Democracy: Probably a Good Thing

Some people openly advocate elite rule. They are both evil and foolish.

Democracy, as I understand it, broadly refers to participation in political power by the governed. A state is democratic to the extent that the people have a say in its operations, a workplace is democratic to the extent that workers have some control over management decisions. (Almost no workplaces are democratic.) Democracy is also often held to be what is known as “a good thing,” on the theory that people probably deserve to be part of the decision-making processes that affect important aspects of their lives. When decisions are made by unaccountable forces, without popular input, and people are subjected to the will of the state without having any control over it, this is called “authoritarianism.” It is commonly considered to be worse than democracy, and has a somewhat dubious track record.

I hope you’ll excuse the patronizing civics lecture. I wouldn’t have thought it necessary. But, there are, surprisingly enough, a number of people who do not subscribe to the belief that democracy is good. In fact, they believe we may even have too much of it already, and should probably cut back. The populace just has too much of a say in things, and must have its influence curtailed. Benjamin Wittes and Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution condemn the “cult of democratization” that gives voice to the “ignorance and irrationalityof voters. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, James Kirchick concluded that the rise of Jeremy Corbyn is a “reminder of the perils of too much democracy,” and worries that about increasing use of the phrase “the people,” “that expression beloved of Third World tyrants and increasingly adopted by leaders in advanced industrial democracies” (also, we should note, beloved of James Madison). Bret Stephens, the New York Times’ new conservative affirmative action hire, worried about the problem of “reckless voters” being seduced by dangerous populists. A libertarian philosopher, Jason Brennan, has written an entire book called Against Democracy.

Obviously, ever since there has been democracy, there have been those who want to get rid of it. Plato saw in it the seeds of despotism, and as Noam Chomsky has often pointed out, there is a long antidemocratic tradition in American political thought. This runs from the Founders’ desire to check popular control to Walter Lippmann’s belief that “the public must be put in its place” and the “bewildered herd” ought to be kept “spectators” rather than participants, a sentiment reiterated in the Trilateral Commission’s conclusion that democracy needed moderating, because “the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.” Wherever there is concentrated power and wealth, those who possess them will naturally wish to ensure a lack of interference from those who do not possess them.

But it’s somewhat extraordinary just how open some commentators are in their embrace of elitism and their disdain for the participation of ordinary people in the political process. Brennan’s Against Democracy advocates “epistocracy,” the rule of the knowledgeable, asking why a majority of the stupid “should be allowed to impose its incompetent governance” on a smart minority. Business Insider’s Josh Barro, who has proudly embraced elitism, says that “the public should be kept away from policymaking.” James Traub, in a Foreign Policy article entitled “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses,” said that “mindlessly angry” voters of left and right are undermining those who believe in “reality”: Did I say ‘ignorant’? Yes, I did. It is necessary to say that people are deluded and that the task of leadership is to un-delude them. Is that ‘elitist’? Maybe it is. Daniel Bell comes to the extreme conclusion that “the uncomfortable truth is that the best (perhaps only) way to reduce the political influence of ignorant voters is to deprive them of the vote.”

Each of these writers insists that their position is driven by empirical evidence, showing that voters are “objectively” bad at making decisions. Their preferences are incoherent (the classic “lower taxes with more government services” demand) and their knowledge of policy is, on average, negligible. There’s a lot of the well-worn Jay Leno-type “X% of voters can’t find the U.S. on a map” type material. Then there’s a lot of use of the word “populism” as a pejorative, as if anything that appeals to large numbers of people is inherently suspect.

But, and this should hardly need to be said, the fact that you don’t like something does not make it “objectively” bad. James Kirchick, for example, bases his case that there is “too much democracy” on the fact that Jeremy Corbyn did well in the British election. But he doesn’t actually make an argument for why voters shouldn’t be allowed to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. He just says that he doesn’t like Corbyn (for a series of bizarre reasons including Corbyn’s alleged enthusiasm for Argentine fascism), and therefore Corbyn shouldn’t have been one of the available options. The people have made the wrong decision, thus they shouldn’t have been allowed to decide at all. (Luke Savage has previously written about how the elite hatred of democracy often occurs when democracy seems to be tending toward left-wing policies like single-payer health care.)

Of course, this logic, if accepted, doesn’t just justify curtailing democracy slightly. It’s a call to eliminate it altogether. After all, if people are only given choices when they make the choices you want them to make, this isn’t some kind of “partial” democracy. It just leads to fraudulent plebiscites of the kind run by dictators, where you accept the vote if you agree with it and discard it if you don’t. Actual democracy means—and again, I can’t believe I have to say this—that people have the freedom to make decisions that you think are bad. “This was a bad choice” is only a case for taking away the freedom to choose if we don’t believe in the freedom to choose to begin with.

