A Little Less Democracy

Bna Ignacio/Haji Lane, Singapore

10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less, Stanford University Press, $28.00


There was a time when publicly questioning the supremacy of democracy among political systems was quite unpalatable. Not so, anymore.

Garett Jones’ 10% Less Democracy is the latest addition in a series of books and articles economists and political theorists have written challenging democracy’s status. The series has its roots in 2007, when Bryan Caplan and Robin Hanson, colleagues of Jones’ at George Mason University, both published work in a similar vein to Jones’ book. Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter argues that voters’ systematic biases lead to the adoption of bad policies. Hanson proposed an alternative system of government which he dubbed “futarchy” in an article entitled “Shall We Vote on Values, But Bet on Beliefs.” Jason Brennan, a political philosopher at Georgetown University, provided theoretical support for these arguments in his 2016 book Against Democracy.

The reception of these books has proven that challenging democracy, or at least challenging the idea that more democracy is always better, is no longer entirely academically taboo. However, that taboo was broken largely outside the academic debate, as large-scale events from the 2016 election to the Brexit vote have caused both traditional elites and increasingly large segments of the public to question democracy. Beyond these climactic events, the U.S. government has become less capable of performing its routine functions, whether in terms of managing national debt or fixing decaying infrastructure. These problems have persisted on the micro-level of municipalities to the point where the current crop of democratic housing rules have been completely incapable of building better cities.

Yet the books remain deeply contrarian. Each work defends some form of increased elite influence at a time when trust in elites is lower than ever, as Martin Gurri illustrates in his recent book, The Revolt of the Public. There is little question that elites have struggled to justify their worth.

Why exactly the group defends elite influence is likely to surprise many. On both the left and right, there is a sense that elite malfeasance is the source of our current malaise. These authors in particular largely hold the opposite view: voters have gotten the policies and governance they have demanded. To the extent elites are responsible for our current problems, the authors contend, it is only to the extent that they have ceded political decision-making power to the public.

In the face of a surging populist moment, this claim sounds deeply counterintuitive. Indeed, as Caplan writes, “In the naive public-interest view, democracy works because it does what voters want. In the view of most democracy sceptics, it fails because it does not do what voters want. In my view, democracy fails because it does what voters want.”

One may be tempted to take a tragic view of democratic politics: “If democratic policies fail then voters are getting what they deserve.” But voting, by its nature, creates externalities. It imposes costs on others beyond the voter. Electing bad officials weakens the state. The attitude that voters “get what they deserve” is unhelpful. Instead, we should seek a framework that produces the best outcomes even if the actors within it aren’t acting as well as we might wish.

Caplan’s book sets out to explain a puzzle. In the past, many economists have argued that markets efficiently allocate resources but governments, under the influence of special interest groups, misallocate them. Enter Ronald Coase, whose 1960 paper “The Problem of Social Cost”  argued that bargaining between parties in the absence of what he called “transaction costs” could lead to efficiency despite the existence of externalities. By 1989, political scientist Donald Wittman pushed this argument to its seemingly logical conclusion: democratic governments—long thought to produce inefficient policies—were actually efficient. Voters elected representatives who then bargain among themselves to determine policy: the outcomes of this process must be efficient because any inefficiency would entail an opportunity for all parties to be made better off by further bargaining. In what Caplan calls Wittman’s Fork, Wittman laid out three possible paths to avoid this Coasean result: insufficient electoral competition, excessively high transaction costs, or extreme voter stupidity.

As the title of Caplan’s book suggests, he takes the third path: extreme voter stupidity. Of course, Wittman’s use of the word “stupidity” was deliberately provocative. Most theorists have framed the issue in terms of rational ignorance. Because voters do not need to know much about governance to vote and learning is costly, they remain “rationally ignorant” about politics.

It turns out, though, that ignorance on its own would not be a problem. Economists tend to treat ignorance as random noise and believe that there are at least some informed voters. When the number of voters is sufficiently large, ignorance can cancel out ignorance. If 49% of voters ignorantly vote for policy X and 49% ignorantly vote against it, the choice of the informed 2% will prevail. For instance, the ignorant bulk of voters may not recognize concerted efforts to bribe politicians through donations but informed voters could appropriately punish perpetrators.

