The rise of Donald Trump during this year’s presidential campaign and the results of the Brexit vote have led to a revival of technocratic elitism and anti-democracy sentiments not seen since the days of Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve and before that Samuel Huntington’s The Crisis of Democracy, two books written, inevitably, by Harvard men. The latest incarnation posits that people without sufficient education or income are simply too ignorant to participate in democracy, and that the nation should be led by an emergency committee of Wise Men until the clodhopper class can be trained by them to vote responsibly.
This godawful philosophy was already gaining influence — Silicon Valley has an aristocracy of the most autistic, many of whom believe in all sorts of reactionary woo-woo — but the ongoing U.S. presidential campaign and other current events has stoked the fear of the technocratic elite to new heights. The fact that Trump’s supporters have managed to get the GOP nominee close to the Oval Office without their man paying dues to the elite’s court astrology has been particularly humiliating for our technocrats.
Now alarmed wonks are penning break-up letters to liberal democracy, arguing that any system vulnerable to anti-politics would be better off terminated by anti-anti-politics. Last month, the Los Angeles Times published an opinion piece by James Kirchick of the Foreign Policy Initiative — part of the neocon crowd that had been largely delegitimized and cowed since their model invasion of Iraq ended in total catastrophe but who are being swiftly rehabilitated and absorbed by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Kirchik suggested that a military junta ex machina should unseat the “brazenly authoritarian” Trump if he wins in November, writing, “Voters must stop him before the military has to.” Oh for the days when foreign policy hawks reserved army coups strictly for nuisance governments in Latin America!
In this atmosphere, Jason Brennan’s new book, Against Democracy, isn’t titled ironically. It really does call for a massive, stupendous voter purge that would bar most Americans from polling booths and transform the US from a democracy into an “epistocracy,” ruled by the “knowledgeable.” This would not be a state of emergency, as with Kirchick’s dream junta, but the new normal.
Not even Charles Murray in The Bell Curve – for all his scaremongering that low-IQ poors would outbreed us all – ever went as far as proposing an electoral mega-purge. Indeed, until this month, I’d felt almost secure that neo-Huxleyan blueprints to phase out democracy only came in gnashing Reddit screeds by beta-incel supremacists – or, to put it civilly, from people more at home in Silicon Valley than DC. But Brennan is a lecturer in political philosophy at Georgetown University and his gnashing screed happens to be published by Princeton University Press.
Brennan comes from the libertarian end of DC wonkdom, working alongside the Cato Institute and writing for a blog called Bleeding Heart Libertarians (home of “free markets and social justice”). Yet he’s an ivory-tower elitist first and foremost. He even hates the majority of libertarians, because he hates the majority. “Many, perhaps most, libertarians are hooligans,” he writes. “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.”
In Brennan’s eyes, there are “three species” of American citizens: “hobbits” (who are lazy and apolitical), “hooligans” (the “rabid sports fans of politics” who shun critical thought and comprise “most regular voters”) and “vulcans” (Brennan’s elite minority, whom he claims are “dispassionate,” open-minded and “think scientifically and rationally about politics”).
How does someone “think scientifically” about politics? Brennan never bothers to enlighten us, and the surest answer is: you can’t. The scientific method can be used to test physical facts (like the atomic weight of nitrogen or how much cyanide will kill an average rabbit) but there are no such things as controlled, repeatable experiments when it comes to political “science.”
Nothing Brennan says about hobbits, hooligans and vulcans can be proven or tested. Even a psychology experiment, on a good day, might only show how one group of people tended to behave when they were isolated and given prison-guard costumes. But “tended” says very little about human nature in the wider world where people change their minds all the time.
With his gloomy view of public rationality, Brennan comes perilously close to a libertarian heresy: if most people are dunderheads who don’t know what’s best for them, shouldn’t that permit all kinds of coercion, “nudge” measures, punitive taxes on sugar and booze and –- further down the Road to Serfdom – centrally planned economies? Brennan is forced to draw an arbitrary line to tell us why enlightened self-interest applies to shopping but not to voting.
