The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy


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Democracy vs. Polity

Aristotle argued that oligarchies and democracies are the most common forms of government, with much in common except their allocation of power; and thus he spends a lot of time discussing them. For the real difference between democracy and oligarchy is poverty and wealth. Wherever men rule by reason of their wealth, whether they be few or many, that is an oligarchy, and where the poor rule, that is a democracy.

It is important to note that Aristotle did not consider oligarchies and democracies as inherently bad. Even though they govern in the interest of those who hold the power, they are capable of producing livable societies, unlike tyranny, which no free man in his right mind would choose. These better systems, however, are reliant on a quality of character in leadership that is uncommon. For Aristotle, democracies [as he defined them] were very polarized societies, containing rich and poor and not much in between.

Part of the reason Aristotle liked democratic systems is that he believed in the wisdom of crowds. A remarkably modern idea. This is useful, because all societies must evolve their governing rules as needs change. No society can unflinchingly abide by a set constitution of rules in perpetuity; rigidity is not a valuable quality in a changing world.

Even the American constitution was designed to be amended. And therefore they grow great, because the people have all things in their hands, and they hold in their hands the votes of the people, who are too ready to listen to them. Nonetheless, the general principles — quality of laws, virtue, and the middle class — are worth considering. Aristotle also foreshadowed modern ideals by linking the middle class to virtue itself: A great democratic system should govern in their interests, cultivating a happy medium.

The one does what the other asks him to do in pursuit of his own interest, so as to be given what he himself asks for, and the whole purpose of the transaction is that each would get what they want. More recently, democracy is criticized for not offering enough political stability. As governments are frequently elected on and off there tend to be frequent changes in the policies of democratic countries both domestically and internationally.

Even if a political party maintains power, vociferous, headline grabbing protests and harsh criticism from the mass media are often enough to force sudden, unexpected political change. Frequent policy changes with regard to business and immigration are likely to deter investment and so hinder economic growth.

For this reason, many people have put forward the idea that democracy is undesirable for a developing country in which economic growth and the reduction of poverty are top priority. Democracy is also criticised for frequent elections due to the instability of coalition governments. Coalitions are frequently formed after the elections in many countries for example India and the basis of alliance is predominantly to enable a viable majority, not an ideological concurrence.

This opportunist alliance not only has the handicap of having to cater to too many ideologically opposing factions, but it is usually short lived since any perceived or actual imbalance in the treatment of coalition partners, or changes to leadership in the coalition partners themselves, can very easily result in the coalition partner withdrawing its support from the government. Democratic institutions work on consensus to decide an issue, which usually takes longer than a unilateral decision.

Golwalkar in his book Bunch of Thoughts describes democracy as, "is to a very large extent only a myth in practice The high-sounding concept of "individual freedom" only meant the freedom of those talented few to exploit the rest. Another form is commonly called Pork barrel , where local areas or political sectors are given special benefits but whose costs are spread among all taxpayers. Mere elections are just one aspect of the democratic process. Other tenets of democracy, like relative equality and freedom, are frequently absent in ostensibly democratic countries.

The new establishment of democratic institutions, in countries where the associated practices have as yet been uncommon or deemed culturally unacceptable, can result in institutions that are not sustainable in the long term. One circumstance supporting this outcome may be when it is part of the common perception among the populace that the institutions were established as a direct result of foreign pressure.

Sustained regular inspection from democratic countries, however effortful and well-meaning, are normally not sufficient in preventing the erosion of democratic practices. In the cases of several African countries, corruption still is rife in spite of democratically elected governments, as one of the most severe examples, Zimbabwe, is often perceived to have backfired into outright militarism.

Economist Donald Wittman has written numerous works attempting to counter criticisms of democracy common among his colleagues. He argues democracy is efficient based on the premise of rational voters, competitive elections, and relatively low political transactions costs. Economists, such as Meltzer and Richard, have added that as industrial activity in a democracy increases, so too do the people's demands for subsidies and support from the government.

By the median voter theorem , only a few people actually hold the balance of power in the country, and many may be unhappy with their decisions. In this way, they argue, democracies are inefficient. Such a system could result in a wealth disparity or racial discrimination. Fierlbeck points out that such a result is not necessarily due to a failing in the democratic process, but rather, "because democracy is responsive to the desires of a large middle class increasingly willing to disregard the muted voices of economically marginalized groups within its own borders.

