Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Julia Gillard.
And with me is today's guest, Professor Jason Brenin. Jason is a professor of strategy, economics, ethics and public policy at Georgetown University. And he's the author of seven books, most recently Against Democracy, which is the book that we're going to be talking about in today's episode. It lays out the case that democracy is not actually the best system of government, either from a philosophical or moral perspective or from an empirical perspective. So, Jason, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
I'll just to kick things off, tell you the moment when I decided I wanted to have an episode about objections to democracy. It was it was during an interview where I was myself being interviewed and I was being asked about motivated reasoning and other cognitive biases and how they sort of undermine the democratic process and introduce all these problems into our political discourse. And so I was talking about all of these flaws with democracy. And then I hastened to add, but of course, you know, that doesn't mean we shouldn't have a democracy.
And as I said it, I had this moment where I realized. You know, I'm I'm I didn't say that because I believe it's true, like, I may well believe it's true, but that wasn't what motivated me to say it. I said it because I felt like I had to. I think that the position that maybe democracy is not the best system, after all, is kind of one of those things. You can't say that Paul Graham wrote about in his essay, Things You Can't Say, where their positions that are sort of off limits enough in our current climate that it's like hard to think and and especially talk sort of clearly about them, which seems bad.
So I like even before we get into the specifics of your case against democracy, I think I just want to make the point that I think it's good for discourse that you're raising these questions.
Yeah, well, thank you. I agree with you. It's it's a taboo topic for most people. They say it's axiomatic that democracy is the best system and we're not even supposed to really debate that.
Yeah. Is that also your impression of the discourse within the field of political science or political philosophy that it's taboo?
Well, in a sense, yes and no. So I think in political science, there was a famous political theorist a couple of years ago, maybe about 20 years ago, said it's just take it as an axiom. And I think in political theory, as done by political scientists, they do just sort of take it for granted philosophy. On the other hand, there's much more of a taste for the avant garde and willingness to question basic assumptions. So I think it's more open in philosophy where people take seriously the idea that actually it might simply be a prejudice of ours or maybe it's not actually the best system.
Yeah, I call that a taste for bullets in the sense of like people enjoying biting bullets that are maybe unpalatable to most people. But that's sort of what what the philosophers crave so well, it's sort of a sort of a profession.
And so you're supposed to be examining things that everyone else takes for granted. So. Oh, yeah, being unwilling to do that is, in a sense, making you a bad philosopher, right?
Yeah. And honestly, to the extent that it's a bias, I think it's probably a valuable bias overall. So I'm not really complaining about it, just pointing at it. There's a bunch of pieces to your argument, but why don't you just lay out the basic case first and then we can sort of go deep down some of the branches.
Sure. So I guess, you know, what I'm really attacking in the book is something I call Democratic triumphalism. So that's the view that democracy really deserves. Three cheers. So cheer number one is that democracy is sort of good for us because it leads to just and good outcome sort of defined independently of the procedure. Another cheer that people gave is that democracy is good for us because it makes us better, smarter or more noble people. And finally, a lot of people say that democracy is good as an end in itself.
And I'm skeptical of all three of those claims. I don't think democracy is as good as an end in itself. I'm trying to convince people that the kind of value it has is the same type of value that a hammer has. It's merely an instrument for producing outcomes. And if we can find a better hammer, we should feel free to use it. I think the claim that it ennobles and enlightens us is actually false. I think we've done a lot of testing of that and it actually gets things backwards.
For the most part, democratic participation, I think corrupts us and still defies us rather than ennobles and enlightens us. And then in terms of the final question about does it produce good outcomes, I think yeah, overall, it does compare to many of the alternatives that we tried. So if you compare democracies to, say, theocratic systems or autarchic or systems or so on, I think it clearly functions better overall. But that said, it's not clear that it that we can't replace it with an even better alternative.
And we do know that there are these kind of pervasive pathologies and democracy in that. I mean, to put it in an overly simplified term, at the end of the day, democracy works and the politicians have a fairly strong tendency to try to do the things that voters want. But voters are badly informed, they're ignorant, they're even irrational and misinformed. As a result, they choose policies they would not advocate if they were better informed or more rational.
And so democracy systematically get suboptimal policies. And if that's the case, then I want to entertain the idea that there might be alternative representative political systems that in some way limit the power of reduce universal suffrage or limit the power of voters and might produce better outcomes. Though I say kind of skeptically in the book, we don't really know that yet because we haven't really tried them. So we are sort of forced to speculate. Right, and to clarify, probably when people here are rejecting democracy or tossing democracy aside in favor of something else, they're probably picturing something like a dictatorship or a monarchy or other political systems that we have tried historically and feeling like, gee, it seems pretty unlikely that would be an improvement over democracy.
But so you're you're talking about something that people sometimes call episode ocracy, right. Where the type of the people who are who are voting are making the political decisions are kind of a selected subset of all voters. That's really the distinction when when you talk about rejecting democracy, it's really about who's making the decision or who who's voting, not about whether people vote.
