On Philosophy

March 7, 2007

Crimes Against Democracy

Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:01 am

Compared to other political systems a working democracy is fairly robust. Sure the people may occasionally take to the streets, but the government is usually flexible enough to handle these problems. And this is because at some level a democracy is run by the people. But a democracy can only work if the voters are decent at making decisions regarding laws or about whom to represent them (otherwise the incompetence of voters will be magnified when they vote, and they will end up making choices that are worse than the choices that any one of them would make individually). Of course whether people can do these things well even at the best of times is a matter of debate. But anything that makes it harder for voters to make good decisions is harmful to democracy, and thus should logically be discouraged, probably by punishment. You see, in a system run by only a select group how the people as a whole view issues doesn’t matter for the health of the nation, only whether the leaders have the right perspective. But in a democracy widespread ignorance or misinformation can bring the whole system to its knees.

Thus in a democracy it should be a crime to misinform people, which we can define as telling people that something is true, with the intent to persuade them of that fact, when evidence to back up that claim is scarce or questionable. Why should misinforming people in general be a crime? Well, all kinds of facts are relevant to voting for laws or voting for representatives. For example, it is apparent we have a problem with global warming that we need to address. But if people are misinformed about global warming they may deny that it exists or deny that we can do anything about it. And both of those courses of action may have repercussions, namely the climate becoming more and more unstable until eventually someone is forced to do something about it, perhaps non-democratically. But global warming is just the hot topic of the moment. Who knows what may be relevant in the years to come, and thus any misinformation could be potentially dangerous to democracy as a whole.

Political advertisements are also harmful to democracy, perhaps as much as or more than misinformation. People can be manipulated by ads, and thus advertisements can sway a significant fraction of voters into making a decision that is motivated at least partly by them, which means that their decision is not being made completely rationally, which is bad for democracy. Ads also make it harder for poorer candidates to compete in general, which in turn means that the wealthy will always be overrepresented in government, and what is good for the wealthy isn’t always good for society as a whole.

But really making these things crimes would infringe on the freedom of speech. So we have to ask ourselves which is more important. Obviously making either spreading misinformation or political advertisements illegal has the potential for abuse. If the government was allowed to decide what was and what wasn’t misinformation then it is likely that it would simply try to label anything it didn’t like as misinformation. And if political advertisements were banned then the party in power would probably create public service announcements subtly in their favor, which would give them an advantage. But both of these problems can be overcome simply by giving the power to regulate these matters to some other body. Obviously the government can’t be trusted to regulate these kinds of things, for the same reasons that it has trouble passing and enforcing anti-corruption laws. But that doesn’t mean that nobody could regulate them fairly.

A more important question to consider is whether the right to free speech is simply more fundamentally important, such that it can’t be infringed even for other gains. The answer to that question depends on how you approach the nature of rights. If you approach them as basic ethical facts from which to work from then obviously they can’t be infringed, and the question is moot. I, however, think that rights are justified because they are good for society. Free speech is good for society because it allows people to openly debate issues share knowledge, which benefits everyone. In my opinion making spreading misinformation and political advertisements illegal would not negate these benefits, assuming that the enforcement of the laws was done with care. Making spreading misinformation illegal doesn’t prevent you from taking whatever stance you like on issues. You could still believe in psychic powers, and tell people that you thought that psychic powers existed. You just couldn’t tell people that there was good evidence backing up your claims. Similarly banning political advertisements wouldn’t prevent candidates from telling people what they stood for on various issues, and they should be elected instead of their opponents, they would just have to make the information available (say on the internet) and let people go to it, not spoon feed it to people.

Will these ever actually be made crimes? No. Too many people benefit from the way things are, and even if everyone wanted to make them illegal we would probably have to amend the constitution, which is not an easy task. I don’t bring these things up as a call to action, I simply wish to point out that democracy needs well-informed voters if it is to work. And to have well informed voters means that certain rights might have to be restricted. So what is more important, your rights or democracy?