Voters may not be educated enough to exercise their democratic rights prudently. Politicians may take advantage of voters' irrationality, and compete more in the field of public relations and tactics, than in ideology. While arguments against democracy are often taken by advocates of democracy as an attempt to maintain or revive traditional hierarchy and autocratic rule, many extensions have been made to develop the argument further.

However, education alone cannot sustain a democracy, though Caplan did note in that as people become educated, they think more like economists. Opinion polls before the election are under special criticism. In the United States the FBI was criticized for announcing that the agency would examine potentially incriminating evidence against Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server just 11 days before the election.

Various reasons can be found for eliminating or suppressing political opponents. Methods such as false flags , counterterrorism-laws , [26] planting or creating compromising material and perpetuation of public fear may be used to suppress dissent. Fake parties, phantom political rivals and "scarecrow" opponents may be used to undermine the opposition. Robert A. Dahl defines democracies as systems of government that respond nearly fully to each and every one of their citizens. He then poses that no such, fully responsive system exists today.

Thus, Dahl rejects a democracy dichotomy in favor of a democratization spectrum. To Dahl, the question is not whether a country is a democracy or not. The question is to what extent a country is experiencing democratization at a national level. Dahl measures this democratization in terms of the country's endorsement and reception of public contestation. And polyarchy, or "rule of the many people," is the only existing form of democratizeable government; that is, it is within polyarchies that democratization can flourish.

Countries do not immediately transform from hegemonies and competitive oligarchies into democracies. Instead, a country that adopts democracy as its form of government can only claim to have switched to polyarchy, which is conducive to, but does not guarantee, democratization. Dahl's polyarchy spectrum ends at the point in which a country becomes a full polyarchy at the national level and begins to democratize at the subnational level, among its social and private affairs.

Dahl is not deeply concerned about the limits of his polyarchy spectrum because he believes that most countries today still have a long way before they reach full polyarchy status. Plato's Republic presents a critical view of democracy through the narration of Socrates : "Democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike.

Assuming that the Republic was intended to be a serious critique of the political thought in Athens, Plato argues that only Kallipolis , an aristocracy led by the unwilling philosopher-kings the wisest men , is a just form of government. Plato rejected Athenian democracy on the basis that such democracies were anarchic societies without internal unity, that they followed citizens' impulses rather than pursuing the common good, that democracies are unable to allow a sufficient number of their citizens to have their voices heard, and that such democracies were typically run by fools.

Plato attacked Athenian democracies for mistaking anarchy for freedom. The lack of coherent unity in Athenian democracy made Plato conclude that such democracies were a mere collection of individuals occupying a common space rather than a form of political organization. According to Plato, other forms of government place too much focus on lesser virtues and degenerate into other forms from best to worst, starting with timocracy , which overvalues honour, then oligarchy , which overvalues wealth, which is followed by democracy.

In democracy, the oligarchs, or merchant, are unable to wield their power effectively and the people take over, electing someone who plays on their wishes for example, by throwing lavish festivals. However, the government grants the people too much freedom, and the state degenerates into the fourth form, tyranny , or mob rule.

David Harsanyi Discusses "The Case Against Democracy"

The constitutions of many countries have parts of them that restrict the nature of the types of laws that legislatures can pass. A fundamental idea behind some of these restrictions, is that the majority of a population and its elected legislature can often be the source of minority persecutions, such as with racial discrimination.

For example, during the mids and mids in the democratic country of Sweden, the government forcibly sterilized thousands of innocent women. They were sterilized due to "'mental defects', or simply because they were of mixed race. Some countries throughout the world have judiciaries where judges can serve for long periods of time, and often serve under appointed posts. This is often balanced, however, by the fact that some trials are decided by juries. While many, like Wittman, have argued that democracies work much the same way as the free market and that there is competition among parties to prevent oppression by the majority, others have argued that there is actually very little competition among political parties in democracies due to the high cost associated with campaigning.

John T. Wenders, a professor of Economics at the University of Idaho , writes:. In words attributed to Scottish historian Alexander Tytler: 'A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury.

A majority bullying a minority is just as bad as a dictator, communist or otherwise, doing so. Democracy is two coyotes and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Additionally, some political scientists question the notion that majority rule is an "uncontested good. For example, Fierlbeck 12 points out that the middle class majority in a country may decide to redistribute wealth and resources into the hands of those that they feel are most capable of investing or increasing them.

