Against Democracy

Against Democracy

by Jason Brennan

Hardcover(New Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691162607
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 09/06/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,290,467
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, and Libertarianism. He is the coauthor of Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. He writes regularly for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog.

Read an Excerpt



American revolutionary and president John Adams said, "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain." Adams was a political animal if ever there was one, but he hoped future generations would evolve into a higher form of life.

This book explains why we should try to realize that hope.


The great nineteenth-century economist and moral philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that we should institute whatever form of government produces the best results. Mill advised us to examine all the consequences. That is, when asking whether it's best to have monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, representative legislatures, or other forms of government, we should focus not just on the obvious things, like how well different forms of government respect liberal rights or promote economic growth. We should also examine how different forms of government affect citizens' intellectual and moral virtue. Some forms of government might leave us dumb and passive, while others might make us sharp and active.

Mill hoped that getting people involved in politics would make them smarter, more concerned about the common good, better educated, and nobler. He hoped getting a factory worker to think about politics would be like getting a fish to discover there's a world outside the ocean. Mill hoped political involvement would harden our minds yet soften our hearts. He hoped that political engagement would cause us to look beyond our immediate interests and instead to adopt a long-term, broad perspective.

Mill was a scientific thinker. When he wrote, few countries had representative government. These few countries restricted suffrage, permitting only a nonrepresentative and elite minority to vote. In Mill's time, political participation was mostly an educated gentleman's pursuit. Mill did not quite have the evidence needed to back up his claims. At most, he had a reasonable but untested hypothesis.

That was just over 150 years ago. The test results are now in. They are, I will hold, largely negative. I think Mill would agree. Most common forms of political engagement not only fail to educate or ennoble us but also tend to stultify and corrupt us. The truth is closer to the economist Joseph Schumpeter's complaint: "The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again."

If Mill's hypothesis is wrong and Schumpeter is right, we must ask some hard questions: How much do we really want people to participate in politics? How much should people even be allowed to participate?


Many books about democracy and civic engagement complain that participation rates are falling. They note that in the late 1800s, 70 to 80 percent of eligible Americans voted in major elections. They then complain that we now muster at most 60 percent for a presidential election, or 40 percent for midterm, state, and local elections. After citing these numbers, they gnash their teeth. US democracy is more inclusive than ever, with more and more people invited to take a seat at the political bargaining table. And yet fewer people RSVP. Citizens are not taking the responsibility of self-government seriously, they say.

My response is different: this decline in political engagement is a good start, but we still have a long way to go. We should hope for even less participation, not more. Ideally, politics would occupy only a small portion of the average person's attention. Ideally, most people would fill their days with painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain, or perhaps football, NASCAR, tractor pulls, celebrity gossip, and trips to Applebee's. Most people, ideally, would not worry about politics at all.

In contrast, some political theorists want politics to pervade more aspects of life. They want more political deliberation. They think politics ennobles us, and see democracy as a way of empowering the little person to take control of their circumstances. Some "civic humanists" regard democracy itself as the good life, or at least a higher calling.

Which side is closer to the truth depends in part on what human beings are like, what democratic participation does to us, and what problems mass political participation is likely to solve — or create.


We no longer have to speculate, as Mill did, about what politics does to us. Psychologists, sociologists, economists, and political scientists have spent more than sixty years studying how people think about, react to, and make decisions in politics. They've investigated what people know, what they don't know, what they believe, how strongly they believe it, and what makes them change their minds. They've looked into how opinionated people are, how and why they form coalitions, and what gets them to act or participate. I'll review much of this research in greater detail in the coming chapters. Here, I summarize the results.

People differ in how strongly they hold political opinions. Some people cling to their opinions with religious fervor, while others have only weakly held views. Some people maintain the same ideology for years at a time, whereas others change their minds in a heartbeat.

People differ in how consistent their views are. Some people have a unified, coherent set of opinions. Others have inconsistent, contradictory beliefs.

People differ in how many opinions they have. Some people have an opinion on everything, and some people have hardly any at all.

