Jonathan Benson

  • Intelligent Democracy: Answering the new democratic scepticism, 2024, Oxford University Press. Book / Online Access

    Whether due to Donald Trump, Brexit, or the rise of populism, many are increasingly questioning the value of democracy. Complaints about ignorant voters, irrational public debate, and disconnected politicians have led some to suggest that democracies are destined to make bad decisions, and to propose alternatives. In Intelligent Democracy, political theorist Jonathan Benson rejects this new democratic scepticism. He argues that democracies can make effective use of knowledge, engage in experimentation, utilise diversity, and motivate decisions towards the common good—and that they can do all these things better than their rivals. Benson pleads that we value democracy, not only because it treats us all equally, but because it is intelligent.

Journal Articles
  • Epistemic problems in Hayek’s defence of free markets, 2024, Economics & Philosophy, Forthcoming. Open Access Version

    Friedrich von Hayek’s classical liberalism argued that free markets allow individuals the greatest opportunity to achieve their ends. This paper develops an internal critique of this claim. It argues that once externalities are introduced, the forms of economic knowledge Hayek thought to undermine government action and orthodox utilitarianism also rule out relative welfarist assessments of more or less regulated markets. Given the pervasiveness of externalities in modern economies, Hayek will frequently be unable to make comparative welfarist claims, or he must relax his epistemic assumptions and allow for greater government action than his classical liberalism would wish to accept.

  • Democracy and the epistemic problems of political polarization, 2023, American Political Science Review, Forthcoming. Open Access Version

    Political polarization is one of the most discussed challenges facing contemporary democracies and is often associated with a broader epistemic crisis. While inspiring a large literature in political science, polarization’s epistemic problems also have significance for normative democratic theory, and this paper develops a new approach aimed at understanding them. In contrast to prominent accounts from political psychology – group polarization theory and cultural cognition theory – which argue that polarization leads individuals to form unreliable political beliefs, this paper focuses on system level diversity. It argues that polarization’s epistemic harms are best located in its tendency to reduce the diversity of perspectives utilized in a democratic system, and in how this weakens the system’s ability to identify and address problems of public concern. Understanding such harms is also argued to require a greater consideration of the political dynamics of polarization and issues of elite discourse, alongside political psychology.

  • Is fake news a threat to deliberative democracy? Partisanship, inattentiveness, and deliberative capacities, 2023, Social Theory and Practice, Forthcoming. Preprint

    Deliberative democracy is increasingly criticised as out of touch with the realities of partisan politics. This paper considers the rise of fake and hyperpartisan news as one source of this scepticism. While popular accounts often blame such content on citizens’ political biases and motivated reasoning, I survey the empirical evidence and argue that it does not support strong claims about the inability of citizens to live up to deliberative ideals. Instead, much of this research is shown to support the deliberative capacities of citizens and points to their potential in helping to reduce the spread of false and misleading content.

  • The epistemic value of deliberative democracy: How far can diversity take us?, 2021, Synthese, 199: 8257-8279. Open Access Version

    This paper contributes to growing debates over the decision-making ability of democracy by considering the epistemic value of deliberative democracy. It focuses on the benefits democratic deliberation can derive from its diversity, and the extent to which these benefits can be realised with respect to the complexities of political problems. The paper first calls attention to the issue of complexity through a critique of Hélène Landemore and the Diversity Trumps Ability Theorem. This approach underestimates complexity due to its reliance on an ‘oracle assumption’ and this is shown to highlight more general difficulties for applying the benefits of diversity to the realities of political problems. The paper then develops a new model of deliberation – based on a relationship between cognitive diversity and diminishing returns to cognitive type – which does not involve an oracle assumption and can therefore support the epistemic value of deliberative democracy even for complex problems. The benefits of diversity are also argued to be better realised though sortition than either democratic elections or epistocracy, pointing to the value of deliberation between randomly selected citizens. Finally, and contrary to past work, the new account suggests that diversity cannot alone establish the superiority of democratic deliberation over all non-democratic alternatives, and that it is insufficient to mount a purely epistemic argument for deliberative democracy. The paper therefore furthers our understanding of the epistemic value of deliberative democracy by clarifying when and to what extent diversity is a benefit to political problem solving.