Yeah, that's right. So it's clear when we're thinking about it is if you concentrate power in the hands of a very small number of people, they have a very strong incentive to use that power wisely in the sense of paying a lot of attention to what they do with it. But they also have an incentive to use the power selfishly for their own ends because they can kind of unilaterally make decisions. So that's what happens with dictators. If you make the power widespread so that everyone has access to power, they lose any incentive to use it selfishly, but they also lose any incentive to be smart in how they use it.
And so we find and we'll talk about this at length, that most voters are deeply misinformed, ignorant or even irrational. And it's because there's nothing that prevents them from doing that. So an autocratic system, in a sense, tries to split the difference by selecting a subgroup of all the voters, finding those that are somewhat higher in information and allowing them to vote, but making sure the power's so widespread that they still lack the incentive to use it selfishly.
Right. Right. Going back to the three arguments for democracy that you're of which you disagree with all of them, I think maybe we should just dispense with the middle one first, because it was the one that I'm sort of least interested in or at least convinced by, which is the argument that democracy empowers people. I I guess it's not obvious to me that we should expect it to empower people who aren't already active and engaged in questioning and trying to get the best outcomes for society.
But what why is that a fundamental argument? Like what is the case for democracy empowering people?
Yeah, so there's a complete inversion of that argument. So most people say things like in a democracy, you have sort of autonomous control over the outcome in a way that you don't in an autocracy, or they'll say that you're allowed to sort of shape the outcomes to your preferences. And the problem with any kind of argument like this is just it's just kind of obviously false. The probability that my vote will be decisive is on most models, vanishingly small.
And there is some disagreement, political science about just how small it is. But there's a lot of agreement that is quite small. So in the same way that I don't feel like I have a lot of power and virtue of having a lottery ticket, it would be weird to have a lot of power in virtue of having a vote. Robert Nozick, the philosopher at Harvard, famously has a story called The Tale The Slave, which I won't recount the entire thing here because it'll take too long.
But it involves this thought experiment where it starts off with you being a slave and ends with you being in a modern democracy. And you're like, yes, what's the difference? And there is a difference. But the point is to show that just by virtue of getting a vote, you don't suddenly become an autonomous, powerful individual. But it's not just they claim that it makes you autonomous. People also will make a more interesting empirical claim. They'll say that maybe getting you to participate in politics will make you sort of smarter or more enlightened or more noble.
So, John Stuart Mill writing in eighteen hundreds. This is one of the arguments that he he used in favor of representative government that we didn't end up being a Democrat himself. He said he thought, well, you've got all these people working like Manchester factories or London factories, and they're completely unaware of politics. And maybe if we get them to participate, they'll it'll be sort of like getting a fish to recognize that there is a world outside of the ocean and they'll become to have greater concern for one another.
They'll have a more enlightened point of view. We'll sort of force them to think about these deep issues and that will make them smarter. But that's, in a sense, an empirical claim about what participation does for us. And I think over the past hundred fifty years, we've had basically a test of that claim and found that it's it gets things backwards. In fact, politics tends to, I think, make us dumb and mean. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
Sure. So Chapter three of the book has a great long sort of a review of the literature on this point, but it pretty much works out to be something like this because our votes don't matter very much. We are, in a sense, able to use political ideology not as a way of forming true beliefs about the world that we might get punished or rewarded for, but rather as a sort of banner or flag which we on which we can rally.
And we end up using political beliefs in order to form in groups and out groups. There's a lot of sort of experiment showing that we just sort of automatically do this about really mundane things and politics because it's sort of cost free when you're wrong about politics will make a difference. We're able to use these political beliefs that way. So it ends up happening is people who care about politics tend to have it be part of their kind of tribal identity, and they just end up being sort of angry and nasty towards people on the other side, overly forgiving and hypocritical towards their own side.
There's this really good work by the political scientist and mutt's this book called Hearing the Other Side, where she asks the question, OK, so if you're a Democrat, can you explain to me why anyone would be a Republican? And if your answer is, well, because they're stupid and evil, that predicts that you heavily participate in politics, if, on the other hand, you're able to explain points of view. The other point of view in a way that the other side would find appealing, that predicts you don't participate in politics.
And so there's just kind of a lot of work like that. It's my my term for the you know, it's it's really depressing. And then when you look, they're doing all these experiments really being done by people who are trying to prove that democracy works, all these experiments getting people to deliberate with one another in the hopes that it'll make them smarter and nicer. And if you kind of read the review of the literature I give in Chapter three, most of these experiments get negative results and even the results that are often framed as neutral results or if you think about it, actually quite negative.
So it's pretty uncommon for people to learn very much during deliberation. They often will come to blows or get angry at one another, or they'll be talking about controversial topics or deliberation doesn't do any better than just giving them a piece of paper with some basic facts, et cetera, et cetera. They're much more swayed by things like the attractiveness of the other side or the perceived influence rather than the quality of their arguments or the quality of their evidence. So my my kind of metaphor at the end is I divide political citizens into three kind of archetypes, and one of them I call hooligans.
If you if you've ever been to a soccer game or you watch like sports or something, that a lot of sports fans have a huge amount of information about the sport, but they're also very biased in how they process that information in the New England Patriots. Fans, of course, believe that Tom Brady's innocent and everyone else believes that he's guilty. And we all have access to the same information, but we're evaluating that information in a way that's biased to our side.
