The new issue of Catalyst journal is out now. Subscribe today!

Bleeding Heart Bullshit

A new book by a self-proclaimed "bleeding heart libertarian" reveals libertarianism’s bankrupt conscience.

Libertarians aren’t the only people who enjoy playing devil’s advocate.

Young children, for example, are also fond of the “what about” and the “well, actually.” Teenagers too. Of course, as their self-awareness develops, they usually cut that out.

True, some kids do make it all the way to college with their knee-jerk contrarianism intact. But even these undergrads tend to notice their classmates’ eyerolls by sophomore or junior year, so they move on to other ways of arguing.

All this is to say: most people grow out of their devil’s advocate phase before they’re old enough to vote. The rest, before they’re old enough to rent a car.

So we should applaud libertarian luminary Jason Brennan for maintaining the intellectual posture of a college sophomore well into his academic career.

In his own words:

At the very least, democratic theory needs someone to play devil’s advocate. Although I’m happy to play that role, in true devilish fashion I now doubt whether I’m defending the devil, and philosophers and political theorists are defending the angels.

That declaration appears on the very first page of Brennan’s Against Democracy, a clumsy, unoriginal treatise, far too convinced of its own edginess, that attempts to do for libertarianism what The Moosewood Cookbook did for spaghetti squash — that is, turn something unpalatable into something righteous.

I’m tempted to describe that bit about defending angels as the opening gambit of a man who likes the smell of his own bullshit. But that wouldn’t be entirely fair, because there’s nothing original in Brennan’s book.

So this makes for a better metaphor: those are the words of a child who has fallen in someone else’s shit, spent a few curious moments smearing it around, and now insists that he likes the smell.

Democracy Sucks

So whose shit does Brennan have on his face?

The Georgetown University professor is part of the academic milieu that coheres around the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHL) — a group of free-market apologists who have built a brand out of applying lipstick to the libertarian pig.

These BHL types claim an interest in “social justice” — though they can’t agree on what that means — and frame their defense of the free market as advocacy for the poor.

Online, Brennan presents himself as libertarianism’s millennial maverick. But in Against Democracy, he takes great pains to place himself in a pedigree of conservative thinkers that extends from Burke, to Mill, to John Adams, stretching back even to Plato — men who, in Brennan’s view, valiantly defended reality from the dreamers.

For Brennan, results-based pragmatism is at the core of conservative thought. He begins his book by invoking Mill’s call for “whatever form of government produces the best results.” But as Brennan’s arguments develop, it becomes clear that his insistent pragmatism is shrewdness more than clearheadedness — the emphasis on “best results” allows Brennan to elide his argument’s repugnant implications by appealing to an ideal standard of good government (“competent rule”) that he leaves abstract and unexplained.

Two points are central to Brennan’s argument in Against Democracy — first, “that politics is bad for us, and most of us should, for the sake of our characters, minimize our involvement”; and second, that one-person-one-vote democracy, far from being empowering, actually violates individual liberties.

Brennan rides the high horse of these two points all the way to his big idea: democracy should be replaced by “epistocracy” — in other words, the rule of the learned, the qualified, should prevail over the will of the people.

It’s not a new idea. In fact, it’s a very old idea — and a bad one — that Brennan attempts to rehabilitate in 245 pages of plodding prose.

So let’s take each of his two main claims individually. First, politics is bad for us, and most of us should really just cut it out of our lives.

Brennan divides people into three categories based on political temperament — “hobbits” don’t have strong political opinions or interests; “hooligans” have intensely partisan views, and can’t help but ridicule or out-shout those they disagree with; and “vulcans” are thoroughly rational, with well-informed opinions that shift according to new information and fresh insight.

The problem with democracy, Brennan suggests, is that it incentivizes us to be hooligans. By their very nature, political people are crass, partisan, irrational — not fit to be rulers.

Responding to democratic theorists like Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls — who advocate deliberative democracy on the grounds that it creates enlightened political subjects — Brennan claims to demonstrate through empirical evidence that political participation in fact encourages irrational behavior.

But the empirical evidence he musters is underwhelming, to say the least.

A flashy array of pseudo-intellectual buzzwords — “tribalism”; “in group/out group dynamics”; “confirmation bias” — sprinkle his polemic, eventually cohering around a strawman political subject: the hypothetical hobbit who enters the deliberative fray and emerges worse — transformed into a hooligan, lost forever to the vulcans’ world of cool-as-a-cucumber political rationality.