  • Exit, voice, and technocracy, 2020, Critical Review, 32(1-3): 32-61. Open Access Version

    In Power Without Knowledge, Jeffrey Friedman develops a critique of technocracy and in doing so makes an epistemic case for exit over voice. He argues that a technocracy that fails to take people’s ideational heterogeneity into account is unlikely to possess the knowledge required to solve social problems, and that the alternative of “exitocracy” may, in some cases, overcome these limits. By creating the conditions under which individuals can exit from undesirable social situations, an exitocracy may allow people to escape their social ills without knowing their society-wide causes or solutions. As Friedman recognizes, however, an exitocracy still requires technocratic knowledge, and this paper explores these requirements in further detail. First, it investigates the limits of exit as a solution to social problems, and the extent to which technocratic policies can be substituted for exit. Second, it considers the need for technocratic knowledge in the promotion of exit opportunities, and how this undermines Friedman’s defense of exitocracy.

  • Knowledge and communication in democratic politics: Markets, forums and systems, 2019, Political Studies, 67(2): 422-439. Open Access Version

    Epistemic questions have become an important area of debate within democratic theory. Epistemic democrats have revived epistemic justification of democracy, while social scientific research has speared a significant debate on voter knowledge. An area which has received less attention, however, is the epistemic case for markets. Market advocates have developed a number of epistemic critiques of democracy which suggest that most goods are better provided by markets than democratic institutions. Despite representing important challenges to democracy, these critiques have gone without reply as democratic theorists have tended to exclude markets from consideration. This article responds to these critiques and argues that there are good epistemic grounds for granting a much greater role to democracy than its market critics have claimed. It argues that there is a broad range of goods, including important ethical goods, which are better provided by democracy than markets due to the particular epistemic burdens they create.

  • Deliberative democracy & the problem of tacit knowledge, 2019, Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 18(1): 76-97. Open Access Version

    This article defends deliberative democracy against the problem of tacit knowledge. It has been argued that deliberative democracy gives a privileged position to linguistic communication and therefore excludes tacit forms of knowledge which cannot be expressed propositionally. This article shows how the exclusion of such knowledge presents important challenges to both proceduralist and epistemic conceptions of deliberative democracy, and how it has been taken by some to favour markets over democratic institutions. After pointing to the limitations of market alternatives, deliberative democracy is defended by arguing that tacit knowledge can be brought into deliberation through the mechanism of trust in testimony. By trusting the testimony of a speaker, deliberators are able to act on knowledge even without it being explicitly expressed. The article then goes on to discuss the implications of this defence for deliberative theory, and particularly, the forms of reason which deliberative democrats must see as legitimate.

  • Environmental law & the limits of markets, 2018, The Cambridge Journal of Economics, 42(1): 212-239. Open Access Version

    A number of writers have drawn on Hayek’s epistemic defence of market institutions to argue that free-markets and tort law are best placed to overcome the knowledge problems associated with the environmental sphere. This paper argues to the contrary, that this Austrian School approach itself suffers from significant knowledge problems. The first of these relates to the ability of Austrian economics to assign victim compensation and the second to the difficulty of establishing causation in complex environmental problems. The paper will also show how alternative approaches may not suffer from these epistemic challenges and are better placed to overcome them.

Book Reviews
  • Dan Greenwood’s Effective Governance and the Political Economy of Coordination, 2024, Political Studies Review, Forthcoming Published Version.
  • Eric MacGilvray’s Liberal Freedom: Pluralism, Polarization, and Politics, 2024, Political Science Quarterly, 139 (1): 135-137. Published Version
  • Jason Brennan's Against Democracy, 2018, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 35 (3): 637-639. Published Version