My Contribution to the Inquiry Symposium on Jason Brennan's Book "Against Democracy"

The article is now available on SSRN.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The academic journal Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy, has a forthcoming symposium on Georgetown political philosopher Jason Brennan's important book Against Democracy. A pre-publication version of my contribution is now available for free on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Jason Brennan's Against Democracy makes a strong case that democratic majorities' right to rule rests on shaky grounds so long as their ballot box decisions are heavily influenced by ignorance and bias. But his "epistocratic" alternative—empowering the better-informed segments of society—has significant flaws of its own. Ironically, the biggest shortcoming of epistocracy may be that we lack the knowledge necessary to make it work well.

Other participants in the symposium include Robert Talisse and Enzo Rossi and Gordon Alpern. Brennan has also written a response to the critics. Unfortunately, only gated versions of these three articles are available at the moment.

Brennan's book is, in many ways, a counterpart to my own Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. The two works focus on the same problem, agree on many of its causes and consequences, but advocate very different potential solutions.


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  1. Isn’t the obvious solution libertarianism? Since government is inherently flawed, the best government is the least government no matter what the system.

    1. Or you could think of individualism as the ultimate decentralization, the ultimate federalization.

    2. The question is whether what replaces government would not be more flawed.

      And, for that matter, what your metric for flawed is.

      1. Marx and Engels thought government would fade away as the end-stage for Communism. Uh…

        1. Right, and the guy selling the bridge thinks you’ll take delivery, too.

          Face it, Marxism was and is a con job. That’s why there’s nothing but hand waving about how things will work after the dictatorship “of the proletariat” fades away. It was never meant to fade away.

          1. Well Marx certainly didn’t think so. The fact that he was demonstrably wrong doesn’t prove that he was ill-motivated. It does however prove that those who use his arguments now are either incompetent (and so shouldn’t rule) or evil (and so shouldn’t rule).

            1. Whatever happened to the concept of dialogue? Someone using “arguments” might hope for counter arguments, instead of condemnation. I am unwilling to declare that Marx was “right”, but I do declare that anyone who declares Marx was “wrong” should return to the source with a slightly more open mind.

              1. Marx and his ideas ultimately lead to the death of tens of millions. The source material was taken, its ideas used, and it failed catastrophically.

                Marx’s predictions on the death of the petty bourgeoisie (IE small business owners) still has not come to pass.

                1. Marx wrote a lot more than Das Kapital. If you hear anyone talking about am didactic they’re invoking Marx, even if unknowingly.

                  Don’t let the Cold War keep your knee jerking.

                  1. Don’t forget the Cold War, and end up losing it in the end. That’s where we’re headed at the moment.

                    1. Don’t be melodramatic, Brett. USSR lost, America won, and policies you don’t like won’t change that.

                      Realizing that Marx wasn’t all pure dark evil, or even all wrong, won’t turn America Communist, nor will it turn us over to the USSR.

                      Don’t worry, you can still call Stalin evil, if that’s what you need to do.

                    2. I’m not being melodramatic. The reason we’re glad that the USSR lost, and America won, is that we didn’t get communism imposed on us. It would be tragically stupid to forget why we needed to win the Cold war, and adopt communism ourselves without the need to be conquered first.

                    3. We’re pretty far from Communism. Not everything you don’t like is Communism.

                2. “The source material was taken, its ideas used, and it failed catastrophically. ”

                  The problem was at least the raw materials used. Marx was assuming the Communists would arise from post-industrial Germany, not Russia. Russia didn’t already have the industrial base to build from.

            2. It’s hard to imagine that an obviously intelligent person would believe that the concentration of political power would inevitably lead to its dissipation, but it seems that he did believe that.

          2. Con job implies bad faith; Marx believed in what he was saying, wrongheaded though it was.

            As for the hand-waving bits, you could say the same thing about Ayn Rand. Don’t let external philosophers author your political systems. And be careful of others use a philosopher as a stalking horse for the real system you’re setting up.

            1. Damn, never has a simulpost been so much in agreement. Well played, Robert Beckman!

            2. Don’t get me wrong, Ayn Rand had one or two important insights, which is more than most philosophers rack up in a lifetime. (Non-contradiction applies to ethical theories, an ethical theory must be possible to live by without dying.) But it was a mistake to try to make a comprehensive system out of them. And that’s not even getting into her obvious personality problems.