Of course this is only a critique of a subset of types of democracy that primarily use majority rule. The Founding Fathers of the United States intended to address this criticism by combining democracy with republicanism. A constitution [38] would limit the powers of what a simple majority can accomplish. Machiavelli put the idea that democracies will tend to cater to the whims of the people, [40] who follow false ideas to entertain themselves, squander their reserves, and do not deal with potential threats to their rule until it is too late. However Machiavelli's definition of democracy was narrower than the current one.

He hypothesized that a hybrid system of government incorporating facets of all three major types monarchy, aristocracy and democracy could break this cycle. Many modern democracies that have separation of powers are claimed to represent these kinds of hybrid governments. However, in modern democracies there is usually no direct correlation with Machiavelli's idea, because of weakening of the separation of powers, or erosion of the original function of the various branches.

For example, the modern United States executive branch has slowly accumulated more power from the legislative branch, and the Senate no longer functions as a quasi-aristocratic body as was originally intended, since senators are now democratically elected. Some have tried to argue that the Coase theorem applies to political markets as well. Daron Acemoglu , however, provides evidence to the contrary, claiming that the Coase Theorem is only valid while there are "rules of the game," so to speak, that are being enforced by the government.

By , 90 percent of women in the United States were literate in at least one language Bose : And from on, the proportion of white females enrolled in school almost equaled that of white males Goldin : After World War II, however, the United States again moved to give voting rights to people likely to have relatively little schooling or conventional political knowledge.

In the Supreme Court ruled against whites-only primaries, in Smith v. Allwright U. The poll tax was constitutionally banned for national elections in and for all elections two years later in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Election [ U. Those two decisions made it slightly easier for very poor people to vote.

Katzenbach U. In the Twenty-sixth Amendment gave voting rights to eighteen-year-olds. Finally, in recent years many states have liberalized their laws regarding previously disfranchised felons. Laws or policies in some states occasionally the same ones have tightened restrictions on felons or ex-felons attempting to vote, but strongly punitive proposals have failed to pass state legislatures in recent years.

Two public opinion polls in the early s showed majority public support for at least partial re-enfranchisement of ex-felons, probationers, and parolees Manza and Uggen Incarcerated people are among the least well educated Americans. As of , the most recent year reported by the federal government, 27 percent of federal prisoners, 40 percent of state prisoners, and fully 47 percent of people in local jails had not graduated from high school or attained a GED.

That compares with 18 percent of the general population not including probationers. Even beyond the remaining ex-felons denied the right to vote, demands to expand the franchise may not yet have ended in the United States. Department of Education and located at the University of Minnesota. They are being encouraged to help their preferred candidates run for office, communicate their opinions to elected officials, take part in disability advocacy organizations — and vote.

These laws not only prevent them from voting, but present a powerful symbolic barrier to full citizenship for people with disabilities.

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The paradox—democracy needs informed voters, but enfranchising ill-informed citizens is a democratizing move—has deep roots and wide applicability. It is more evident in many other polities than in the United States, because their citizens or residents are even more disadvantaged with regard to publicly-funded schooling, transportation, communication, access to independent media, and other mechanisms for attaining politically relevant knowledge.

The paradox cannot be explained away, but perhaps it can be explained. I turn now to that task. How can that be? Explanations fall into three categories: Americans are not really that ignorant; the United States is not really a democracy; institutions or electoral rules effectively replace the posited knowledgeable citizen.

The first and third of these explanations can coexist, while the first or third and second are mutually contradictory. Even if analytically compatible, the explanations have very different political valences. Whether their relative merits can be tested remains to be seen. One version of the narrow argument is literally measurement error; for many years the canonical American National Election Studies ANES provided misleading or incorrect information about open-ended responses to an important survey item on political knowledge.

In , the Principal Investigators for the ANES reported to the user community their recent discovery of multiple errors in recording and coding answers to open-ended political knowledge questions, and more importantly, an excessively narrow definition of a correct answer in a set of political knowledge questions.

Others provide evidence showing that citizens know a lot about issues that are particularly salient to them Hutchings or that their knowledge is obscured by survey questions couched in language appropriate to survey researchers but not to respondents themselves Hochschild Some argue that if the media provide useful information, citizens can attain the political knowledge they need Neuman et al. The broader version of the claim that Americans are not really that ignorant addresses the ways that people can effectively use what information they have, even if that information is thin or they lack extensive schooling.

