Jason Brennan is a rising star in the American liberal world. Under forty years old, he became the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business of the University of Georgetown. Charismatic, lover of metal and provocative, Brennan is the author of dozens of books and articles published in the world’s most prestigious reviews and journals, making him one of the most prolific academics of his generation. However, nothing he’s done has caused more debate and captured more attention than his book Against Democracy, which has been translated into several languages. In this exclusive interview for ÁTOMO, Brennan expands on some of his criticisms of democracy, and comments on his proposed alternative, so-called “epistocracy”.
–Do you think it is possible to have democracy without populism in the long-term? Or, on the contrary, is there an inherent tendency in democracy, that leads it to degenerate into populism, and even destroy itself at some point?
-There are reasons to believe that democracy always leads to populism. But this does not have to do with democracy in itself, rather, populism appeals very much to the masses. This precipitates a tribal attitude, where the collective is what’s most important. It also feeds xenophobia toward the outside world, generates a loss of confidence in institutions and normally is related to a profound ignorance regarding how markets and the economy work.
These attitudes are often present in the deepest part of humans because, as Jonathan Haidt would say, we spent around 200,000 years living in small family clans, where interactions were all face-to-face, where it was important to express solidarity with the group and where the outside was a threat to the clan. In this context it was rational to be distrustful, and our mental architecture and moral intuition are designed for that world that doesn’t exist anymore. We’ve only lived in great civilizations for a few thousand years. Civilization where collaboration is on a scale of thousands, millions, and now billions of people. Populism expresses those mental attitudes and prejudices that were adapted hundreds of thousands of years ago. So I don’t believe that democracy is to blame. Populism is deeply rooted within us.
–Do you believe that those instincts flourish more in democracies or monarchies, for example? It’s not difficult to imagine a populist king, but the English crown is hardly known as such. It seems like it’s dictators seeking power who use this method most often, like Hugo Chávez or Adolf Hitler.
-If we recall medieval times, when the kings and queens weren’t simply symbolic figureheads and thus had real political power, the majority fostered these types of populist attitudes. For example, “trade is bad for us,” “foreigners are untrustworthy, they shouldn’t meddle with our country”, and “the only thing that matters is our people, not those people”. It was only with the growth of liberalism from the 19th century that we began to overcome populist ideas and give priority to liberal ones.
On the other hand, it’s true that there are people who have come to power thanks to these populist prejudices, so I don’t know if there’s a system of government that’s better at limiting populism. However, the more things are left to the market, the discussion centers less on populist demands or prejudices and turns more toward seeing other people as allies in commerce. Voltaire, in his English letters, in 1733-34, describes a visit to the London Stock Exchange. Something he noticed was that there were people of all faiths, not only Christians, but Muslims, Jews, and others. They traded amongst themselves and didn’t appear to worry about their religious differences, because trade brought them together and pushed them to overcome their mutual distrust. Therefore, I believe that economic liberalism is a good mechanism to curb populism.
–Do that political representatives really serve the will of the people? Or is it really just another myth that we’ve grown accustomed to?
-I don’t believe in any such thing as the will of the people, that’s only a philosophic matter. When you have people with such different preferences, there is no mechanism that can turn said preferences in a coherent set of public policies.
The theory that they teach you in school is that citizens have a series of interests, then they find the party that best responds to those interests and they vote. Finally, if everyone does that, you form some kind of governing coalition. But in reality, when people move toward a political party it is very rare for this to be due to its ideology, or because they know what the party’s aims are. In general, its because of random historical circumstances that lead people from the group you happen to identify with to be tied to a party. It’s more like being a fan of a sports team.
When you have a mass so ill-informed and ignorant, with so little ability to pay attention to what politicians do, then these tend to act independently of the voters and not implement the things they promised. And thank God they don’t! because they often promise terrible thing, that would have devastating results. And they know that, if they really kept disastrous promises, there is a high chance that they would not be reelected.
–You have argued against the idea that it’s possible to have a civilized public debate on what should become public policy, that is, against Habermas’ views on collective action and communication. Why do you think Habermas is so wrong?
-Habermas is very influential around the world, but he is a philosopher and does what every philosopher does: sit on a couch and theorize how things ought to be. He doesn’t get off his seat to see how the world really works.