Then too, people differ in how much information or evidence they have to support their beliefs. Some people have a strong background in the relevant social sciences. Some just watch the news. Others know hardly anything about politics. They have opinions, but little or no evidence backing them up.

People differ in how they regard and respond to those with whom they disagree. Some see their political opponents as satanic, while others think they are merely mistaken. Some believe that at least some of their opponents are reasonable, while others think all of them are fools.

People also differ in how much and in what ways they participate. Some people obsess over politics the way others obsess over celebrity love affairs. Some people vote, volunteer, campaign, and donate. Others never have and never will participate. The state could revoke their political rights, and they wouldn't notice or care.

On each of these issues, citizens fall on a spectrum. But we can simplify matters for the purpose of this book. There are three broad types of democratic citizens that will be interest to us here, which I will label hobbits, hooligans, and vulcans.

Hobbits are mostly apathetic and ignorant about politics. They lack strong, fixed opinions about most political issues. Often they have no opinions at all. They have little, if any, social scientific knowledge; they are ignorant not just of current events but also of the social scientific theories and data needed to evaluate as well as understand these events. Hobbits have only a cursory knowledge of relevant world or national history. They prefer to go on with their daily lives without giving politics much thought. In the United States, the typical nonvoter is a hobbit.

Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. They have strong and largely fixed worldviews. They can present arguments for their beliefs, but they cannot explain alternative points of view in a way that people with other views would find satisfactory. Hooligans consume political information, although in a biased way. They tend to seek out information that confirms their preexisting political opinions, but ignore, evade, and reject out of hand evidence that contradicts or disconfirms their preexisting opinions. They may have some trust in the social sciences, but cherry-pick data and tend only to learn about research that supports their own views. They are overconfident in themselves and what they know. Their political opinions form part of their identity, and they are proud to be a member of their political team. For them, belonging to the Democrats or Republicans, Labor or Tories, or Social Democrats or Christian Democrats matters to their self-image in the same way being a Christian or Muslim matters to religious people's self-image. They tend to despise people who disagree with them, holding that people with alternative worldviews are stupid, evil, selfish, or at best, deeply misguided. Most regular voters, active political participants, activists, registered party members, and politicians are hooligans.

Vulcans think scientifically and rationally about politics. Their opinions are strongly grounded in social science and philosophy. They are self- aware, and only as confident as the evidence allows. Vulcans can explain contrary points of view in a way that people holding those views would find satisfactory. They are interested in politics, but at the same time, dispassionate, in part because they actively try to avoid being biased and irrational. They do not think everyone who disagrees with them is stupid, evil, or selfish.

These are ideal types or conceptual archetypes. Some people fit these descriptions better than others. No one manages to be a true vulcan; everyone is at least a little biased. Alas, many people fit the hobbit and hooligan molds quite well. Most Americans are either hobbits or hooligans, or fall somewhere in the spectrum in between.

Notice that I do not define these types in terms of how extreme or moderate their opinions are. Hooligans are not by definition extremists, and vulcans are not by definition moderate. Perhaps some Marxist radicals or libertarian anarchists are vulcans, while most moderates are either hobbits or hooligans.

More generally, I didn't define these types in terms of what ideology they espouse. Consider, for instance, all the people with libertarian sympathies. Some of them are hobbits. These hobbits lean libertarian — they are predisposed to libertarian conclusions — but they don't think or care much about politics, and most don't self-identify as libertarian. Many, perhaps most, libertarians are hooligans. For them, being libertarian is a major part of their self-image. Their Facebook avatars are black-and-gold anarchist flags, they only date other libertarians, and they only read heterodox cult economist Murray Rothbard or novelist Ayn Rand. Finally, a few libertarians are vulcans.

Mill hypothesized that getting citizens involved in politics would enlighten them. One way of stating his supposition is that he hoped political deliberation and participation in representative government would transform hobbits into vulcans. Schumpeter, in contrast, thought that participation stultifies people — that is, it tends to turn hobbits into hooligans.

In the chapters that follow, I examine and attack a wide range of arguments that purport to show that political liberty and participation are good for us. I contend that for most us, political liberty and participation are, on the whole, harmful. Most of us are either hobbits or hooligans, and most hobbits are potential hooligans. We would be better off — and others would be too — if we stayed out of politics.