Many of the arguments against democracy depend on carefully fudging important distinctions, or attacking irrelevant positions. “Professional and specialist decision-making is essential, and those who demonize it as elitist or anti-democratic can offer no plausible alternative to it,” say Wittes and Rauch. Since nobody actually advocates that there should be no “specialist decision-making” in any part of the government, the point is misleading and irrelevant. Likewise, Lee Drutman says we must give up “on the deeply held belief that American democracy can be solved by giving citizens more opportunities to participate by emailing Congress or voting, and an end to thinking all would be better if more people would just ‘get informed on the issues.’” But this isn’t a deeply held belief at all; hardly anyone holds it. Who honestly thinks that “emailing Congress” would “solve democracy” or that “all would be better” if people were a little more informed? Nobody. Those who advance these positions are dishonestly caricaturing the democratic position, yet still arguing that “epistocrats” like themselves should be entrusted with unaccountable power. That’s one of the contradictions with the pro-“elitist” position: such people argue that they know what people want better than the people know it themselves, but they’re unwilling to actually try to fair-mindedly understand what people say they want.

This is a serious problem with the defense of elites: it assumes that there are no rational reasons why people dislike being ruled by a small political class, and that there is no legitimate critique to be made of the policy consensus adopted by that class. Yet a huge explanation for the rise of populism is precisely that people do not like the world the elites have made: a world in which they live precarious economic existences under a grossly unequal system. To believe that being angry about this is “mindless” is to assume the conclusion one is supposed to prove: being dissatisfied must be irrational, because elites must make good choices, because the choices made by elites are good by definition. Never do they wonder whether, instead of “expertise” and “merit” being the criteria by which people come to inhabit the halls of power, it might be something else (say, social class).

In their paper, Wittes and Rauch offer an extremely telling look at what leaving more things to elites would look like. Wittes and Rauch openly advocate the return of corruption and smoke-filled rooms, saying that “the curtailment of backroom horse-trading and pork-barrel spending stripped legislators of important tools to make deals and build coalitions.” They believe that voters should have less of a role in party primaries, since the current system “empower[s] disruptive and extreme outsiders at the expense of more compromise-minded party regulars.” (Democratic Party regulars, of course, have long had an extraordinary disproportionate amount of nominating power through the superdelegate system, but apparently Wittes and Rauch think even this is not exclusive enough.) They lament that, even though Donald Trump was manifestly unqualified to be president, the Electoral College could “never seriously conside[r] performing its original failsafe function” to prevent him from taking office, since this would be seen as some kind of impingement on voter sovereignty.

As an example of a government institution that functions without popular oversight, Wittes and Rauch cite the intelligence agencies. They believe that the history of the CIA and NSA, whose policies are made without any substantive input from the public, shows that many parts of government are best left to experts. Of course, they couldn’t really have chosen a worse example. The story of these two agencies is a story of everything that goes wrong when parts of the government are released from the constraints of transparency and popular oversight. As Tim Weiner documents in his history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, the agency’s track record is an appalling litany of international crime and financial mismanagement. The agency has squandered billions of dollars on projects of dubious worth, and has engaged repeatedly in illegal subversion of foreign governments, often without authorization from the president or Congress (whom they have lied to). The CIA has given arms to terrorists, tried to assassinate foreign heads of state, collaborated with Nazi war criminals, tortured people at black sites (sometimes to death), and fabricated intelligence. What’s more, precisely because oversight is left to “experts” instead of the public, there has been almost no accountability as the CIA has violated law after law (both international and domestic, including spying on American citizens in direct violation of its charter). Likewise with the NSA: Wittes and Rauch cite the NSA’s reforms after Edward Snowden’s revelations as evidence that it adapts to public opinion. But the Snowden story actually illustrates the core of the problem: because nothing the NSA does is ever subject to public scrutiny, a single individual had to take illegal action in order to bring the agency’s behavior to light. Relying on individuals to break the law is not a workable way of ensuring accountability. Wittes and Rauch think the “success” of the intelligence establishment shows that insular, invisible government works. In fact, the intelligence establishment is a case study in the failures and atrocities that result when small groups of people are christened “elites,” handed large sums of cash and total legal impunity, and allowed to go forth and do as they please.

But the “anti-democrats” don’t just rely on the CIA’s record of coups and arms sales in order to make their case: they also have political philosophy on their side, and Bloomberg’s Justin Fox notes that “important thinkers from Plato to Machiavelli to the U.S.’s Founding Fathers to John Stuart Mill all proposed limits on democracy.” Perhaps, then, this is a good opportunity to note that all appeals to the authority of esteemed historical philosophers are worthless. Each of these men had horrific opinions, and the fact that they endorsed some practice should be taken as reason to suspect it rather than endorse it. Machiavelli was writing a manual on how to be a sociopathic tyrant, while Plato thought we should live in a regime of philosopher-kings and that all poets should be systematically expelled from society (actually, that particular idea could possibly stand to be revived). John Stuart Mill spoke eloquently of liberty, but when it came down to it, he believed that some people are “more or less unfit for liberty” even if they “prefer a free government,” and are incapable and undeserving of one due to their “indolence, or carelessness, or cowardice.” Mill said that in the case of those people, “a civilized government… will require to be in a considerable degree despotic [and impose] a great amount of forcible restraint upon their actions.” Mill deemed some “unfit for more than a limited and qualified freedom,” giving as an example “the Hindoos, [who] will perjure themselves to screen the man who has robbed them.” Probably best not to give much credence to Mill, then, on the subject of when to withhold democracy.