So, what Habermas essentially says is: if you and I follow this set of complicated rules on how we should deliberate, them we will be more open. It’s probably true, but the empirical question is: when you get people together and you try to make them follow these rules, will they? And what are the results? Studies show that when you really try to create a space for deliberation, it’s much more likely that there is polarization, that people go to the extremes and they become nastier, before they understand the others’ points of view and come to agreements.
“Habermas is very influential around the world, but he is a philosopher and does what every philosopher does: sit on a couch and theorize how things ought to be. He doesn’t get off his seat to see how the world really works”.
–In that same line it’s argued that we should involve people more in politics and work to achieve something similar to the idea of the Greek agora or the Roman forum, where everyone deliberates. Hannah Arendt seems to have idealized this “polis” that deliberates and debates. Do you have any opinion on her political vision?
-I think that Arendt is more excusable than Habermas, because she developed her theory before we began to seriously study how voters think, and how people make decisions in political psychology. The studies on which I based my book Against Democracy are all posterior to her work. So, she presented a possible political hypothesis for her context, but she was speculating. I think that to make the same speculations today requires one to ignore an enormous amount of literature. So she can’t be judged in the same way we judge Habermas, who maintained his theory in spite of all the evidence against it. In this sense, I believe that Habermas becomes something like a flat-earther today, whereas Arendt would be like someone who believed in the flat earth before we knew the earth was round
-Schumpeter was very skeptical of democracy. I remember that when I mentioned or cited him in Germany, my professors would often turn up their noses, because they didn’t like his theory about it. But one could say that in the end he was a realist.
-I would say that he was right, the evidence proves it. One of the problems with philosophy about democracy, is that it is something that political philosophers do. Plato would say that the philosophers should be kings and perhaps he was right, but it’s suspicious because he was a philosopher saying that. Later Aristotle said that God philosophizes all day and that the highest a human can aspire to is to become a philosopher. Maybe he’s right, but it’s suspicious, because he’s a philosopher, too. Then we go forward around 2,500 years and we have political philosophers saying: you know what makes an exemplary citizen? Going his whole life to the debates we have in the philosophy seminars. And maybe they’re right, but I have my suspicions that because they are political philosophers, you’re holding up your way of life and things you like as if they were the pinnacle of human existence, and assuming that what would make the majority of humanity better, is basically if the world were like a successful philosophy conference.
–You’ve also stated that, despite its flaws, democracy has produced better results than other systems. Why is that? Is it only because power isn’t concentrated in the hands of a few?
-I think that that best argument in favor of democracy is the dispersion of power. If you read Why Nations Fail, by Acemoglu and Robinson, there’s good evidence that indicates that, if you want an economy that functions well and a political system that functions well, you have to divide power. This often leads to less destructive conduct.
Though they are conceptually distinct, modern democracy and liberalism come and are developed together in practice. There is enough evidence that shows democracies are much more given to promoting liberal values than nondemocratic systems are. Nevertheless, we also have to understand that democracy has systematic flaws, and we know what causes them. They are intrinsic problems that cannot be solved with things like expanding public education, or making the media better, because these don’t attack the root of the problem. At some point we must accept that democracy incentivizes citizens to be ignorant and irrational. And given that we are giving power to people, if we incentive people to be ignorant and irrational, then what we’re doing is incentivizing the group that has fundamental power to use it in a negligent way.
“At some point we must accept that democracy incentivizes citizens to be ignorant and irrational. And given that we are giving power to people, if we incentive people to be ignorant and irrational, then what we’re doing is incentivizing the group that has fundamental power to use it in a negligent way”.
–There are authors who insist that democracy is dying. But if democracy dies, nobody assures us that something better will come, something that will respect personal liberties. How do you think the future will be if we maintain this cult of democracy, or this system of institutions? Do you think something terrible could happen? That we could have only authoritarian leaders shackling democratic institutions?
-I’m not as worried as others are. It’s true that democracy is declining, and certain forms of liberalism are declining in very liberal countries, but at the same time, these things are growing in countries that used to be very illiberal. So it’s difficult to foretell where the world is going.
–But in the West?
-Even as far as the West is concerned, I consider myself less pessimistic than the majority, and I don’t think that many of those people are as pessimistic as they claim to be. Because if I had written a book called The West is in decline, I could have made a lot of money, because people love spending money on things that worry them, and apocalyptic predictions always sell. Paul R. Ehrlich predicted a massive famine hundreds of times and he was always wrong, but he’s still famous and still making money by saying the same thing.
