“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”
“this government of the people, by the people, and for the people…”
While a monarchy is systematically unfair and anarchy is inherently unstable, democracy is dangerous because it has such a seemingly unproblematic premise. The idea sounds so good on paper that we don’t think we can do any better. The problem is that democracy requires an informed public and an unambiguously prioritized value, neither of which we have ever had.
We can start by looking at Plato, one of the original Western philosophers during the golden age of democracy in Classical Greece. In Gorgias, he includes the following dialogue, showing he is aware of how dangerous an uninformed public can be:
Socrates: You said just now that even on matters of the health the orator will be more convincing than the doctor.
Gorgias: Before a mass audience — yes I did.
Socrates: A mass audience means an ignorant audience, doesn’t it? He won’t be more convincing than the doctor before experts, I presume.
Socrates: Now, if he is more convincing than the doctor then does he turn out to be more convincing than the expert?
Socrates: So when the orator is more convincing than the doctor, what happens is that an ignorant person is more convincing than the expert before an equally ignorant audience. Is this what happens?
Gorgias: That is what happens in that case, no doubt.
Socrates: And the same will be true of the orator and the oratory in relation to all other arts. The orator need have no knowledge of the truth of things; it is enough for him to have discovered a knack of persuading the ignorant that he seems to know more than the experts.
This is all too familiar — we can see members of the American public react very differently to the same policy when referred to as the Affordable Care Act versus Obamacare in Jimmy Kimmel’s video. This is even visible in my own life. Despite having a demonstrated interest in policy, I have no idea what most of the bills in the last midterm election were, let alone a clear picture of what the effects would be. In most subject matter, I stand firmly among the ignorant.
That’s fine, that’s exactly why we have a representative democracy, right?
Wrong. Our political leaders also stand firmly among the ignorant. Economists learn that a labor subsidy generates the most value when no new jobs are actually created. Computer scientists learn that 63% of security breaches come from bad passwords. Meteorologists learn how to pinpoint the effects of tiny fluctuations on a hurricane. But those making decisions about labor, technology, and the environment know close to nothing about the specific policy they are writing.
For generations, the question of how to determine an “informed” voter base has been answered (poorly). Athens restricted voting rights to white male Athenian landowners. Colonial America restricted voting rights to white males. 19th century America restricted voting rights to male citizens. Even then, poll taxes and impossible “literacy tests” were enacted to limit who could vote. At best, these restrictions were arbitrary and unjust. At worst, they resulted in policy-making that was not representative of the best interests of all Americans. The true problem is that democracy cannot function if the voters are not perfectly informed, because they lack both the foresight that an expert in a specific field would have and a common language for disagreements about the issue (like when professional economists argue about the effects of a tax).
Those that would argue that the conflicting interests of so many stakeholders would largely result in an equitable and productive policy are incorrect. In financial markets, the traditional Efficient Market Hypothesis has been largely debunked.[*] Arbitrageurs cannot bring prices to the “correct” level because the existence of noise-traders itself changes the “correct” price by introducing new risk. As long as people are incorrectly informed, the resulting decision will deviate from the true correct decision.
As long as constituents lack perfect information and clarity for every decision, there is an undeniable conflict of interest between doing what’s truly best for constituents and doing what it takes to get re-elected.
This leads to my second point. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in Sapiens, the fundamental pillars of democracy — liberty and equality — directly contradict each other:
Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality… Contemporary American politics also revolve around this contradiction.
He also demonstrates that while many Americans see a problem with racial hierarchy — because the color of the skin you were born with shouldn’t have anything to do with the opportunities you receive, they are completely comfortable with the “hierarchy of rich and poor”, even though those that are rich are usually born rich and those that are poor are usually born poor. While Harari argues that contradictions like this are “culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species”, I feel that this clash locks us back into the same argument more than it propels our creative energy forward as a country.
Democracy assumes that there is a way for two values to co-exist at the same level as each other. While theoretically this should work, (as one value should ideally take precedence each time) American voters have been observed as voting on value basis rather than on a case-by-case basis. Thus, claiming to maintain an equal society that protects the individual rights of its citizens is possible only if we started from a utopia. Unfortunately in our case, for every step forward, we take one back to balance.
It is now especially important to question democracy’s role in our government. Not only are partisanship and demagoguery incredibly extreme within the current political situation, we are very close to subordinating our democratic government to a capitalist economy. Robert Reich argues in Supercapitalism that Americans are exercising more and more of their power as consumers and less and less of their power as citizens in their daily lives. Thus, democracy is no longer able to “draw the rules of the game” that capitalists play, which we see in the rise of multinational corporations that are operating increasingly on their own terms. This is problematic. The role of government sometimes involves taking on tasks that are not profitable or popular, but necessary for a common good. No amount of social responsibility in the name of corporate brand-building can fill that hole.
Democracy the way it was intended cannot be applied directly to governance. If we don’t take the time to closely reexamine a document that was written before the telephone was invented, when human slavery was legal, and when all of America was 13 states on the Eastern seaboard — we risk the system of our government slowly changing without us having any say in the new terms.
[*] “Noise Trader Risk in Financial Markets” J. Bradford De Long, Andrei Shleifer, Lawrence H. Summers, Robert J. Waldmann The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 98, №4 (Aug., 1990), pp. 703–738