Alternatively, citizens may be Bayesian updaters; their attention to a recent event or phenomenon shapes their next political action, such as a vote Bartels They have weak or even forgotten prior opinions about politics, but the phenomenon to which they now attend is roughly in keeping with what they would have known if they had remembered what they once knew — so they can act as though they retained that prior knowledge. Or citizens take cues from elites whom they trust, so that they can act politically and vote as though they knew as much as those elites do.

These arguments differ in important details, but all suggest that general ignorance need not imply political ignorance or incapacity. Its key tenet is that voters only have to be able to judge whether they have gotten better off or worse off under the current political regime; if the former, they support the incumbents and if the latter they seek to vote the rascals out.

But the basic claim is that citizens know enough to judge trajectories from the recent past even if they cannot make good decisions about the near future. Racial, religious, or ideological minorities, for example, might attain politically relevant information from their own like-minded communities that would be undermined by too much mainstream formal schooling or political socialization Woodson Not surprisingly, political scientists deeply immersed in the formal educational system are unlikely purveyors of such an argument.

David Harsanyi - Wikipedia

But it is a plausible, albeit more ideological, extension of the scholarly argument that citizens do not need schooling or conventional political knowledge to be effective political actors. Yet another version of this response to the paradox holds that new voters may in fact lack knowledge and political sophistication, but they gain it with practice. John Stuart Mill is the chief spokesperson for this view. I know of no compelling way to test this proposition, because of the fact of self-selection among new voters, the fact that many things change in the years after one attains the right to vote, and the lack of a counterfactual.

Finally in this set of responses, perhaps the paradox does not hold because American voters really are, and have always been, well educated, at least compared with citizens of other would-be democratic polities. In the middle of the nineteenth century, roughly twice as many children were enrolled in elementary school in the United States as in every European country except Germany.

By the turn of the twentieth century, when the largest European nations had caught up to the United States in early schooling, the United States began to move ahead on high schools Easterlin : Appendix table 1. By now, virtually all developed nations have caught up to or even passed the United States in secondary schooling, but Americans are still better educated than are residents of most other countries. Among G-8 countries, only Canada and the Russian Federation have a larger share of adults who have completed academic or vocational higher education National Center For Education Statistics : 67; see also Barro and Lee The United States spends 6.

The Ethics and Rationality of Voting

That is, in this view a democracy does need informed citizens; American citizens are ill-informed; the United States is not a democracy or even a polyarchy. Since most citizens have always been and remain ill-informed, they have never been able to control their government and elites have always, intentionally or not, manipulated the purportedly democratic levers to their own advantage.

A relatively mild version of this argument is that citizens are not so much ill-informed about policy or political choices as unable to connect their knowledge and values to the correct from their viewpoint policy or political choices. For individuals to have been able to express their views according to their interests, they needed not only to perceive that economic inequality was rising and that they opposed such an increase, but also that the proposed tax cut would worsen inequality and harm their interests.

That final link in the chain of political reasoning was lacking Bartels A stronger version of this argument is that elites deliberately keep citizens ignorant and allow voters to think, incorrectly, that they are actually making important choices of policies or leaders. Citizens may be flattered, provided with false or misleading information, or simply schooled poorly.

Nevertheless, in this view, Jefferson was right in pointing out that a nation cannot be both ignorant and free.

An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers.

The focus here is neither measurement error nor category mistake but rather unit of analysis. Up to this point, I have discussed citizens or voters and democratic governance as though there were a direct, unmediated relationship between the former and the latter. But that, of course, is not the case; an extensive set of institutional actors and electoral rules have grown up to intervene between voters and decision-makers. In the view just analyzed, institutional actors and complex decision rules are part of the problem rather than part of the solution since they have kept voters uninformed or taken advantage of their lack of knowledge.

Political parties may be one such institution. John Aldrich quotes E. The media may be another institution that has learned to substitute for a knowledgeable citizenry in maintaining a functioning democracy Street ; Protess et al. Interest and advocacy groups pressure politicians toward particular policy stances and work hard to punish them for espousing the wrong ones; if these groups in fact represent the people for whom they claim to be advocating, then the people themselves can stay ignorant and still have their interests met Meyer et al.