              I don’t recall her ever suggesting a complete theory of governance, though.

              1. I mean, Marx didn’t propose what the USSR and China became either.

                Atlas Shrugged comes near to being a revolutionary policy proposal. Luckily it only seems to work on the occasional college softhead.

                1. Well, he did propose a dictatorship, after all. And that’s what both the USSR and China became. So that’s not really true.

                  You can argue he didn’t mean for them to remain dictatorships, but that’s where he gets all hand-wavy, no concrete proposal for what followed.

                  Atlas Shrugged was a thought experiment into what would happen if the intellectually productive fraction of the population went on strike. It wasn’t actually a proposal as such.

                  1. Did you read the book? It’s been a while for me, but it’s very hard to argue it’s not an advocacy piece. It’s utopian in how awesome things would become for the select Real People!

                    1. Of course it’s advocacy. It’s advocacy of a point of view. Not of a general strike by the productive!

                    2. It’s basically the opposite of the childish “You didn’t build that!” viewpoint of Obama and, recently, Warren. Without roads, the productive have difficulties. That’s why the people hire government to create roads

                      Without the productive, the politicians squeaking you didn’t build that would be living in caves lording over the rocks and squirrels.

                    3. Rand is advocating for a certain social end-state, including a scenario of how to get there.

                      Marx wasn’t nearly so concrete, though in broad strokes he did the same thing.

                      Krayt…you have Rand’s dumb elitism, but Rand would not be a fan of hiring the government to do anything.
                      I agree she disagrees with the pretty anodyne point that society passively benefits people of means, ‘producers’ or not, quite a bit. She somehow takes roads, police, and fire for granted, if not railroads.

                    4. Seriously, yes, I have read Atlas Shrugged, and no, it is NOT advocating a general strike on the part of the productive in the real world.

                      Rather, it seeks to make the point of how much depends on the productive, by a fictional account of what such a strike would result in.

                      What Rand actually advocated was that the productive stop ceding the moral high ground to parasites, and stand up for themselves. NOT that they remove themselves from the world and party while the world burns.

                    5. stop ceding the moral high ground to parasites
                      That’s meaningless.

                      But despite your foot-stomping, in a book wherein a strike of the productive ended up leading to Galts Gulch objectivist utopia, you’re straining against the text.

                    6. “That’s meaningless.”

                      Just because you disagree with it does not make it meaningless.

                      “But despite your foot-stomping,”

                      Typical childish Sarcastr0 response to disagreement.

                      “in a book wherein a strike of the productive ended up leading to Galts Gulch objectivist utopia, you’re straining against the text.”

                      Not when the book spends 3,177,268 pages on the strike and 27 pages in the alleged objectivist utopia. All counts approximate.

                    7. jph, Brett provided ipse dixit. I cite the actual plot of the book.

                      Brett is the one arguing that the strike isn’t something Rand is advocating.
                      Read the thread before you jump in pretending I haven’t read it.

                    8. I have no doubt you’ve read it. This is just another example of the disconnect between what you’ve read and what you’ve understood.

                    9. Your providing additional ipse dixit doesn’t bolster the argument.

                    10. Ah yes, it’s ipse dixit whenever anyone else does it. When Sarcastr0 does it, it’s totally cool. You are such a clown.

          3. That’s why there’s nothing but hand waving about how things will work after the dictatorship “of the proletariat” fades away.

            Sort of like libertarianism.

            “Adopt this system and, presto, Eden.”

    3. “the best government is the least government no matter what the system.”

      The “least government” is no government, AKA anarchy or a failed state, not libertarianism. I don’t think it’s clear (by a long shot) that living in a failed state is any better than in an autocracy. You just get different flavors of suckitude.

      1. A lot of people conflate “anarchy” and “chaos”. They are not the same.

      2. “No government” is not the same thing as a failed state. A failed state is one that is no longer accepted by those it claims to govern. A government that proclaims that it’s services are no longer needed as society has obviated the need for it has tautologically not failed (though one that disbands itself because they’re tired of pointlessly meeting would).