Although implausible prima facie, this “miracle of aggregation” argument was actually taken very seriously as an explanation for how democracies could make good decisions despite widespread voter ignorance. If the miracle of aggregation did occur, democracies might actually have efficient policies. Given the policies democracies choose, Caplan does not think it occurs. Voters, Caplan argues, are not simply ignorant, but in fact systematically biased in favor of bad policies. When voters are systematically biased, systematically bad policy decisions prevail.

To show the systematic bias of voters, Caplan looks at the difference between the views of voters and the views of economists. Areas where the views of voters diverge widely from the views of economists are, for Caplan, clear examples of where voters are “getting it wrong.” Through some statistical work, Caplan introduces controls to “give voters an economics PhD” to see how a deeper knowledge of economics would change their views. After all, perhaps economists only believe certain things because of demographic factors like their income. It turns out that even controlling for such things, the preference of voters after their statistical PhD end up looking much more like economists.

Political philosopher Jason Brennan takes on democracy from a more theoretical perspective. He specifically takes issue with what he terms “democratic triumphalism,” the notion that democracy has clearly proven itself to be the best possible system. Brennan challenges three pervasive ideas underlying this attitude:

(1) The Areatic Argument: Democracy and democratic participation makes us better, more noble people.

(2) The Intrinsic Argument: Democracy is a uniquely just system.

(3) The Instrumental Argument: Democracies produce the best outcomes.

The areatic argument has been made by thinkers like Hannah Arendt, who argues that democratic political engagement—praxis—is essential for one’s self-actualization. The claim is a provocative one. Perhaps for even the average person to become the most complete version of themselves, they must become engaged in political action. But, the question can be studied empirically. We can test whether it is the case that democratic deliberation makes people act in more noble ways. Indeed, the topic has been examined extensively in the last 30 years. Brennan conducts a thorough review of this literature, and his conclusions are damning. Rather than becoming more perfect versions of ourselves, Brennan finds that in deliberative settings people almost always begin to act more like sports fans, or as he calls most political actors, “hooligans.” They do not methodically and dispassionately analyze evidence and contemplate the Good. In fact, they become more partisan, more certain of their side of the argument and more antagonistic toward others. Participation in democracy is more likely to lead to animosity among neighbors and within families than to the civic and personal self-realization that Arendt describes.

The claim that democracy is uniquely just may appear more compelling. In many areas of modern political science, the claim is virtually taken for granted, especially after the work of philosophers like John Rawls. A simplistic defense of this position might be something like: “Democracy is just because it gives everyone a voice.” But as Brennan points out, a vote representing 1/327,000,000 of the U.S. population, for instance, is an infinitesimally small voice. The chance of that voice changing an electoral outcome, even before considering the existence of the Electoral College, is many magnitudes smaller still.

In fact, Brennan argues, the case for democracy being just is even weaker than this observation shows. Brennan provides thought experiments where it seems obvious that democratic decision-making is unjust. He asks his reader to imagine a jury deliberating on a murder that refused to consider the evidence that was presented to them and instead flipped a coin. That seems unjust. What if the jury considered the evidence but processed it in a highly biased way? That also seems unjust. Are decisions over policy really so different?

Brennan uses these examples to demonstrate that when participating in democratic decision-making, voters affect the welfare of others. If these decisions are made without due consideration of evidence, or through the biased interpretation of evidence, as Caplan’s work suggests they are, we see that as unjust. Would we not prefer to have a judge consider the evidence in a more thorough and even handed way?

This leads Brennan to one of his most profound insights: that there is an inevitable tradeoff between a right to universal suffrage and a right to be governed well. If voting is given to all, mistaken beliefs and unexamined values will be put into governance. To make governance better, those beliefs and values will need to be excluded from decision-making mechanisms. By framing this as a tradeoff, Brennan forces his reader to consider whether voting is really so valuable that one should prefer it to being governed well.

Brennan considers the instrumental case for democracy to be the strongest. There is substantial literature in support of this claim, documenting, for instance, that democracies rarely have famines and tend not to go to war with each other.

Even if it is the case that democracy has shown itself better than previous forms of government on these terms, should this really be taken as evidence that it is the best? On the contrary, Brennan argues that there may be any number of reforms that would lead to even better governance, despite the absence of long empirical records from which to judge these reforms. Some of those reforms may even be “undemocratic,” but given his dispelling of anything but a consequentialist case for democracy, they may be worth considering. In particular, Brennan proposes experimenting with what he calls “epistocracy,” where greater power is given to the better informed.