So I think most people who participate in politics are what I call hooligans like that. They they're more they have some information, but they're biased in how they process it. And then the other two archetypes.
Sure. So if you've ever read The Lord of the Rings novels or you've watched the movies, you can think about hobbits. So hobbits are these creatures. And Lord of the Rings, I don't really care much about the outside world. They just kind of want to eat breakfast and second breakfast and have their allegiance and smoke their pipes and chill out. And they're not really interested in adventure. The outside world and the political analogue of that would be the typical non-voter in the US who doesn't have very many political opinions.
If you if that person gives an opinion, it's not a stable opinion, he or she will change her mind the next day. They don't know very much and they just don't care. So in a sense, democracy is the rule of hobbits and hooligans, hobbits, the typical nonvoters, the hobbit doesn't care much, doesn't know much, and a typical voter is a hooligan, cares a lot, knows a little bit more, but is super biased.
And my my third kind of archetype, which is maybe a existent category maybe except perhaps for your listeners, an aspirational category, an aspirational category. I call Vulcan's and you think of a Vulcan's being dispassionate scientists who are not really loyal to their beliefs but willing to kind of update their beliefs when the new evidence comes in, perhaps by following bais or something like that. And the problem is many theories of democracy assume that people will behave the way Vulcans do, but they don't.
They behave as as hobbits and hooligans. And so a good philosophical theory of democracy or good justification or democracy has to deal with what human beings are actually like rather than what we wish they were like.
Right. And the theory that we were originally talking about that democracy will kind of empower noble people and show them that there's a world outside the water they're swimming in is kind of assuming that it will take Hobbit's or maybe also hooligans and turn them into Vulcan's or something like that. And that's just not what we see. Yeah, that's right.
So you might think of it as John Stromal was hypothesising, most people hobbit's, but if we get them to do politics, they'll become Vulcan's. We actually test that hypothesis. We find that, in fact, almost all hobbits are just potential hooligans and the. We get them to participate in politics, the more hooliganism. They become hooligans, deliberate, they get worse. When Vulcan's deliberate, they get better. As a matter of fact, most people are hooligans.
Right. You know, so I've also become I don't know about your trajectory. My trajectory is that I've become more pessimistic about people's ability to kind of deliberate and and update their opinions about political issues over the years. As I've I thought about this and observed the world I'm in partly that's been observing the evidence. And but it's also been kind of thinking theoretically or just thinking apriori about what we should expect humans to be good at. And if you look at, you know, what our the human brain evolved to do, what it adapted for, it really wasn't it it didn't evolve to deal successfully with these kind of complex, abstract, long term questions that aren't relevant.
There aren't directly relevant to their everyday lives. And so, in a sense, you actually say this in the book. It's kind of rational. It's like instrumentally rational to not think epistemically rationally about political questions, because the the payoff you get from being accurate about things like, I don't know, tax policy is pretty tiny and indirect compared to the path you get from not having to do a lot of research and from not having to spend the resources just like thinking hard about things or or the payoff that you get from being able to maintain strong ties to your tribe and feel confident and good about yourself.
And so that all that all makes a lot of sense that our our brains would opt instead for for hooliganism. But it's it's it's pretty sad. Yeah. I think I think you're right about that.
If I remember the names of the people correctly, I think it's Dan Sperber and Hugo Mersea and they call the argumentative theory of reasoning. And the claim is that our capacity for reasoning developed really to form coalitions and to influence and persuade others. It did not develop for the purposes of forming abstract scientific beliefs about how the world works.
Right. So now maybe it's time to talk about I think I want to opt for the the argument for democracy being a good thing in itself, that it's sort of a moral or just system, regardless of the outcome that it causes. When I what I thought was so interesting about your treatment of this question was that you go beyond saying that no morality or justice doesn't require democracy. You actually make this interesting case that morality and justice require us not to have democracy.
How does that go? Yeah, good.
So there are a lot of cases where we think intuitively that competence is a kind of precondition for someone having any kind of authority. So an example I give that most people find persuasive is with regard to a jury trial. So I say imagine that you were being tried in a capital murder case. And in one case, the jury completely ignores the evidence at hand and they don't even read the transcript of what transpired during the case. They just flip a coin and say, OK, you're guilty because the queen says so.
You would think that that's unjust and the decision should stand.
Yeah, right. There's a wrong that has been done there. Yeah. Suppose instead they pay attention to the facts, but they process them in a really biased way. So they they happen to believe in the conspiracy theory that you're one of the lizard people. So they decide to find you guilty for that reason, even though the evidence doesn't point that way. Again, we think that they've done something unjust or suppose they decide to find you guilty because they just don't like you or they find you guilty because they've been paid off to find you guilty by someone who doesn't like you, like the rival bagel makers paid has paid them off to find you guilty.
And each of these cases, we think what the jury has done is unjust and what seems like the jury owes to either the defendant or society at large, they are perhaps both is both competence in good faith. When you're making a high stakes decision that's going to be imposed involuntarily upon another person, that can deprive the person of life, liberty, happiness and their rights or whatever, then you owe that person to make that decision competently and in good faith.