So Brennan puts together a delicate double standard so he can claim people are rational economic actors and still argue for paternalism:
“A person is rationally irrational when it is instrumentally rational for that person to be epistemically irrational. Instrumental rationality is about taking courses of action that serve one’s ends. Epistemic rationality is about forming beliefs with the goal of seeking truth and avoiding error, using a scientific evaluation of the best available evidence. It can sometimes be useful – instrumentally rational – for us to form our beliefs in an epistemically irrational way. So for instance if one lived in a fundamentalist theocratic monarchy or something close to it, such as most of Europe in the Middle Ages or Saudi Arabia right now. In those cases, it would be in your best interest to conform your beliefs to whatever the theocracy wanted, even if the evidence didn’t support the beliefs.”
Behold! With all the monolithic jargon of cutting-edge social science, Brennan has discovered that people are self-serving and – this fucks your mind, doesn’t it? – they don’t always believe what they pretend to believe. Apparently, it can be “instrumentally rational” to have faulty logic when you stand to gain things out of it. Like when you’re a wonk, writing a book about why America needs a wonk-o-cracy. Or that time a whole legion of wonks and “experts” jumped aboard the Iraq War bandwagon to further their careers!
Rest assured, Brennan is a sober, exacting vulcan who couldn’t possibly have a hard-on for irresponsible mayhem. In interviews, he gift-wraps his voter purge in the language of harm minimization and bureaucracy: “We should view the right to vote the way we view a fishing or plumbing license. We should view the president not as a majestic leader but as the chief public goods administrator.” You’d swear he sounded more like a Scandinavian nanny-statist, an aspiring regulation czar, than a Cato free-marketeer.
Not like Trump, with his wacko hooligan-talk about assass–
Hold that! Only a month ago Brennan wrote a lengthy blog post justifying the assassination of elected officials. In it, he even argues, perversely, that it would be better to kill politicians in a democracy than unelected dictators like Hitler or Stalin:
“Many believe it is justifiable to assassinate totalitarian dictators, such as Stalin or Hitler. However, killing a totalitarian dictator or a criminal mastermind seems more likely to endanger innocent third parties than killing a democratic official…Totalitarian communist regimes do not value individual human life. After a successful assassination, newly installed dictators are likely to terrorize citizens into submission.
“Compare this to the United States and other democracies. Four US presidents have been assassinated, and many more have been targets. Thirteen congresspersons have been assassinated, and a few others have been targets. None of these events resulted in humanitarian disasters or terror purges. The US has committed a great many atrocities, but not in response to assassination. Assassinating Lincoln got us Andrew Johnson. The attempt to assassinate Reagan just got us stronger gun control laws…Compared to other forms of government, democracies tend to be more concerned with their citizens’ welfare. For this very reason, assassination in democracies will tend to be quite safe—democracies do not respond by crushing their citizens.”
Scratch out the anti-Marxism and this could be an excellent apologia for the Baader-Meinhof Group or the Italian Red Brigades. Except that Brennan’s Taxi Driver fantasy is couched in fusty, utilitarian patter – as if Peter Singer had randomly decided to laud John Wilkes Booth for avoiding needless casualties in the course of his duty. (Whatever else you might say about assassination, it is “quite safe.”)
If you need more hints that elite “vulcans” might just be politer hooligans with postgrad degrees, ponder this passage from Brennan’s book:
“Consider instead how hooligans would deliberate, if we even want to honor their discussions with that label. Hooligans would try to dominate the discussion. They would ignore, jeer at and dismiss one another during disagreements. They would insult one another, or at least mutter insults under their breath…When hooligans deliberate, the ‘force of the better argument’ is impotent. What matters are rhetoric, sex appeal and promoting the team. When hooligans deliberate, they get worse.”
The difference couldn’t be clearer. Hooligans stoop to name-calling. Vulcans use scientific terms like “hooligan.” Hooligans ignore disagreeable views. Vulcans refuse to dignify them. Hooligans deploy “rhetoric.” Vulcans, impervious to rhetoric, presumably only discuss politics using modal logic equations.
Hooligans are hateful and closed-minded, seeking to wall themselves off from Mexicans and Muslims. In contrast, Brennan, a good vulcan, only wants to wall off voting booths, keeping out a threatening horde of “dangerous” and “incompetent” people:
“In modern democracies, rather than having a one-headed incompetent king, we have a many-headed incompetent king. In a democracy, the incompetent, irresponsible ruler isn’t some bearded fellow in a castle but rather almost everyone I see. If [the incompetent king’s] irresponsible behavior gives his subjects grounds to hate him, I have some reason to hate my fellow citizens as well. One of the repugnant features of democracy is it transforms these people into threats to my well-being.”