Openness to epistocratic reforms does not imply, for Brennan or anyone else, a belief that the elite and the informed are perfect. Rather, it implies that decision-making could be improved by the greater input of elites and those who are more informed on certain margins. It does not mean that our current elites will be the purveyors of perfect governance. Indeed, the marked failures of elites to demonstrate their worth suggests a need for a wider project of improving elite competence altogether. Still, with the world as it is, we may still ask whether more of their influence would behoove us.

To take a reductionist view of democracy, voting has two functions: to aggregate people’s empirical beliefs and to aggregate people’s values. As Caplan’s work shows, voting almost certainly does a bad job in aggregating people’s empirical beliefs into a correct assessment of reality. If you aggregate systematically biased judgements about the world, you will not end up with an accurate assessment of how the world actually is.

Robin Hanson’s futarchy proposal, in which beliefs are bet on, attempts to remedy this problem. Rather than using the bias-prone process of voting to aggregate beliefs, where there is essentially no cost to any individual voter for being wrong, as their vote will not sway the election either way, Hanson suggests that we rely on betting markets. The betting market would have questions like, “If X law is passed, life expectancy will rise by more than one year.” Voters would vote on whether they wanted to prioritize life expectancy relative to other goals, rather than voting on the exact laws aimed at raising life expectancy. Because bettors would lose money if they were wrong, and any mispricing in bets would represent a potential profit opportunity, one could hypothesize that the betting market would hold maximally accurate positions. In fact, there is a long series of empirical results demonstrating the accuracy of betting markets in practice. Other systems, like political philosopher Thomas Cristiano’s values-only voting, have also sought to disambiguate voting on beliefs from voting on values in order to improve our political epistemology.

It is far from a radical position to suggest that we should wish to exclude clearly false beliefs from our political decision-making process. Indeed, the outcry surrounding  “fake news” and false claims in political advertisements on Facebook is undergirded by this very idea. One can still believe that truth requires the competition of ideas while also believing that it is not helpful to flood the discourse with falsities and irredeemable bias. We might even think that barring obviously false beliefs and systematically bad judgements from the public square may allow that competition to function better.

There is a more compelling case that everyone should get a say in the values that their society adheres to. These value questions might include how a nation balances national interest against global interest, how it balances equity and growth, how it balances security and privacy, or how much it should prioritize protecting biodiversity.

Yet there may be reason to be skeptical of even using voting to aggregate values, however. Some people may have well-developed, transitive views about the value questions that a study of politics entails, but we know from opinion research that views of most people on value-based subjects can easily change based on whom is asking the questions and how the questions are framed. Many are unable to disentangle fact and value altogether, and values seem to change based on the presentation of facts.

In making their cases, all of the authors focus on areas in which they argue that the beliefs of the public are inferior to the beliefs of experts. As economists, they focus almost exclusively on examples in economics and political economy, areas where the expert consensus differs sharply from the beliefs of voters. There may be little reason to believe, though, that there are not similar issues in the realm of values.

To take an obvious example, almost everyone fails to be scope sensitive. In a well-known experiment, people who were asked how much they would pay to save 20,000 birds offered less than those who were asked how much they would pay to save 2,000 birds. They not only offered less money per bird; they offered less to save 20,000 birds in total. When confronted with large numbers, we often fail to understand their scale and thus fail to even sustain consistent values. The quote that is probably misattributed to Stalin speaks to something profound about the default human moral psychology: “One death is a tragedy and a million is a statistic.”

We also have a very poor intuitive understanding of compounding. It’s easy to not appreciate the difference between a 1.5% and 2% growth rate without training. The apparently small difference is massive, as over decades, the differences in wealth between a society growing at 1.5% and one growing at 2% are immense. There is a reason people think Albert Einstein called compound interest “the most powerful force in the universe.” It might be that one only values 2% growth slightly more than 1.5% growth, but that view may be a product of mathematical ignorance.

Though no author emphasizes the point, examples like these give us reason to think that increased reliance on certain experts in guiding our social values would be beneficial, just as increased reliance on experts would aid our political epistemology. After all, it would certainly have been preferable for those who recognized the grave injustice of slavery to have more power than those who did not. There is such a thing of having greater knowledge of the Good, and there is no reason that increased reliance of such knowledge shouldn’t be part of epistocratic reforms.