And if you fail to do that, then your decision really lacks any kind of legitimacy or authority. So I think what I want to give that example, almost everyone agrees to it so that I ask, well, what about Democratic decision making? So when an electorate is deciding who's going to be president or who's going to run the country, it seems like they're also making a high stakes decision that can deprive people of life, liberty and their property or their rights and which will be imposed involuntarily.
I don't think democracy is a voluntary system through that kind of Chapter four. So why not say that they're also that the electorate also owes it to the people that are governed to be competent and to act in good faith. And then I think they just systematically violate that that kind of requirement. They don't act competently and they don't act in good faith. And there's actually a kind of attention here that happens. Sometimes people say, oh, no, political decisions are not actually high stakes.
What the electorate decides does not count as high. Steaks and they run to sort of a problem, if you really believe that, then you might not be so worried about Democratic incompetence, but then you don't have any particularly good reason to be in favor of democracy either. So you say democracy doesn't matter, but if you think it does matter, then you have to start worrying that, well, maybe they should be competent.
Right. The the so the jury intuition pumphouse was pretty effective for me. And the other part of that argument that I thought that struck me was that I think people, including myself, are used to thinking of democracy at the level of the society where, you know, even if the society chooses bad outcomes, that's not there isn't an injustice or a wrong that has been done there because the society chose them. You know, it's sort of like, you know, if a person does something self-destructive, that's not immoral in the way that it would be if he did something destructive to another person.
But you argue that's not actually necessarily the right level of analysis because there are democracy. Our society is made up of a bunch of individual people and some of those people are making decisions or each of those people is making decisions for the other people. And some of the people making the decisions are doing so in a way that sort of is clearly an incompetent or negligent or corrupt, and that's causing harm to other people. So it's it's not really analogous to an individual doing something self-destructive.
Yeah, that's absolutely right. I mean, if we had a case where literally every single person was affected by the decision, unanimously agreed to it and it was destructive, again, there'd be no reason to think it's an injustice because they accepted it. But in reality and every democratic system, it's a small minority of people who impose their will upon everybody else. And even if you had high turnout, there's still, I think, American politics when American voters are deciding they're not just deciding for the minority, for themselves and for the minority voters, but they're also deciding for children.
They're deciding for resident aliens who are affected by the decisions were allowed to vote. And they're also deciding for people who live in other countries. I mean, are choosing Donald Trump as president can have momentous implications for the rest of the world in a way that say, I don't know if whoever Switzerland will pick as its next prime minister probably won't matter as much Burne matter as much.
There is a an argument that I guess would be classified as an argument for the intrinsic good of democracy that you call a semiotic defense of democracy, which is kind of I thought that was a really good word, because I've run into what you're calling semiotic arguments before more in college than I do now, because I was sort of forced to read a lot of texts that take the semiotic approach to discussing society and policy. And I don't read those texts so much of my own free will anymore.
But the argument is basically that democracy is good because it signifies or symbolizes something that we that we think is good, like it symbolizes people's empowerment or or sort of equal dignity as human beings or something like that. Can you. I don't know if I'm if I'm explaining it correctly. How would you describe the semiotic argument for democracy?
Yeah, that's right. You know, if you think maybe it's a big theme of my work, actually, I just don't like symbolic arguments for policy. So the book that came out right before this one was called Markets Without Limits, and it was really taking down semiotic arguments for or semiotic arguments against things like kidney markets and so on. And this is really just an application of that kind of same argument. So lots of people get impressed by the idea that, like, we should have certain policies not because they're effective, but because the policies express something.
So people say things like this is really a view that a lot of people have. They say, oh, yeah, kidney markets will save lives, but they expressed disrespect for the human body, so therefore we shouldn't have them, which is weird because it's to me that reads a little bit like saying I want to show my concern for the plight of orphans. And the way I'm going to do that is by building a statue made out of murdered orphan parts.
But wow. Yeah, I like the steel man of that argument.
Or like the version of that argument that I have some sympathy for is one that cashes out the symbolism and its consequences where. Yeah, you know, what we mean by it signifies a disrespect for orphans is it will cause people to have less regard for orphans in the future, and that will lead to worse consequences for orphans.
Yeah, you know, I agree that that's a better argument. But believe it or not, I mean, the thing is, that's actually the argument they need to make. They don't sometimes people mean to say, oh, we need to have this practice because it will have certain consequences. But usually people are going to like the Oregon debate, people like Michael Sandel and others, they mean this to be independent of the consequentialist concerns. So they don't mean they really mean it's just this is what everyone jumps back on when all the other arguments run out.
So when it comes to democracy, it's somewhat plausible if you think about what we use the right to vote to mean. So say Nazi Germany made Jews wear a star of David. And I was a kind of public affirmation of their second class status. So they're inferior and as a matter of fact, if you look at American history, we've used the right to vote as a way of publicly affirming that you are a full and equal member of society.