The horror for Brennan isn’t just of everyone voting, but also of everyone talking about their votes instead of leaving political discussion to technocrats like him. In an odd move for a self-avowed libertarian, he doesn’t even pretend to venerate free speech – or “deliberation,” as he wonkishly calls it. A chapter of his book (“Political Participation Corrupts”) lists the supposed toxic effects that political scientists have linked to public deliberation:
• Deliberation tends to move people toward more extreme versions of their ideologies rather than toward more moderate ones.
• Deliberation over sensitive matters – such as pornography laws – frequently leads to “hysteria” and “emotionalism,” with parties to the debate feigning moral emergencies as well as booing and hissing at one another.
• Deliberation often causes deliberators to choose positions inconsistent with their own views – positions that the deliberators “later regret.”
• Rather than causing consensus, deliberation might cause disagreement along with the formation of in-groups and out-groups. It can even lead to violence.
“…frequently leads to…”
“…can even lead to…”
It’s the weasel phrasing you’d expect from a Food Babe report on why Pop-Tarts are the next Agent Orange, though natural health quacks at least have the self-respect to cherry-pick from molecular biology instead of social science papers. So what ill effects does deliberation have on a hapless public? According to Brennan, it makes people’s politics more “extreme,” but also more “apathetic.” It “prevents them from participating or acting” yet it can “lead to violence.” It provokes “hysteria” even as it drives people toward “moral or political skepticism” (which one would’ve thought was a good thing).
If this is political science at its scientific best, then they lay public isn’t missing much by sticking to magazine horoscopes.
Yet it’s in avoiding the “science” questions that Brennan is tactful.
A century ago, when eugenicists made very similar arguments for limiting suffrage, it brought the messy problem of having to prove that the underclasses were biologically inferior: first through craniometrics, then through IQ tests. If you take an IQ test five times, it’ll leave you with five different IQs – just like any number of video games – and an average person might raise their score dramatically with regular practice.
The only reliable thing an IQ test can be proven to measure is the ability to do IQ tests. It can’t measure genius, because we don’t know the next thing a future Einstein might discover, and so we can’t test for it. This didn’t deter a reactionary Australian barrister, Roland Berrill, from forming Mensa in the belief that it would serve as a new “aristocracy of the intellect” and hence succeed the old waning class of “illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels” (to use Evelyn Waugh’s words).
It happened that Berrill also believed in palmistry, astrology and the early theories of L Ron Hubbard, proving that a top-tier IQ was no guarantee against idiocy. Since then, even two-year-olds – from both sides of the Atlantic – have been able to reach the IQ scores needed for Mensa admission, perhaps before knowing how to bathe or tie their shoelaces.
Despite these flaws (or, likely, aided by them) it was IQ scores that Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein used in The Bell Curve as the yardstick for a supposed racial gap in American intelligence. Neither author was a biologist, but this was their innovation: shifting the home ground of eugenics from medicine to the soft sciences, so that any paleocon with a liberal arts degree and a keyboard could become a quick authority on “race realism.”
Brennan has managed to shake off even these trappings. Instead of IQ, his argument rests on the idea – more palatable to liberals – that America is full of “low information voters.” Now watch how smoothly Brennan takes this new liberal bogeyman and uses it to bash the same ethnic targets as the older, cruder wave of eugenicists:
“Suppose an evil demon appears before the president and says, “I will force you to follow the policy preferences – as determined by majority voting – of either ten thousand randomly selected rich white middle-aged men, or ten thousand randomly selected poor young black women. I will reveal their policy preferences to you only after you choose.” In this case, I would recommend that the president take the advice of the rich white men over the poor white women. A fortiori, I think the president would act unjustly – would violate their fiduciary duties to the public – were they to choose otherwise.”
[Note: My favorite bit here is that singular “they.” Even while arguing that privileged opinions are automatically worthier, it behoves Brennan the Bleeding Heart Libertarian to avoid subconscious sexism.]
