Against Democracy, by Jason Brennan (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press; 288 pp., $29.95).  I found this a disappointing book, as the subject is a critical one in the 21st century.  Brennan begins with Schumpeter’s well-known assertion that

The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field.  He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests.  He becomes a primitive again.

From there, he goes on to consider not whether simple citizens should be encouraged to participate in politics, but whether they should be allowed to do so, since mass democratic politics creates problems, perhaps more of them than it solves.  The large majority of citizens know little about politics, and care less.  Others view politics like a team sport (as James Fitzjames Stephens observed in the second half of the 19th century in Great Britain).  A small minority, in Brennan’s view, “think scientifically and rationally about politics,” and “try to avoid being biased and irrational.”  The principle of one man, one vote, according to the author, actively inflicts harm on the citizenry by imposing stupid policies approved by the stupid democratic majority, and by encouraging citizens to dislike and even to hate one another.  As suffrage is not a civil right but a privilege, it may be fairly and justly questioned.  Thus epistocracy, the rule of those with knowledge, may well be a system superior to democracy.  Brennan speculates upon the wisdom of “taking” an alternative system “if it turns out to be a better-functioning” one than we have at present.  The idea that a polity could simply “take” an alternative to its present system, try it out, and then—presumably—switch back to the original one if the experiment proved a failure suggests a level of intellectual simplicity and academic naiveté equivalent to that of the ignorant masses he calls “the Hobbits.”  Worse still, Brennan’s idea of “knowledge” is “expertise,” successful in building a jet engine or a sewer system but worse than useless in dealing with human beings, as the expert geniuses who designed the European Union have demonstrated.  The fact is that Brennan, though he makes frequent reference to the ancient Greek philosophers, is not interested in philosophy—true knowledge—at all, nor even the political theory that replaced it in the early-modern period.  His interest is social and political “science,” which is not knowledge at all—much less the wisdom of which the Western world is in so great need today.

On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press; 67 pp., $9.95).  This little book, whose publisher bought a full-page ad for it in The New York Review of Books, consists of an essay previously published in The Raritan Review.  The demotic title, juxtaposed with the name of its scholarly author, professor of philosophy emeritus at Princeton, is an amusing tour de force.  Professor Frankfurt explains that he was encouraged to address his philosophic mind to the subject of bullshit by the fact that there is so much of it today.  (He concedes in his closing pages that we really have no way of telling whether it is more widespread now than in bygone times.)  The paradoxical quality of this brief work is heightened by Frankfurt’s elegant, crystal-clear prose, itself worth the price of the book.  Frankfurt begins by considering the meaning of “lies” and of “humbug,” and explains how neither is synonymous with the titular bullshit.  He concludes that the latter “involves making assertions without paying attention to anything”—especially the truth—“except what it suits one to say.”  In this sense, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”  It is partly bluff, and “unavoidable wherever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.”  In our democratic informational age, when all sorts of people are expected to have an opinion about everything—or think they are—bullshit comes naturally and habitually.  On Bullshit is an elegantly produced little book and pocket-sized, just like Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.  To which, of course, the same title could have readily applied, minus the preposition.

        —Chilton Williamson, Jr.