        Otherwise you’re arguing that large parts of Alaska are a failed state, because they haven’t seen an agent of the government in decades.

        1. A failed state is one of the ways you get to a state of no government. Natural disaster is another. Assassination is another. And powerful extra-governmental forces are yet another.

  2. Epistocracy? The knowledge to make it work well would be the same as the knowledge needed to make any other political system work well. Unfortunately, that is knowledge of the future outcomes of present policy decisions. Those are always unknowable except in hind-sight, when it does little good, except insofar as you have a political system adept at giving up bad policies, and trying out new ones.

    Democracy blows hot and cold on that one, but seems to work better at it than other systems. Epistocracy seems a likely candidate for highly ideological management. That would likely deliver government which would combine the troublesome features of political rationalism with the rigidity of axiomatic premises, like libertarianism does.

    Not that it matters much. Legitimacy is a far more important aspect of any political system. Epistocracy, if it had to be imposed by force on an unwilling majority—and how else could it be maintained—would have major legitimacy problems.

    1. Stephen, well said!


    2. Maybe. The problem I see is that we don’t know how to identify the elites who should be ruling us, as opposed to the conmen who try to emulate what they think everyone else thinks the elites look like.

      But on acceptance, that’s part of the problem. Part of why we can’t figure out how to identify who should rule is that we fundamentally disagree on what the right criteria are for good rulership, only part of which is empirical.

      Suppose that we all pooled our brains together to determine the optimal ruling model, and that everyone agreed it was right (hypothetical, play along). Then we find out that the one person who exemplifies that ideal is (Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump). Even knowing in advance that they represent your ideals, would the country accept them? I think not.

      1. Presumably, yes, because in your scenario we have some objective way to evaluate these things, and adequate data. The problem with your scenario is that we actually have data suggesting the contrary conclusion.

        Heck, I’d have voted for Trump in 2016, if I hadn’t ended up spending election day in a funeral home with too little notice to obtain an absentee ballot. I certainly plan to vote for him next year. And I’d laugh at the idea that he’s the optimal leader of the country, who represents my ideals.

        No, he’s just the least of the available evils.

        1. The lesser of two evils is evil.

          1. And the greater of two evils is even more evil.

    3. “Epistocracy, if it had to be imposed by force on an unwilling majority—and how else could it be maintained—would have major legitimacy problems.”

      Force is always a component of maintaining a social order, but if large doses of it are required then that points to fragility. Brainwashing is far more effective. Use the Church, for example, to convince people that the existing social order is ordained by God. The people in control are your “betters.” We now have most of the media attempting to perform the service that once fell to the Church, but so far with less success.

  3. Democracy is a poor way of getting the “right” public policies. Driving my car is a poor way of getting to France. Both of these statements are true; neither is to the point. The one essential requirement of a system of governance is that it be broadly acceptable to the governed. Everything else is gravy. In the world we inhabit now, or in the medium-term future, the only system broadly acceptable to the governed is democracy. Any attempt to implement anything else, like an epistocracy, will bring out the torches and pitchforks. Compared to this, the occasional imposition of policies that offend people who took Economics 101-102 (though not, usually, people who took 201-202) or the occasional election of an even worse charlatan than usual is a trivial evil.

    1. “In the world we inhabit now, or in the medium-term future, the only system broadly acceptable to the governed is democracy.”

      By this, do you mean the Western/First world?

    2. “The one essential requirement of a system of governance is that it be broadly acceptable to the governed.”

      There are enough systems of governance where this is not true, presently available, to keep anyone from making THAT statement. Ask that Chinese guy standing in front of the tank column in Tiananmen Square, or anybody with an education in Khmer Rouge Cambodia.
      “Consent of the governed” is an ideal, not an essential. We should keep working at it, of course, but there’s plenty of would-be dictators all over the world, and America is no exception to THAT rule.

      1. “broadly acceptable” “universally acceptable”. That Chinese guy staring down those tanks and the others involved in those protests were an exceedingly tiny minority out of the >1.1 billion individuals who were and continue to be willing to live under the yoke of a communist regime.

