Yahoo News brings us a rather confused story of recent research melding psychology and sociology that suggests that people are “too stupid for democracy.” Obviously, we here at Philosophyhelmet take issue with anti-democratic elitism of all kinds, especially when it contains obvious philosophical flaws.
The story is poorly written, but seems to combine the work of Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger and the German sociologist, Mato Nagel. The initial premise comes from the psychological finding that we don’t really recognize our own incompetence. People are typically subject to self-serving biases about our own abilities, and we rate ourselves as better at tasks than we really are. Most people will claim to be an “above average” driver, for example. This blindness to our own poor abilities leads us to be unable to recognize that same incompetence in others. This led Mato Nagel to apply these findings to what we call democracy (a pale shadow of the real thing). If most people have even randomly distributed leadership abilities, people’s inability to recognize our own incompetence means that the voting population won’t accurately judge leadership qualities and good ideas. Nagel claims that a democracy can only prevent lower-than-average leaders from being elected, and don’t elect the best possible leaders. Of course, this is just science journalism from Yahoo News, so who knows what the scientists actually said.
The argument has an ancient pedigree. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that, just as you would ask a doctor about your health, you should ask political experts about how to rule a state. As most people aren’t such experts, the people are not fit to rule (whether these were the opinions of the real Socrates or just Plato’s version is unknown). This view, then as now, rests on a faulty assumption, however.
The act of voting is not an attempt to correctly identify already existing objective factors such as who would make the best leader, but rather an expression of what a citizen wants to see realized in their society (within the constraints imposed by fundamental principles). The basic assumption made, that the rest of us are simply here to elevate the best leaders to power, is not characteristic of a genuinely democratic people. In fact, that it goes without comment or question is a sign of just how far towards an authoritarian ideology Westerners have degenerated. But we have plenty of evidence all around us for that.
The Real Problem: “Information, Information, Information!”
The problems of democracy have real institutional causes. Since the system is for people as we are and not as we wish them to be, it’s the system that is flawed. People are capable of making rational decisions given access to appropriate information. One of the main flaws in modern democracy (beyond the fact that it is not democratic) is that the information available is inappropriate and the decisions to be made diffuse.
Political scientist John Gastil writes clearly about the issue in his book, By Popular Demand. Good information on the sorts of questions that people are asked to answer by political institutions is hard to come by. The media directs public attention and thought about issues in a manner that does not induce rational analysis of political positions and office-holders, full of broad strokes over high-ratings topics and scandals that have little to do with policy. Adrift in a sea of bad information, voters rely instead on various cues, such as party affiliation, character evaluations, or whose name we recognize.
So, it is true that people make poor political decisions. However, we should not misdiagnose the illness. The problem is not that people are incapable of identifying the leaders or policies that are best for them. The problem isn’t even that people can’t think rationally about political issues. The problem is that we are awash in too much of the wrong information to use our reason effectively.
The solution is in institutional design, of course. Last week, I offered my own method for improving the electoral mechanism, participatory representation. In participatory representation, as in participatory budgeting, the people acquire relevant political information by directly participating and constituting the decision process. In the process of deliberation with their fellow citizens, political questions become concrete; they pass from being abstract questions represented by names on a ballot to seeing the actual effect on other citizens. Part of this process involves establishing a delegated electoral commission that collects and delivers information to the voting citizen, and whose high degree of accountability means that citizens have control over the sort of information provided.
John Gastil has an institutional design with similar aims to organize and deliver information to the voter so that we could improve the expression of our public will. His institutional designs rely on experiments in political deliberation, rather than focusing on participation. Political deliberation experiments demonstrate that randomly selected panels of persons are capable of drawing well-reasoned conclusions about complex political, economic, and social issues, when given access to relevant and appropriate information about the decision to be made. Gastil’s solution to mass democracy’s information problem is to form various such panels that deliberate about candidates for office, proposed bills and initiatives, and other policy questions. The resulting judgments are then provided in voters’ guides and in the media to provide the appropriate information needed for voting.
In any case, while it is clear that democratic institutions need to be redesigned for serving human beings with real limitations, it is not a matter of being unable to identify our betters when we see them.