Why Democracy Fails

The ordinary person, given a choice between feeling stupid but being smart, or feeling smart but being stupid, will choose the latter every time. That’s why democracy fails.

That’s the basic story, but it may sound too simple. We want to make sure everyone feels they got their money’s worth. So let’s dress it up a bit.

Democracy — the practice of democracy, that is, as distinct from the theory — teaches us that there are the many who make decisions, and then there are the few who are qualified to make decisions, who actually understand the matters being decided. It is OK to have many people making foolish decisions, if your country is rich enough to absorb one failure after another. That used to be the U.S., and that’s why democracy in the U.S. used to be OK.

As the country becomes poorer and weaker, however, bad government is no longer as easy to tolerate. Now those foolish decisions begin to cause real pain. They make people afraid and angry.

The response, in recent years, has been to try to control or manipulate democracy, so that stupid people will be less capable of ruining the country. (It does not matter, for this purpose, how one defines “stupid”: the response is similar on either side of an issue. It is easier to see how uneducated people are stupid on the level of the individual; but because educated people wield such power, their stupidities can be remarkably damaging to the nation as a whole.)

This manipulation of democracy is ironic. The public was reluctant to entrust issues to a smallish set of knowledgeable people, however diverse in outlook, for fear that those who understood the issues would fail to render decisions in the public interest. Instead, the public entrusted those decisions to a smallish set of politicians, who were often not very well informed in the actual issues, but who were very good at getting people to believe in them. Then the servants became the masters: the politicians, supposedly chosen and kept on a short leash by an informed electorate, place the ads and tell the lies and otherwise pull the strings to make the public behave as desired. This becomes evident upon brief review of the advantages of incumbency: once elected, our politicians tend to be re-elected.

As I say, the problem and its solution are simple enough. A decision on an issue should be made by people who understand that issue. That may not require a great deal of general education. It does tend to require a high level of knowledge and/or experience relevant to that particular issue.

Any political arrangement has its advantages. Representative and direct democracy have demonstrated their disadvantages. American democracy has often failed when it has allowed (indeed, encouraged) people to decide issues that they had no business deciding; but in recent years, the need for a form of qualified democracy has become more obvious.

Any form of government will have its weaknesses and complexities. There may always be a need for familiar concepts (e.g., checks and balances) in American forms of government. The point expressed here is simply that there is no practical alternative to a form of government in which the people who make decisions have a demonstrated understanding of what they are deciding. How that principle is operationalized in a specific form of qualified democracy is a question for another day.

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