The Democracy Dilemma

In my view, what’s the most troubling argument against my view? I’m not impressed by any of the deontological arguments for democracy. But here’s a type of consequentialist objection which I’m not in a position to answer. From the end of chapter 8 of Against Democracy:

Whether we should prefer epistocracy to democracy is in part on an empirical question, which I am not fully able to answer. We can study how badly voters behave, and thus determine potential improvements epistocracy could produce. But we are not sure how well any epistocratic measures would actually work.

There are good reasons to think epistocracy would produce better results than democracy with universal suffrage, but there are reasons to worry it will not.

Consider, by analogy, how weak the case was for democracy as of the mid 1790s. The French revolution was supposed to replace what was clearly an unjust regime with a better regime. In the end, the result was disaster. It led to war, mass tyranny, chaos, mass executions, and, in the end, the rise of Napoleon. Though Louis XVI’s reign was unjust and ineffective, the French might have done better putting up with it than trying to replace it with something better.

Though the French Revolution was a revolt against the unjust regime, its repercussions were disastrous. | Photo Courtesy: Google Images

English politician Edmund Burke wrote a famous set of letters reflecting on what went wrong. He worried that people are imperfect, and there are limits on how much justice we can hope to achieve. He complained that human beings aren’t smart enough to remake society from scratch. He thought that the failures of the French Revolution showed us that many institutions and practices that seem unjust upon philosophical reflection turn out to serve useful purpose. This purpose is obscured to us, and we don’t discover it until we’ve destroyed the institutions. By then, it’s too late. Society and civilization are fragile. Society is held together not by reason, but by irrational beliefs and superstitions, including irrational beliefs in authority and patriotism.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]Society is complex—more complex than our simple theories can handle—and our attempts to fix things often have deleterious unintended consequences. [/su_pullquote]

These kinds of ideas are now often called “Burkean conservativism”. The basic thought is that we must be extremely cautious when making radical changes to existing institutions. Society is complex—more complex than our simple theories can handle—and our attempts to fix things often have deleterious unintended consequences. There is a presumption in favor of pre-existing social institutions. These institutions may seem unjust, but they at least have a history of working as well as they do. Moreover, existing legal and political institutions have evolved over generations—they have, in effect, adapted. Just as we should be wary of interfering with an ecosystem, the Burkean conservative thinks we should be wary of replacing existing political systems. Experimentation with new forms of government is dangerous.

Burke’s concerns about the French Revolution seem sound. A reasonable person in late 1793 might conclude that replacing monarchy with some form of democratic republic is a bad idea. Former British colonists living in the new United States were not in any obvious way better off than they had been under British rule, and the French republic was a nightmare. That said, in the more than two hundred years since, we’ve replaced most monarchies with democracies, and overall it’s been for the better. A similar point might apply to epistocracy. Or it might not.

Burke was worried about remaking society from the ground up, all at once.  He was not against attempting small improvements here and there. He would tend to favor small-scale experiments.

Since we are unsure of the consequences, but have reason to expect them to be positive, we might experiment with voter examination systems on a relatively small scale at first.

For instance, perhaps it would be best if one state in the U.S. tried the system first. We would want to start with a relatively non-corrupt state, such as New Hampshire, rather than a corrupt state, such as Louisiana. If the experiment succeeds, then the rules could be scaled up.

Similarly, remember that few hundred years ago, we had little experience with democracy. Some advocated democracy in part because they believed it would tend to produce better and more just outcomes than monarchy. Others worried that democracies would be even more corrupt, or would collapse into chaos. In light of their lack of experience, a democrat might reasonably have argued in favor of experimenting with democracy on a relatively small scale, and then scaling up only if the experiment succeeded.

Replacing democracy might be a risky attempt. | Photo Courtesy: Google Images

Democracy, as we practice it, is unjust. We expose innocent people to high degrees of risk, because we put their fate in the hands of ignorant, misinformed, irrational, biased, and sometimes immoral decision-makers. Epistocracy might be able to fix this problem. If epistocracy works better, we should go with epistocracy instead.

[su_pullquote]Democracy is not a fully just social system, but it’s too risky and dangerous to attempt to replace it with something else. [/su_pullquote]

But epistocracy might not work better. Or, it might be that trying to transition to democracy is too costly or dangerous—we can’t get there from here. In the end, then, the best argument for democracy is Burkean conservativism. Democracy is not a fully just social system, but it’s too risky and dangerous to attempt to replace it with something else.[i]

Burkean conservativism tells us to be careful, but we also have to be careful with Burkean conservativism. Burkean conservativism warns us that attempts to make things better might make things worse. It’s true that the world is complicated and our experiments may blow up in our faces. But we can repeat this line of reasoning for any proposed change.

Jason Brennan is an Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.

[i] A good example of this kind of argument is Knight and Johnson 2011. Knight and Johnson call their argument “pragmatic,” and it is indeed that, but it ultimately rests upon Burkean conservative ideas.

This article was originally published on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Featured Image Credits: Pixabay

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