Friday, September 17, 2004

Illiberal Democracy

I'm not a huge fan of democracy. Sure, all the alternatives are worse, but still... I do find myself wistfully thinking that there must be some way to improve it.

Don't get me wrong, I think New Zealand's political system is about as good as you could hope for. I'm very happy to be living in a 'liberal democracy'. But it's the first of those two words that's the important one. Democracy is only valuable to the extent that it tends to produce and preserve a liberal society. Call me 'elitist', but there's nothing intrinsically virtuous about majority verdicts. I'd much prefer a wise and benevolent dictator (were such a creature ever to exist) to ignorant mob-rule.

Maverick Philosopher has an excellent post on the principle of 'one man, one vote'. 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, however, is that there is no obvious criterion that one could employ to segregate those who are worthy of voting from those who are not. [...] Once we exclude educational credentials, sex, race, property-ownership, and age as criteria, what do we have left? Nothing that I can see apart from the standard criteria of voter eligibility. ‘One man, one vote’ though certainly a flawed principle, may be the best we can do.

Why not require would-be voters to pass a basic competency test before they vote? Or perhaps weigh their votes according to how well they do in it? It shouldn't contain anything overly difficult - just some basic questions to assess whether they actually understand each party's policies. Perhaps it could even include further questions about the likely effects of some of those policies (so long as the appropriate experts are in unanimous agreement over the facts - obviously this would be inappropriate for scientifically controversial issues!).

Of course, any such restrictions would run a huge risk of abuse (there's already accusations that Republicans are trying to disenfranchise black voters). But perhaps ways could be found to protect against this. For example, the test questions (and perhaps even the answers) should be openly available and accessible to everyone who wishes to see them. And the questions themselves might require approval from a non-partisan committee of experts in the appropriate fields. And so forth.

The point would not be to exclude anybody, but rather, to make sure that the voters are as well-informed as possible. It should be organised so that anyone who wants to ace the test can do so easily enough. But those who cannot be bothered to learn even the most basic facts about what is at stake, should have less influence in deciding the outcome of the election.

Successful democracy depends upon an informed citizenry. I think New Zealand isn't bad in that respect, fortunately for us. But most Americans, by contrast, are woefully ignorant:
When people are asked whether they favor Bush’s policy of repealing the estate tax, two-thirds say yes — even though the estate tax affects only the wealthiest one or two per cent of the population. Ninety-eight per cent of Americans do not leave estates large enough for the tax to kick in. But people have some notion — Bartels refers to it as “unenlightened self-interest” — that they will be better off if the tax is repealed. What is most remarkable about this opinion is that it is unconstrained by other beliefs. Repeal is supported by sixty-six per cent of people who believe that the income gap between the richest and the poorest Americans has increased in recent decades, and that this is a bad thing. And it’s supported by sixty-eight per cent of people who say that the rich pay too little in taxes. Most Americans simply do not make a connection between tax policy and the over-all economic condition of the country.

Majikthise, commenting on the same article, argues that the average (American) voter simply lacks political beliefs entirely:
Maybe it's unfair to say that the average voter lacks political beliefs. Some will insist that the average voter has beliefs, just not the kind that are stable, well-supported by evidence, or mutually consistent. These are beliefs that flicker into existence when a pollster asks for an opinion but subside just as rapidly, leaving no behavioral residue. They shift shape depending on the phrasing of the question or the color of the interlocutors tie.

These ephemeral mental events wouldn't count as beliefs if their ostensible object were anything other than politics. Imagine a guy with a very tenuous conceptual grasp of weather-related issues. The weather just doesn't affect him in any predictable way. He's as likely to bundle up when it's cold as when it's hot. He's as likely to say that galoshes go with tank tops as with rain slickers. He opens his umbrella at random. When asked point blank, he will sometimes affirm that it is raining. Sometimes he's right. Every so often, he'll toss off phrases like "It's not the heat, it's the humidity," but he looks at you blankly if you ask him what he means. We would hesitate to say that this guy has any beliefs about weather at all.

Brian Leiter has an extremely disturbing post exposing the nascent fascism in Bush's America. There's something seriously wrong with American democracy at the moment. But perhaps it should come as no surprise that incompetent voters would elect incompetent leaders.

Whether anything can be done about this situation, I'm not sure. The 'competency test' approach I've advocated here is probably hopelessly idealistic, impractical, and perhaps downright dangerous. Maybe all we can do is weather the storm and hope for the best.

P.S. Can anyone explain why it is that the winning candidate in a state is awarded all of the votes? That doesn't make the slightest bit of sense to me.

Update: The Lazy Logician also suggests we test voters (though some of his details differ from my proposal), which White Poet Warlord then picks up on and discusses in more detail. See also E.G., and my sequel post (in response to comments): Civil Freedom vs. Political Power


  1. Democracy's role in the end is not to be representative it is to keep the ruling parties under control.
    So the representative system does that just as well as any other and is simpler to administer. In the end the aggregate of the peoples opinion is not always the best answer and not everyone will vote and not everyone will be informed but you still can't get away with pissing off the country too badly.

    the key thing afterall is the result even though hte system is important for achieving that result. One day we will have a Issac Azimov style computer taking care of most of the details I guess eh?

