Fear of Democracy

While there is much more to be said about the risks associated with advocating “experimental disenfranchisement,” I stand by the claim that we cannot ignore the widespread temptation towards disenfranchising ignorant citizens. We must at least acknowledge that the challenge is not simply coming from nowhere: Jason Brennan reflects a widespread, even common-sensical, fear of democracy: electorates too often seem to be ill-equipped to make good decisions.

My initial defense of Brennan was partly rooted in a respect for a fellow philosopher interested in epistemic problems in democracy, and partly rooted in a desire to defend norms of scholarly civility. After all, there’s a lot in The Ethics of Voting and “Polluting the Polls,” that I find challenging and useful. These are, to my mind, really hard and interesting problems: *should* the white supremacist vote if he recognizes that his motivations are based in racism? I honestly don’t think so, but I’d never deny him the right to do so. Certainly, the basic insight that the obligation to vote well may sometimes lead one to abstain seems indisputable. We can all ask ourselves: “Should I vote if I haven’t researched the candidates’ positions?”

Even this new paper of Brennan’s fits within the broad research agenda of epistemic institutional design. Apropos of the question about professional ethics, I’m kind of glad he wrote it, so that now we can criticize the argument itself rather than the crypto-disenfranchisement that Schliesser and others had accurately ascertained from the book (especially his use of the “pollution” metaphor for incompetent voters) while I was blinded by his explicit denial and purported libertarian credentials. Certainly, the real risks of disenfranchisement are already being realized without Brennan’s participation, and while they are more strictly partisan, they might someday find resources for rhetorical defense in Brennan’s research.

Brennan is hardly the first one to raise these questions, nor is he the first to suggest disenfranchising solutions. The most important kind of disenfranchisement is the liberal system of rights, after all: by restricting those issues which are proper matters of government intervention, liberal rights selectively disenfranchise voters on various important questions. Deliberative democrats have also tended to try to foreclose certain kinds of speech, whether it be theological speech or hate speech, in order to preserve a space where citizens can gather and reach reasonable agreements. The procedural democrats, in contrast, merely circumscribed what voters actually choose by turning important matters over to a purportedly-competent bureaucracy and reducing electoral partisanship to a few perpetually-unresolved cultural disagreements.

Following the Frankfurt School and especially the work of Max Weber, Claude Lefort, and Louis Althusser, there has been increasing attention to the ways in which these various strategies of disenfranchisement preserve elite rule. Notably, these critiques have tended to come from sociologically-oriented philosophers: scholars who noticed that attention to institutions and personalities might sometimes be needed to supplement arguments and ideas, and who returned to simple questions like “Who is speaking?” and “Who is being dominated?” It helps, also, to have strongly egalitarian moral intuitions, or to lack deference for expertise.

Starting with my dissertation, I have been interested in contemporary democratic theories of deliberation and public reason, focusing on Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the growing power of the administrative state as a response to public ignorance. Arendt held that communities of like-minded individuals supply the foundations of political action, and that the increasing interconnection of governance and economic management is detrimental to this civic springboard. In addition to devoting their attention to the distribution of public goods, state institutions are obligated to supply a space and an opportunity for action and mutual engagement. A thick conception of democracy as isonomy requires that we have the opportunity to act consequentially with respect to the constitution of our shared world.  In my view, institutions cannot duck substantive citizen participation in matters that concern our shared world, because one of the fundamental public goods that state institutions must “distribute” is the opportunity for civic engagement itself.

If Hannah Arendt is right, the history of political philosophy has been a long history of anti-isonomic disenfranchisement, ultimately grounded in the desire to defend elite thinkers like Socrates against the dangers of demagogues and their crowds. In this sense, fear of democracy is certainly rational, and all the more so when we see polls that demonstrate the indifference of the electorate to matters like environmental degradation, global warming, and economic inequality that threaten not just elites but the least advantaged. But it is not just.

By the way, I think Brennan is on to something when he argues that “Restricted suffrage is about as unjust as voting age laws.” Perhaps the approximation of the two is off by several orders of magnitude, since most who are restricted by voting age laws will eventually be old enough to vote, but perhaps too we ought to experiment with lowering the voting age.

Second Opinions