The Problem of Stupidity in Democracy

September 9, 2014

Government, Latest Thinking, Natural Rights / Rights, Politics

I have been thinking a lot lately about the inherent problem of stupidity that exists within democracy. Stupidity, of course, is in the eyes of its beholder, which is part of the problem, or maybe it is the whole problem. What is stupid to one person may be smart to another. And the same goes for good and evil too. My evil may be your good and your good may be my evil. This is the core problem in democracy which is more than self-evident in the times we now live. One side demonizes the other; each side thinks it holds the truth. Only God, if there is one, knows who is right.

To frame the core theoretical and moral problem it is this: democracy assumes that the locus of authority and morality resides in the people whom government represents and serves. The problem is that “the people” does not have a single view of almost anything. There are many different competing worldviews with different ideas about God, truth, morality, and so on. Some believe in God, some don’t. Some think Jesus was the son of God, others don’t. Some think that the end of days is near, other don’t. And it is not just on such religious ideas that the people disagree. They may disagree on whether we should have a right to guns, to smoke in public, to be taxed, to perform abortions, to have gay marriage, etc. The key problem of democracy is thus diversity of views on truth. While there might be one truth that exists and while many people think they know what it is, there is no agreement on what that truth is, and thus to impose any view, is to repress those who hold other views.

This problem of diversity was already partially evident when early ideas about democracy were being first worked out in the seventeenth century in thinkers such as Grotius, Hobbes, Pufendorf, Locke, and others who inspired those in the early founding of America. Indeed, it is fair to say that it was the Christian wars over truth after the Reformation that are partly responsible for the emergence of the ideas that grew into our ideas about rights and liberty that underlie our political system today. How so?

Realizing that the key questions of religious truth could not be settled in a state without the use of force, seventeenth century thinkers looked for other bases on which a peaceful society could be erected. They thought, mistakenly it now seems evident, that using human reason we could discern self-evident rights upon which everyone could agree: protection of life, liberty and property. Such ideas obviously made it into the Declaration of Independence. Those founding rights would be the guaranteed basis of society, and the rest would be worked out through a democratic process of a majority. Since everyone would be represented, the voice of the majority would be law, even though by definition not everyone would agree. Religious diversity would be tolerated or permitted and no single religious view or practice would be established.

This view of the world was adopted by the American founders as well, though by the time they drafted the US Constitution, they had also come to understand that minorities could also be suppressed by majorities and had seen that possibility in action at the state level. The system they developed, which used various checks and balances, was intended to help protect minorities from overbearing majorities. Clearly, not all reasonable people could come to agreement on substantive differences. Even if religious differences would be protected, there had to be some common standard by which to govern.

This is part of the reason the founders reached a compromise on a two House system, with one house being tied more directly by representation to the populations of the states, and the other being tied to the number of the states itself. The former was thought to be closer to the people, more emotional, less rational, and the latter, which arguably grew out of the aristocratic House of Lords, was expected to be more restrained, judicious, and thoughtful. Whether the two Houses indeed function to balance each other this way is debatable, but that was one reason for the bicameral Congress that the founders implemented.

The desire for checks and balances is the basis too for the view that the executive and legislative branches balance each other and that the Supreme Court, which does not make legislation, is the interpreter of the founding Constitution, though the powerful role that the Supreme Court plays today in that process, was not clearly envisioned back then.

Looking at the political process today, one might argue that the founders succeeded. The to and fro of political life and parties, nasty to be sure, does let the diversity of viewpoints have their play. Indeed, one could argue that, by definition, the democratic process is a tug of war between diverse worldviews, and only when a broad consensus is achieved, does one side’s particular view reign supreme. Democracy on this view is a framework through which deep differences are peacefully resolved, even if they are not agreed upon unanimously. It is arguable, of course, that a democracy can and often is rigged, with money and economic status having the most influence, but at least in theory a democratic process gives different views an opportunity to compete for money and influence, if not mindshare. While a non-democratic system, which lodges power in a particular world view chosen by the ruling authority might have less to-and-fro, a view held by Hobbes by the way, it would have the disadvantage of suppressing alternative worldviews, almost by definition.

But one has to wonder too, whether what we have now is the best that democracy can be? For the current system seems to deepen animosities and differences and to polarize people into camps. It hardly brings people together into consensus. One could argue that similar deep animosities have always been central in the democratic process, as evident for example in the vitriolic debates of the Federalists and Republicans even in the early days of this republic, though the emergence of “factions” surprised and dismayed the founders themselves. Is this “war through process” the only option for dealing with deep human differences and inclinations? Are these deep cultural and ideological differences inherent in us as a species? Or is there some other way we can find to build a society that is both fair and good, if that is even a purpose we can agree on.

I don’t know if I have an answer. The America founders believed there was some set of core substantive values that would be mandated in society, independent of any particular worldview or religion that anyone had. This point of view, which stemmed from that developed during the seventeenth century Enlightenment, held that some core substantive values and procedural commitments, which were partly self-evident rights, as well as guarantees from common law of British tradition, were thought to be true and transcend the worldview and religious differences of the people who would come together in society. And in that time and place, they more or less did. Those core values included the process of democracy itself which relied on representation, the rights to life, liberty and property, and other protections such as those found in the Bill of Rights. The other values and perspectives were left to the political process itself to resolve in the give and take war of ideas and politics. The problem, of course, is that lots of stupid ideas are going to be offered up for law and can be endorsed by the majority and even our Supreme Court.

What is clear now in respect, more than two hundred years later, is that even the very core notions of who we are and what to be as a nation are still contested. Some want us to be a religious and even a Christian nation. Others think the protection of conscience means we can and should be a state that is as tolerant of both religious and non-religious people. The very notion of what the substantive rights of citizens are or should be is itself not clear despite the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. If one looks at the history of the Supreme Court, one can’t help but be impressed by the fact that the very core notion of what rights are protected in or founding documents is one that changes over time. Self-evidence seems to change with time.

The question we are left with is whether we have to live with the fact that the possibility of stupidity is simply inherent in democracy. If we think that people embrace ideas for all sorts of rational and nonrational reasons, then it stands to reason that some ideas will be good and some will be bad, and the winners will not necessarily be the best. We can at least hope that when our future is in the hands of the people, and not a monarch, that we stand a better chance that we’ll make better and more just and fair decisions. On this, if nothing else, perhaps we can at least agree.


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