Is democracy doomed?

A friend clipped this New Yorker article for me entitled “The Unpolitical Animal”, in which the columnist reviews the state of political science with regard to how voters making decisions. In particular, he discusses the article “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics” by Philip Converse, which found that most people don’t have a coherent political belief system. They don’t have a sense of what issues mean, how they go together, and the consequences of certain decisions on other aspects of government.

When pollsters ask people for their opinion about an issue, people generally feel obliged to have one. Their answer is duly recorded, and it becomes a datum in a report on “public opinion.” But, after analyzing the results of surveys conducted over time, in which people tended to give different and randomly inconsistent answers to the same questions, Converse concluded that “very substantial portions of the public” hold opinions that are essentially meaningless – off-the-top-of-the-head responses to questions they have never thought about, derived from no underlying set of principles. These people might as well base their political choices on the weather. And, in fact, many of them do.

There’s a lot of good but scary stuff in the article. Well worth reading.

It’s interesting because it demonstrates how ill-informed any of us are. And it makes me wonder about the viability of democracy. I’ve ranted about this before:

I guess the whole point of democracy is that the millions of people who are going to be affected make the decision. But does this really make sense for public policy decisions? If I were ill, I wouldn’t want a million people to decide what’s wrong with me, I’d want one qualified doctor. If my car’s broken, I could probably figure out what’s wrong with it by asking hundreds of people, but it’d be a lot faster to ask somebody who really knows cars. If society’s broken, should this method change?

This is more a criticism of direct democracy, admittedly. I know I don’t have the time to become familiar with the issues and tradeoffs associated with the decisions necessary to run a city, state or government. I can’t imagine that most people do. So why should the decision-making power lie in the hands of people who aren’t well-informed, and as the New Yorker article points out, probably don’t care?

The United States Constitution set up a representative democracy for a reason. Okay, that reason was probably elitism and thinking that most people can’t handle making decisions for themselves. But at the heart of it, I like the idea. I don’t have the time to do all the analysis; therefore, I’ll appoint somebody who will go do it for me. We do this in all aspects of our life, as the article points out:

An analogy (though one that Popkin is careful to dissociate himself from) would be to buying an expensive item like a house or a stereo system. A tiny fraction of consumers has the knowledge to discriminate among the entire range of available stereo components, and to make an informed choice based on assessments of cost and performance. Most of us rely on the advice of two or three friends who have recently made serious stereo-system purchases, possibly some online screen shopping, and the pitch of the salesman at J&R Music World.

It makes sense in theory. Unfortunately, in practice, by having a single representative, it gives special interests one place upon which to focus their persuasion. And with billions of dollars at stake, those special interests have a large incentive to distort public policy (see my review of Mancur Olson’s Power and Prosperity). Unfortunately, direct democracy is subject to the same pressures. And since mass media techniques continue to evolve in efficacy, the uninformed and uninterested electorate at large may actually be more vulnerable to such pressures than an individual representative who has an electorate to whom they have to answer.

It’s a hard question. Obviously, I don’t have any answers. Most people want to have control of their lives, and that’s a strong incentive for direct democracy. But most people don’t want to have the responsibility of doing the research to make informed decisions with that control, and I think that’s a problem. There’s some merit to considering changing voting requirements from our current “any non-felon with a pulse over the age of 18”. A lot of people think there should be intelligence requirements, or civics knowledge quizzes, or something like that. My theory is similar to that of Heinlein’s in Starship Troopers (book, not movie), where he proposed that only people who served time in the government earned the right to vote. My less stringent version is that people should have to participate in local government to earn the right to vote. A few hours spent attending city council meetings each month would demonstrate the tradeoffs necessary for government to happen. You can’t have everything, even if you vote for it. And the thing about time is that we all have the same amount, 168 hours in every week. It’s non-discriminatory in that sense. And by demonstrating the responsibility to go to such meetings, it weeds out people that want to vote just for the sake of voting. I’m sure there are flaws with such a method. But it would be interesting, wouldn’t it?