As for the Founding Fathers, well, let’s just say that it might not be desirable to adopt their idea of who should be afforded equal participation in power. Even the Declaration of Independence speaks of “merciless Indian savages,” and Thomas Jefferson, that most democratic of framers, felt that certain races of people were biologically incapable of the reasoning necessary for self-governance. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson explained that, in his capable scientific judgment, black people were uglier, smellier, and dumber than whites:

Is this difference [between black and white] of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oran-ootan for the black women over those of his own species… [Blacks] secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.  Their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection… Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous… Never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture… Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination… I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.

I mention this to point out that while there is very much a respectable philosophical tradition on the need for democracy, there is no such respectable tradition justifying autocracy. Whenever ancient political philosophers defended some kind of curtailment on people’s rights, they were usually speaking out of their most bigoted instincts, the ones that deemed some civilizations “barbarous” and unfit for self-governance (echoes of which are heard to this day in discussions of whether Arabs are incapable of practicing democracy). One serious reason that many great political philosophers have advocated restrictions on democracy is that those philosophers were outright racists, who constructed their theories deliberately to rationalize the exclusion of certain people from participating in government.

Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy makes the most spirited and comprehensive attempt at a philosophically coherent justification of despotic rule. Brennan’s book also offers a useful insight into libertarianism: Against Democracy is a good illustration of how supposedly “libertarian” philosophy is often just a defense of oligarchy. Libertarians always insist that they are defending a philosophy of freedom, but what they are in fact defending is the freedom of a few to maintain their status privileges. The rest of us, without money or votes, always tend to remain distinctly unfree.

The actual case Brennan advances can be devastated rather quickly, since it suffers from a central logical flaw that renders the whole core argument worthless. Brennan makes his case against democracy by pointing out all the ways in which people are stupid and fail to govern themselves well. Then, he makes the case for epistocracy by thinking through how smart people might make better decisions. All of this is very persuasive, until we remember that he is comparing “democracy as it actually exists” with “epistocracy as an abstract theory.” By comparing real democracy to hypothetical epistocracy (instead of epistocracy as it would actually be implemented), Brennan’s book doesn’t address a single one of the important questions around restricted suffrage: in practice, wouldn’t voting tests probably be used (as they have for their entire history) to disenfranchise the socially powerless? Wouldn’t such a system inevitably be abused, and wouldn’t “knowledge” just become a stand-in for “things powerful people believe”? (Brennan admits that wealthy white men will probably be considered the most “knowledgable,” but does not appear to have a problem with this.) By presenting democracy with all its warts, but giving no thought to how “epistocracies” work in practice, Brennan avoids confronting the difficult fact that his preferred system of government, if adopted, will almost certainly reinstate Jim Crow. 

Thus Brennan’s book is ultimately morally disgusting, since it amounts to a manifesto in favor of seizing a right from African Americans that took them centuries of bloodshed to win. (People died for that right, but to the Princeton University Press it’s apparently an interesting matter for academic debate.) Brennan believes, in the great Jeffersonian tradition, that most black people are probably too dumb to vote and that we should return to one of the darkest eras in our politics. He does not have the guts to contemplate what his proposals would look like if implemented, since this would involve having to make difficult arguments. But at least Brennan is honest in exposing the libertarian project as fundamentally opposed to the basic rights of human beings, its grand paeans to liberty being thin cover for taking the vote away from poor people.

Some of today’s “anti-democratic” writers profess themselves puzzled that their proposals are controversial. Barro says it seems to offend modern sensibilities” to question democracy, while Bell says it’s “a bit odd that since World World II and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seems to have become a kind of sacred value that you can’t question in Western society.” Neither considers why the world’s experiences with World War II and the Soviet Union might have turned democracy into a kind of “sacred value” that people were deeply committed to. (Hint: it was because millions of people were brutally slaughtered by undemocratic governments.) And all of these writers seem to treat the elimination or reduction of democracy as a kind of interesting intellectual exercise, rather than an infringement on the fundamental right of human beings to control their own governments.

Only those narrow few who benefit from today’s system of elite rule could possibly see such rule as a good thing, or contemplate its further entrenchment. For the rest of us, the old cliché about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others remains as true as ever. It is certainly preferable to epistocracy and oligarchy, which empower the most arrogant and least self-aware segment of society to make decisions about the lives of those whom they do not understand or care about. However dysfunctional our democracies may get, it will remain true that the people least qualified for power are those who are most convinced that they should have it.

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