It's like once, once, once the culture develops enough to sort of regard a previously second class group as as being on par with it, then we extend the right to vote and then we send to women or to to non property owners and to blacks and others. So it's true that like the right to vote, as a matter of fact, has all of this symbolic value. We use it. We use it to say this. You are a full equal member of society.
And given that we use it that way, to take away someone's right to vote would be kind of like giving them the middle finger. It does, in fact, have that meaning. So I agree that it has that meaning. But then I have to ask, well, why does it have that meaning? Is it written into the fabric of the universe that has that meaning? It doesn't look like it is. Rather it looks like it's just sort of a contingent cultural fact about it.
So we happen to have imbued the right to vote with all that, meaning you can at least imagine a society in which the right to vote only to have the right to vote has no further stigma than failing to have a plumbing license has in our society. I'm not allowed to practice plumbing, legally speaking, and I don't even like from plumbing licenses, to be frank, but I don't feel like I'm made into an inferior citizen. I don't feel like that's society's way of saying shaming me or saying I'm second class because we just haven't imbued plumbing licenses with that kind of status.
But we have the right to vote. So then we can ask, well, should we? Is that a good way of like you can? I think you can actually judge semiotic codes by their consequences. So here's an example of that. The Fourie tribe of Papua New Guinea used to have a semillon, a code under which in order to show respect for your father upon his death, you're supposed to eat his brain. Failure to do so would be disrespectful.
It's a social construct and it's it's fine as far as it goes. But then it turned out that doing this actually was killing people because they were getting a prion based disease as a basis of eating brains. So they stopped doing it. They changed their code. Well, what if it turned out that the practice of imbuing the right to vote with all this power was similarly destructive? It was similarly causing harm to people? If that were the case, I think it's reason to maybe change the semiotic practice.
So I give another analogy, which is like imagine a society in which like no one cares about the right to vote, they just treat. That is purely instrumental. They have no real concern for it. But in that society, everyone upon it gets a red scar from the government. But then, like a new right wing government comes to power and they stop giving it to gay people. And then you'd imagine that then society would march on the streets and say, isn't it so disrespectful that they're not giving the red scarf to gaze upon turning 18?
We need to overturn it. And in a sense, it would make sense in that society based upon their culture to demand that people get a red scarf. But we in our culture can look and go, yeah, there's really nothing about red scarves and signifies respect. It's just a contingent social construct. So I think I'm trying to make the case in Chapter five that the right to vote is like that, too. It just is a way we happen to think it's not into the fabric of the universe.
And if it turns out to be destructive, we should change. If it turns out not to be destructive, we should keep it right.
And I guess that, like when I when I talked about the importance of cashing out semiotic arguments in terms of consequences, I count insulting people as a consequence that, you know, should enter into the cost benefit analysis. The version of semiotic argument that I just really can't stand are the ones that talk about the meaning of something independent of of either how a randomly selected person is likely to interpret it and also independently of how it was intended. It's just sort of the objective.
I mean, it's like it's like a textual analysis approach to social policy, which drives me up a wall. But but I agree. There's a spectrum of like reasonableness of semiotic arguments.
Yeah. So example, like I like to give in my co-author Peter from my previous book likes to give to as well. Say, imagine turned out that when we say go to hell, that creates sound vibrations, which in turn makes the molecules in your body vibrate or when he kills cancer. If we learn that saying go to hell had that effect, what we would do the right thing to do would be to change the meaning of the English language and make that like an informal greeting.
You just walk around saying, go to hell, everybody. It sounds like that case where we'd want to change the insult that's associated with the words. So what if it turns out that distributing the right to vote on the basis of competence leads to vastly greater growth, like less incarceration, lower crime rates, less war, less death, less suffering, less poverty? Suppose it did that, then we might want to go, hey, you know, maybe we shouldn't imbue the right to vote with all the symbolic status.
Maybe we should just treat it like plumbing license, like a plumbing license. So so far, we've been kind of focusing on the parts of your argument that really resonate with me that I really agree with at this point, maybe it makes sense for me to tell you the few things that like the few objections that I have that I didn't quite feel like you answered in the book. We can talk about that. The first major objection that I had was that.
You know. When someone votes, what they're doing is there are two things that are happening at once there, in addition to sort of like the symbolic or self-expression of their vote, they're conveying their empirical beliefs about the world like they're they're voting based on their beliefs about what the outcomes of various policies will be. They're voting based on their beliefs about like factual questions, like how much of our budget are we currently spending on foreign aid, that sort of thing.
Those things determine their vote, but they're also voting based on their values and their preferences. And so when I imagine an episode apostolic ocracy in which the vote is being restricted to people who have the highest information or the most education, I it seems to me that, like even if the empirical content of the vote is much better than it was before, under a full democracy, you're still losing out on the you're no longer capturing the values and preferences of the people who aren't voting the low information voters.
And it's true that, like people's values, are partly dependent on their empirical beliefs about the world. But I don't think that that fully determines people's values. There are all these questions like how much should we how much should we prioritize future generations, welfare over generations, welfare, or how much should we prioritize our own citizens welfare over that of the people in other countries? Or how much should we value the environment to the good? And it's on in its own right.
That sort of thing. And so if I imagine a small group of highly educated people making decisions, I imagine their values would probably be not representative of the values and everyone else in the country. And it seems like there's a significant loss that's happening there.