The voting system is obviously more than a mere aggregation of empirical beliefs and value judgements. Through U.S. history, enfranchisement has been deeply tied to previously oppressed groups being recognized as full citizens in good standing. Indeed, the ability to vote has been a symbol of their good standing. As important as this process has been, Brennan points out that the symbolic nature of voting is contingent. To the degree that voting may be doing harm to the nation and to its citizens, Brennan suggests that we should strip the symbolic connotations from the right to vote and from the process of voting. After all, there are plenty of privileges, from driving licenses to plumbing licenses, that the government grants which do not have social value attached.

Voting also, as we see now in the midst of the election cycle, becomes a perverse form of entertainment. Discussions of the next primary dominate the news. Factions become more pronounced as supporters of one candidate attacks others. The once heralded process of democratic participation creates truly harmful externalities, pitting people against one another in needless arguments.

As robust as discussion on democracy’s defects has been, it is unclear what institutional forms should actually be pursued in light of it. Hanson’s futarchy seems completely politically infeasible, though there may be places in which betting markets can be introduced to aid in decision-making. Brennan suggests a form of epistocracy where more votes are given to those who are more informed—perhaps more feasible than Hanson’s, but still anathema to American political values. Caplan simply wishes to massively reduce the size of government so fewer decisions are made so irrationally. This, too, seems unlikely, not to mention that such a reduction in the size of government would also cost valuable state capacity.

Yet institutional reforms that make our democracy more epistocratic—that give more control over our political epistemology and goals to those best qualified—could be beneficial. But where exactly should these reforms take place? How can they be done without disrupting the high-quality aspects of American governance? Which reforms would be most valuable? It is these questions that Jones’ book aims to answer. Jones asks not for systemic change, but simply that we begin experimenting with, on the margin, less democracy.

The book begins by postulating a Laffer Curve for democracy. Imagine positive outcomes as a Y-axis and level of democracy as the X-Axis. With no democracy, outcomes are poor. With some amount of democracy, outcomes are optimal. With too much democracy, outcomes begin to worsen. Jones suggests that some advanced economies may have drifted too far to the right on the X-axis, and could improve their outcomes by reducing their level of democracy in favor of slightly more elite and expert control.

As Jones points out, there are already undemocratic elements of American governance that function very well, such as the Federal Reserve and the Judiciary. We know from cross-country comparisons, which Jones details, that countries with less independent central banks and court systems do markedly less well across a number of domains.

Given that we are comfortable, and indeed benefit from these undemocratic institutions, Jones suggests more that we might experiment with more of the like. For example, perhaps the specifics of tax policy should be decided by an appointed committee so as to create simpler and more efficient rules. Perhaps government bondholders should have more influence, so that democracies think more about long-term fiscal responsibility. Perhaps congressional earmarks should return to allow for more win-win deal-making. It is ideas like these that Jones’ book considers, marginally undemocratic measures to produce better governance. Not only does Jones provide provocative object-level examples, he teaches his reader to think about how alternative institutional procedures would compare to current ones. As has been argued in this magazine, America has routinely failed to undertake sufficient long-term strategic action in domains from state-led industrialization to AI to the arctic. Jones’ work provides a model for thinking about using institutional reforms to create a consistent strategic vision, something that has been a consistent weakness of liberal democracies.

Caplan describes having once asked, “Why are democracies’ policies so bad?” After studying public opinion he began asking, “Why aren’t they much worse?” It is an untold story of our recent political and intellectual history just how widespread asking similar questions has become. There will almost certainly be no perfect solution or reform proposed, but as it becomes easier for nefarious agents to manipulate democratic processes by spreading misinformation and exacerbating political tensions, the need for reforms will become increasingly dire. After over a decade of increased skepticism about democracy, borne out not only in the academic literature but in the manifest failures of democratic politics, Jones’ concise and rigorous book suggests one possible path forward. Perhaps the great political question of the future will not be how to get to Denmark, but to Singapore.

Nick Whitaker studies philosophy at Brown University. He recently received a grant for his work from Emergent Ventures. You can follow him on Twitter @ns_whit.