Democracy: Embrace or Re-think?

I recently finished a book by Jason Brennan entitled Against Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2015) that I found intriguing.  It might not sound glamorous but I think the topic is timely in light of our American love of democracy in its various forms, whether direct or representative.  I don’t want to leave the impression that Brennan is some sort of either anarchist on the one hand or totalitarian or monarchist on the other.  Rather what he does is pose a question, really a series of important questions:

  1. Does everyone have a right to competent government?
  2. If so, is the democracy the best form for achieving that goal?

He first argues, using some pretty convincing studies, that Americans at least are appallingly ignorant about politics.  At the same time, though they don’t necessarily hold harmful views about their fellow citizens, they are willing to vote in ways that promote their own interests as individuals (something Public Choice theory has observed for some time).  Brennan divides the public between what he calls “hobbits” and “hooligans.”  The former have “low information and typically don’t care much about politics.” (Brennan, 51)  The latter “generally have higher information and have strong opinions about politics, but they are biased in how they evaluate and process political information.” (Ibid.)  Americans then are divided roughly equally between hobbits and hooligans.  Thus we have bias and irrationality.  But in addition, a little less than half know nothing or less than nothing about politics while the rest know a moderate amount. (ibid.)


I think the reader can see what will happen.  Even if voters are at least sometimes well-meaning toward others, their votes produce bad results, or at beat, coincidentally relatively good results.  These results are posited in the context of democracy.  Brennan does not say every decision will be a negative one, even if the politicians elected are not very knowledgeable themselves.  But in general we will find less that even good results, measured in terms of justice, efficiency and responsiveness.


Besides all this, Brennan indicates that political participation may well actually corrupt the individuals engaged in it.  (see Chapter 3).  


In light of these negative considerations and despite the several traditional reasons given in support of democracy (pp. 6-8), Brennan posits that we may be advised to ask whether we should modify our commitment to democracy and devise a means that produces better outcomes for all citizens–even for those whom he might argue should not vote (and he does not mean minorities).  He calls the alternative epistocracy, literally “knower-ocracy.”  Brennan suggest several possible ways we can get to voting that is knowledgeable (in the last portion of the book).


He does not, I repeat argue that democracy is necessarily worse that epistocracy, but intends in the book to raise the question and call for serious discussion.  For this reason the book is extremely stimulating, given the historical excesses of democracy and the problems raised in the book.  If nothing else, it is an excellent thought exercise that may help us think about how we can make our institutional arrangements better.


Now one additional note for Christians.  We have the tendency too to support democracy uncritically as if a simple majority rule will produce desirable outcomes and as if everyone must have the right to vote no matter their actual qualifications.  Often this support is tied to some vague Biblical notion of human dignity.  While the rationale has a certain appeal, it fails to account for the fact that when we all vote, our votes collectively affect everyone else–for better or worse.  If we do tend to be ignorant and apathetic, then we either must become knowledgeable or not vote, or else we probably are actually harming those others in our relevant community.  There is nothing automatically wrong in supporting democracy, but if we should find that Brennan is correct, then we too should be willing to re-evaluate our positions.  

After all, democracy is not sacred, nor does Scripture exalt it over any other form.   We must always be careful not to idolize any institutional form.  

3 thoughts on “Democracy: Embrace or Re-think?”

  1. So how exactly would a so-called “epistocracy” work? What exactly are Brennan’s possible ways to reach “knowledgeable voting”?

    And how exactly does he suggest we determine who is “knowledgeable”? Education level? How would such a process avoid going down the road of the infamous “literacy tests”?

    Does Brennan differentiate between different forms of democracy such as direct democracy, representative democracy, a federalist system, a republic, a parliamentary democracy, a system using a combination of these elements?

  2. Appreciate this post and its genre. Intentional engagement with secondary academic sources strikes me as a great use of this space. Recapitulating a regular critique, though, I do wonder about the lack of attention to the political & ideological contexts for Brennan’s argument. This (admittedly much longer) New Yorker piece added much more to my understanding in that regard (

    I sense that limited depth of analysis haunting your closing charge to Christians. Once we’ve trusted Brennan to out Christians for over-privileging democracy and similar institutions, how far might that critique go? For example, *why* might certain Christians have an idolatrous with democracy, and what might that excess suggest about the theological assumptions that led them to such a conclusion? And now that we’re focusing on the collective social impact of Christians wrapping their faith around corruptible institutional forms, would the Bereans be willing to apply that logic to other beloved institutions? The free market, perhaps?

    As best as I can gather, this space seems mostly uninterested in asking such questions. But whether or not you prefer to follow them, the turtles still go all the way down.

  3. The problem with the world is not so much democracy but autocracy.

    Democracy can descend into mob rule, yes, but the damage can be mitigated as long as constitutional protections remain in place, and constitutions remain in effect.

    What scares me, especially in Trump’s America, is this very thing. The erosion of constitutional protections by autocrats, or democrats, or whomever should be the concern of anyone who truly supports freedom and liberty.

    I may check out the Brennan book, but it is not a priority. After all, (just about) nothing is new under the sun.

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