There is a widely shared set of views about the value and justification of democracy and widespread democratic participation. These beliefs are popular among my colleagues — that is, other analytic political philosophers and political theorists as well as a wide range of laypeople living in liberal democracies. They are less popular among empirically minded economists and political scientists, or among the more empirically minded philosophers and theorists.

Consider all the possible ways democracy and widespread political participation might be valuable:

Epistemic/instrumental: Perhaps democracy and widespread political participation are good because they tend to lead to just, efficient, or stable outcomes (at least compared to the alternatives).

Aretaic: Perhaps democracy and widespread political participation are good because they tend to educate, enlighten, and ennoble citizens.

Intrinsic: Perhaps democracy and widespread political participation are good as ends in themselves.

What I will call democratic triumphalism is the view that democracy and widespread political participation are valuable, justified, and required by justice, for all three kinds of reasons. Triumphalism's slogan might be, "three cheers for democracy!" According to triumphalism, democracy is a uniquely just form of social organization. People have a basic right to an equal fundamental share of political power. Participation is good for us; it empowers us, it's a useful way for us to get what we want, and it tends to make us better people. Political activity tends to produce fraternity and fellow feeling.

This book attacks triumphalism. Democracy doesn't deserve at least two of the three cheers it gets, and it might not deserve the last one either. I argue:

• Political participation is not valuable for most people. On the contrary, it does most of us little good, and instead tends to stultify and corrupt us. It turns us into civic enemies who have grounds to hate one another.

• Citizens don't have any basic right to vote or run for office. Political power, even the small amount of power contained in the right to vote, has to be justified. The right to vote is not like other civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, religion, or association.

• While there might be some intrinsically unjust forms of government, democracy is not a uniquely or intrinsically just form of government. Unrestricted, equal, universal suffrage — in which each citizen automatically is entitled to one vote — is in many ways on its face morally objectionable. The problem is (as I will argue at length) that universal suffrage incentivizes most voters to make political decisions in an ignorant and irrational way, and then imposes these ignorant and irrational decisions on innocent people. The only thing that could justify unrestricted, universal suffrage would be that we cannot produce a better-performing system.

In general, the best places to live right now are liberal democracies, not dictatorships, one-party governments, oligarchies, or real monarchies. Yet this does not show democracy is the ideal or even best feasible system. And even if democracy turns out to be the best feasible system, we might be able to improve it with less participation. Overall, democratic governments tend to perform better than the alternatives we have tried. But perhaps some of the systems we haven't tried are even better. In this book, I won't try to convince you there is for sure a better alternative. I will argue for a conditional claim, however: if there turns out to be better a better- functioning alternative, then we ought to take it. To some readers, that may sound like a weak claim. Nevertheless, in the current landscape of democratic theory, this makes me radical. Most lay readers and contemporary political philosophers deny this claim; they believe we ought to stick with democracy even if some nondemocratic alternatives turn out to work better.


Most North Americans and western Europeans, regardless of what party they tend to vote for, embrace a kind of philosophical liberalism. Philosophical liberalism is the view that each individual has a dignity, founded on justice, that imbues them with an extensive range of rights and freedoms — rights and freedoms that cannot easily be outweighed or overridden for the greater social good. These rights are like trump cards: they forbid others from using, interfering with, or harming us, even when doing so would produce good consequences for others. In contemporary US discourse, we sometimes use the word liberal to mean anyone left of center, but in political philosophy, it refers to those who think freedom is the fundamental political value.


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Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the 2017 Paperback Edition vii

Preface and Acknowledgments xv

1 Hobbits and Hooligans 1

2 Ignorant, Irrational, Misinformed Nationalists 23

3 Political Participation Corrupts 54

4 Politics Doesn’t Empower You or Me 74

5 Politics Is Not a Poem 112

6 The Right to Competent Government 140

7 Is Democracy Competent? 172

8 The Rule of the Knowers 204

9 Civic Enemies 231

Notes 247

Bibliography 265

Index 279

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