This brings us to the central injustice of democracy, and why holding a referendum was a bad idea. Imagine, as an analogy, that you are sick. You go to a doctor. But suppose your “doctor” doesn’t study the facts, doesn’t know any medicine, and makes her decisions about how to treat you on a whim, on the basis of prejudice or wishful thinking. Imagine the doctor not only prescribes you a course of treatment, but literally forces you, at gunpoint, to accept the treatment.
We’d find this behavior intolerable. Your doctor owes you a duty of care. She owes it to you to deliver an expert opinion on the basis of good information, a strong background knowledge of medicine, and only after considering the facts in a rational and scientific way. To force you to follow the decisions incompetent and bad faith doctor is unjust.
But this is roughly what happens in democracy. Most voters are ignorant of both basic political facts and the background social scientific theories needed to evaluate the facts. They process what little information they have in highly biased and irrational ways. They decided largely on whim. And, worse, we’re each stuck having to put up with the group’s decision. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who has the right and means to emigrate, you’re forced to accept your democracy’s poorly chosen decisions.--Jason Brennan "Brexit, Democracy, and Epistocracy"
Jason Brennan can be trusted to never let a good crisis go to waste; he is using Brexit to peddle his anti-democratic sentiments and to offer up his medicine, the rule by experts (or epistocracy). Never mind that referenda are (thankfully) not the norm in liberal democracies, and that the particular referendum that occasioned his remarks was intended by the credentialed and smart (former) prime-minister David Cameron to settle an intra-parliamentary debate within the Conservative party rather than be used as a guide to policy. (Cameron never seriously contemplated losing the referendum which is clear from the fact that he deliberately avoided doing the one thing he promised to do if he lost: to invoke article 5o.) I offer three critical comments on his analysis.
First, regardless if one reflects on direct democracy (i.e., a referendum) or indirect democracy (voting for representatives) Brennan's analogy between going to a doctor and respecting the outcome of a vote is a false one. When one visits a physician the goal is not up for debate: the telos is given; it's health or restoring ordinary functioning as much as possible. Of course, there are exceptions to this (especially in cosmetic surgery and other forms of enhancement). There is a lot of room for nuance and ethical distinctions (not to mention important cases where there is no hope for restoring much of anything), but you don't go to a physician to have a good time or as leisure activity (etc.). By contrast, in democratic life, most of the ends and norms are up for debate and this debate is, in part, one of the aims of the exercise.
That is to say, we don't go to a physician in order to find out how to live and what the proper ends of one's life are. The claim in the previous sentence may be an error of modernity (although Plato's Symposium suggests it was already a problem in Ancient Athens)--maybe we should develop and train our physicians to become wise, too.The dis-analogy makes a huge difference. When ends are given, experts can guide in light of facts and constraints (means-ends rationality: "good information, a strong background knowledge of medicine, and only after considering the facts in a rational and scientific way.") When ends and the rules of the game are up for debate, the experts tend to give very partial advice. When economists tell us what is rational, they tend to assume that growth or full employment is good and they tend to ignore distributional effects, and they do not discuss all kinds of other quality of life issues and other important ends that other experts (e.g., sociologists, psychologists, ecologists, and criminologists (etc.) may focus on.
A striking fact of the British 'leave' vote is that it is concentrated in areas that benefit directly from EU spending, that is, poorer, older, and less educated areas (Cornwall, an area dependent also on tourism, has been used as an exemplar in this discussion). A lot of folk used this as evidence that leave voters are irrational (and ignorant). But that's only true if they understand themselves as aiming to increase their share of European handouts--what self-respecting voter would want that?
In his writings, Brennan simply takes it for granted that the rationality of a decision is based on an evaluation of its social "effects" and that there is agreement about the evaluation of these effects. And that such social consequences needs to be evaluated with "social scientific knowledge." Now, I am all for professional philosophers giving increased respect and hearing to social sciences (I work in a political science department). But we cannot assume that there is agreement over the desirability of effects. Lots of folk who voted 'remain' want open-borders in Europe (let's leave aside the issue of external borders). Let's stipulate that's great for the economy; it's also part of a certain life-style in which Europe's youth explore each other's countries and cultures (in part by working and studying abroad). The Cosmopolitan elites will easily slide into treating their preferences as constituting rationality. But that is not obvious. The 'leave' voters (let's stipulate) want no cross-border traffic (and no immigrants), and, let's stipulate they are harmed economically by their vote. Yet, if one introduces environmental considerations into one's analysis, then harming and reducing traffic is quite rational. (Before the Brexit campaign turned nasty there were quite a few environmentalists on the 'leave' side.)
Second, Brennan loves cherry-picking the facts on voter ignorance. Let me offer one of his favorite Memes:
Political scientists have been studying voter knowledge for the past 60 years. The results are uniformly depressing. Most voters in most countries are systematically ignorant of even the most basic political facts, let alone more the social scientific theories needed to make sense of these facts.
This is not a true state of the art in political science. In his work Brennan systematically ignores criticisms of the research he is relying on (see, e.g., Arthur Lupia) and he relies on the snobbishness of his readers (who themselves are fed a steady stream of ignorant voter stories by the press). In fact, Brennan and his readers are good at passing tests (in which one is quizzed on the "facts"). But voting is not such a test. In a representative democracy it is about selecting representatives and leaders, who are evaluated to echo Manin's Madisonian point along whatever dimension (a majority/plurality of) the electorate deems relevant. The Brexit campaign was very clearly a(n intemperate) debate about an image of Britain not primarily a debate about the facts. It is also a debate about sense-making, but not in the way Brennan uses it, but rather in a wider, diffuse sense. Whatever else 'leave' was about it was a rejection of forms of life and values that have become dominant in educated culture. And this gets me to the final, most important point.
Third, Brennan often pretends that epistocracy is somehow not existing and would be a "new system" worth trying. But many properly political decisions are farmed out to experts already: most obviously monetary and banking policy, which is run by independent central bankers and regulators--look how well that turned out. Brennan shows no interest in epistocratic failures (not to mention the evils of eugenics, etc.).
More important, across the western world, government today is the province of the educated. Long ago are the days when governments were job centers for the (well connected) uneducated. Colleges and universities are credentialing mills for bureaucracies and semi-government bureaucracies. While France may be on the extreme end in entrusting rule largely to a cadre of graduates of De École nationale d'administration (ENA), all liberal democracies are already run, in practice, by (to echo JFK) the brightest and best. These epistemocratic elites have created a two-tier polity: the credentialed are protected by the state and have lots of economic and judicial privileges; the uneducated are, well, left to fend for themselves harassed by law enforcement and technocracy.* Brennan notes that "all across the West, we’re seeing the rise of rise of angry, resentful, nationalist, xenophobic and racist movements, movements made up mostly of low-information voters." What he fails to recognize is that these are the effects of a political culture and institutions that are already highly epistocratic. Why prescribe a double dosage of a medicine that has nearly killed the patient?
*Yes, there are exceptions of the educated not doing well in modern regimes (university adjuncts, social workers, teachers, etc.).