Yeah, I think you're right in a sense. And part of the problem, I think here is that we don't really have a good way of disambiguate people's value judgments from their empirical judgments. And and in a sense, mass voting doesn't do it. And Epper Stockhorse doesn't really either. The Democratic theorist Tom Christiano actually wanted to have a system he called here. Still, does one of US system calls values only voting in which he wants everyone to vote, but they're only allowed to sort of vote on outcomes in a sense, values or goals like we should prioritize equality over growth or we should prioritize the nation over over the world at large.
But they're not allowed to vote on policy. And this is he considers himself a Democrat. You might think of this as like a partially a Socratic system. And even then, there's still hard questions about things like thinking about people's ability to think about value. So think about like if we go around asking people how much we discount future generations, as I'm sure you know, people are really bad at estimating compounding growth, you know, so I think even they're like they're not most people who are like low and have low information are not going to be in a good position to even really think clearly about that kind of trade off, because they don't really understand what it means to have a one percent, one percentage point lower growth rate per year or one percentage point higher growth rate per year.
They never even know what the trade off is.
That is like a good example of the kind of thing, the kind of like empirical or cognitive error that people can have that make their vote less correlated with their values. They're like sort of deep, true values then ideally should be. But I still think you end up with some correlation between people's votes and their they're sort of like implicit values. And I also I think I also want to claim that even if people were so ignorant and poor reasoning that their vote had no correlation with their values, that there would still be a problem with taking that vote away from them.
Sort of like saying, like, you clearly have no ability to make choices for yourself that are good for you. Therefore, I'm going to make all your choices for you. That seems worrisome, even if it leads to better outcomes, technically.
Yeah, I guess, you know, I'm really anti paternalistic, probably more so than any of your read than your your listeners. So, you know, David Esslin, the philosopher who one of you I'm responding to, he says there's this kind of fallacious reasoning where you think, well, I know better than you or so, therefore I should be your boss. And I think that's wrong. I agree with him that that's that's not a good inference.
Like the fact that I know better than you doesn't mean that I'm your boss. So for me, it's more like the argument isn't, well, I know better than you. So I should be in charge. Rather you don't know what you're talking about, so you shouldn't be in charge of me. Like, I think of it as a sort of anti authority tenet. And then the question is like, well, we have to have some sort of decision making process and then what's left over is letting more competent people decide.
But but even then, when we look at sort of the correlations that we find, we do find interesting changes that do not seem to be explained by things other than information. So lots of people like Brian Caplan using one set of data, Martin Gillings using a different set of data. Scott Alehouse using a third set of. They look at things where they ask, what do people know, who are they and what do they want, what sort of outcomes do they want?
And you can kind of check and see taking well, controlling for the effect that demographic factors and other things have on your policy preferences. How does information by itself change people's policy preferences? And we find that like basically high information people, regardless of their socioeconomic status, regardless of their their income level, regardless of their race, regardless of where they live in the US, tend to be cosmopolitan and low information. People tend to be nationalist. I information people.
And I start to wonder, it's like, well, how how much of this is just it really is a pure value judgment or is our values really highly dependent upon things like what we think the facts are?
I mean that I just I don't see how you can. Even if there's a huge correlation between how intelligent and educated and well-informed and rational someone is and their values and preferences, I don't see how you can therefore conclude that their values and preferences are more correct than the values and preferences of the low information, low education voters. I mean, I guess they have an objective argument, if I have two people who are like, it turns out, high information, people, regardless of their background, tend to think one thing and low information.
People, regardless of background, tend to think another. It seems like information is doing the work. And if I had to guess which one of those is more likely to be right, I go with the high information person. Now, if you're on the other hand, if you're a complete value skeptic, you're like, oh, there's no truth of the matter about what values are right or wrong. It's all just sort of subjective or relative. Then I sense on the whole, all political philosophy in a sense assumes that that's wrong, because if if that's true, then there's no truth about justice.
We can just do whatever the hell we want. So the very debate presupposes something like at least for some issues of justice, there's some sort of truth of the matter that's true independently of people believing that it's true. So, yeah, in a sense, like the whole debate here is presupposing that, like, well, not all valid. Everyone's opinions about value are equally valid. If you if you think do murder is OK and I think it's not at least one of us is wrong there.
Well, yeah. I mean, it's tricky. There's this spectrum where on the one end I'm it's much more compelling to say, like, no, you're just wrong about what's moral. But then towards the other end, you get these things where it's not it's not at all obvious to me whether it's correct to prioritize, you know, everyone from all countries equally with citizens of your own country, etc.. And so for things like that, I'm much more willing to say, like, well, people at different levels of information just have different values and preferences.
And I'm not going to say that the one group is more correct than the other.
There's no, like demographic fact or anything else that's tracking the difference. And it's simply as a matter of information like that seems kind of weird if that would be the one thing that changes. One thing you said, like, well, white people, high information, white people are all nationalist and high information, black people are all cosmopolitan. Then you might start wondering if it's not just the information, it's doing the effect. It's something else that might matter when it comes to their values.