    By the way
    If you inspired this from NRT
    We must have fairly similar views on that

  2. The estate tax is a bad example, there's no general agreement on who ultimately gains and loses. See this speech by Greg Mankiw:

    Mankiw is right-leaning and works for Bush at present, but he's also the author of the first year Economics text used at Victoria University. He has very high credibility.

    Re the electoral college, each state decides how their electoral votes are awarded. There's more incentive to funnel pork to a winner take all state because more votes are at stake. That's why they do it.

  3. "The estate tax is a bad example, there's no general agreement on who ultimately gains and loses."

    I can accept that some people think taxing the rich is a bad thing which ends up harming everyone. (I disagree, of course, but I wouldn't call them stupid because of it.) Rather, the point was that even people who think the rich aren't taxed enough still wanted to repeal the estate tax. It's the blatant contradictions within their so-called political "beliefs" that has me worried.

    (But as you note, it's just an example. There are probably better ones that I'm unaware of.)

  4. Under the estate tax, when you have two people with the same income, if one saves and invests to leave a large inheritance for his children and the other wastes his money on all kinds of crap and dies penniless, the former pays more tax.

    People just don't think that's fair, regardless of their opinion on how much tax the rich should pay generally. This seems sensible to me. Why assume the public are making a mistake when there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for their opinions?

  5. if the americans are so stupid, why have they
    a) just liberated another 50m people and
    b) have living standards about 50% ahead of New Zealand and c) such a vibrant originality of technology that we can both post comments irrelevant to the world for free?

  6. I'm inclined to agree that the estate tax is a bad example. There is no 'blatant contradiction' between wanting the rich to be taxed more and wanting to repeal a tax that taxes the rich more; one can, for instance, think that that particular tax is just not the best way to do it. (When people in the U.S. say they want the rich taxed more they generally mean they want them to pay a greater share of income tax. This is perfectly consistent with thinking the estate tax a bad idea.)

    The commenter above is right that how the electoral votes for each state are used depends on the state; but I'm not convinced by the pork explanation (it would be a very inefficient way to do it). There are, in fact, good reasons to do winner-takes-all in a state with a lot of electoral votes -e.g., it makes gerrymandering impossible; since several of the big states (California, Texas) are split more closely than most people think, dividing up the electoral votes in those states would increase the temptation to rig the system.

  7. Nigel & Brandon - Yeah, fair enough about the estate tax example then. I retract my comment about that being a 'blatant contradiction' - I simply failed to see how to reconcile the two positions. (Though even if consistency there is possible in principle, one might remain skeptical of whether it is actually achieved by most voters.)

    But regardless of the tax example, if you read the rest of the linked-to article, I think the general point stands. Another example:

    "Rephrasing poll questions reveals that many people don’t understand the issues that they have just offered an opinion on. According to polls conducted in 1987 and 1989, for example, between twenty and twenty-five per cent of the public thinks that too little is being spent on welfare, and between sixty-three and sixty-five per cent feels that too little is being spent on assistance to the poor."

    SageNZ - calm down, I never called all Americans 'stupid'. All I said was that the average American voter is ignorant (I specifically meant with regard to politics, but of course it also extends to science, geography, and other domains). That's not an insult, but a brute fact - or so the evidence I keep hearing would seem to suggest.

  8. I think that the above is grossly mistaken about the purpose of democracy as well as fundamentally illiberal. Democracy is not about making good decisions, it's about making our decisions. What matters is not being rational, intelligent, or well-informed, but having interests, whose content a self-professed liberal should not purport to second-guess.

    More here:

  9. NRT - I guess we just have fundamentally different conceptions of the role of government. I take it that you see it as intrinsically valuable for expressing the 'will of the people', or some such thing. I guess I'm more of a consequentialist here... I agree that the people matter, but I say that what matters is the fulfillment of their interests, rather than the expression of their will or power.

    I don't think it's illiberal to recognise that people can be mistaken about what is in their best interests or how to achieve it. That's just common sense. It's discussed in a bit more detail in my past post on Desire Fulfillment.

    Also, do note that I'm not advocating any extreme form of paternalism here. The competency test is just to check that the voters at least have some idea of what's going on. So I think your objection there is perhaps a little overdone. I agree that people are generally the best judges of their own interests, but there's no need for absolutism here - there are exceptions, and it would be a good thing if we could identify and act on them.

    Lastly, note that part of my concern here is a Millian fear of 'tyranny of the majority', as reflected by the post's title. Democracy defined as mere majority rule isn't liberal at all. As I said in the post, it's the liberalism that matters, not the democracy. It seems odd to fault me as "illiberal" on those grounds.

    Anyway, it's getting late, I might write more later.

  10. Actually, I think it's precisely about the fulfilment of people's individual interests, so please don't try and tar me with Rousseau. The real difference is not that I am more democrat than liberal, but that I think that freedom is not just the freedom to be intelligent, rational, and well-informed, but also the freedom to be stupid, irrational, and flat-out wrong - even about what's in your own best interest.