“Yet this is not because I think white men are morally superior, have greater intrinsic dignity, have more valuable lives or that their interests count for more. Rather, I am engaging in rational statistical discrimination. There is ample and persistent evidence that right now, rich white men know more about politics than poor black women. There is also ample evidence that policy preferences depend on information – that high-information voters have systematically different policy preferences from low-information voters, and that low-information voters make systematic errors.”
Let’s have some “rational statistical discrimination” of our own. In 14th Century France, a Count or Baron would have known far more about economic or foreign policy than an illiterate peasant. We can be equally sure that their high information would have given them “systematically different” policy preferences to a low-info clodhopper – for instance, on how to allocate grain in times of famine. In that fortunate era, the tightest possible correlation was guaranteed between political knowledge and control over the affairs of the realm. And under the stewardship of epistocrats par excellence – spawned by only the most selective episto-on-episto interbreeding – Europe was plunged into the Hundred Years War. Six centuries later, another group of far more knowledgeable epistocrats – through closed talks and not a whiff of public discussion – responded to an assassination by starting World War One.
Given how many anxieties Brennan spouts about the dangers of the low-info masses, you’d suppose his definition of voter (or assassin) “competence” would be pretty stringent. After all, he compares his theoretical voter license to a medical license – and this helps him tidily explain why we shouldn’t mourn a voter purge that would hit poors and blacks the hardest:
“In comparison, medical licensing in the United States also systematically leads to underrepresentation by blacks. (Blacks make up 13.1 percent of the US population but only 3.8 percent of medical doctors.) Yet while many people believe underrepresentation is a problem, few think this shows that medical licensing inherently humiliates blacks or insults their dignity…
“Similarly, voter licensing would lead, at least at first, to systematic underrepresentation among blacks and the poor…But part of the reason voter licensing would disproportionately exclude blacks and the poor is that they are already mistreated. […] This country treats blacks in deeply unjust ways. So as with medical licensing, disproportionate voting power would not in and of itself create injustice; it would be a symptom or result of underlying injustices.”
Those crusty racialists from the alt-right can only envy Brennan’s ability to translate their logic into the dialect of sympathetic liberalism. Where they would write “the Bell Curve,” he writes “underlying injustices,” though with the same implication: fact of life, can’t be helped. Just to vanquish any thought that he may be “racist, sexist or classist,” Brennan insists, to our great reassurance: “My moral credentials are of course impeccable, and on implicit bias tests, I score many standard deviations lower than the average person.”
But when it comes to defining that legendary being – a competent voter – our trusty standard-deviationist waffles through a string of options, sounding less certain the more he writes:
“One form of restricted suffrage epistocracy requires potential voters to pass a voter qualification exam. This exam would be open to all voters regardless of their demographic background. The exam would screen out citizens who are badly misinformed or ignorant about the election, or who lack basic social scientific knowledge…The United States might require citizens to pass the citizenship exam, or score a three or higher on the Advanced Placement economics and political science exams. Alternatively, the test might be entirely nonideological. We might simply require potential voters to solve a number of logic and mathematics puzzles, or be able to identify 60 percent of the world’s countries on a map.”
No self-respecting medical board would register doctors based on “things that might be positively correlated” with medical knowledge. Not even a plumber could get accredited in a civilized country simply for solving “logic and mathematics puzzles” (which is treading awkwardly close to old IQ territory) or naming countries on a map (which an autistic savant might do perfectly without understanding geopolitics). After telling us that voter competence is so crucial that licensing it is worth any race and class disparities, Brennan is strangely relativistic on how to weed out supposed incompetents – unless it’s the weeding out itself that matters and not any specific talent of the remaining epistocrats.
Yet as comforting as it might be to blame Brennan’s arguments on half-baked libertarian disruptionism or Cato Institute dark money, his thinking isn’t far from the kneejerk, democracy-blaming reaction many mainstream liberals have had to Trump and Brexit. In the UK, The Guardian has run articles claiming that “voting is the problem” with democracy and (like Brennan) calling for experiments with Venetian sortition as a “remedy” to replace elections. In Australia, a large part of the center-left is against a public plebiscite on same-sex marriage – even when a safe majority of Australians are likely to vote “yes” – because letting the people decide could lead to “hateful discussion.”
As more liberals find themselves at the end of their liberal ropes, anyone enticed by the “remedy” of purging the plebs from electoral rolls and forming a Wonk Reich would do well to heed Lord Byron’s Manfred. “Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth, the Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.”