Sunday, September 19, 2004

Democracy and stupidity

The Maverick Philosopher considers the democratic principle of "one man, one vote" to be "highly dubious":

Suppose you have two people, A and B. A is intelligent, well-informed, and serious. He does his level best to form correct opinions about the issues of the day. He is an independent thinker, and his thinking is based in broad experience of life. B, however, makes no attempt to become informed, or to think for himself. He votes as his union boss tells him to vote. Why should B’s vote have the same weight as A’s? It is self-evident that B’s vote should not count as much as A’s.

Philosophy, et cetera agrees, arguing that "democracy is only valuable to the extent that it tends to produce and preserve a liberal society" and that

in an ideal system, the opinions of those who are more intelligent and well-informed would count for more than those who haven't got a clue.

The problem here is that both are fundamentally mistaken about the purpose of democracy. Democracy is not about making good decisions - it's about making our decisions. It is not a system for aggregating information and reaching a rational decision about what we should do - it is a system for moderating conflicting interests.

Any moral justification for democracy rests on two assumptions: firstly, that people have interests, and secondly, that no-one's interest counts for more than anybody else's. The first is simply a recognition of fact. The second is a statement of fundamental moral equality, and can be taken as axiomatic or justified on the basis of consistency (if I want my interests to count, then I must agree that everyone else's do as well). Note that there's nothing in here about whether you are intelligent, rational, or well-informed - all that is important is that you have interests (and bother to express them). So "one man, one vote" is justified regardless of intelligence or ability on the basis that stupid people have interests too.

Those interests may be ill-informed, based on shoddy reasoning or false axioms, but none of that matters. An interest is an interest is an interest, and if we're committed to moral equality, then all must be counted.

(There's also a pragmatic justification for democracy, resting on purely Hobbesean assumptions that people have interests and are sufficiently equal in physical ability to make counting heads a quick and painless way of determining who will win should things come to blows. On this account, stupid people get to vote because otherwise they may try and kill us. This has nothing to do with morality or rationality, of course - it's all about power and force and violence - but as someone who seeks ultimately to ground political theory in facts about the world, it has a certain appeal).

While I'm not sure about Maverick Philosopher, judging from his suggestions regarding competency tests, Philosophy, et cetera's underlying concern seems to that stupid people may not know what their interests are or how best to advance them. There's a name for this - "false consciousness" - and it's extremely surprising to see a self-professed liberal espousing it. A core tenet of liberalism is that people are the best judges of their own interests, and this rules out any second-guessing.

If we are concerned about voter ignorance, then the answer is to educate them, both through public information campaigns (and vigorous media debate) at election time, and by using universal public education to give people better bullshit detectors and make them better judges of their own interests in the first place. But as liberals, the last thing we should do is try to look inside people's heads or presume to make their choices for them.

See also:
Liberalism, "false consciousness" and deception
Why not Kant?