2016-07-22

Upside-Down Libertarianism

Jason Brennan often argues (here, for example) that democracy is a bad idea, because voters are idiots with respect to social science, and that it should be replaced with something he calls "epistocracy." What he has in mind is some kind of test of basic knowledge - if you pass, you can vote.

Much like a UBI, I consider this kind of thing to be "upside-down libertarianism." Brennan takes an important implication of libertarianism at face-value, and then makes exactly the wrong prognosis.

The heart of the issue is that democracies leave important decisions in the hands of those least equipped to make them. Brennan is certainly right to highlight that shortcoming of democracy. Logically speaking, though, there are only two ways to address this problem:

  1. Make a change to who, within the political process, gets to make the important decision.
  2. Take the important decision out of the political process entirely.
In plain language, the government is probably too powerful if we are using it to make decisions that require the expertise of a small number of university professors. The government ought not be making those kinds of decisions, democratically or otherwise.

Notice that, under this argument, we work our way toward a truly libertarian objective: smaller government.

By contrast, reducing the number of people who are allowed to participate in the democratic process without making any reduction in the size or scope of government sets on the path toward greater levels of despotism than what already exists. And this is generally true of all states, not uniquely true of mine or yours.

My critics might argue that there is no political appetite for smaller government in the current environment, so isn't Brennan's "epistocracy" a good, next-best option? My answer is no, because there is even less of an appetite for voting restrictions than there is for smaller government. Both ideas seem like political long-shots, but as long as we're choosing from a list of long-shots, why not make the choice that results in a smaller, less-intrusive state?

But regardless of which policy stands the greater chance for implementation, we can see that certain new-fangled "libertarian" policies just seem like an upside-down or Bizarro version of libertarianism, in which we tackle the problem of increased despotism with ever-increasing levels of despotism. This is the philosophical version of a nanny state, where our epistemic superiors aim to save us from ourselves.