On Philosophy

November 9, 2006


Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:29 am

Now that the election is over I can safely voice my opinions about democracy in general, without worrying that my negative attitude will disillusion my vast readership, and lead to an unexpected reversal. I, however, didn’t vote in this election, even though I was glad to see the Democrats retake the house* (because I think the government needed a few more checks and balances). I didn’t vote because I am ideologically opposed to democracy, and so voting would be a bit hypocritical.

Now that is not to say that democracies are bad governments. Many of the leading nations, in terms of human well-being, are democracies. But this doesn’t mean that democracy faultless; it simply means that most of the other varieties of governments are worse. You see democracy gets it half right, that half being the idea that governments are for the people. Who else could a government rationally be for? Of course some governments run their nations as if they are supposed to serve the interests of a few, but let me take it as a given that the ideal government serves the needs of the population as a whole. What democracy gets wrong, is having that government be run by the people, because the people, in general, aren’t fit to govern. Taken at random the average person probably isn’t even competent to run a small factory (as they haven’t had the right training), so why should we expect them to be able to run a nation?

Let me address direct democracy first, which is a system in which the all the people vote on all laws and resolutions. Such a system was for a long impossible to implement for a large body of people, since with so many people involved the voting process takes a great deal of time and effort, and thus the population wouldn’t be able to vote as often as was necessary. But, thanks to telecommunications technology, such a system is feasible, with citizens either using the phone or the internet to vote. And why would the people make a good government? To answer that question the Condorcet jury theorem is invoked, which states that if each individual in a group makes the right decision greater than 50% of the time then a group made of such people, voting on the decision, will make the correct choice more often, and as more people are added to the group their collective judgment will improve. And so it would seem to imply that a direct democracy, made of a large number of people, would make the correct decision almost all of the time. Unfortunately this is only in theory. There are several reasons why this doesn’t work in practice. One of them is that on some topics people in general usually make the wrong choice, for example in a bias towards gains now instead of gains in the future, and a group of such people will make the wrong choice more often when voting together. Another problem is that on complex topics, like the economy and foreign relations, most people just don’t have enough information to make good choices, and are thus doing no better than random guessing. This means that the group as a whole makes choices that are about as good as random guessing, even if a few experts within that group do know what is best. Finally, there is the problem of people’s susceptibility to advertising / propaganda. It is a well-known fact that we are easily influenced by what we see and hear, without us even being aware of it, especially on complex issues when we don’t have all the information. Thus in a direct democracy it would be easy for the wealthiest individuals to sway the group, since they are the only ones with the resources to get the message they want out to the people as a whole. Yes they could be foiled occasionally by a grass-roots campaign, but in general they would get what they wanted, so long as they gave the people the illusion that they had a real choice.

But most modern nations are not direct democracies, they are representative democracies. In such systems the people vote on who will belong to a much smaller group of people, and that group votes on the laws. Ideally this smaller group of representatives is better informed than the population on the issues at stake, and thus can do a better job. But representative democracy is really no fix at all. Again the problem is that in large nations to get elected one must have a significant amount of money, which means that the people who end up running the government are always independently wealthy or in the pocket of the wealthy. Furthermore it is generally hard to make sure that the representatives are working in the interests of the people. They are free to change their minds completely while in office, renege on all their campaign promises, and all the people can do is vote them out of office the next time they are up for re-election (assuming they don’t break any laws), and they could do quite a bit of damage in that time. On top of that, there is the problem that one must vote for representatives as a kind of package deal, which means that there may be no one the voter completely agrees with (although some nations have more than two political parties, which helps). And finally, people are probably worse at picking the right candidate than they are at picking the right law, thus eliminating the hope that the majority would somehow be a better judge of character than individuals. If representative democracy really worked I would expect to see more economics PhDs voted into office, at least at the state level. But they aren’t because they tend to be neither wealthy nor charismatic (being a professor doesn’t pay quite enough I guess).