        1. “broadly acceptable” “universally acceptable” should have been “broadly acceptable” != “universally acceptable”.

          1. Go troll somebody else today.

            1. Hey, can you tell us again how minors can’t enter into enforceable contracts?

            2. “That Chinese guy staring down those tanks and the others involved in those protests were an exceedingly tiny minority out of the >1.1 billion individuals who were and continue to be willing to live under the yoke of a communist regime”

              “Go troll somebody else today.’

              OK, I’ll bite. The Chinese are by and large quite happy with their system, so I’m struggling to see why what WYOT said would be trolling?

  4. A bigger problem than voter ignorance is that a large fraction of the voting public simply don’t care about their countrymen. They choose self-focused personal vanity issues like environmentalism and open borders and social justice and petty tribalism over practical choices that might help their fellow citizens.

    1. No. People DO care about their countrymen, and that is the problem. People care so much for my health and safety that they are happy to forbid many things to me.

      Additionally, or alternatively, government intrudes into our daily lives so much that it often makes more sense to push government into harassing others before those others can push government into harassing us; all at the opportunity cost of minding our own business.

      Everyone knows government does not shrink; why would any of us reject the few benefits we get when others will not only not do the same, but will gladly help themselves to what we gave up?

      I bet that if you could convince people that it was possible to shrink government by 90%, fairly across the board, that most people would agree to it. But no one believes that possible, and when government benefits are a zero sum game, only fools would give up theirs.

    2. They care about themselves first, then families and friends second, then maybe their neighbors, then the folks in their home city, then the state, then their countrymen. That they are their close friends and family are countrymen, they do care about them, but with distance decreases the level of caring.

      Adams in his Theory of Moral Sentiments worked it out more sociologically, but I don’t want to take the time to look it up.

    3. Ben_ arguing that environmentalism and social justice is just a selfish lack of nationalism.

      Á àß äẞç ãþÇđ âÞ¢Đæ ǎB€Ðëf ảhf with the old standby nanny state busybody leviathan tropinating.

      mad_kalak arguing that liberals only think about those closest to them, which does not make much sense considering issues from gay marriage to environmentalism to financial regulation to entitlements to immigration. And if you argue everything that departs from your self-oriented paradigm is to buy votes, congrats on your tautology.

      1. “mad_kalak arguing that liberals”

        And where, exactly, does he do this?

        1. – “And where, exactly, does he do this?”

          You’re forgetting Sarcastr0’s penchant for ignoring what you actually said in favor of what he wants to argue against.

          1. Yes, Wuz, you’ve caught my clever strawman.

            M_K neglected liberals in his facile characterization, whose whole thing (for better or worse) is thinking beyond immediate needs and direct empathy to those close to you.

            1. “Yes, Wuz, you’ve caught my clever strawman.”

              Nobody has ever suggested that one of your strawmen has been clever.

              “M_K neglected liberals in his facile characterization”

              No he didn’t, but make up your mind. First you said that “mad_kalak arguing that liberals only think about those closest to them,” now you are saying that “M_K neglected liberals in his facile characterization.”

              And I’m not sure what makes you think that Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments is a facile characterization.

              1. The set of all people includes liberals. m_k made a generalization about all people. His generalization is wrong, due to the counterexample of liberals.

                I could have used conservatives, as the wall is generally not a direct assistance to their life, but liberals was in keeping with the theme of the others in that thread.

                I do think Adam Smith’s moral philosophy is facile nowadays.

              2. Adam Smith’s point is about caring (or more accurately empathy) decreases with distance. To be fair, I’ve only read excerpts of this portion of his Theory of Moral Sentiments, but the particular passage starts with this: “If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.”

                This is just part of human nature. As for whether liberals do, or don’t care, for those at increased distance, many people (including me) think that it’s actually that liberals care *to much* for those at a distance (where they have so little ability to create positive change). Likewise, liberals often claim conservatives are too tribal and only care about those that look like them or their own communities. The liberals have a point in that, but that conservatives care about those close to them first is based on practicality first rather than anything else, and liberals also help those that are like them too.

                1. Most recently, I heard this podcast on Wealth of Nations, which ends discussing his other great work in some detail for context. (start at 08:20)

                  But citing Smith for sociology is like citing Freud for psychology. Or Demosthenes for atomic physics.