  1. I know it’s cool to hate on French post-modern philosophy, but seriously, “knowledge is power.” The System already controls discourse enough without encouraging it to have an “impartial” council decide for us what information is good for democracy and what’s not. I mean, if this censorship council is so smart that they can tell good truths from bad, why not just let them rule us directly and save ourselves a lot of trouble?

    In my opinion, the beauty of democracy is that it acknowledges that even the opinions of the misinformed play an important part in the functioning of society. That is, if enough people believe something, then that belief is an issue for the society itself, no matter how obviously false it may appear. Banning it is attacking the symptoms rather the disease. The disease is its acceptance by society. Suppressing their profession won’t stop their acceptance.

    Comment by Carl — March 7, 2007 @ 1:39 am

  2. There is a difference between expressing an opinion and lying to people. Do you think that the truth in advertising laws we already have are also a bad idea?

    Comment by Peter — March 7, 2007 @ 2:45 am

  3. Lying in advertising laws don’t deal with controversial truths. Even the companies that are caught lying when pressed to the wall can’t support the claims made in their ads. On the other hand, it is possible to honestly believe in creationism, global warming, etc. In any event, if a lot of people really did believe that Coke makes you happy or whatever, then there’d be no point in just banning the expression of the belief, since it’s the belief that’s dangerous, but beliefs aren’t changed by censorship but through rational debate.

    Comment by Carl — March 7, 2007 @ 4:20 am

  4. Do you actually believe that? Simply look at societ; most beliefs are not affected at all by rational debate, they are affected by the opinions of authority figures, which vary from person to person. And thus those authroity figures should be held resposible. It is a well known fact that how people vote in elections is strongly influenced by ads, and no amount of rational debate is going to change that. Do you think it is good to live in a democracy where ad campaigns are more important than the issues? Do you think the best representatives are elected in such a democracy?

    Comment by Peter — March 7, 2007 @ 11:06 am

  5. 1. If you don’t believe rational debate tends to win out more in the long run, what’s the point?

    2. Here’s a blog by a fundamentalist I went to middle school with. We were talking about “An Inconvenient Truth,” which I happened to see the other day. He says in part,

    It bothers me that Al Gore demands media outlets not cover skeptics of Global Warming. Gore is obviously not dumb, very book smart, but when he makes demands like that he reveals the clueless jerk that he is. Silencing critics is a path he should know better than to go down. I think the Oscar is going to his head.

    Gore’s backers don’t come across any better. Some call for critics of global warming to be killed, some merely want state censuring. Then in the next sentence they are calling for an open debate on the issue. You can’t have it both ways and sad to say I think they would more prefer the forcing of opinions on people. That is what really sticks me and make me mad.

    (Emphasis mine.) I don’t see any point in playing into the paranoid tendencies of the fundamentalist right by cutting them out the debate. They already feel encroached upon enough by the world without taking away their right to believe wrong things about science. Doing that will just make them feel like they’ve got to stock up on shotguns, ‘cos the anti-Christ is a-comin’. Tell them why they’re wrong; don’t tell them to just shut up.

    Comment by Carl — March 10, 2007 @ 12:36 am

  6. In English law, there is such a thing as criminal deception, where “deception” is when one intentionally presents P as not-P, despite actually believing P.

    This may cover your concept of crimes against democracy.

    Comment by Zakhariah Fairfax — March 13, 2007 @ 2:10 pm

  7. I was thinking about something a little more general than that, when one presents not-P as though there was good reason to believe not-P when in fact there is not sufficient reason for claiming not-P (either the facts are against not-P or the facts are amiguous). But the motivation behind that law is close in spirit I think to what I am talking about here.

    Comment by Peter — March 13, 2007 @ 2:50 pm

  8. A thing it is what it is not.This is very clear. If we want to hide a thing the best way is turn off the light.

    Comment by filipe carreira — March 17, 2007 @ 4:20 pm

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