Democratic Legitimacy and the Competence Objection


Elitist scepticism of democracy has a venerable history. This paper responds to the latest round of such scepticism—the ‘competence objection’, articulated in recent work by Jason Brennan. Brennan’s charge is that democracy is unjust because it allows uninformed, irrational, and morally unreasonable voters to exercise power over high-stakes political decisions, thus imposing undue risk upon the citizenry. I show that Brennan’s objection admits of two interpretations, and argue that neither can be sustained on close examination. Along the way, I consider the merits of Brennan’s preferred ‘epistocratic’ alternative to democracy, and argue that it is likely to lead to lower-quality outcomes.

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  1. 1.

    What this implies with respect to voters’ capacities for competent decision-making is empirically contentious. For a more optimistic view, see Lupia and McCubbins (1998).

  2. 2.

    See also Caplan (2006).

  3. 3.

    See also Brennan (2011, p. 705; 2016, pp. 154, 159, 230, 235–236).

  4. 4.

    I assume the standard counterfactual dependence account of harm: A harms B by Φing if and only if A’s Φing leaves B worse off than they would otherwise have been.

  5. 5.

    For simplicity, I assume there are only two items on the agenda.

  6. 6.

    This still assumes a small electorate and a close election. A larger electorate or wider margin would further lower P(D), and therefore Ri.

  7. 7.

    An anonymous reviewer has suggested that Brennan might appeal to subjective probabilities of decisiveness. No voter, after all, can be certain that their vote will not be decisive. However, voters can be extremely confident that their votes will neither be decisive, nor non-trivially probabilify the outcomes. Voting, then, should make no non-trivial difference to individuals’ subjective probabilities.

  8. 8.

    The numbers might affect Ronald’s duties for other reasons (see Parfit 1986, pp. 73–75).

  9. 9.

    See, among many others, Christiano (2008), Estlund (2008), Kolodny (2014), and Pettit (2012).

  10. 10.

    Importantly, there is nothing to prevent democrats from endorsing a narrower competence principle which applies to decisions (e.g. jury decisions) which do not share the distinctive features of democratic decisions, as set out in the preceding paragraphs.

  11. 11.

    There are also a range of important views he fails to discuss (e.g. Kolodny 2014).

  12. 12.

    For an overview, see Hayenhjelm and Wolff (2012).

  13. 13.

    On the instrumental virtues of democracy, see, among many others, Christiano (2011), and Sen (1999).

  14. 14.

    This is not to deny that such results are prima facie puzzling, given the facts concerning voter behaviour to which Brennan appeals. There are numerous ways in which that puzzle might be resolved. It may be, for example, that politicians erroneously believe that citizens vote in a sufficiently well-informed, self-interested manner, and allocate resources on the basis of that belief. We need not resolve such puzzles, here. My objection to epistocracy concerns the macro-level results it is likely to engender, whatever the underlying behavioural mechanisms in virtue of which they obtain.

  15. 15.

    The authors stress that these results are conditional upon the absence of counter-majoritarian barriers to progressive change (e.g. aristocratic upper houses).

  16. 16.

    For an overview of the evidence on this point, see Hill in Brennan and Hill (2014, pp. 132–134).


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For helpful comments and criticisms, not all of which I have been able to address, I thank Bob Goodin, Ten-Herng Lai, Seth Lazar, Chad Lee-Stronach, Shmulik Nili, Nicholas Southwood, and the members of the Australian National University’s Centre for Moral, Social, and Political Theory Graduate Workshop. Thanks also to two anonymous reviewers for Res Publica, as well as the editor, Philip Cook. My research was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

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Correspondence to Lachlan Montgomery Umbers.

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Umbers, L.M. Democratic Legitimacy and the Competence Objection. Res Publica 25, 283–293 (2019).

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  • Democracy
  • Risk
  • Competence
  • Epistocracy
  • Voting