New Year Double Issue: Editor’s Note

What’s Wrong With Democracy

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
Page 1 of 1

Will the rule of knowers save the world?

THE DEPLORABLES. That was what they were called. First as the stigmatised and then as revolutionaries, they had the last deplorable laugh in the American presidential election. Hillary Clinton’s description for what she saw as the ignoble legion that sustained the rage against her revealed not just the mindset of an entrenched elite. It brought out a fundamental truth about democracy and elections. Are they good for humanity? Is the voter’s choice a reflection of essential attributes such as reason, knowledge, and mental sophistication? Why should we suffer, in the name of democracy, the consequences of the choices made by all those idiots out there?

The uninformed exercise of democratic rights has already made 2016 the year of the empowered deplorable, or that is what the liberal lament is nowadays. Before they bought all the ‘lies’ that Trump sold gratis, they danced to the Brexiter’s songs of glory. They found little use of facts, and they didn’t give a damn about all those experts. In the year that brought post-truth and fake news to the glossary of power, instinct reigned. It was not the loftiness of ideas but the ideals of deplorables that spawned populists and nativists who changed politics in the US and Europe. Democracy, as we are still told by the priesthood of the Left, has legitimised the worst judgments of the irrational mind.

This dispute over democracy is as old as democracy itself. Plato had problems with the system that executed his mentor, and he was the first to warn against what kind of evil lay beyond the Athenian idyll. That said, let’s also not forget that history’s most cathartic moments were man’s struggle against monarchic power; or the individual versus the imperial. It was thought to be a dangerous thing to leave destiny to the impulses of the masses, to the grievances of the shirtless. Democracy carried within it the fallacy of individual rights, which were not always compatible with the common good, or that was what the enlightened few who knew better told us over the ages.

And the enlightened in power had little regard for the excesses of democracy: just think of the apostles of so-called Asian values. The soft dictatorships of southeast Asia, with Lee Kuan Yew as their demigod, attributed their economic ‘tigerdom’ to controlled democracy. Development required determined leadership, the order of the wisest, not a ruling class born out of unbridled freedom. Was it just a huge pretence, this trust in wise men as architects of national greatness? Wasn’t Europe, with greater national legacies in progress, a validation of democracy’s virtues?

We Indians can’t escape the argument. Seventy years of freedom may have made us Asia’s most evolved civil society, but we are far from being the region’s best example of development. Is democracy to be blamed for all our maladies as a republic? The elected Indian in power is not necessarily the ideal ruler, and in many instances, he is the only one to enjoy the mandate to manipulate the freedom the world’s largest democracy offers. It could be argued that India as a nation lost its adolescent years because democracy did not allow the rule of the best. And we have seen all types, from sub-nationalist provincials to kitschy socialists, from me-alone populists to the last custodians of family values. Elections corrupt, divide, and burden us with ‘deplorable’ choices—and it is not just the Chinese who are saying it. Still, the Chinese are more likely to repeat it because the People’s Republic has achieved a fine balance between Confucius and Lenin: The rule of the enlightened few and the communist apparatus ensure order, without which modernisation is impossible. So ‘incidents’ such as Tiananmen Square are inevitable when the ‘counterrevolutionary viruses’ of democracy infect the gullible.

The most idealised form of governance is under strain. Churchill, not a great fan of democracy, also said this: “At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.” Suddenly, the little man is the source of all our ills. He is not knowledgeable or intellectually sophisticated enough to make choices that can shift history. The system that drives him to the polling booth has made this world corrupt, divided, vengeful, unequal and violent.

Are we idealising the wrong system? Jason Brennan, in one of the most provocative books to have come out in 2016, thinks so. In Against Democracy (Princeton University Press, 304 pages, $29.95), Brennan, an American political philosopher, argues that free political participation ‘stultifies and corrupts’ us. ‘Universal suffrage incentivizes most voters to make political decisions in an ignorant and irrational way, and then imposes these ignorant and irrational decisions on innocent people. The only thing that could justify unrestricted, universal suffrage would be that we cannot produce a better-performing system,’ he says. Liberal democracy, and its inherent mechanism against a higher level of human development, is kept alive by hooligans, one of the three categories of voters the professor identifies. Hooligans are believers, ‘the rabid sports fans of politics’. They use information to suit their faith but discard inconvenient facts. We may say they are the most likely consumers of fake news. According to Brennan, most voters and politicians are hooligans. The other two categories are Hobbits and Vulcans. Hobbits are the indifferent non-voters who have little interest, or education, in politics. Vulcans are the smart set with political opinions based on knowledge and evidence, but are still not passionate about politics. ‘They do not think everyone who disagrees with them is stupid, evil or selfish.’

Our future is too precious to be left to the hooligans. The professor’s anti-democratic—more literally perhaps anti-political—position can be summarised in a set of neat observations: voters are generally ignorant or misinformed nationalists; political participation, or a democratic system built on deliberation, does not make us better, and there is no evidence to prove otherwise; democracy does not empower individuals; democratic symbolism is nonsense: voting rights don’t give any self-respect to the citizen; most political decisions made by an incompetent body—or made in bad faith—are illegitimate; there is no science that proves democracy is the best choice for us; and salvation lies in the rule of the ‘knowers’.

The knowers. Sounds as if they have just descended from a Stars Wars movie. The rhetorical power of Brennan turns them into the last redeemers of a lost system. Epistocracy, as against democracy, is a system of the enlightened—not the nameless majority, but those who are qualified to be the masters of our destiny. Too lofty to be real? Brennan makes it seem possible with practical suggestions, and his idea of the alternative is a convincing rejoinder to debunkers of epistocracy such as David Estlund, who invented the word but did not become an advocate of it. Episteme, in ancient Greek, refers to knowledge, and for Brennan, a system of the knowers can be achieved through voter examination. Only the qualified—the knowledgeable—need to vote. ‘Democracy, as we practice it, is unjust. We expose innocent people to high degrees of risk because we put their fate in the hands of ignorant, misinformed, irrational, biased, and sometimes immoral decision makers. Epistocracy might be able to fix this problem.’

The problem is as nightmarish as Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’: ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ Inside the political arena, one is against the other, and every transaction is a violation. ‘Politics puts us in something uncomfortably like a gladiatorial situation,’ writes Brennan, ‘If you are on the other team, you are quite literally trying to force me to bend to your will. For that reason, I have grounds to dislike you.’ His argument is against politics itself, for it is the politics of civic enemies that denies democracy the luxury of an adjective like ‘liberal’. Twenty-five years ago, as communism fell, another philosopher saw the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy as the end of Hegelian history. Brennan, in the age of Trump, tells us that we have been celebrating the wrong system all along. Mass politics has made democracy a polarising force of unfreedom.

Is that really so, even if we accept the obvious that democracy does not protect us from the illiberal instincts of the elected? The lofty regime of the wiser lot is a recurring theme in the history of the alternative. If democracy is about managing the chaos, the problem with epistocracy is about the temptations of the perfect. Totalitarianism is an idyll, said the novelist. So is any form of governance that assumes that the mandate of the chosen one is nobler than the vote of the lesser mortal. What makes Brennan’s argument essential for anyone living in a democracy is not the road to redemption he offers, but his portrait of a cracked ideal.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year.