                  Economics is still built on Smith, (though with quite a few perturbations), but the those other disciplines have moved from their initial foundations quite a bit.

                  1. Theory of Moral Sentiments, is not quite as famous, but dismissing it is a mistake, first because Smith wrote it, but especially because human nature doesn’t change while atomic physics does. Your analogy stunk. But if you want a more modern psychological take on how empathy decreases with distance, read Against Empathy, by Paul Bloom.

                    It’s quite interesting, actually, that Smith actually wrote two books about essentially the same topic (human flourishing) from different angles. In the Wealth of Nations, he writes about how capitalism, relations between strangers, makes for wealth building, but in Theory of Moral Sentiments, he notes how wealth doesn’t make people happy but close relations do.

                    1. Technically, atomic physics doesn’t change, either.

                      It would be more to the point to state that, in as much as humans are much more observable than atoms, we got human nature figured out a lot sooner.

                    2. Normally I’d say that was being pedantic, when I mean the science of atomic physics, as understood by the ancient Greeks and as understood today, but fair point.

                      As for human nature, it’s not that it’s not understandable, but it is that our actions are too unpredictable. Read the complete works of Shakespeare and you’ll have a deeper understanding of human nature than most PhD psychologists.

                    3. I’ll just leave is where Brett argues we have human nature figured out an mad_kalak argues English majors have deeper insights than psychologists.

                    4. No, I said Shakespeare had deeper insights into human nature than most PhD psychologists. Read it again.

                    5. Shhh, it works better for Sarcastr0 if we all pretend you said what he says you said. Stop being so mean.

                    6. Read the complete works of Shakespeare and you’ll have a deeper understanding of human nature

                      You didn’t say Shakespeare, you said people who read him. That’s English majors.

                    7. No it isn’t.

                    8. “I’ll just leave is where Brett argues we have human nature figured out an mad_kalak argues English majors have deeper insights than psychologists.”

                      Oh, I think we got it figured out fairly early, to the extent that was feasible. Problem is, this is the sort of knowledge that keeps getting lost/rejected, because it tells you things you don’t want to know.

                    9. – “You didn’t say Shakespeare, you said people who read him. That’s English majors.”

                      Every time I think you can’t say anything more idiotic than the last thing you’ve said….

      2. Not a lack of nationalism. Rather a lack of humanitarianism — an intense personal vanity that negates concerns about what might help or hurt people.

        1. They’d say you’re doing the exact same thing with your preferred policies.

          Don’t mix up differing means with differing ends.

          1. It’s pretty clear when people are talking about what they support. If they care about people, they talk about how choices affect people.

            If they care about their own vanity, they talk about how right they are and how dumb/bad everyone else is who doesn’t agree — often with name-calling. Or they talk about how they are “saving the earth” without ever mentioning people. Or they talk about some historical grievance rather than anything relating to anyone now or in the future.

            Genuine disagreements relating to helping people are a very small fraction of any of these sorts of discussions any more. Self-focused vanity rules most of them.

            1. You don’t think environmentalists are thinking about how their policies effect people? That’s the whole point behind global warming!

              I wouldn’t go into which side does name-calling.

              Sounds to me more like you have a beef with some particular liberal you debate with and are trying to generalize it.

              1. Environmentalists mostly don’t think about people and mostly don’t care whether people will be hurt if their policies are enacted. They know they personally will be ok because they’re rich and entitled.

                Global warming is just another doomsday prophesy from a long line of doomsday prophesies. Doomsday predictions are always wrong. You don’t predict doomsday or make up dramatic stories about the future to help people. Real people are here and now. Imaginary future people who might exist someday aren’t people, they’re a projection of your own wishes.

                Dreaming about how you feel about some imaginary future is the very essence of self-focused personal vanity. Everyone has vices, so go ahead if you want. You can even try to pretend it isn’t all about yourself.

                1. No, Ben, they think that the catastrophe they’re holding off is worth the short-term pain.
                  You may think it’s a doomsday prophecy, but unless you think there’s a massive conspiracy to lie about it, that doesn’t make environmentalists less sincere.

