I don’t know what he, or most anyone else, means by the term as I suspect it’s too vague and amorphous, and doesn’t correspond to any useful reality, to be of much use.

            Mind you, I think there are what sociologists would call ‘elites,’ that is, people with more influence on certain institutions than most other people. But I don’t think they’re anything nearly monolithic in their views or united in their goals, nor do I think they are nearly as influential, as people who talk about *the* Establishment posit.

          • Rob Gressis

            Huh. I guess I think I do know what he means. I would say it’s something like this: “the kind of opinions your colleagues would expect you to have on political, cultural, and social matters if you’re an academic at a non-sectarian university.” That said, there are different establishments. There’s the academic establishment (A), the Washington political establishment (P), the New York and Washington media establishment (M), the Hollywood establishment (H), the tech establishment (T), and the Fortune 500 establishment (F). There’s probably a military establishment, but I think they have a coherent set of views mainly on matters related to the military and foreign policy.

            I would say that on social issues, A, P, MHT and F are liberal. On economic issues, most of A and M are liberal, most of F and T are conservative, P is centrist, and H is center-left. On foreign policy, I think all of them are centrist, with A being center-left.

          • King Goat

            Rob, have you read this book?

            It informs me more than anything else on this subject (it’s dated I’ll admit):


          • Rob Gressis

            No, I’ve never heard of it. I find the subject quite intriguing, but I’m not even versed in the notion of the power elite, much less the strategic elite. Like, what discipline would I look into to find out more about this? Political science? Sociology?

            I can see from the book reviews that the basic idea is that there is no power elite, but is instead a group of lots of different elites, with competing interests, beliefs, desires, etc. That sounds plausible to me, if you’re talking about elites in general. But if you’re talking about elites in one particular area — e.g., movies — it sounds less interesting. I’ll grant that there is a fair bit of variation in views among the Hollywood elite, but that it’s largely pro the Democratic party seems to me hard to dispute. Is there more than one Hollywood elite? To an extent; but there seem to be clearly more and less powerful groups in Hollywood.

            But this is all just spitballing without doing any empirical legwork!

          • King Goat

            Empirical legwork is what that book is all about, give it a read.

          • Sean II

            In the long march of empirical legwork, acknowledging the obvious is like putting on your shoes.

          • Rob Gressis

            I don’t get the relevance. Have I put on my shoes?

          • Sean II

            You seem well shod, but the shoeless are always with us.

            That what was supposed to be the joke. You know, getting lessons in empiricism from a guy who pretends not to notice something as big and conspicuous as “the establishment”.

            It’s just the sort of glaringly obvious thing no one would deny except from an a priori or rhetorical motive.

  • Jerome Bigge

    We have plenty of examples right here in the US with people voting against their own interests in support of a political ideology that will harm them, not benefit them. Unless you are a rich person (or own certain types of guns), the Republican Party isn’t going to do anything to benefit you. As a matter of fact, the Republicans are more likely to cause you “harm” in one form or another when you consider the tax change bill that likely will soon be signed into law.

    • DST

      Yeah, why don’t voters in Boise realize that they could *easily* become the next Hartford, Baltimore, or even Detroit, if only they voted for Democrats? Why do people keep voting against my conception of their best interests? It’s so exasperating!

      • King Goat

        Voters are irrational (except when they aren’t, upvote!!!).

  • Silvio Natã Rocha Porto

    Ben Barber, in fact, isn’t here. Because he is dead. Also when did he shill for a dictator? I would like to see that, seeing as i’m not a fan of the guy at all.

    • Jason Brennan

      For Qaddafi

  • Jakob Mainz

    Jason, do you know of anyone who has published this objection?

