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Paul Gunn’s Forthcoming Hatchet Job in Critical Review

Summary:
Paul Gunn has a “critique” of Against Democracy forthcoming in Critical Review (the Jeff Friedman journal, not the of International… one.) The positions and arguments Gunn attributes to me are unrecognizable, neither directly stated in the texts nor implied by them. Gunn’s main methodology in the paper is to take a clear quotation of mine, state it, interpret it in some way that makes me sound stupid, and finally argue against that stupid view. So, in this post, I’ll refer to the book Gunn critiques as Straw Against Democracy.Some examples: On page 12, he quotes me from chapter 2, where I give a rather stock illustration of the concept of rational ignorance. I say that if a billionaire offered you a deal, that if you ace AP US history, civics, micro, and macro, plus get a 95% of

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Paul Gunn has a “critique” of Against Democracy forthcoming in Critical Review (the Jeff Friedman journal, not the of International… one.) The positions and arguments Gunn attributes to me are unrecognizable, neither directly stated in the texts nor implied by them.

Gunn’s main methodology in the paper is to take a clear quotation of mine, state it, interpret it in some way that makes me sound stupid, and finally argue against that stupid view. So, in this post, I’ll refer to the book Gunn critiques as Straw Against Democracy.

Some examples:

On page 12, he quotes me from chapter 2, where I give a rather stock illustration of the concept of rational ignorance. I say that if a billionaire offered you a deal, that if you ace AP US history, civics, micro, and macro, plus get a 95% of the question on the ANES right, he’d give you a 1 in 100 million chance of winning $1 billion from him, you probably wouldn’t study. The incentives are too weak.

Paul Gunn, without argument, claims that this illustration reveals that I think A) all social scientific knowledge is simple (where “simple” and “complex” are theoretical concepts special to Gunn) and B) that the *only* reason people are ignorant is that they lack incentives, not that some knowledge is too hard to acquire. (Later in the book I say that some knowledge is too hard to acquire, and very shortly after this example, I explain why some people know these things anyway.)

By the way, while the rational ignorance theory is widely accepted (editor Jeff Friedman being one significant critic of it), it plays almost no role in my argument. I just offer it to the reader so they understand the most prominent explanation for why citizens are ignorant.

Chapter two of Against Democracy basically says this: “Here’s a list of things citizens don’t know: Basic facts, such as recent bills passed, which party controls the Senate or the House, who their representatives are, or what parties what individual parties stand for and are trying to do, or what it would take to actually implement those policies. Even if they knew what parties stood for, that wouldn’t be enough, because they’d also need to know whether those policies would work. Also, while most people have no real political opinions, it’s worth noting that those who do generally have opinions on economic and political scientific very different from mainstream economists and political scientists, as the following twenty studies reveal. Further, enlightened preference methods unanimously find that an enlightened public would have preferences similar to those of mainstream economists and political scientists, which sure is interesting. Also, everyone suffers from major tribalistic psychological biases, especially the most informed people. So, pretty much everyone is a Hobbit or a Hooligan and there are no Vulcans.”

Gunn responds to this by saying that most economists are not free market libertarians. Further, some major economists somewhat dispute some of the major basic claims in Econ 101 textbooks.

He’s right–indeed, I say so myself–but Gunn thinks this somehow plays a major role in my argument, when it plays basically none. Of course, he does not carefully reconstruct the actual argument of my book for the reader. If you read his essay but not my book, you’ll think I’m basically saying, “Economists think X. The people think Y. So we should let economists rule and stop the people.” That’s not even what Bryan Caplan says in The Myth of the Rational Voter, though it’s at least a closer approximation of Caplan than me.

Because Gunn attributes some argument like that to me, he spends a significant portion of his paper critiquing the epistemology of economics and arguing that the social sciences in general are very suspect. He claims that most/many of the issues social scientists defend are highly controversial among those same social scientists. Further, social scientific knowledge is complex rather than simple, in some ways we needn’t get into here. Therefore, he concludes any argument against democracy on the basis of its failing to track social scientific consensus or on the basis of the claim that social scientific experts could do a better job ruling is suspect.

Gunn might be right about that stuff–though it’s almost entirely irrelevant to my book. Oddly, though, he doesn’t see that his argument is self-effacing. After all, his own theory of the epistemology of the social sciences is highly suspect and controversial, the epistemology of philosophy in general is highly suspect and controversial, and the arguments for democracy are as controversial among philosophers, etc., as any of the stuff from economics I mention offhand. The epistemological critique he offers of Straw Against Democracy applies to his own paper and to the books both Against Democracy and Straw Against Democracy critique. Presumably, then, we cannot use Gunn’s arguments or any of the various philosophical arguments philosophers have adduced on behalf of democracy. If Gunn is right, then Straw Against Democracy should be tossed in the flames, but so should his paper, and so should nearly all of democratic theory.


Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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