                  If you want to talk about vanity, maybe the guy calling everyone else vain for what’s now commonly accepted is the guy who should work on his humility.

                  1. Believing in made up stories about the future and then hurting people based on that belief is not a virtue. Even when that belief is sincere. Hurting people is bad. And you know it’s bad.

                    Environmentalists never talk about how people will be better off. Anything about the environment is always to justify making things worse for people. It’s all punishment, all the time.

                    (In places and times with real pollution problems that really make people sick, it’s different, of course. That’s not here and not now.)

                    1. Begging the question does not make everyone else selfish, it just makes you look foolish.

                      You’re use of never is a tell that you’re off in sophistry-land, not in reality.
                      But even accepting that ridiculous premise, you’d have a hard time denying that environmentalists talk about how their policies mean people won’t be vastly worse off. That’s still altruistic.

                      Your telepathic speculation that people you disagree with are all selfish is getting sillier and sillier.

                    2. I understand. You disagree based on failing or refusing to notice how people act and what they say.

                      Or maybe you are watching other people (but you can’t cite any examples, because [reasons]).

                    3. I disagree with your bare assertion with how people act and what they say.

                      Your reality doesn’t comport with actual reality.

  5. Oh, the book-review is due already? Just a second, let me get it.

    There is a new book. The title of the new bok is Against Democracy. The author is Jason Brennan. Jason Brennan is against democracy. When I read this book, I realized that it was summarized with unerring accuracy on the just jacket, which says….

  6. “better-informed segments of society”

    Who would that be? Jason Brennan and his friends I guess.

    I’d rather be governed by only plumbers and electricians frankly.

  7. What’s the point of the book other than to make Jason Brennan money or get him a better job?

    We are not going to restrict voting rights or create a new electoral college of “better-informed segments of society” so its just a giant waste of paper.

    1. I would say, that at nothing else, when someone says “the solutions to the failure of democracy is more democracy” (and I have heard it said) you could point them to this book.

      Look at it this way, in my state, property tax assessors are appointed. The system works pretty well, even if taxes go up every year. But the one large metropolitan county that had an assessor directly elected, well, that’s were the funky stuff happens.

      1. “large metropolitan county”

        Its not election v. appointment, its just that large cities are inherently more corrupt.
        My county had corrupt officials, went to one executive with appointed [formerly elected] subordinates like sheriff, auditor and recorder. Low and behold, still corrupt.

        1. Mr. Wolf and Momma Bear disagree about the lack of corruption in small towns.

    2. Maybe we could restrict voting to owners of property.

      1. I’d like a third chamber of congress, where legislators proxy taxes paid by their voters. IOW, the IRS sends you a voucher of taxes paid, and you apportion them in the voting booth.

        I’d also like a chamber of volunteers. Every voter can check a “volunteer” box, and one is selected randomly from each Representatives district to be the corresponding rep in the volunteer chamber.

        Two more chances for veto., an infinite increase in outside-the-box thinking, and a heckuva lot more entertaining.

      2. I used to pay a lot in taxes, but rented as the job was only a 4 year gig, and I would hate to have to lose my enfranchisement because I was willing to move for employment in a strange city than the one of my birth. I would like some other system to restrict voting to those pulling the wagon, rather than in the wagon.

        1. You could go with the system described in “Starship Troopers”. Earn the franchise through service, mostly (but not exclusively) through military service.

          1. Heinlein makes for good reading, but is as poor a guide for governance as Ayn Rand. In my extensive experience, former military are some of the biggest moochers, apart from the whole wounded warrior aspect of the issue.

      3. Do you mean land, which has obvious problems for mid- to large-sized cities? Or people with more wealth than debt, which would create a drag on entrepreneurship? Otherwise I don’t see that there’s anyone who couldn’t vote.

        1. I never thought about that, entrepreneurs who have a lot of debt couldn’t vote. And land is a bad measure when you have so many urban city dwellers. Also, I wouldn’t want to think how you’d measure net payee vs net payer for tax dollars, when women would lose the franchise as they always take more out than they pay in due to having kids. “Service” would be something I suppose, despite the many problems with it.