    It is not illiberal to recognise that people can be mistaken about their interests. What is illiberal is using that to deny the validity of their choices. And that is exactly what you are doing. This move has a long and dirty history, and as Berlin pointed out, turns freedom on its head. You're not using the vocabulary - "rational autonomy", "authentic" choice, "false consciousness" - but you're on that path just the same, and it leads straight to the gulag and the re-education center.

    There's no question that there is a tension between democracy and liberalism - Athens was a democracy, but it sure as hell wasn't liberal - but you don't solve it by adopting illiberal methods. That's destroying the village in order to save it.

    (And if none of that convinces you, we can always go back to Hobbes...)

  11. The point of democracy is that it recognised people's political equality. Nobody is arguing that votes are not always cast with the same level of analysis, but we are all people, and are all subject to the decisions of the state. It would not be appropriate to deny anyone a voice in that process, no matter how "ill-educated" we us elite think "the plebs" are.


  12. Richard,

    I'm afraid I find your second example unconvincing as well. No such conclusions can be drawn from the poll without a proper attempt to determine in what way people are taking the terms; and in ordinary conversational usage, 'welfare' and 'assistance to the poor' would not have the same applications. E.g., in ordinary usage, welfare is a type of government program, assistance to the poor is a general type of action. Since we don't actually have the poll at hand, we don't know what steps were taken to avoid this potential misunderstanding, if any were taken at all. (The article also tells us very little about other conditions of the poll that would be necessary to evaluate its results.) Were I asked the questions, for instance, I'd be inclined to say that one of the primary problems of the system is that too little of what is spent on welfare is actually spent on assistance to the poor (due to inefficient bureaucracy, abuses of the system, poorly planned programs, etc.).

    In any case, for your larger argument, if you're going to be criticizing Americans for inconsistency on the basis of obscurely worded polls, you need to see how they fare compared to others (and general impression doesn't work: my general impression of my American compatriots is that they're rather savvy, although very temperamental; others have different general impressions). And inconsistency is a different charge than ignorance; for instance, most polls show that a very large percentage of people who think the rich should pay a greater share of the income tax have completely inaccurate beliefs about how great a share the rich actually pay (which is already a considerable share: the lower 50% of taxpayers pay less than 5% of total income tax revenues). This is not a matter of rational inconsistency on their part, but someone else's having misinformed them. In general I find people tend to be more or less consistent (one hardly expects perfect consistency in anyone, including the people criticizing Americans for inconsistency), but that they are faced with a flood of misinformation that has to be filtered out - and inevitably some doesn't get filtered out. And this is true of everyone.

  13. NRT - I've written up a whole new post responding to the charges of 'illiberalism'.

    Jordan - the above link sort of answers you too (your objection seems to be based on the notion that democracy is intrinsically valuable, which is a claim I do not accept). But I would like to highlight that I'm not really "denying" anyone a vote - as I said, the restrictions should be made easy enough that ANYONE can pass them if they're willing to make some modicum of effort. (If they can't be bothered learning even the most basic facts about the election, then what are they doing voting in it?)

    Brandon - I guess I'm just relying on the general accuracy of the article's message here. If you doubt it, fair enough, I won't try to defend it further here.

  14. To have any chance at all of understanding the American voter and things like our electoral college, you'll need to discard a serious misconception on your end: There is indeed "something seriously wrong with American democracy right now"....there isn't ONE!

    Contrary to popular opinion and the fondest wishes of those who think Democracy is just groovy, our founders made it perfectly clear that the one thing they hoped to avoid above all else, the number one most important goal was to provide protection against "The tyranny of the majority" AKA...Democracy.

    What we actually have is much more accurately defined as a "constitutional republic" system of government.

    All those seemingly stupid and cumbersome "flaws" that screw up our "Democracy" are actually important features--not flaws.

    The electoral college for example is a very much NON-democratic method of choosing our President. And a very much INTENTIONALLY non-democratic one at that. The president was never intended to be the guy that the majority of the people want. The President is the guy that the majority of the individual STATES wants. Each state decides that by awarding its vote to the the guy that the majority of the state voters want.

    Originally the members of the senate half of our congress were appointed by the legislature of each state while the house members were chosen by popular vote--the one nod to true democracy. That was ruined by the 17th amendment which established direct election of senators, completely destroying our best protection against majority/mob rule.

    So what we have (sorry HAD) is a separation of power with everyone's interests being covered--the senate to represent state's interests, the house of representatives for the mob and the president representing the states interests but chosen by state mobs. And then the stupid supreme court thingy to eff it ALL up.

    Hope I've been helpful.

    I oppose the estate tax. I'm fully aware it doesn't affect me personally and I have no illusions that it ever will. I clearly understand that it would be in my best interest to support it. Yet I oppose it, and you have no idea why. I oppose it because despite any benefit to's WRONG! I oppose the government allowing me to rob from people who have more money than me for the same reason. Sure, it's in my interest to support the governments position of legal robbery, but it's wrong...period.

    Your focus on voting strictly according to self interest is exactly why Democracy is an inherently evil system that the founding fathers tried desperately to save us from.

    SCREW you and your democracy.


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