This, screencapped by Ryan Cooper right before Jason Brennan suddenly and inexplicably deleted his Twitter account, gives the game away a bit.
Brennan, of Bleeding Hearts Libertarians, recently wrote a book advocating epistocracy – the argument that politics ought to be restricted to those who know enough to participate in it. Specifically, he suggests among other possibilities that voting ought to be restricted to those who demonstrate in an exam that they have sufficient knowledge of politics to be allowed participate.
One possible interpretation of Brennan’s contribution (if so it may be described) is that it’s a concerted effort to concern troll political theorists interested in epistemic democracy. Certainly there’s some internal evidence suggesting as much. Under a more charitable interpretation, Brennan is being entirely sincere – the problem is that his sincere beliefs reflect a basic flaw in how he thinks about politics. He doesn’t want to restrict voting to people who know enough to be good citizens. Instead, the tweet suggests that he wants to restrict voting to people who know enough to realize that Jason Brennan’s own political views are the right ones to hold.
Two things are going on here. First – the claim that some people are simply far better at thinking clearly than others – in Brennan’s version, ‘vulcans’ as opposed to apolitical ‘hobbits’ and nasty partisan ‘hooligans.’ Naturally, Brennan’s classification is a self-flattering one – no hooligan or hobbit he. Second, the intimation (see Bryan Caplan also, explicitly and passim) – that some truths are self-evident – markets, efficiency and the awesomeness of surge pricing.
Both are less well worked out intellectual claims than symptoms of the condition of much modern American libertarianism. The first results from the fact that when one doesn’t have a political party worth talking about (most libertarian intellectuals are embarrassed about or dismissive of their purported representative vehicle), it’s very easy to fancy oneself as a cool and disinterested ratiocinator, situated well above the heaving fray, and thinking more clearly by virtue of that fact. The second is the characteristic stance of libertarians who were struck at an impressionable age by economics 101 with the force of a revelation, a revelation that they were right all along.
Obviously both are problematic. Everyday empiricism would suggest that libertarian intellectuals are no better than others at discerning the flaws and blind spots in their own perspectives. Not only surge pricing – but also the benefits of markets themselves – are contingent and uncertain, creating a disjuncture between the natural rights that libertarian philosophy favors and real world outcomes.
Uber style surge pricing is an excellent and salutary example. One can make a good argument for it on the basis of economic theory (Uber is rationing a good so that it is allocated to those who want it most) – but one can also make strong counterarguments, without even starting to get into moral economy issues. If Uber is a wannabe monopolist as it surely is, then the price discrimination involved in surge pricing may appear as a nascent effort to squeeze consumer surplus from its consumers, which those consumers might reasonably want to object to before the monopoly becomes established. If one notes the common day fact that some people are rich, and some are poor, a host of other objections begin to materialize about the differential consequences of surge pricing for different potential users.
To belabor something that I hope is obvious to most readers but may not be obvious to all – the point is not that surge pricing is necessarily evil. It is that Econ 101 does not pre-empt the politics – people with different perspectives, interests and values may reasonably support or oppose surge pricing, depending. We do not know what the right answer is, and the best way we have discovered to even arrive at a rough approximation of the best answer that we can live with is to have people with different perspectives argue it out.
Brennan’s ideal epistocracy would strain a lot of those diverse perspectives out (he admits that e.g. African Americans in the US would likely be under-represented). His tweet furthermore suggests that, to take a few examples, people like Astra Taylor, the late E.P. Thompson, James Scott and Tom Slee (who, in fairness, has been denounced as an economic dunce by a prominent libertarian economist) should be barred from voting. I hope that it’s not too offensive to say that I would expect the contribution of any of these people to democratic debate to likely be more valuable than that of Jason Brennan.
This whole intellectual effort, of trying magically to reconcile bedrock libertarianism with an ersatz version of democratic theory, so that one would arrive at a population that would, through sheer force of combined erudition and intellect, arrive at the correct answer, reminds me of Peter Thiel’s notorious complaint that giving women the vote was a major mistake, since they didn’t have the right libertarian attitudes. It also reminds me, more indirectly, of one of my favorite bits from Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution:
From The Wealth of Nations one learns that the interest of each is, in the end, the good of all; if one observed President Robbins one saw that the good of all is, in the beginning, the interest of each … About anything, anything at all, Dwight Robins believed what Reason and Virtue and Tolerance and a Comprehensive Organic Synthesis of Values would have him believe. And about anything, anything at all, he believed what it was expedient for the President of Benton College to believe. You looked at the two beliefs and lo! the two were one. (Do you remember, as a child without much time, turning to the back of the arithmetic book, getting the answer to a problem and then writing down the summary hypothetical operations by which the answer had been, so speak, arrived at? It is the only method of problem-solving that always gives correct answers – that gives, even, the typographical errors in the back of the book).
One could make further arguments – for example developing on the fact that more knowledge apparently makes conservatives more rather than less opposed to climate science, but that’s enough for the moment, I think.