        2. Even in a system where you had to own land to have the franchise, people in the cities could just buy shares in farms. Though perhaps we should be discouraging, (Or rather, not encouraging, because we do.) the growth of cities, anyway.

          1. Visit utopian Portland, Oregon, and it’s Urban Growth Boundary, to see what happens when you constrain the growth of cities.

            1. I don’t propose to constrain the growth of cities, but to stop encouraging it. Federal and state policy currently favors the expansion of cities.

  8. Look at that giant red “X” on the cover…it’s the St. Andrew’s Cross…omg it’s the Confederate battle flag!

    Quick, alert Twitter!

  9. How To Reboot the US Government, by Mencius Moldbug

    1. Fascinating.

      1. I find it interesting as well. I do not agree with Mencius Moldbug that we should have a dictator (or two). And I haven’t read his writings which apparently created a cult following and then some significant buzz. But his viewpoint seems of a similar vein to what is being discussed here which is why I posted it, and I think it’s valuable to entertain different paradigms.

  10. I get suspicious whenever anyone starts talking about how much better the government would get if (named or unnamed) other people were no longer involved in shaping it.

  11. We don’t go along with democracy because it works best. We go along with democracy because the people get what they deserve. We can see this principle in action in America today – exactly what we deserve.

    1. Mencken said it better.

      “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

      1. ‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’

        Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947

        1. The right’s growing penchant to explicitly call for contracting the franchise makes me wonder about their commitment to this lesson.

          1. A few Twitter people are not the “right”.

            Name one conservative office holder above city council or prominent conservative writer who wants to “contract the franchise”.

            {and backing voter ID does not count because every citizen can easily get an id]

            1. Sourcing links are being eaten.

              Ted Yoho, Steve King, Steve Bannon.

              And backing voter ID sure does count if you’re caught on tape chortling about how it helps your party in elections.

              1. Well, of course you’re going to think voter ID is going to help your party in elections, if you believe the opposing party is getting a significant number of votes from people who aren’t actually qualified to vote, or are doing so fraudulently in somebody else’s name.

                That said, yes, both Republicans AND Democrats think the Democratic party is reliant on the votes of people who are too poorly motivated to vote if it’s at all inconvenient. And Republicans try to exploit this by making voting slightly less convenient, while Democrats try to compensate for it by making voting more convenient.

                Which does nothing to establish the proper balance between convenience and security.

                1. The documents and tapes are not about catching voter fraud, they’re about suppressing the vote. Look up the documents in North Carolina, or the interview from Pennsylvania.

                  But lets not pivot just yet: Ted Yoho, Steve King, Steve Bannon. Tall talked about contracting the franchise.

                  Your party is pivoting towards oligarchy, and away from democracy.

            2. “{and backing voter ID does not count because every citizen can easily get an id]”

              The Constitutional standard is “no poll tax”, not “very easily raised poll tax”.

  12. There are two basic approaches to government: Minimize the worst case, and maximize the best case.

    Democracy attempts to minimize the worst case: You’re probably not going to be well governed with majority rule, but at least the majority aren’t going to vote themselves into death camps.

    1. You’re presupposing a utilitarian paradigm. Which makes sense – so is Prof. Somin.

      But I’m not sure that’s actually how political systems are or should be evaluated.

      1. No, I’m not proposing a utilitarian paradigm, I’m just identifying a divide in how people approach government, and many other things. Try to make the best possible outcome possible, at the cost of also enabling the worst possible outcome? Or try to minimize the chance of the worst possible outcome, at the cost of eliminating any chance of the best possible outcome?

        This is, I think, why the left favors centralizing power: If the people in command are assumed to be working competently for the good, that maximizes the chance of the best possible outcome. But it also enables dictatorship by somebody of ill will, too.

        1. Worst case/best case is utilitarian. How else are you evaluating outcomes other than utility?

          If, however, you think that having people participate in the body that governs them is a moral good in itself, that’s not the right analysis to use.
          I subscribe to the democracy as moral imperative paradigm, but even beyond that analysis as to whether a policy is good/bad is assuming a lot.

