The digital militias that instigated acts like the invasion of the Capitol Hill in the United States are harmful to democracy, but much worse would be to silence them. In fact, restricting freedom of expression is even worse than abject behavior like racism.
Such views have made 42-year-old American philosopher Jason Brennan a celebrity among liberals.
“Racism is a terrible thing, but even worse is ‘illiberalism’, the philosophy that rejects freedom in favor of political or communal authoritarianism. This philosophy has caused more damage than racism, ”he said, in an interview with Folha by email.
Professor at Georgetown University (USA) and self-proclaimed libertarian, Brennan is no stranger to controversial theses. He criticizes democracies as they operate today because he believes that the majority of voters are easily manipulated and do not make informed choices when voting.
In its place, it defends the concept of “epistocracy”, a kind of government of specialists, in which only people with a deep knowledge of the relevant issues would make political decisions.
The philosopher detailed the idea in the 2016 book “Against Democracy” (ed. Gradiva), which caused a stir in the American academy and led to accusations that Brennan favored elitism.
The philosopher will be one of the panelists at the Freedom Forum, a liberal event that takes place virtually on April 12 and 13, when he talks about the power of digital militias.
Are digital militias a threat to democracy and should they be fought? Democracy tends to encourage people to be stupid and nasty. The reason is that our votes count so little that we use politics as a way to build coalitions for social benefits. People do not vote to promote their interests, but to signal to others that they are loyal to their groups. This is true not only for extremists, such as militiamen, but also for voters in general.
One way groups signal their loyalty is by reaffirming silly or crazy ideas. If I proclaim the absurdity out loud, you know I really care about your group.
Yes, these online militias are a threat to democracy, as some of them do horrible things, like inciting acts against the Capitol. But I would be very wary of politicians who ask for more power to control them. These politicians are not saints and have no public spirit.
Should we tolerate groups like QAnon, racists and supremacists in general, in the name of freedom of expression? We must have liberal rights of expression, with possible restrictions on form, but not on content. This includes the right to say bad and bad things. Racism is a terrible thing, but even worse is “illiberalism” – the philosophy that rejects freedom in favor of political or communal authoritarianism. This philosophy has done more harm than racism. Generally speaking, we’re much better off with free speech than without, in large part because you can’t trust anyone to control the limits of speech.
Like mr. Do you see any concerns about the power of so-called “big tech”, which has become the target of many politicians in the United States? It’s exaggerated. Big technology has not corrupted voters, voters who have corrupted themselves. The politicians who want to regulate these companies are usually demagogues. They know that it is easy to convince ignorant and scientific illiterate voters that big technology is responsible for all the problems of democracy. The real causes are much more complex. And we have exactly no history in the world of government control over the media to make things better.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro is accused of using digital militias against opponents. What is mr. do you think of him and his government? I am having difficulty with this question. Media coverage of him, whether in English or Portuguese – which I can read because he sounds like Spanish – seems incredibly biased, defensive or critical of him. Bolsonaro is like Trump, in that the people who write about him always tend to have an agenda and are ready to twist or falsify the facts to back him up.
In his book “Against Democracy”, mr. defends the epistocracy, the government of specialists. How would we define who could participate? The model I advocate is “informed preferential voting”. On election day anyone can participate, and when voting we would do three things. First, we say our preferences. Second, we identify our demographic category. Third, we do a brief political knowledge test on, say, 30 questions. With three sets of information, any decent statistician can calculate what a demographically identical audience might want if fully informed. In other words, we can use this information to estimate how the audience would have voted if they had achieved a perfect result on the knowledge test. So we would do what this hypothetically informed public would have preferred.
What is the difference between this proposal and politically exclusive models, like South African apartheid? In apartheid, only whites were allowed to vote. In a democracy, anyone can vote, but the dark side is that it promotes white supremacy, or the majority race, in the name of equality. Imagine a country that is 90% white and 10% black. Suppose white people are all racists. In this democracy, when everyone votes, white racists outnumber blacks and can still vote against their interests. Even a bill of rights will only partially protect black people. Democracy simply allows racism to flourish in the name of equality. It’s pretty diabolical.
What is mr. Do you think of the books that have emerged in recent years dealing with the risks to democracy, such as “How Democracies Die”? All over the world people are frustrated with democracy. Unfortunately, they also have little imagination. Instead of trying to figure out the reason for this poor performance, they turn to strong demagogic men who promise to fix everything. So we see people resorting to authoritarianism, along with Putin, Erdogan and others. It is worrying that the level of democracy in the world is decreasing. I say that in criticism of democracy. People don’t want to fix it like I’m suggesting, they want to replace it with an even worse system. They don’t learn from history.
Why is it okay to be rich like mr. said in the title of your last book? Money is freedom. The more you have, the more likely you are to live your life authentically and not be trapped in circumstances. Money allows us to be creative, to live longer, and even to love ourselves more. Empirically, richer people are happier and have better marriages. It sounds rude, but that’s what the statistics say. We don’t have to be ashamed when we get rich, as long as we trade freely, avoid taking advantage of government patronage, and don’t cause externalities.
Is inequality a threat to social cohesion, as progressives say? Progressives do not appreciate the success of others and demand blood. If people were more liberal and tolerant – if they understood how the economy works and were willing to tolerate and celebrate differences – income inequality wouldn’t be a big deal.
What matters to me is that many people around the world live in absolute and extreme poverty. To help them, we need open and free borders. The empirical work on immigration is unequivocal in saying that it does much more to help the poor than progressive or redistributive policies. But progressives refuse because they prefer to focus on redistribution within countries. A progressive saying like Bernie Sanders [senador americano] he opposes the opening of borders because he prefers to redistribute the incomes of the very rich to the only rich, rather than to make the poor truly rich. I consider him a right-wing enemy of the poor.
As a libertarian, what do you think of the way governments have handled the pandemic? The FDA in the USA [equivalente à Anvisa] has data to show that the vaccines were effective several months before their approval. They were incredibly slow to approve them. The same goes for agencies in other countries. They were more concerned with not being held responsible than with saving lives.
Jason Brennan, 42
Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Arizona (United States), he is Professor of Ethics and Philosophy at Georgetown University (United States). He has published, among other books, “The Ethics of Voting” (2011), “Against Democracy” (2016) and “Why It’s Ok to Want to Be Rich” (2020)