The Wisdom of the People

Jane Galt asks:

If your conception of the public good is served by, for example, hiding the economic cost of your program from the majority of American voters by making it a (lousy, inefficient) tax credit, instead of paying for it out of tax revenue, then in what way is your idea of the public good compatible with a democratic vision?

Jane asks how people who claim to honestly believe in democracy — i.e., the fundamental wisdom of the people — can reconcile tricking people into voting for programs by the use of adroit marketing. If someone really trusts the people why doesn’t he just lay it all out on the line? She thinks the fact that someone doesn’t feel comfortable telling people the raw truth indicates he doesn’t have a strong commitment to democracy.

I think there is a flip side to this observation. I think that if the people won’t vote for an idea when they really understand it, that probably means the idea isn’t a very good one.

Democracy is based on the idea that in some sense we are smarter collectively than individually. By creating a system that seeks everyone’s opinion, the system has a greater store of information to draw on than a system that depends on the knowledge of some small elite. History largely confirms this. Democracies outperform non-democracies consistently in all areas.

Voting systems function very much like stock markets. Individual voters don’t examine in detail all the tens of thousands of issues that the government must deal with in any given year, just like individual investors don’t know the details of every company on the exchange listing. Instead, individual voters have detailed knowledge of this or that area and merely a general gut feel for all the rest. Elections synthesize all the specialist knowledge together, producing a better overall assessment of how things are going than any individual is capable of doing. (Think of it as comparable to the parable of the five blind men and the elephant. Only by pooling the observations of all five people could they hope to get a coherent picture.)

Political ideas arise first within individual minorities of the polity, and they reflect the inherently limited perspective of that minority. We can determine if the idea works for most people only by getting them all to examine the idea and vote on it. If the majority thinks the idea won’t work for them, chances are it probably won’t.

We all have a seemingly instinctive need to conceive of ourselves as members of an elite group. When we see the majority choosing ideas other than our own, we tend to rationalize that they do so out of stupidity instead of asking if maybe our idea isn’t so hot in the first place.

This is not to say that democracies always make the optimal decision. Clearly they don’t. In any given instance at any given time it is usually impossible to tell if the minority or the majority has the best idea. However, when a minority finds itself consistently unable to sell its ideas without resorting to trickery, that fact should indicate to the minority that its ideas won’t work for most people.

In the end, the people are right more often than they are wrong.

9 thoughts on “The Wisdom of the People”

  1. “This is not so say that democracies always make the optimum decision. Clearly they don’t.”

    They don’t have to. Democracies have one enormous advantage over other systems, and it is the ability to recognize and correct mistakes.

  2. This would seem to apply quite nicely to Helen’s post. Is it that the EU bureacrats don’t believe in democracy or that their ideas aren’t very good?

    On the other hand, a remarkable number of our founding fathers welcomed discussion (Adams’ letter to his wife makes that argument but it underlies about everything that these guys wrote & thought). Discussion would have gotten us to a defendable, middle ground on abortion, for one thing. It’s the lack of discussion that has driven the public crazy about things like Kelo.

  3. I thought democracy was based on the theory that, all things being equal, it’s better that the minority be oppressed by the majority, than the other way around, because you end up with fewer people oppressed.

    But maybe I’m just cynical about democracy, I’ve long thought that our REAL contribution to the world, and the secret of our success, was limited government, not democracy. But that’s an idea that’s fallen out of fashion..

  4. Brett, I have a related reservation. The term “democracy” is thrown out pretty freely….one imagines that the average bear knows that the writer probably means “government that has aspects of a democracy” or “represntative form of government”.

    Still, it seems imprecise and grates on my ear. Does it bother anyone else?

    I imagine living in a democracy would be a nightmare.

    BTW, living in an actual democracy would be a nightmare.

  5. Brett Bellmore,Tyouth;

    There are two separate questions about government: (1) The scope of government powers and (2) how decision get made within that scope. Democracy only applies to question 2.

  6. Brett, you’re confusing liberty with democracy. A democracy can be a “tyranny of the majority.” “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.” Liberty means the sheep is safe from the wolves, foreign or domestic. It assumes a sheepdog. Or the sheep have concealed carry.

  7. Come to think of it, if losing an election meant that my family was in danger, I would not waste my time voting when it could be better spent laying in ammunition and food. That, not elections, is what we need to impart to the Iraqis.

  8. A marketing ploy. Sounds so capitalist.

    Sort of like manufactures [ie Dell, Gateway] offering rebates on products sold directly from their company website. Now why doesn’t the manufacturer just discount the price of the product. Why require the extra step of having to file for a rebate/refund?

    When you live and breath in a capitalistic culture, I suspect the various aspects have play outside specific applications.

  9. Don,

    A marketing ploy. Sounds so capitalist

    Modern politics uses all the tools of modern marketing. They use polls for market research, focus groups, consultants etc. Arguable politics is one of those industries, like say fashion. where marketing is the product. This is especially true when you’re trying to convince people to support a new, untried idea.

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