  • stevenjohnson2

    All minority regimes claim to be the best people. Epistocrat=aristocrat, epistocracy=meritocracy, and the way things are=the just order of the world. Like all beloved vices these ancient ideas are a delight in themselves, and need no justification, at least not for the self-proclaimed aristocrats, meritocrats and believers in justice outraged at the mob. The point of such exercises in impugning democracy is not to make the case for the best people but to justify breaking the rules of democracy. That is, the practical objection to thing like Against Democracy is the use of the ideas for the ends intended, publicity in favor of manipulation by the best people, aka the rich, and their employees in policy institutes, and encouragement in the long term project of ending the malignant influence of democratic prejudices, such as government services to the rabble.

    The principled objections to this sort of thing are first, there is no evidence that any such best people objectively exist. Defining best people is claiming adaptive perfection, a religious interpretation. Science, in the broadest sense of the word, has never proven that some people are superior nor that some people are inferior. And second, if there is no principled way to claim that some people are better than others, then in politics, more people getting their way in public life is on the face of it morally superior than fewer people getting their way, given they are all basically equal, in ways that cannot be scientifically distinguished. And third, government is about peace. The rule of the weaker party over the stronger requires systematic corruption, which is hardly a noble ideal.

    It is true that religion, philosophy and law do no admit the relevance of science, that the evils of the mob are obvious to the prophet, the philosopher and the judge. This is why I’ve come to think of them as the inhumanities, no matter how eager their students.

  • Pingback: Employment Law Advocates | Does criticism of democracy play into the hands of authoritarians?()

  • Pingback: Marshall Geisser Law | Does criticism of democracy play into the hands of authoritarians?()

  • Pingback: Lawyers Planet | Does criticism of democracy play into the hands of authoritarians?()

  • Pingback: Does criticism of democracy play into the hands of authoritarians? – Accident Lawyers()

  • Pingback: People Law | Does criticism of democracy play into the hands of authoritarians?()

  • Pingback: Does criticism of democracy play into the hands of authoritarians? – News Puddle()

  • Pingback: [Ilya Somin] Does criticism of democracy play into the hands of authoritarians? – Ben Lee()

  • Pingback: Vancouver Law Firm | Does criticism of democracy play into the hands of authoritarians?()

  • Pingback: Does criticism of democracy play into the hands of authoritarians? - PoliSpin()

  • Michael Wiebe

    Do you think your arguments apply as well to the Ashraf and Galor case? They wrote a paper on genetic diversity, arguing for an optimal level of genetic diversity to maximize economic development. Some Harvard anthropologists got mad, and gave the same “dictators will use it” argument:

    “In the last part of the letter, the Harvard academics reflect on the implications of the research and raise the common argument that this area should not be investigated due to “the potential to be misused with frightening consequences to justify indefensible practices such as ethnic cleansing or genocide.””

    • Sean II

      Same goes for psychometrics, behavioral genetics, biology of sex differences, etc. The argument is “don’t study X, because if you find Y [usually something everyone knows anyway], it might inspire harmful misuse Z.”

      Most of the time you hear this from people who never worry about the various “misuses” that might arise from the ignorance of X ot the denial of Y.

    • stevenjohnson2

      A cursory examination suggests Ashraf and Galor are exactly parallel to the Brennan case: Pseudoscientific gloss on old bad ideas, intended to provide cover for old bad practices. The tentative criticism that this nonsense might be misused fails from an excessive courtesy that presumes humane intentions and a sincere search for truth. Or Ashraf and Galor are just nuts, but then, that’s not very complimentary either. And it reflects badly on an institution which didn’t notice, too.

    • King Goat

      Marxist ideas have often, historically, led to awful results. Is it irrational for someone to be suspect of Marxist ideas for this reason, even though Marxists insist that in those applications the ideas were misunderstood?

      Likewise, racialist ideas have often, historically, led to awful results…

      • Rob Gressis

        But so have environmentalist (in the environmentalist vs. hereditarian sense of “environmentalist”) ideas.

        • King Goat

          What’s an example?

          • Rob Gressis
          • King Goat

            1. I’m not sure New Soviet Man is an ‘environmentalist’ opposite to racialism, in fact, in your very example one of the proponents is quoted as ‘Will his traits be inherited by his children?’ and another seeing in it the possibility ‘to create a higher social biologic type.’

