Populist, Elitist Reasons to Be Against Democracy

It's elitist to think some people know better than others; it's populist to think that political knowledge isn't special.

Chapter 2 of Against Democracy is titled “Ignorant, Irrational, Misinformed Nationalists.” It argues that voters are… well, go ahead and guess.

There are a huge range of studies on voter behavior. These studies overwhelmingly find that the mean, median, and modal levels of basic political knowledge among voters is low, but variance is high. Some voters know a lot, but many know less than nothing, as they are systematically misinformed.

Knowledge makes a significant difference in what policies citizens prefer. Studies of voter psychology find that most people process information in biased and motivated ways. But, at least, they sort of mean well: voters vote for what they perceive to be the national good rather than their narrow self-interest.

It's better to be ignorant than systematically wrong.I’m on the record as saying that some people know better than others. I’d rather be ruled by the Harvard economics department than by the first hundred people in the Cambridge phonebook. In Against Democracy, at one point, in response to an objection from Tom Christiano, I point out that on economic issues, the American public is worse than my five-year-old son Keaton. He’s ignorant and agnostic, but American voters are mercantilists. This means Keaton is epistemically superior to them, because he’s merely ignorant (and, rightly, lacks any opinions), while American voters are systematically wrong.

On this point, I recently had a conversation with a reporter that went roughly as follows:

Reporter: “You say some people know better than others. Isn’t that elitist?”

Brennan: “Yes, in the same way that it’s elitist to say that plumbers know more about plumbing than I do.”

Reporter: “Oh, that makes sense.”

Of course, we recognize that for most topics — baseball stats, Pokémon lore, carpentry, typing, nursing, shredding  some people know a lot, some know nothing, and some know less than nothing. No one thinks anything of that.

But for some reason, when we get to political and social scientific knowledge, we tend to pretend that everyone is equal, even though we have massive amounts of empirical evidence, collected over 60 years, showing otherwise.

My suspicion here is that this is because we treat political participation as a high status activity, while we treat nursing or Pokémon knowledge as low status. To say my plumber understands plumbing better than I do — and, accordingly, that the government should consult his opinion about plumbing, rather than mine — doesn’t seem to connote that he’s a superior person overall to me. But to say that I understand economics better than my plumber does seem to connote, to most people, that I’m superior overall.

High Status, High Stakes

But the problem here isn’t with thinking some people know more about politics than others, or that some people’s opinions about politics are more sensible, reliable, or valuable than others. Rather, the problem is that we imbue political participation with such high status.

Political participation is nothing special and should have no more status than plumbing or carpentry.One thing I’ve been trying to do — e.g., in “Civic Virtue without Politics” (chapter 2 of The Ethics of Voting); “For-Profit Business as Civic Virtue,” Journal of Business Ethics; “Political Liberty: Who Needs It?,” Social Philosophy and Policy; and “Politics Is Not a Poem,” (chapter 5 of Against Democracy) — is lower the status of political participation. I have an elitist view of political knowledge — I think some know much better than others — but a populist view of civic virtue: I think that political participation is nothing special and should have no more status than plumbing or carpentry. (Here’s an earlier post on that point.)

One question I like to ask, for those who express skepticism about whether political scientists and economists are more knowledgeable than your Aunt Betty and Uncle Bert, is that, if the social sciences fail to produce knowledge, why not shut down the universities? Doesn’t that mean universities are utter failures? Why fund them? Shouldn’t we stop wasting all this money and instead spend it on valuable things?

On this point, here’s an excerpt from an early draft of Against Democracy:

About almost any topic inside or outside of politics, some people have superior judgment to others. Despite disagreement, diversity, and self-serving cognitive biases, we can and do form justified true beliefs that some people have superior judgment to others.

I justifiably believe my surgeon brother-in-law has superior medical judgment than I do. I justifiably believe my IT tech brother has superior judgment about computers than I do. I justifiably believe my plumber has superior judgment about pipefitting that I do. I justifiably believe that Quantas pilots have superior judgment about piloting than I do.

And, while I no doubt suffer from some degree of confirmation bias and self-serving bias, perhaps I justifiably believe that I — a chaired professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at an elite research university, with a Ph.D. from the top-ranked political philosophy program in the English-speaking world, and with a strong record of peer-reviewed publications in top journals and academic presses — have superior political judgment on a great many political matters to many of my fellow citizens, including to many large groups of them.

If I didn’t believe that about myself, I’d feel like a fraud every time I teach a political economy course.

One might hold the following view of university teaching: We professors don’t really have better political judgment than our students, but we are good at making them have better judgment. However, we professors have also taken a great number of courses from other professors who are supposedly (according to this view) good at making students have better judgment. Did our professors make all the other students develop better judgment, but fail to help us — the ones who became professors — have better judgment?

So, I don’t see a way out of the view that if you’re a professor of X, you should believe you have better judgment with regard to X than the average person. If you don’t have better judgment than the average person, you are a fraud, and should either quit or be fired.

You can pre-order Against Democracy at Amazon, to be released on August 30, 2016.

This post first appeared at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Further Reading


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