Reading corner: Against elections, against democracy, against both?

Against Elections

By David van Reybrouck

Bodley Head

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Against Democracy

By Jason Brennan

Princeton University Press

 

These are interesting times. In many Western democracies, popular discontent with government and with democracy itself runs high. Van Reybrouck and Brennan agree on one thing: democracy is broken and it doesn’t deliver the goods. They disagree, however, on what the solution might be.

Van Reybrouck is against elections. He believes that we’ve become obsessed with elections as the only imaginable form of democratic government. We’ve conflated elections with democracy for so long, that we’ve forgotten that there are better democratic methods out there. Van Reybrouck also believes that random selection, rather than election, can fix our democratic systems. This may sound unconventional (not to say mad), yet remember that this is how the Athenian democracy worked.

Brennan agrees that the patient is ill, but doesn’t think he can be saved. Democracy is broken and it can’t be fixed. The problem is that voters are just too damn ignorant. Uninformed voting can do a lot of damage to society. So would driving a car if you didn’t know how to do it. Why do we require drivers to have licenses, yet we let any uninformed, incompetent fool vote? Brennan’s answer to democracy’s problem is the epistocracy, “the rule of those who know”.

Both books present challenging arguments, yet it’s worth hearing them out. While van Reybrouck and Brennan tackle related questions, the two books are different in character. Van Reybrouck not only convinces us, based on plenty of historical evidence, that we’ve confused democracy with elections, but spends a lot of time developing plausible scenarios for how sortition-based mechanisms could be integrated into existing political systems.

Brennan is far less concerned with the practical applicability of his ideas. He does try to explain how the “rule of the knowers” might be implemented, yet this is the least convincing part of his book. As a political philosopher he is at his strongest when developing the carefully constructed argument for why the collective “right to competent government” might trump any individual’s right to vote.

Like with any provoking argument, there is plenty to question in both works. Van Reybrouck’s case rests on the claim that “deliberative democracy” produces results which are superior in quality and legitimacy to what either a group of experts or a regular parliamentary chamber could achieve. The fundamental idea of deliberative democracy is that if you take a group of people (randomly selected ones in van Reybrouck’s instance) and provide them with high-quality information, expert input, good facilitation and enough time they will produce high-quality decisions.

Van Reybrouck tells, for example, the engaging stories of the constitutional assembly in Iceland and the electoral reform assembly in British Columbia, both of which used sortition and a deliberative procedure. The results are, as van Reybrouck tells the story, not just high-quality decisions, but given the deep involvement of a diverse group of citizens truly reflective of society they are also seen as legitimate.

But does deliberation actually work this way? Brennan disagrees. In his quest to convince the reader that no amount of tinkering will make democracies functional he also reviews the literature on deliberative democracy. His damning conclusion is that “there is ample evidence that deliberation often stultifies or corrupts us, that it frequently exacerbates our biases and leads to greater conflict”. Brennan is a political philosopher and not an empirical political scientist, so we may want to treat his claims with some caution. Yet if he was right this would mean a fatal blow to van Reybrouck’s argument.

Given how provoking Brennan’s argument is – arguing that universal suffrage produces worse outcomes and that we might be justified in disenfranchising “incompetent” segments of the population – it is not surprising that he’s received a lot of criticism. While he uses the language of behavioural biases to make his case it’s not clear whether he’s falling prey to those same ones.

His read of the social science literature about the effects of deliberation or the lack of informed voting seems selective at best. It’s hard not to get the sense that Brennan is cherry picking the studies he cites. Given how important the empirical evidence is to his argument and given that he presumably thinks of himself as one of the enlightened individuals who would get to vote in an epistocracy that is rather problematic.

But while there’s much to criticise in both works they are worth reading, if for no other reason that they challenge our ideas of how democracy can and ought to work. There is also a complete and pleasant absence of mindless techno-babble in both books. Refreshingly neither Brennan nor van Reybrouck claim that smartphones (or some other solutionist tech gadget) will somehow save democracy.

Democracy is worth defending, but it also needs to deliver the goods. Both of these books offer some provoking ideas on how that might be done.