            2. To the extent that it was, how much of it tied to ‘awful results’ was because to it’s Marxism or totalitarianism, and how much to it’s environmentalism? I mean, as far as ‘environmentalism’ there’s no more there than the leading ideology in the US from about 1965 on, yet no awful things happened in the latter, where the elements of Marxism and totalitarianism are controlled for. On the other hand, we know that racialism, even when it exists in a classically liberal system like the US, still led to awful results.

          • Rob Gressis

            Well, there’s also Maoism, Khmer Rouge, etc. I’m not saying these guys read Margaret Mead, but I do think they thought that human beliefs and desires were *highly* manipulable. E.g., we can make people into near perfect altruists; the only reason that we should expect people to lose their incentive for work in a collectivist economy is if we buy capitalist propaganda that that’s human nature, etc. And Marx is pretty clear about at least that last point.

            As for your #2, I mean, you could say the same thing about Nazism’s relationship to hereditarianism. I highly doubt that, e.g., Charles Murray’s hereditarianism (which, for the purposes of this discussion, means only that IQ is at least somewhat genetically heritable, and that there is a genetically based racial gap), necessarily leads to Nazism.

            That said, I agree that hereditarianism is likelier to lead to worse results than environmentalism, but it also matters what the truth is, and pure blank slate theory is false.

          • King Goat

            The Khmer Rouge were intensely racialist, read Ben Kiernan (at least his later work) for a ton of evidence on this. Marxists tend to be a strange (philosophically) bunch with all kinds of weird, one would think incompatible, ideas co-existing.

            As to your points about Nazism, I don’t agree. Nazism was basically all about the use of a totalitarian state *to* enact racialism. All of it was bent toward creating a ‘safe space’ if you will for Aryans to flourish away from ‘races’ such as the Jews, the Slavs, etc., who were just bound to ruin things for the Aryans. The concentration camps, the Holocaust, these are not just intertwined with racialism, racialism was the chief motive. ‘Environmentalism’ in the sense of the opposite of racialism wasn’t the same for the Soviets. Think of some of the greatest sins of that regime-I currently listened to a great podcast on Anne Applebaum’s work on this subject btw-such as the Ukranian famines. Environmentalism wasn’t the motive for that in any way like racialism was for the Holocaust.

            As to blank slate theory, I’m not sure anyone really holds it. Even my academic leftist friends easily say things about their kids like ‘oh, he’s fussy just like my father was’ or ‘he’s got my grandmother’s sunny disposition.’ What I do think many people hold is this idea that governments and other institutions shouldn’t make policies that harm people based only or primarily on the low information that their membership in a racial or ethnic group. And I just don’t think that has or will lead to anything remotely as awful as the opposite of that has.

          • Sean II

            “As to blank slate theory, I’m not sure anyone really holds it.”

            Try introducing the notion of heredity into a public policy discussion and see what happens.

          • Rob Gressis

            Doesn’t mean they deny it. Could just mean they deny it in public.

          • Sean II

            Of course no one can manage to believe something as wrong as blank slate theory all the time. Plenty of contradiction in the mix, especially the performative kind.

            But the key point remains: in a public policy discussion the amount of difference one is allowed to attribute to heredity is ~0.

            So if everyone either believes or pretends to believe X, and if X is the basic assumption behind a vast array of policy and practice, then it doesn’t make sense to call X a straw man.

            A straw man is something no one actually believes.

            The blank slate is something most people are afraid to deny.

          • Rob Gressis

            They’re willing to deny it when it comes to sports, though the John McEnroe case is starting to show even that is going away.

          • Sean II

            That’s true, sports has enjoyed an exemption. You don’t get pilloried for noticing that the Manning brothers resemble each other in various important ways.

            Indeed the exemption seems to cover other people with obvious physical gifts: actresses, models, singers, etc. It’s okay to notice that Kate Hudson is pretty and charming in much the same way as her mom.

