Dumb Voters Needn't Mean a People Unable to Run Their Own Lives

A reminder from libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan, author of Against Democracy


Jason Brennan, a political philosopher at Georgetown and author of the new book Against Democracy, generally writes from a libertarian perspective. He insists there is no contradiction between believing that voters can be remarkably foolish and irrational and a general belief that a society can operate based on the generally uncoerced decisions of these same foolish and irrational would-be voters.

Brennan lays out the reasons at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, including the sociological reasons why libertarian thinkers might be more inclined to come to such negative conclusions about democracy even though the facts and analysis he brings to bear on the question are not based in libertarianism per se:

it isn't surprising that the new wave of democratic skepticism comes from libertarians like Ilya Somin, Bryan Caplan, or me. When you read most democratic theory, you see that most authors revere politics and democracy, viewing them as in some way sacred or majestic. Libertarians will have none of that. As a result, I think they're able to think more clearly about the nature of democracy. For many on the Left and Right, doing democratic theory is like doing theology. For libertarians, it's just comparative institutional analysis. Libertarians have no inherent emotional draw toward or inherent revulsion to democracy. Asking whether democracy works better than the alternatives has no more emotional resonance than asking whether a hammer works better than a screwdriver for a given purpose…..

as to the question of voters in democracy vs actors in the market [and how libertarians can think the latter can do sensible, non-damaging things while the former might not]: The incentives are radically different.

When I make a market decision, I decide unilaterally. If I order a candy bar, I get a candy bar. If I order an apple, I get an apple. Further, in general, I bear the consequences of my decisions. If I make a bad choice for me, I get punished. If I make a good choice, I get rewarded.

Of course, sometimes the consequences take a long time or are hard to trace. Yes, sometimes there are significant negative externalities. Still, there's a feedback mechanism. However dumb people might be naturally, markets incentivize them to be smarter.

In politics, my decision counts for basically nothing. If I stay home, vote for X, or vote for not-X, the same thing ends up happening. We all bear the consequences of the majority's decision, but no one bears the consequences of her individual decision. If I make a bad choice at the polls, I don't get punished. If I make a good choice, I don't get rewarded.

The feedback mechanism sucks. However dumb people might naturally be, politics incentivizes them to stay that way, or get dumber.

Bryan Caplan, another thinker from the libertarian world who questions the probity and sense of voters who Brennan mentions above, wrote for Reason back in October 2007 on "The 4 Boneheaded Biases of Stupid Voters."

I wrote about Brennan's general perspective on democracy in the context of Donald Trump last year.

Katherine Mangu-Ward wrote a long feature hooked off the basic "your vote counts for nothing" analysis in November 2012. I took an op-ed approach to the idea in "Not Voting and Proud" in 2004.

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  1. OT, ASAP & FUBAR…..y-of-kabul

    Gunfire and explosions have been reported at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, and the president of the university tells The Associated Press that a militant attack is underway.

    Hospital officials say at least one student was killed and at least 14 injured, as reporter Jennifer Glasse tells our Newscast unit.

    “Right now there are dozens of Afghan police, security forces, special forces. They’ve surrounded the campus,” she says. Here’s more from Glasse:

    1. It’s Afghanistan, so not sure it’s fucked up beyond all recognition.

    2. Right now there are dozens of Afghan police, security forces, special forces. They’ve surrounded the campus

      So which are the militants?

  2. No joke, the Flatulence Amplification Research Team will be handing out stickers just like that image above at burning man 2016.

    1. I must get some of those stickers to hand out on election day. I’ve been wanting to do some not-too-offensive performance art outside of the poll for a long time now.

  3. Democracy: The God that Failed is an excellent book as well.

    1. Mentioning dirty ancaps doesn’t get you free cocktails.

      1. Caplan and Brennan are clean ancaps?

        No matter, since the dirty ones are (obviously) more fun, I’ll mention them for them.

        1. I honestly forgot everything else Brennan had wrote.

          1. Why not Capitalism? was great, and his small primer on libertarianism was pretty good as well.

        2. Ehh… Hans-Hermann Hoppe? You have a strange sense orientation of “fun.”

        3. Unlike Hoppe they never said icky things about gays or associated with secessionists with unacceptable politics (right wing ones ofc) and Caplan argues for peak open borderism, so they do get good boy points at cocktail parties.

          1. “Unlike Hoppe they never said icky things about gays or associated with secessionists with unacceptable politics (right wing ones ofc)”

            That’s why they’re so boring!

            (Brennan’s argument against secession was pretty bad. The commenters at BHL at least pointed it out.)

  4. Bleeding Heart Libertarians, eh? I was just thinking about them the other day; wondering if they had been wiped out in a fiery crash of their short low-capacity bus while on a field trip to the zoo.

    1. Every time I read something there, my brain hurts. Its word salad most of the time.

      I would think it should be decent with some subtle disagreements here or there. But I just dont understand their articles.

      1. The only memorable posts are from guests or the infrequent contributors. The regular posts are usually steeped in a century of navel-gazing philosophy and assumptions. Brennan’s very snarky and can be pretty fun, though the snarkiness can also lead to Cytotoxic-levels of exaggerated arguments.

        1. Every now and then I’ll go back and reread Deirdre McCloskey’s response to a week-long symposium from philosophers about ‘high liberalism’ and other assorted bullshit. It’s a take-down of leftists/liberals who ignore history and economics when coming up with their ideal theories of government programs. Everyone here would enjoy it.