When certain populist movements won, like Trump in the United States, some of my friends and colleagues made predictions like that the Third World War was going to break out. My response to them was: what is the minimum necessary for your prediction to come true. When they tell me, I answer: perfect, I bet you 5,000 dollars that it doesn’t happen in the next five years. Nobody has taken my bet, which leads me to conclude that when people make these apocalyptic predictions, they often don’t really believe them. We are not in a position to know what will happen in the next 200 years, and if someone says they know, they’re only trying to sell you a book.
“When certain populist movements won, like Trump in the United States, some of my friends and colleagues made predictions like that the Third World War was going to break out. My response to them was: what is the minimum necessary for your prediction to come true. When they tell me, I answer: perfect, I bet you 5,000 dollars that it doesn’t happen in the next five years. Nobody has taken my bet, which leads me to conclude that when people make these apocalyptic predictions, they often don’t really believe them. We are not in a position to know what will happen in the next 200 years, and if someone says they know, they’re only trying to sell you a book”.
-Milton Friedman used to say that humans have lived under tyrannies for the entirety of history. It’s only been for a very limited time, and not even all over the world, that we have enjoyed certain levels of liberty. Perhaps —and I’m exaggerating— that tribal sense that we have rooted in our instincts fell asleep and today wants to come back. Do you believe that our instincts can bring us back to the dark ages?
-There’s always the possibility of collapsing into a new dark age, but let’s only look at it since World War II. If we look at sources like the Fraser Institute’s “Economic Freedom Index”, or take any index of human freedom and civil liberties, what we see since the Second World War is a significant upward trend and, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the trend is even stronger. China doesn’t have a free economy, but it’s significantly more free than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Only a little while ago 58 countries signed a free trade agreement. It was more than a page long, so it wasn’t totally free trade, but even so the world is more free. So I think that, in general, the world is moving toward becoming more liberal. Even though we see some liberal countries deviate and distance themselves from liberalism, we have to be careful we don’t exaggerate the scale of that slip, there will always be lows, but that doesn’t indicate a trend. Therefore, considering recent history, if I had to bet, I would say that the Fraser index average in the future will tend toward liberty more than it does today.
–We can say, regarding your proposal for epistocracy, that it seeks to shed certain biases. The big problem with democracy is that there are ignorant people, or people who don’t care what happens, and who at the same time are making decisions for everyone else. Those who really mobilize are fanatic, the political hooligans. What I still don’t understand about this proposed epistocracy is if this would be a system where a congress is unnecessary. What would be the scenario of this model?
-The epistocratic system that I prefer is what I call “enlightened voting preferences”. It works like this: in whatever type of vote that’s taking place, everyone has the right to vote, including children. They all participate equally in the process, but when they vote they must say: 1. What they want, their preference; 2. Who they are, information about their demographic characteristic; and 3. We give them a test with thirty questions about basic political information with questions like: who represents them in the Congress, what parties control the Congress and some statistics about the country. With these three datasets you can use basic statistic methods (which any political science graduate can do) and predict how the population would vote if it had had a high score on the political knowledge test. This is because you already have the demographic information and therefore, know what factors may be biasing your answers, like income or race. SO you can isolate these factors and determine how the population of Chile or the United Kingdom would have voted if their citizens had been politically informed.
My recommendation is that, if you have to consult the citizens on some issue, you should prefer the informed vote to a regular vote, but I’m agnostic on what type of thing ought to be put to a vote. That said, if the informed or enlightened preference system works, perhaps we wouldn’t need to have representation. People that would love to have direct democracy have the same problem as political philosophers. Wouldn’t it be great if the whole world, all my friends and all my neighbors did what I always do, that is, vote and participate in politics? I think there is a huge opportunity cost related to political participation. If you are a plumber, you contribute more to society than anyone ever has by voting. So I want to reduce the amount of time a person invests in politics so they can go do those much more important things, which is what they do day-to-day. That’s one reason to keep a representative system, because the same way people specialize in plumbing, confectionery, the world of the intellect or in art, we probably want there to be people specialized in politics. But of course, many times this degenerates and we get people with perverse incentives.
–What is the best criticism you’ve read of your proposal so far?
-The best external criticism that I’ve received is the “conservative” one, which expresses that, as any new idea will have disadvantages that cannot be anticipated, you have to be very cautious in trying it. That’s why I say in the book that I don’t recommend implementing this everywhere tomorrow, but that I want to experiment on a small scale in relatively non-corrupt democracies to see how it works. And if it works, then it can be spread elsewhere.