Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In Our Democracy, Everyone is an Idiot

A question about the feasibility of democracy was posted to the philosophy Reddit: “how should Democracy technically deal with the anthropological fact that idiots are in the majority?” The top reply posited that “education” was the necessary remedy. The important goal of that education is supposedly to “[t]each people to think for themselves and love learning in school.” In other words, “educate so that people love to be educated.” The next most popular responses argued for a representative democracy on the basis of specialization and for voting aptitude exams, respectively. Needless to say I wasn’t impressed. All of these responses took for granted the nature of the system we have and tried to develop something around it “to make it work.” But if the structure of organization is flawed in the first place, how can anything internal to it fix it?

It wasn’t too long ago that I had disdained democracy. “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch” seemed to capture my sentiments very well. I no longer hold such hostility for democracy. Two wolves versus a lamb? In what alternative situation would the lamb be saved? The two wolves will always win, whether they call it “democracy” or not. So in the process of disqualifying a specific type of process, all processes have been disqualified. (Though I do acknowledge the view that “democracy” is commonly used to argue that the lamb should just sit back and enjoy its slaughter). What has become my primary concern is the context in which democracy, or any other type of decision making platform for that matter, is used.

Democracy is simply one of many available means for utilizing information in the process of decision making and resource allocation. Markets, monarchy, and other variations on these concepts can be used for same thing. Markets utilize prices to organize preference while democracy utilizes popular pluralities. But these concepts are commonly combined -- cooperatives and partnerships serve as examples. In each (and neglecting the role of the State for a moment), intra-organizational decisions are made by consensus and inter-organizational decisions are made in consideration of market forces. It will always be the case, however, that the property norms will be instrumental in determining the mode of decision making.

Within the context of the modern State, a test to determine voter aptitude would face two obvious problems. The first hurtle would be trying to figure out which type of knowledge or intelligence is necessary to be an “apt voter.” There are an infinite number of questions one could ask and deciding which ones most accurately identify competence in voting would indeed be very difficult. Questions about issues would likely include biases; those concerning “cold hard facts” would likely be pretty irrelevant. What might be considered more outrageous about such tests would be the tendency of them to be written for the purpose of excluding certain classes or groups of people from voting -- providing us with modern day literacy tests.

The value of representative democracy pretty much presupposes the value and desirability of democracy to begin with. If a person is unable to make an informed decision about X, how can he make an informed decision about who to put in charge of making such a decision? The argument is similar to having lay people determining who should do science. It would be easy to expect such elected scientists to be poor at their job. One could argue that whoever is chosen can always learn after the fact, but that assumes people are easily adaptable to certain fields of inquiry and that, besides trying to impress voters, they have any time to learn the subjects. As was argued in Politics is Inherently Fraudulent, anyone who must survive via election must have very good public speaking and negotiating skills, and the larger the voter base, the more these skills will be needed. Intelligent insight from an elected official, given a stupid voting base, would be very rare indeed since smooth talking wins that game.

As for education, without complaining about “teaching to think critically,” how can this possibly be accomplished? The scope of public debate is vast. Can we really expect everyone to learn and understand the amount of information necessary to be an informed voter within the current system? No matter how much education, research, or thinking a person does, there is no possibility that they will ever be able to answer how many resources should be allocated toward national defense, let alone healthcare, education, welfare services, etc. Nor will they be able to effectively understand and design the style of organization that should be used for allocating budgets.

The fact of the matter is, within our modern uber-State system, we are all idiots. There is no one who knows how, what, when, and where programs should be implemented, structured, and funded. Everyone has aptitudes that are specific to them and there is a limit to every aptitude. It is simply incoherent to subject the firefighter to the judgement of the manicurist or the doctor to the truck driver and that’s exactly what our democracy does. People are put in a position to make decisions regarding things they are fundamentally incapable of deciding upon. Every vote cast involves people stepping outside their expertise and onto the the talents of others.

The problem of democracy can, however, be resolved in good part by limiting the scope of decision making to a level at which people do have the information necessary to make intelligent and informed decisions over things that actually affect them. That means moving the democratic means to the community and workplace level and away from DC and Brussels.

Anyone truly interested in "making democracy work" needs to be primarily focused on anarchism, decentralization, and localism.