Home > Human Limits, Primacy of Society, Utopia > Do democracies work by being dysfunctional? Or are they unworkable?

Do democracies work by being dysfunctional? Or are they unworkable?

Leon Watson at the Daily Mail has a though-provoking article about the dysfunctionality of democracies.  It is called “Is this the reason democracy can’t work? Study find humans are too dumb to pick the right person to lead us.”

I find this to be an interesting question, and one that goes far beyond the implications of which useless politician we will pick to be our president this November. In fact, I think it goes straight to the foundations of democracy. We need to ask ourselves questions like, what are the things we universally (not individually) desire from our democracy? And, is anyone at all fit to make decisions for the rest of us?

Ultimately, I think Mr. Watson has an unstated premise here: that if we were in fact able to choose the “right” person to lead us, our democracies would function better, and people would be happier with them.

That is a premise I reject. Although I may not go so far as to say that the inevitable mediocrity of our politicians is a feature, rather than a bug, of our democratic processes, I will absolutely say that I would prefer as a leader a mediocre man who is aware of his limits than the smartest man in the history of the world who is unaware of his.

Is that too much to ask? Perhaps. Being aware of the extent of one’s limits is beneficial, but ultimately it is too nebulous a concept to lead to solid conclusions as a matter of policy. And so, as a tradeoff, I would prefer a government set up to reduce the pernicious impact of the hubristic technocrat, at the expense of possibly limiting the beneficial impact of the hypothetical benevolent dictator.

In other words, I respect what the U.S. Constitution set out to do, and I find discussions of who is the “best” person to lead a democracy to be generally moot.

Of course, that does not mean that choosing a Ron Paul over a Barack Obama would not lead to empirically provable better results, and I don’t accept the premise that choosing the person to be the executive of the polity is unimportant. However, those are questions about the margin, and they ought to be distinguished from questions about the “best.”

Again, however, this is exactly the sort of discussion that is far more fundamentally important to our democracy than is the discussion over who is to lead us for the next four years. So feel free to drop me a note if you have something to add. I welcome your comments.

Are people too stupid to choose their leader, or is our stupidity just another (possibly beneficial) limiting factor on the government? What do you want from your democracy? Do you think there ever has been, or ever will be, a single person to whom control of the state could be surrendered?

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  1. Epicurious
    March 9, 2012 at 11:28 AM

    In the vein of ayn rands comment abour inheritance, I submit:
    The only man fit to lead is the one who truly does not seek it out. I have two thought exercises that could have made for good short stories if I had more time.

    1. What if every citizen was forced to run fir office once in his or her lifetime. There would be lots of “elections” with thousands of people running just to fulfill the obligation, but there would also be so many more people pushed into service that maybe sheer numbers would filter out some idiots. I dont know, but it would be interesting. Or maybe something like citizenship for those who run once like in the starship troopers novel.

    2. This idea is not new, but still interesting. No one is allowed to run, promote, or offer themselves up as a candidate. All voting done from a blank sheet of paper. If you cant spell a persons name, too bad.

    These both offend my libertarian principles, but my engineering brain is interested in testing their outcome. What do you think?

  2. March 13, 2012 at 1:36 PM

    I think both have things to recommend them and also drawbacks. The biggest problem I see with #1, which would also be a problem with #2, would be how to control for the fact that more people know Kim Kardashian than, say, Joe Biden.

    Of course, these two would make politicians of roughly equal competence, but that’s beside the point. If the question is whether we can filter the idiots, I’m not sure that this will do a better job than the current system. On the other hand, if the question is whether we can filter the power hungry, then we have a discussion.

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