      2. robc|8.24.16 @ 3:26PM| block | mute | #

        Every time I read something there, my brain hurts. Its word salad most of the time.

        I dove into BLH a few times a few years ago.

        The impression i got was that 90% of the people who contribute are “libertarians” in an academic sense, but are otherwise leftists in the practical-politics sense.

        As in, they’re very interested in libertarianism as an intellectual exercise. When it comes to “Rubber-meets-the-road”-stuff? they tend to be a bit useless.

        I mean, they probably vote LP, for all i know. But when they say, “Free Markets and Social Justice”, i get the impression its, “Not in that order”.

        1. The Maoist-inspired struggle sessions, the disemployment and the deplatforming will all be done completly voluntarily

          1. lol

            To test my own summary/impression of them, i just scrolled through all their posts going back a few months.

            Not a single entry on any single ‘policy’-issue since June….

            (or election-related – with the exception of an editorial for CNN about how Libertarians are definitely NOT “Right Wing!”… )

            …and the only policy-issue they did write about back in June? Brexit

            the piece is titled “There is no market-liberal case for Brexit

            Which starts by (sort-of) describing the actual market-liberal case for Brexit which people make…

            … then saying “For there to be a good market-liberal case for Brexit, the weight of these arguments had better be overwhelming, given the obvious goods of liberalized migration and trade across the EU.“”


            1. There was no trade and migration before the EU. None.

        2. they tend to be a bit useless.

          And hard-core, real world libertarians are useful?

          (Sorry, I’m just feeling especially cynical lately)

          1. Do we not make people laugh on hit & run?

            1. I suppose we can find some use in each other.

              No homo.

          2. Nope, not much more.

            But we DO focus on policy more than “ideas” for their own sake/

            note that the majority of posts @ reason are about the actual stuff that Government DOES.

        3. Anyone who sincerely uses the phrase “social justice” is a leftist at heart, and their motives should always be suspected

          1. “Social Security” is not security.
            “Social Science” is not science.
            The “Social Contract” is not a contract.
            “Social Justice” is not justice.

            I always use “Socialist InSecurity” when referring to that program. It works for the others, too.

            “Socialist unScience”.
            “Socialist non-Contract”.
            “Socialist InJustice”.

            1. In my experience, almost any word can be rendered meaningless just by putting “social” in front of it. (I’m willing to make an exception for “Distortion”.)

  5. This country was never set up as a democracy. It’s a constitutional republic. The government’s powers were limited so idiots in office and their voters couldn’t fuck with everyone else on a whim. Democracy sucks as we have seen since the ‘new deal’ started the ball rolling..

    1. On another note,to go after the ‘black’ vote or ‘Hispanic’ vote means promising free shit. Fuck them. If you want liberty and a small government your a racist.

      1. Yeah, unfortunately the libertarian platform of “we actually believe in the government treating all races equally” isn’t actually what the aggregate voting blocs that define themselves by race seem to want.

  6. However dumb people might be naturally, markets incentivize them to be smarter.


  7. Every time I read something there, my brain hurts. Its word salad most of the time.

    Bo Cara, esq.

    I rest my case.

    1. Wow, what ever happened to Bo?

      1. Tulpa changed Bo’s handle.

      2. Why would you care? He’s gone.

      3. I heard Bo shit himself to death in a southern Indiana dwarf brothel.

        1. Folks, you heard it here, first: Indiana has a dwarf brothel!

          1. Yes, but it’s just a brothel that exclusively services dwarves so don’t get your hopes up unless you’re Joe.

      4. A bunch of people seemed to try to have an intervention, pointing out that he acts like a cunt for no real reason. Bo didn’t get it, kept acting the same way, and cracked it up to 11 once social justice issues were being discussed (I remember a particularly long and pedantic assault on Reason’s ‘secret Republicans’ over a Batgirl comic cover). People got a lot more aggressive towards his particular brand of bullshit and he fainted away.

        1. Batgirl or Spider-woman? (I blocked him like three days into his posting life and never looked back, so I missed this.)

          1. Batgirl. It was the controversy over the cover when they reissued The Killing Joke.

          2. Batgirl. Check here and here if you feel like abusing your sensibilities.

            1. Thanks.

            2. Telling everyone context matter while ignoring the same in his own arguments. Classic Bo.

      5. Hopefully he died in a fire.

  8. I watched a series of Brennan videos at Pretty good stuff, even though I didn’t agree with all of it.

    1. Well look who decided to show up again.

  9. Freedomspheres are rare societal constellations.

  10. I agree with the premise but still find myself cynical about our species in general. Libertarianism; are we all, if nothing else, misanthropic humanists?

    1. One of the beautiful things about libertarianism is not being roped into other people’s myopic categorizations.

      1. Case in point.

    2. I don’t think I’m a misanthrope. I think people are awesome in almost every way. Unfortunately they ways in which they suck tend to have the most effect on other people’s lives and liberties.

  11. are we all, if nothing else, misanthropic humanists?

    When somebody says, “Hold my beer and watch this,” I just hold the beer. I don’t bother trying to talk him down off the roof.

    1. You mean you don’t whip out your phone to record it for YouTube and/or the Darwin Awards?

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