So, no matter what flavor of democracy we are considering, things begin to break down when the size of the voting population is large. Obviously the US has been having problems with its democracy lately (incompetent leaders, frequent scandals, and general corruption), and I expect other democracies will have similar problems eventually, if they don’t already (I don’t follow foreign politics that closely). Of course most of the other options have their share of problems. Socialism overestimates the goodness of human nature, and monarchies and communism quickly become tyrannies. Surely there must be something better.

That something better probably comes from a system with unelected leaders, but with a vast number of checks and balances. For example imagine a government divided, with the task of making laws in different areas given to different groups of people. Membership in such a group would of course be decided by some kind of merit system, review committee, ect. With the government so divided different groups could police each other (for example a judicial group would make sure that the other groups weren’t breaking the law). Of course ultimately there must be some method of ensuring that the system is accountable to the people. There might then be some kind of oversight committee, that makes sure the government is acting in the best interests of the people. And such a committee should be large, should be selected from the population at random, and should change frequently. And most importantly the rules by which everything works should be very hard to change (for example, consider how hard it is to amend the constitution).

Of course such a system would be unlikely to be voted in, since it doesn’t cater to anyone. The elite can’t run things as they wish, since having a position of authority is based on merit and approval by those with qualifications (perhaps like getting a paper in physics published). And the common man wouldn’t desire it, since for the most part the population doesn’t get a direct say in what goes on, and we have become used to the idea that we each hold a little power through our ability to vote. And I have described it so briefly here, and in so little detail, that it would take serious work to actually make useful. My point really is this: democracy isn’t everything we would like it to be, at least in terms of the government it actually results in, so shouldn’t we think about how things could be better?

* And, according to the associated press, the senate too.



  1. [Sorry if this a double post, but it seems like when I submitted it before, nothing happened. Perhaps this is because I include hyperlinks, which may appear spammy of me.]

    1. I think your proposed system is very liable to capture by motivated malevolent actors.

    2. There are two different problems that governance needs to solve.
    The first is how to govern effectively. Clearly, the average citizen is no position to do this him or herself, and it remains to be seen if they are even capable of accurate selecting people who can do so.
    The second, however, is choosing policy goals and priorities. For instance, is it more important to have full employment or to have better environmental standards? Where do we draw the line? Should we zone the block near my house for stores or more houses? Should we spend extra funds on a new public park or making city hall look nice? Etc. My contention is that there cannot be experts who are uniquely qualified to make these sorts of decisions, because these decisions can only be justified on the will of the majority, and nothing else, since there is no absolute standard by which to judge which of the competing options is better.

    3. Have you been following The Cato Institute’s blog series at cato-unbound.org on The Myth of the Rational Voter? Cato is of course a libertarian group, but they invite a lot of really interesting people to debate on the front page of their site. So far they only have a single pro- and con- post for limiting democracy, but they’ll probably publish a couple more this week and so on until the end of the month.

    Comment by Carl — November 9, 2006 @ 1:08 am

  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meritocracy

    I personally do not think citizen made rules to choose representatives are any better than citizens choosing representatives directly.

    Comment by gavin — November 9, 2006 @ 3:26 pm

  3. I’ve been thinking about this a bit and also reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article…What strikes me from this is that your values seem to be very instrumentalist ones – the argument is that Democracy doesn’t leave the people best suited to do the stuff doing it. What if I try something else though, what if I look at my own life – perhaps I’m not the person best suited to govern that, perhaps there are people with better intellects who should be directing a lot of my decisions on my behalf? The thing is that neither this nor democracy is justified on the basis of it having the optimum outcome, but on what seems right is that I govern myself beacuse I am me, and that the people govern the group because they are the group.

    I’m perfectly open to counterarguments, and I’d love to hear them, it’s just that I’m not convinced that your post gets to the bottom of the issue.

    Comment by Mark Porter — February 4, 2007 @ 2:47 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: