Against Democracy | Jason Brennan

Summary of: Against Democracy
By: Jason Brennan


In ‘Against Democracy’, Jason Brennan takes a critical look at the shortcomings of modern democracy, focusing on voter apathy, ignorance, and the detrimental effects of human nature. Through three archetypes – hobbits, hooligans, and vulcans – Brennan analyzes different voter behaviors and why the ideal of a fully informed, rational vulcan voter seems far-fetched. He explores alternatives to democracy, such as epistocracy, where rule is exercised by the most knowledgeable individuals rather than the masses. Faced with the potential pitfalls of both systems, Brennan ponders which path would lead to fairer, more informed decisions for society.

The Imperfect System of Democracy

Modern democracy is flawed due to low voter turnout, voter ignorance, and the fallacies of human nature. Economist Joseph Schumpeter argues that citizens become “primitive” when they enter the political arena. Apathy may not be a terrible trend as democracy becomes more inclusive. Voters can be divided into three groups: Hobbits, Hooligans, and Vulcans. Hobbits are uninformed, while Hooligans cling to opinions regardless of facts. Vulcans are logically placed and can expound opposing views.

Stereotypes in Political Behaviour

The book highlights the usefulness of stereotypes in understanding political behaviour. The ideal archetype is the Vulcan, and the hope is that Hobbits and Hooligans become Vulcans. The author argues that incompetent political decisions can be as harmful as an incompetent jury trial. It is improbable that voters will become informed decision-makers who recognize their biases. It is more likely that Hobbits may turn into Hooligans. The author suggests that society benefits if people stay ignorant and apathetic rather than becoming ill-informed, active voters, leading to political polarization and hostility towards opponents.

The Rise of Epistocracy in Modern Society

The concept of epistocracy, or rule by the competent few, has been around for centuries. In ancient Greece, Plato advocated for a government led by philosopher-kings, while in modern times, various proposals range from a test-based voting system to a council of expert overseers. While such ideas may appear elitist, they stem from the belief that democracy can be undermined by the uninformed or irrational. This summary explores several potential models of epistocracy, including restricted suffrage, plural voting, enfranchisement lottery, epistocratic veto, and simulated oracle, each with its own merits and drawbacks. While controversial, the idea of a more informed and competent electorate is one that continues to provoke discussion and debate.

Rational Ignorance in Voting

The historical denial of voting rights to non-powerful groups, based on illogical and immoral reasons such as religion, race, gender, and social class, is a wrong practice. However, this does not mean the idea of unequal voting is incorrect. Political ignorance is rational, and responsible voting is crucial. Voting rights are similar to driving rights where the government denies drivers who put citizens at risk. In the same way, courts disqualify jurors with lack of knowledge and moral character, and incompetently rendered verdicts are overruled. Real power in the jury system necessitates limitations on jury service and decisions.

The Value of Sound Judgment

In a democracy, voters often lack the necessary information and rationality to choose wisely when casting their vote. This is due to a lack of individual repercussions for poor choices in the voting booth. While sound judgment is crucial in everyday life, in a democracy it is especially important as voters face real consequences for their decisions. Although the impact of a single vote may seem insignificant, collective choices can still have a significant impact on society. Therefore, it is essential for citizens to make informed and rational decisions when exercising their right to vote.

American Politics and the Rule of the Ignorant

Americans may pay a hefty price for their collective bad decisions as it results in unwise environmental policies, futile wars, and erroneous law enforcement. However, American politics is ruled by Hobbits and hooligans, while the intelligentsia comprises individuals who have graduated from mediocre colleges. Sadly, most US voters cannot name their members of Congress or recollect the countries that participated in World War II. The Pew Research Center and other firms’ quizzes have demonstrated consistently poor test scores, with questions of a technical nature resulting in even lower scores. However, voter stupidity is “rational ignorance” since many lack incentives to remain current on public policy and current events. Although a small section of voters finds politics enthralling, the majority pays no attention. While political psychology shows that people are inherently biased, it can be overcome with effort. An “epistocracy” may feature an intellectual elite in the lead, but it would still feature hooligans, more “Vulcan” than in a democracy.

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