          As to the size of government question, I’d argue that while you do have some on the left who do fit your ‘good governance will save us’ mold, just as many are suspicious of what replaces government when it steps back. Some are full on I-hate-markets-Commies. Others, like myself, think skepticism of market suitability is as healthy as skepticism of the government is. In some areas government is a proper fit; in others, markets. In most, a balance of the two.

          1. “How else are you evaluating outcomes other than utility?”

            You’re demonstrating something I’ve often said: The left has so completely internalized utilitarianism, that you can’t think outside of it.

            “Utilitarianism” is a lot more than just evaluating how things turn out. It’s a philosophy about HOW you should evaluate how things turn out, and what your obligations are in regards to those outcomes. Either “minimize the chance of the worst outcome” or “maximize the chance of the best outcome” are, strictly speaking, utilitarianism.

            1. …so we agree? Your 2:53 pm post about the basic approaches to government is assuming utilitarianism?

              1. No, I’d meant to type “neither”.

                1. Utility is left undefined. It therefore encompasses any choice of best and worst you may wish to put forth.

  13. The fundamental difficulty, as always, is that people don’t know nearly as much as they think they do, and our capacity for knowledge about what the future will bring is quite limited. Confidence that one knows tends to be an attribute of the sort of self-confident aggressiveness that leads to power. But those most confident they know, most subjectively certain, may be those who know the least.

    Numerous major events of the 20th and 21st centuries, from the fall of the Soviet Union to 9/11, went unforeseen by experts. Technologies that were touted only a couple of decades ago as solving all our problems now have largely unforeseen side affects that in some cases make us worse off with them than without them.

    I am not an absolute skeptic. I don’t believe knowledge is impossible. But I do think knowledge is much more difficult than we think it is.

    Who decides if the self-proclaimed epistocrats actually know or not? Social elites turn out to be wrong about many things.

    Moreover, many policies involve questions of values, not just facts. Facts alone do not guarantee good decisions.

    Democracy does not guarantee good decisions. What it does ensure is accountability for bad decisions, and an ability to learn from mistakes.

    I would tend to agree that our society should have an informal elite and people with experience and learning should be deferred to more. I don’t say scholarship or science is worthless. However, formalizing that elite will not guarantee that society will be better off.

    But in the end,

    1. There are two challenges:
      First, lateral thinking. The human brain is an excellent pattern-matching computer… but sometimes that’s a problem, because we fool ourselves into seeing patterns that aren’t really there. (This is the basic mechanism behind optical illusions, among other things.)
      Science-fiction writers are willing to lay out their predictions, so we have more examples to work from. They tend to have strong imaginations, so there are some great successes. But there are also a good many “HA! you missed…” counterexamples.
      The second problem is that people tend to believe their own understanding of things they study is better than other people’s are, and scientists are no exception. Sometimes, science doesn’t advance until old scientists and their old ideas die off, and new scientists with new ideas rise to positions of power in the scientific community.
      A third problem is that a substantial portion of the human population is poor at assessing whether other people are telling them truthful things. Instead, they hear what they want to hear, and that ends the inquiry. Further, skeptics are not welcomed.

  14. Professor Somin, please post a link to the symposium when it is complete.

    The very concept of “best” government is subject to deep seated disagreement. The liberal view is more like “Do the greatest good for the greatest number”. The libertarian view is more like, “Mind your own business. Keep government out of my life.” Those can not be reconciled.

    IMO, it is liberals who are more likely to believe that their core values are universal. They are dumbfounded when the votes go against them.

  15. the biggest shortcoming of epistocracy may be that we lack the knowledge necessary to make it work well.

    No. That’s not the biggest shortcoming.

    The biggest one is that it seems to presume that governing is purely a technocratic matter. It’s not. It’s a matter of values.

    Here are some questions where epistocracy cannot help:

    1. Under what circumstance, if any, should abortion be allowed?

    2. Should the government provide old-age pensions?

    3. What limits, numerical and other, should be placed on immigration?

    4. What should the defense budget be? (Note that this question can’t be answered without agreement as to the role of the military?)

    I am confident that others here can add lots of items to this list.

    In other words, much of government is making judgments about values, not the best technical way to accomplish some objective. All the rocket scientists in the world can’t tell us how much space exploration we should be doing.

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