The following is the first installment in a four-part debate between Georgetown Professor Jason Brennan and Princeton Professor Philip Pettit on the merits of democracy as a system of social order. You can check out part two, Pettit’s response to Brennan, here.
“Is democracy overrated?”
Yes, democracy is overrated.
I agree that democracy is the best performing, most functional system we’ve tried so far. But while most philosophers approach democracy with religious reverence, I see it as nothing but a tool—a means to an end—and a flawed one at that. It’s merely a useful decision-making procedure that tends to produce reasonably just outcomes.
But if we can find a better tool, we should feel free to use it. In my view, democracy is nothing more than a hammer, and no one insists on using a hammer when a wrench works better.
Democracy as a system has built-in defects.
One of the defects of democracy is that it spreads out power widely among voters. And while this feature of democracy does disincentivize voters from acting selfishly, it also disincentivizes them from acting wisely. Since individual votes count for so little, each voter can afford to be ignorant and misinformed about politics, or to indulge her worst biases and delusions. Imagine if a professor in a 1000-person class told her students she would average their final exam grades together and they’d each get the same grade. They wouldn’t bother to study, and the average grade would be an F.
So it goes with voters. Voters usually do not know the basic facts relevant to the election. They also have silly and mistaken beliefs about the social sciences and suffer from a wide range of cognitive biases that prevent them from thinking clearly about politics. As numerous studies have shown, if voters were better informed, they would have different political preferences. They vote the way they vote, and we get the candidates we get, because voters are ignorant, irrational, and misinformed.
To be clear, politicians, bureaucrats, and others retain significant independence from voters, and to some extent they can ignore, evade, or override voters’ preferences. We get significantly better government than we’d expect if politicians just did exactly what the median voter wanted. Still, governments do respond at least somewhat to voter preferences, and that’s scary.
Imagine a jury is trying a capital murder case. A third of jury is ignorant: they ignore the facts of the case, but find the defendant guilty after flipping a coin. Another third is irrational: they pay attention to the facts (which tends to suggest the defendant is innocent), but find the defendant guilty because they believe in bizarre conspiracy theories. Another third is malevolent: they find the defendant guilty because they dislike her. In such a case, we’d think the jury is evil and that their decision lacks legitimacy and authority.
Similar remarks apply, I think, to the electorate as a whole. Electorates’ decisions are high-stakes and can deprive innocent people of life, liberty, or property. Just as a jury should decide competently and in good faith, so should an electorate. But electorates routinely decide incompetently.
The arguments for democracy don’t hold water.
So why think democracy is intrinsically just, as most of my colleagues do? Some claim that democracy uniquely empowers us or allows us to have autonomous control over politics. But these kinds of arguments fail because individual voters have little power. Democracy empowers certain collectives, but disempowers the individuals who make up those collectives.
Others say democracy is intrinsically just because it is a uniquely fair decision-making procedure. But if all we care about is fairness, we could instead, as David Estlund has pointed out, flip a coin or decide by lottery.
Some say democratic decisions are just simply because they were decided democratically. But that’s a big bullet to bite. Suppose a democracy, after following an idealized deliberative procedure, voted to legalized child sexual abuse. It’s absurd to say this would render such abuse just. Rather, there are independent moral constraints on what political actors may do.
Others say democracy expresses the idea that all people are equal. I have a whole chapter on this issue in my book Against Democracy, and I can’t do it justice here. Still, my main worry is that we should judge democracy by its results, not by what it supposedly expresses. Suppose, hypothetically, that an alternative system turns out to do a better job protecting minorities’ civil and economic rights than democracy. In that case, advocating democracy for what it expresses would be perverse—akin to insisting we outlaw vaccines in order to express concern for human health.
Philip Pettit, my opponent in this debate, advocates a republican political philosophy. His main concern is that political systems should protect citizens from domination. To that end, republicans advocate instituting various checks and balances, the separation of powers, rights of speech, assembly, and open contestation, courts of appeals, limits on campaign finance and lobbying, and the like. I find it plausible that such institutions will reduce the amount of domination to which citizens are subject.
If republicans are correct that checks and balances, deliberative fora, courts of appeals, and the like would help reduce domination, it is unclear why this requires universal, equal adult suffrage.
To illustrate with a simple case, suppose that everyone in the country were allowed to vote and deliberate, except for me. It seems unlikely that this would cause me to be dominated or would reduce my freedom in any meaningful way. If, despite the rule of law, checks and balances, and widespread deliberation, politicians and others can still interfere arbitrarily with my life, granting me the right to vote or deliberate would not suddenly stop them from dominating me. As far as I can tell, republicans have no good reason to reject, for example, John Stuart Mill’s proposal that we give better informed citizens an extra vote. That would slightly improve the quality of political outcomes, but it wouldn’t allow those citizens to dominate everyone else.
You can check out part two, Pettit’s response to Brennan, here.