But if it's like, no, it's just information just turns out people who can who can name the president, like independently of anything else, they they happen to be cosmopolitan. You might wonder.
I would I would agree with you if if we could just intervene directly on information and change that thing. And then we saw this results, the resulting value change. But instead, what I predict is happening is that the processes in people's lives and societies that cause them to end up having more information than education are also processes that produce these different values. Does that make sense? Yeah, maybe that could be, but then again, again, we can even still check for it's almost like any kind of thing like that that you bring up.
I mean, not just the way we've done it, but this is the good news. I guess in principle we could check for that. So if we wonder, oh, is it because you're more it's it's not actually the information, it's education that's doing it, then we can we can then correct levels of education. And in fact, people like Althouse and Kaplan and others already done that. So it actually turns out education has no independent effect.
It's actually surprising how little effect it has. That is the education effect is actually. So Kaplan is a paper on this with regard to his stuff. The apparent education effect is actually entirely an information and an IQ effect. It's not an education effect at all. The apparent socioeconomic effect is actually not has no independent power. It's entirely an IQ and an information effect.
So with any of these things, I think like the solution here is not to say, well, we don't know, it's rather well, we can come up with way of testing it. And so maybe we should do that, try to figure that if we do find there's a persistent bias and hopefully we can we can take into account that. But I guess for now, it's sort of like we're sort of stuck. Like we're not an anarchist society.
We do have politics. And so the question is, which form of politics is going to be the best one given, given that we are no matter what, we're going to be working with biases a lot. So people who read my book, they think what I'm saying is only Volcan should rule. And but a more careful reading is, oh, this guy doesn't think there are any Vulcan's. So he's talking about like given that we want to have a bunch of hobbits and hooligans, including himself, like what do we do.
Right. OK, so there's there's a kind of related concern that I wanted to bring up, which is about how we decide who's closest to being close enough to being a Vulcan, that they should get, you know, extra votes so that they should get the only votes. And I you know, I, of course, have my own intuitive sense of what makes someone's judgment trustworthy. And I you know, there are objective things you can point to.
Like, you know, Phil Tetlock has done some great work showing correlates of accurate forecasting and that kind of thing. But there's still these all of these kind of subjective value judgments that go into deciding what are the metrics that we should be using to test whether someone has good judgment to find the correlates of good judgment to that kind of thing. And I just I envision a you know, when I think about Epistrophy being implemented, I I see you know, first of all, as you say in the book, like the current demographics who have the highest information and highest education are you know, they're white, they're predominantly male, they're well-off and.
You know, they already kind of have this power advantage over other groups in society. And so if we then give them even more power, it just seems like they're going to want to they're going to have a strong incentive to define what makes a competent, you know, someone who deserves a vote to be people like them. And even more so, they're going to have an incentive to block other groups from getting the kind of education information that they would need in order to qualify as competent voters, which, you know, those incentives arguably exist to some extent already in that like entrenched power structures want to preserve their power.
But it seems like an episcopacy would just worsen that problem by an order of magnitude at least.
Yeah, it may. Very well may. And it really this is one of the reasons why in the book I'm like almost give you kind of a conditional argument. I'm like, if it turns out we can make a form of or function better than democracy, we can feel free to use it. But we're not really in a position now to know whether we can. So there's there all these worries about public choice problems, about abuse of power. And it might just turn out that they're actually exacerbated under a stock price to the extent that it functions worse.
So, you know, one question is, are they going to jerry rig? If they say there's a there's like a voter qualification exam, will it turn out the people just rig that in favor their own group? And will that make democracy actually perform or sorry episode Cristiana performing worse than democracy?
Like just to give a quick example of that. Sorry to interrupt you, but, you know, the exam could include economic literacy, which seems like an important thing to have as a qualification for being a competent voter. But the the correct answers to the economic literacy questions could involve like free market ideology. And if you disagree with that, then you're marked incompetent, etc..
Yeah. So one thing for me, I don't think it's like the question here is can we come up with a perfect sort of epicycles and compare that? And if we can't, then we shouldn't have it for me. And it's just well, stockhorse is going to be biased and abuse and democracy as well. So the question is just of the two kind of ugly pigs we have to choose from, which which is the least ugly.
So there's a bunch of I mean, there's there's lots and lots of stuff in this in the book, and we're not going to have time to go through it all. But one idea that entertain in the in the book is something like, well, there's actually reason to think that we could do a sort of a hybrid system in which, say, democracy with universal suffrage gets to kind of choose the voter competence exam. And then then if you get to vote on the other stuff, only if you kind of pass that exam.
And I give this argument about why I think choosing a criterion of voter competence is actually a pretty easy question, which I think democracies could do a pretty decent job doing. But then like choosing, say, economic policy is really hard. Am I a kind of cute analogy I use is like if I ask my five year old, like what makes for a good spouse, he can actually come up with a pretty good theory of what a good spouse's.
