November 4th, 2014

eyes black and white

Governance by Democracy

This essay was written by my friend Perry Metzger.

Lets say your company has a business decision to make. Say there is a committee (already a bad idea but lets ignore that for now) assigned to the problem. Will you make the decision better or worse by adding a large number of people to the committee who aren't very interested in the topic, know nothing about the question they're deciding, and possibly aren't even very smart? Of course not.

If someone told you "the problem with this decision is that we don't have enough ignoramuses on this committee", people would say you were crazy, and they would be right. If a group decision making process is going to do well at all, it requires the smartest, best informed possible decision makers, and adding lots of ignorant and even stupid people to the group will not improve its decisions but only make them worse.

However, when we switch to an almost exactly identical problem — selecting rulers for the State — suddenly people make the opposite claim. "We need to increase participation at the polls! We need to get more people to turn out, to make it easier to vote so people who don't bother now will do it!"

The idea that the problem with elections is that we aren't getting enough people to vote — that people who can't be bothered to go to the polls even though it is already as easy as one could want — and that by getting more people to vote, especially people who have no idea what the issues are, what the candidates records are like, etc., is just as irrational and insane as the idea that you can make a better business decision by adding more uninterested or even foolish to the group making a decision in that context.

However, even though this idea is utterly irrational — even though you can't get a better decision by adding more ignorant and not very smart people to the group making the decision — it is a very widely held view when one leaves the field of making business or even personal decisions and enters the arena of politics, that is, the process of figuring out who should make life and death decisions for millions of people.

Why is this?

I argue it is because democracy is not, for most people, a rational idea. The original notion was that by allowing lots of people a voice, one could avoid having a tyrant or a small, self interested aristocracy produce only bad laws of interest to them. However, the goal of all governance processes is supposed to be good laws and good administration of those laws — the goal is not the process itself.

However, since the advent of democracy, the notion that the goal is good laws and good administration of those laws has been forgotten. Democracy has become a religion — and I mean that in the most literal possible sense. The notion voting is a means to an end has been entirely lost, replaced with the notion that democracy is itself the goal, and that the world will be made utopian by some sort of perfect expression of the general will.

Let me repeat that baldly. Democracy has become religion. Speaking out against it has become the worst possible sort of heresy. Let me, then, be a heretic.

The same people who would never argue that we need more morons helping make decisions in their offices — an area where they apply logic rather than religious style reasoning — are deeply religious about democracy. They are offended by the idea that we might want to use basic reasoning about elections. Saying that perhaps if someone has no opinion about the candidates their vote might not improve the outcome of the selection process produces anger. It is presumed, without evidence, that getting more people to vote must be a good idea, in itself.

The U.S. founding fathers remembered that the goal was not expression of the popular will but having a good place to live, and that in order to have a good place to live, they needed good laws that were well administered. However, they were deeply suspicious of democracy and the possibility of mob rule. They thus regarded voting as an alternative to aristocracy or monarchy — it was a tool to produce a good outcome rather than the end in itself.

Our society has a serious problem of cognitive dissonance, however, in so far the nation largely believes in democracy as a religion, but the founders are also regarded as revered saints even though they did not really believe in democracy as such. How, then, to reconcile this contradiction?

The solution has been to forget that the framers of the constitution deliberately set up a system which was as anti-democratic as one that involved voting could be made. This is not an assumption on my part — one may simply read The Federalist Papers and learn what the goals of their design (which is yet another reason most students never read The Federalist Papers).

The system (which I think failed, but never mind that for now) was designed to preserve liberty and to limit the damage voters could cause. The means was by instituting limits on the power of government, producing a layered government system in which different branches would check each others' powers, and by allowing only a small, educated property owning class of the population to have a voice through voting.

This latter piece is scarcely if ever mentioned, because to recall that documents like The Federalist Papers expressed direct fear of mob rule would be to admit that perhaps not everyone has always shared the religious belief that expression of the general will is the goal of society. Your history classes probably glossed over or perhaps never even mentioned the fact that universal manhood suffrage and later universal suffrage wasn't considered a good idea until the late 19th century, or what the arguments against it might have been.

(My own classes on this topic treated every expansion of the franchise as a triumph of the forces goodness, just as they treated every expansion of state power as a triumph of the forces of goodness, as a part of the inevitable march of progress through history. The arguments against such expansions were never discussed — to even consider them worthy of discussion would have been risible to my instructors.)

So deep is the attraction for democracy as a value in itself, rather than as a means, that to even mention the idea that perhaps universal suffrage was not a good idea and still is not a good idea makes you about as popular as a dung heap at the center of the buffet at a wedding banquet.

None the less, I encourage you to consider this question seriously. If a test of basic knowledge about an election, or even an IQ test, were administered by a race, sex and age blind computer, and a minimum score were required before the subject was considered qualified to vote in the race, would this produce a better or a worse result?

If you presume that the answer is "the result would be worse", and yet you would prefer that your doctor be more informed and intelligent rather than less informed and less intelligent, and you would prefer that decisions at your company be made by smarter and better informed people rather than stupider and less well informed people, perhaps you should ask yourself if your beliefs about democracy are founded in a rational consideration about alternative means to achieve optimal decision making, or are instead founded in a civic religion that you have been inculcated in from before the age when you could think on your own.

If you cannot conceive of questioning the ideas behind democracy qua democracy, if there is no evidence you can imagine that would make you change your mind, perhaps this is a religion to you, not a rationally considered position, and rather than getting angry at me for questioning your beliefs, you might want to try questioning them yourself.