Brennan seems unable to grasp that people don’t enter political discussions as pure individuals — we’re all thoroughly enmeshed in collectives. By virtue of our position in society, we are inclined to ally with those who share our social priorities, and opposed to those who don’t.

The transformative potential of deliberative democracy lies in its capacity for making these social distinctions clear — not in some mystical quality that allows us to transcend our material circumstances through the power of measured discussion.

For all his hand-wringing about polarization, Brennan never stops to consider that maybe establishing clear lines between antagonistic forces is, in fact, the point of politics — not its unhappy side effect.

But this all starts to make sense when we consider that, according to Brennan, the great evil of democracy is that it violates the happy community of the market — in which all people are connected to all others in a diffuse web of mutual benefit.

For Brennan, giving people the right to vote transforms them from market collaborators into “civic enemies” — precisely because it opens the door to the possibility that individuals might, by acting together, exert power over other market participants.

“In civil society,” Brennan writes, “most of my fellow citizens are my civic friends, part of a great cooperative scheme [the market]. One of the repugnant features of democracy is that it transforms these people into threats to my well-being.” How? By enabling them to control his behavior “in risky and incompetent ways.”

That brings us to Brennan’s second key point. One-person-one-vote democracy doesn’t empower us, as those wily democracy-boosters would have us believe — actually, it violates our rights.

Brennan disputes the democrats’ principle that people have the right to participate in government by introducing a different principle — people have the right to competent rule.

Then he continues for forty pages about how, overwhelmingly, voters are just too dumb to be trusted with that great responsibility. By voting wrong, Brennan claims, other people violate his personal right to good government.

Luckily, Brennan has a solution to this predicament — “Just as we regulate emissions in order to control air pollution, should we regulate voting in order to control voting pollution?” he asks.

We cleanse the air. Why not cleanse the voter rolls?

Then we can leave politics to the experts — the epistocrats.

Authoritarian Is the New Normal

What would Brennan’s “epistocracy” mean in practice?

Basically, it would mean a voter qualification exam, although Brennan does entertain other forms of restricted suffrage — an epistocratic council with veto power over popular proposals; “plural” voting, in which more educated voters cast weightier votes; a bizarre Nate Silver-y method Brennan dubs “rule by simulated oracle,” in which detailed demographic information is combined with test results to divine what an ideal, informed populace would vote for; even a lottery system in which only a small, randomly selected group is eligible for enfranchisement pending a mandatory competence process.

But really, what Brennan wants is an exam — similar to a naturalization test — for prospective voters. And he’s clear-eyed about what kind of epistocratic class this qualification exam would create:

If the United States were to start using a voter qualification exam right now, such as an exam that I got to design, I’d expect that the people who pass the exam would be disproportionately white, upper-middle to upper-class, educated, employed males.

After first insisting he’s hardly a bigot — “on implicit bias tests, I score many standard deviations lower than the average person” — Brennan goes on to make an argument that illustrates one of the strangest features of so-called “bleeding heart libertarianism”:

[T]here are underlying injustices and social problems that tend to make it so that some groups are more likely to be knowledgeable than others. My view is that rather than insist everyone vote, we should fix those underlying injustices. Let’s treat the disease, not the symptoms.

Others have already pointed out that bleeding heart libertarians start to sound a lot like “garden variety liberals” when pressed about non-governmental power regimes. So it’s not too surprising that Brennan deals with persistent social problems like racism by acknowledging their existence, expressing vague concern, and then sliding right on by.

The libertarian’s arsenal is bare when it comes to actually proposing a way to “fix underlying injustices.” So Brennan only has one proposal, and it’s pathetically inadequate — the epistocrats will provide:

[L]ow- and high-information voters have systematically different policy preferences, including preferences for how to deal with these underlying injustices. In the United States, excluding the bottom 80 percent of white voters from voting might be just what poor blacks need.

Epistocracy, he implies, provides the antidote to its own poison fruit.

How do we fix marginalization? With more marginalization, says Brennan, smearing a little more determinedly.

It’s no coincidence that the bleeding heart libertarian scene emerged in 2011, just a few months before the Occupy Wall Street movement began — the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing recession made many people deeply skeptical of free-market orthodoxy. The right-wing intelligentsia needed a facelift — and fast.

But the makeover isn’t fooling anyone. Jason Brennan may pepper his pages with crocodile tears for “marginalized groups” and references to “underlying injustices,” but his unapologetic vision of a fenced-in political sphere, dominated by intellectual elites, shows his true colors.