            But even that loophole would melt shut if you exported it into a policy discussion. Imagine going to an education conference and saying: “Many children lack the capacity to benefit from sport and musical education! Instead let’s focus on training up the already talented.”

            Your lifeless body would be found floating in the hotel pool after a stunt like that.

            And besides, the exemption only goes so far. Consider your own example of Mac vs Serena.

            It’s okay to notice that Serena is masculine, if you’re praising her rare ability to beat male pros. Indeed you can get in trouble for not praising her enough in this regard, as Mac did.

            But if you notice the same fact from the other side, if you point out she plays girls with the muscles of boy, wielding a physical advantage large enough to make her whole career resemble a middleweight beating up on a endless series of bantanweights, there will be blood on your Twitter.

          • Rob Gressis

            Well, most of them do PEDs anyway. Maybe she just takes to them better than most?

          • Sean II

            Divergent evolution is more potent than dianabol.

          • Rob Gressis

            I guess. Didn’t work as well for Venus, though.

            Or did I just bring up a single example as though it refuted a generalization?

          • Rob Gressis

            OK, we need to start over. What do you mean by “environmentalism” and what do you mean by “hereditarianism”? I realize that I introduced the terms into the debate, but you seemed to go along with using the terms. That said, I think we’re using them differently.

            Here’s how *I* use the terms:
            * Environmentalism: most of human behavior, beliefs, desires, and preferences are due to their social setting. Change the social setting appropriately, and you can change the behavior, beliefs, etc. Indeed, because of this dependence on the social setting, human behavior is, in principle, highly manipulable.

            * Hereditarianism: at least a substantial amount (if not most) of human behavior, beliefs, desires, and preferences are not due to social setting, but are instead due to genetic or innate factors. Although it’s true that you can change many behaviors substantially by changing the social setting, much, if not most, of human behavior is not alterable by changing social setting.

            I gather you’re using environmentalism to mean something like this:

            * Environmentalism’: although there are individual differences in human abilities, there are not group differences in human ability, save for things like upper body strength differences between men and women.

            * Hereditarianism’: not only are there individual differences in human ability, there are also group differences in human ability, e.g., between whites and blacks, women and men, gays and straights, etc.

            Is that a fair description of how you’re using the terms?

          • Sean II

            “That said, I agree that hereditarianism is likelier to lead to worse results than environmentalism…”

            Counterpoint: environmentalism is the biggest *present* threat to whatever you call that part of the world which doesn’t suck – liberal democratic industrial capitalism, say.

            This is most obvious in Europe, where the die has already been cast on an all-in bet against demography and population genetics. This will not work out the way *anyone* wanted, and in the long run violence is inevitable.

            Meanwhile over here in the only other nice place to live, we’re at each other’s throats rehearsing for Civil War II, as our environmental myths falter in the face of evidence, and require ever more aggressive forms of social enforcement to retain their grip on power.

            So don’t call the game yet. Wait and see just how dangerous the cult of environmental can be, when it enters the Jim Jones cornered rat phase of its decadence.


    Prof. Brennan:
    This comment is not directly responsive to your post, but I make it anyway because I have raised this point before and have not yet, as I recall, received a substantive answer. I am a libertarian because I hold that this philosophy best represents political justice, and will enthusiastically embrace any proposal in your book that likely will move our polity in this direction. Conversely, I will vigorously object to any proposal likely to have the opposite effect. Assuming that you have no philosophical objection to this criterion, what evidence can you offer me that Epistocracy merits my support.


      Okay, I’m pretty sure that after 4 days, I’m not going to get an answer. Which is surprising, given that “What’s in it for me (or my tribe)” seems to be the watchword of the day. IOW, my question would be on the minds of people across the ideological spectrum. Accordingly, I would have thought you would have heard this objection long ago, and have a ready answer. Guess not.

  • Pingback: Does Criticism of Democracy Play Into the Hands of Authoritarians? – FEE Syndication()