But then it's actually quite difficult to apply that theory. So I think similarly, I think the average voter has a pretty good intuitive sense of what makes somebody a competent voter. They just happen not to be good at applying the theory or applying the theory to selecting good politicians and so on. That said, there are there are some versions of stockhorse that have built in mechanisms to kind of correct for this so that the Mexican philosopher Claudio Lopez Garra advocates something called a enfranchisement lottery in which, you know, one gets the right to vote by default by twenty thousand people are selected at random to then become electors and they and only they are allowed to vote.
But before they actually acquire the right to vote, they have to go through some very, very basic competence, building exercise. And of course, that's going to be rigged. Of course, we are going to be biased in how they do it. But still, there's reason to think that that might still lead to a higher level of information than just allowing everybody to vote. Or the thing that I I kind of like to tell you this, what I call a government by simulated oracle, and that's a system in which everyone's allowed to vote.
When they vote, they take they answer something like the questions that are given on the American national election studies, just really basic questions about basic facts like nothing technical, like sociology or economics, just just the basic facts. And you collect their demographic information when you have that those three sets of data, what they vote for, who they are and what they know than any kind of person who's taken statistics can kind of estimate, well, what would happen to that American public if it were able to answer that quiz perfectly and get a high score on it.
And then you do that instead of what the public actually wants. And you might say, sure, there's going to be lots of different ways of framing the quiz. You might get slightly different answers, but there's a sense in which, yeah, it's kind of like under determine what a perfectly enlightened public would want. But nevertheless, even a crummy version of that quiz is going to be sort of more informative and a better bet for what to do than like what we actually do, which is them do what the public wants.
I think I think it really is just about like, you know, don't be too ambitious and what you want stockhorse to do. There's kind of even even weaker, milder forms of it that are less prone to abuse, what I think could be an improvement upon democracy. Yeah, sure. I'd really like what I really want would be all voters to be economically literate. But I know that, like, I can't design a test that would be sort of free of bias that would get that.
So let me just ask them basic facts like, hey, people who know what the unemployment rate is, maybe their votes count for a little bit more than people who don't.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, those are those are pretty interesting incarnations of the concept of the secrecy. And I also want to like. I recognize that in pointing out all the potential flaws in episcopacy, there's this weird asymmetry where, like democracy has tons of flaws and so why should we hold this? Like maybe it's a status quo bias where we're just, like, holding alternatives to a much higher standard than the current status quo. And that's kind of unfair or irrational.
But the counter to that is like, you know, democracy is sort of the least bad of the other options that humanity has tried so far. And maybe we should be pretty conservative in trying to deviate from that, given how bad it's possible things can get.
Yeah, I end up agreeing with that and thinking that's one of the strongest arguments for sticking with democracy is something like that. I think from a philosophical standpoint, you might say, well, what I'm trying to convince you philosophically that you should be a pure instrumentalist about government. Whatever government gets the best outcomes to find an independent procedure is the form of government we should have. But when it comes to practical policy, I think the kind of Burkean conservative argument is a pretty good one, which is like, hey, it's really risky to try something new.
So if the status quo seems to be working, OK, we should be very cautious about deviating from it. So I think in the end I am advocating let's try sort of small scale experiments with autocracy and see what happens and learn from them. And then if it works, we might scale up and if it doesn't work, we should stop. So I kind of think like, for example, I'd say I'd rather have, let's say, Denmark or Switzerland or the state of New Hampshire experiment with a Mr.
Kraddick proposals, because these are relatively non corrupt governments and relatively well functioning ones. And if they can make it work, then maybe we can scale it up a little bit. And if they can't make it work, then maybe we shouldn't. And to be honest, I also think, like I think this is true democracy.
Democracy doesn't work equally well everywhere. It works really well in some places and really badly elsewhere. And what I'd expect is that Epper Stockhorse also works best in the places where democracy works best and it works worse in places where democracy works worst.
Right. I thought you were going to say that we should try at the stockhorse in Switzerland because it doesn't really matter what they do anyway. So you might as well experiment.
I guess this is probably a good place to wrap up since we unfortunately have to wrap up, but. Well, we'll link to the book. I highly recommend it to listeners. Rationally speaking, it's as you have as has become apparent, I hope, through the discussion. It's full of a lot of really interesting and tightly reasoned arguments. And it also has the nice property of being very well organized, like the arguments are all kind of laid out with clear relationships to each other.
And Jason goes through which pieces of the arguments imply which other things and what depends on what else, etc.. So I, I benefited a lot from it and I highly recommend it. And Jason, before we let you go, I want to invite you to introduce the rationally speaking pick of the episode, which is a book or blog or article or something else that has influenced your thinking in some way. So what's your pick for the episode? Oh, I mentioned this book before.
Diana Mutz says hearing the other side. It's one of my favorite books on politics. I think you'll learn a tremendous amount about political behavior and how people think about politics. One other interesting fact about it. She asked the question, who actually here's the other point of view. Who actually hears points of view with whom they disagree. And it turns out that if you're white, rich and educated, that predicts you almost never hear point of view with which you disagree.
And if you are poor, not white and uneducated, that predicts you frequently hear points of view with which you disagree. Interesting, great. Well, we'll link to that as well as to your book and to your website. And Jason, thanks so much for being on the show. It's been a pleasure. Thanks for having me. This concludes another episode of rationally speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.