Res Publica

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Democratic Legitimacy and the Competence Objection

  • Lachlan Montgomery Umbers


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.


Democracy Risk Competence Epistocracy Voting 



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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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Practical Justice InitiativeUniversity of New South WalesKensingtonAustralia

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