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
Empirical premise: Bad people will use your rhetoric to justify their bad behavior.
Normative premise: If bad people will misuse your rhetoric to justify their bad behavior, then it’s wrong to write what you wrote.
Normative conclusion: Therefore, it’s wrong to write what you wrote.
Don’t get this objection confused with two closely related objections:
Reductio ad absurdum: In fact, Against Democracy implies that the Chinese Communist Party is just, so therefore it’s false.
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.