This page contains a list of the seven best books on democracy. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on democracy” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works on democracy. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on democracy. Here are the best books on democracy in no particular order:
The Republic – Plato
Publisher description: The revised edition of Grube’s classic translation follows and furthers Grube’s noted success in combining fidelity to Plato’s text with natural readability, while reflecting the fruits of new scholarship and insights into Plato’s thought since publication of the first edition in 1974. A new introduction, index, and bibliography by Professor Reeve are included in this new rendering.
Democracy in America – Alexis de Tocqueville
Publisher description: In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat and ambitious civil servant, set out from post-revolutionary France on a journey across America that would take him 9 months and cover 7,000 miles. The result was Democracy in America, a subtle and prescient analysis of the life and institutions of 19th-century America. Tocqueville looked to the flourishing deomcratic system in America as a possible model for post-revolutionary France, believing that the egalitarian ideals it enshrined reflected the spirit of the age and even divine will. His study of the strengths and weaknesses of an evolving democratic society has been quoted by every American president since Eisenhower, and remains a key point of reference for any discussion of the American nation or the democratic system.
On Democracy – Robert A. Dahl
Publisher description: Written by the preeminent democratic theorist of our time, this book explains the nature, value, and mechanics of democracy. This new edition includes two additional chapters by Ian Shapiro, Dahl’s successor as Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale and a leading contemporary authority on democracy. One chapter deals with the prospects for democracy in light of developments since the advent of the Arab spring in 2010. The other takes up the effects of inequality and money in politics on the quality of democracy, a subject that was of increasing concern to Dahl in his final years.
Models of Democracy – David Held
Publisher description: In a succinct and far-reaching analysis, David Held provides an introduction to major theories of democracy from classical Greece to the present, along with a critical discussion of what democracy should mean today. This new edition has been extensively revised and updated to take into account significant transformations in world politics. A new chapter on deliberative democracy has been added, which focuses on how citizen participation can be increased in politics, and how that participation can become more informed. Like its predecessor, the third edition of Models of Democracy combines lucid exposition and clarity of expression with careful scholarship and originality, making it highly attractive to students and experts in the field. The third edition will prove essential reading for all those interested in politics, political theory, and political philosophy.
Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework – David M. Estlund
Publisher description: Democracy is not naturally plausible. Why turn such important matters over to masses of people who have no expertise? Many theories of democracy answer by appealing to the intrinsic value of democratic procedure, leaving aside whether it makes good decisions. In Democratic Authority, David Estlund offers a groundbreaking alternative based on the idea that democratic authority and legitimacy must depend partly on democracy’s tendency to make good decisions.
Just as with verdicts in jury trials, Estlund argues, the authority and legitimacy of a political decision does not depend on the particular decision being good or correct. But the “epistemic value” of the procedure–the degree to which it can generally be accepted as tending toward a good decision–is nevertheless crucial. Yet if good decisions were all that mattered, one might wonder why those who know best shouldn’t simply rule.
Estlund’s theory–which he calls “epistemic proceduralism”–avoids epistocracy, or the rule of those who know. He argues that while some few people probably do know best, this can be used in political justification only if their expertise is acceptable from all reasonable points of view. If we seek the best epistemic arrangement in this respect, it will be recognizably democratic–with laws and policies actually authorized by the people subject to them.
Philosophy and Democracy: An Anthology – Thomas Christiano
Publisher description: This volume collects some of the leading essays in contemporary democratic theory published in the past thirty years. The anthology presents the work of a select group of contributors (including Peter Singer, Joshua Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, Richard Arneson, and others) and covers many foundational approaches defended by scholars from a range of different disciplines. The chapters address many issues that are central to philosophical reflections on democracy, such as questions pertaining to deliberative and economic approaches, as well as to such topics as intrinsic fairness, the role of equality in relation to minority groups, and the limits of democracy. Covering representative work in economics, political science, legal theory, and philosophy, this comprehensive volume is suited to courses in political theory and political philosophy.
Against Democracy – Jason Brennan
Publisher description: Most people believe democracy is a uniquely just form of government. They believe people have the right to an equal share of political power. And they believe that political participation is good for us―it empowers us, helps us get what we want, and tends to make us smarter, more virtuous, and more caring for one another. These are some of our most cherished ideas about democracy. But Jason Brennan says they are all wrong.
In this trenchant book, Brennan argues that democracy should be judged by its results―and the results are not good enough. Just as defendants have a right to a fair trial, citizens have a right to competent government. But democracy is the rule of the ignorant and the irrational, and it all too often falls short. Furthermore, no one has a fundamental right to any share of political power, and exercising political power does most of us little good. On the contrary, a wide range of social science research shows that political participation and democratic deliberation actually tend to make people worse―more irrational, biased, and mean. Given this grim picture, Brennan argues that a new system of government―epistocracy, the rule of the knowledgeable―may be better than democracy, and that it’s time to experiment and find out.
A challenging critique of democracy and the first sustained defense of the rule of the knowledgeable, Against Democracy is essential reading for scholars and students of politics across the disciplines.
This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:
- browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
- searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
- browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- searching for recommendations on philosophy forums
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
If you’d like to learn more about democracy, check out this collection of beginner friendly resources on democracy.
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