In yet another formulation, a small set of political activists is either generally knowledgeable about politics or particularly knowledgeable about particular aspects of politics. If the activists make their views known and influence political outcomes, and if their ranks are reasonably open to others with strong views, then they too can be effective stand-ins for a citizenry that would agree with the activists if its members held informed views Dahl In the view of some analysts, the American judicial system has evolved to provide reasonably independent and nonpolitical courts that at crucial moments have provided ballast, coherence, and substantive considerations to an otherwise fragmented or nonrational democratic polity Brace and Hall ; Sunstein Or at least courts have been able to take some of the most contentious issues out of the overtly political arena, thereby buffering the electoral system for a while from the preferences of voters driven most by passion and least by reason Hochschild ; Whittington James Madison and other Constitutional framers promoted large electoral districts and relatively few representatives so that only a small number of the best men would emerge as candidates.

With that filter in place, voters could safely choose members of the House of Representatives. In their constitutional design, election of the president would similarly be safe if an electoral college, again comprised of wise and knowledgeable elite men, made the choice, and the choice of Senators could safely be entrusted to state legislators. A century later, lawmakers pursued the same strategy in a different arena by seeking to ensure that regulatory agencies and the Federal Reserve Board would be subject to, at most, indirect electoral control. Political scientists and activists still debate whether citizens are capable of making wise choices through direct elections, and whether referenda on substantive issues should be limited Kateb ; Bowler et al.


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All of these claims for institutions and rules that effectively—and beneficially — mediate between ignorant citizens and democratic governance find at least some support in the scholarly literature. And all come with the imprimatur of a pungent observation from Jefferson, de Tocqueville, or another equally authoritative commentator. Under what conditions mediating institutions and rules have distorted democratic governance in the face of popular preferences, as in the previous view, or have promoted democratic governance in the face of popular ignorance, as in this view, is a question for which we lack systematic and consensual answers.

The premise of this article, and most of the people quoted herein, is that democracies thrive best — or polyarchies edge toward being democracies — if citizens have a broad education and some level of political knowledge. Education is associated with tolerance, support for rights, civic engagement; political knowledge is important for prospective voting and preferable for retrospective voting. These are empirical claims with strong historical backing. But the paradox that democratization involves extending the franchise to those least cognitively prepared to be good democratic citizens has a normative as well as empirical edge.

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Thus the fourth and fifth responses to the paradox are more directly about values than are the first three. The basic claim here focuses not on measurement error, category mistake, or unit of analysis but rather on disagreement: a democracy does not need, or does not primarily need, a highly educated citizenry in order to function well. The most interesting feature of this set of arguments is that different versions tend in opposite ideological directions.

In the s and later, some relatively conservative political scientists argued that having some portion of the citizenry be disengaged and even ignorant is necessary for maintaining a democracy; otherwise the stakes would be too high in each election. If everyone was passionately and knowledgeably engaged with the issues, the losing party would not grant legitimacy to electoral results or to controversial legislative or judicial decisions, and that would threaten the existence of the state itself.

After all, democratic participation is hard and often unrewarding work, especially if one invests time and energy in learning about electoral or policy choices Allen ; in this view, a democracy needs the apathetic ignorant to balance the passionate experts. In this view, pace Jefferson, at least part of the voting public should remain ignorant if the nation is to be free. A different political valence is expressed by those who see the assertion of a strong link between democracy and knowledgeable citizens as too much focused on cognitions.

Democracy is not a graduate seminar, according to critics of the deliberative democrats Gutmann and Thompson ; Macedo ; excessive focus on deliberation may actually detract from democratic politics. Many of these activities require intensity and commitment, but not necessarily knowledge or political sophistication. Or what about group identity or solidarity Shelby or ideological comradeship Walzer ? As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.

Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government Hamilton et al.

In short, ignorance may threaten free government as Jefferson warned, but knowledge is not sufficient and may not even be necessary to maintain a democracy. The basic claim here focuses not on measurement error, category mistake, unit of analysis, or disagreement but rather on a balancing act. That is, there are indeed costs to continually expanding the franchise to bring in those least cognitively prepared to participate in a democratic polity —but the benefits of democratization outweigh those costs.

Probably every reader, like the writer, shares that view, so I can explicate it briefly. Obtaining the right to participate in democratic governance is a sign of respect, dignity, autonomy, and control for individuals and perhaps for the group they represent; that is why so many people fought for so long to ensure that women and African Americans could not participate. A reader of an earlier version of this article elegantly articulated other virtues of democratic expansion: abstract justice, a desire to purify politics in moral or religious terms, fear of social unrest if dissatisfied people have no legitimate channel to express grievances, provision of an arena to develop organizational capacities and promote civic virtue, and belief that each person is the best expositor of his or her own interests.

There may be other reasons, but the point should be clear.

The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy
The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy
The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy
The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy
The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy
The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy

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