Democracy Is A Nigerian Scam
For those who may be unaware of the term Nigerian Scam, it works like this: you fire up your computer one morning and you check your email. Sitting in your InBox is an email from a Nigerian prince who wants to transfer a large sum of money out of Nigeria to a bank in your country. Unfortunately, due to various crazy regulations in Nigeria, he needs someone to help him get it done. If you help him, he’ll pay you a significant helper’s fee. All you need to do is send him a few thousand dollars/pounds/euros/swiss francs to establish the connection between your bank account and his, and he’ll wire you several million within forty-eight hours, of which you’ll get to keep a certain percentage as a “thank you” for helping him in this important matter.
So much, so obvious. And although this scam began in Nigeria it’s since spread all over the globe. You can get a similar invitation on social media or pretty much anywhere online and from anyone anywhere in the world.
But what has this got to do with representative democracy?
To see the connection, we need to look a little deeper into how the scam works. Many people imagine the Nigerian Scam must be very sophisticated. Surely the scammer will do their very best to create an illusion of verisimilitude so as to lure in the mark? In fact, the precise opposite is true. The Nigerian Scam is usually an extremely crude and obvious ploy that would deceive only a very simple-minded person.
To understand why the scam is the exact opposite of sophisticated we must place ourselves in the position of the scammer. Although the initial email can be sent to hundreds of thousands of addresses bought on the dark web for a few fractions of a cent per contact, the real cost to the scammer is the time necessary to cultivate the mark and close the deal. All except the most ardent flag-waving Trump supporters and Brexit voters will need more than one poorly-spelled email to induce them to wire several thousand dollars to someone they’ve never heard of before.
The scammer must therefore reduce as much as possible the potential for wasted effort as they reel in the fish. A well-written plausible email could draw in people of modest intelligence who would be likely at some point in the proceedings to realize they’re being taken for a ride. At that point they’ll cease to cooperate with the scammer and thus the scammer will have wasted precious time and effort.
Rather than luring two thousand potential marks and losing one thousand nine hundred and fifty over the course of a couple of weeks, the scammer prefers to lure sixty or seventy marks among whom the vast majority will end up wiring the money. This is the most efficient use of the scammer’s time and energy. The scammer therefore wants to filter out people whose cognitive abilities are sufficient to realize at some stage that they’re being scammed, and the best way to do this filtering is by sending out emails of such poor quality that only the dimmest saps out there will fail to spot the con.
By definition, anyone who replies to the initial email is almost certainly going to wire the money because they’re so dull-witted that they’ll never realize they’re just a patsy.
And now we see the connection between the Nigerian Scam and representative democracy.
Any politician wishing to be elected has a limited amount of time, money, and energy to put into garnering votes. It would be absurd to attempt to chase the votes of intelligent well-informed people. For a start, there are so few of them so their votes don’t count. Next, intelligent well-informed people would take an inordinate amount of convincing, and would likely change their minds as more adequate information becomes available. Obviously therefore the successful strategy is to ignore entirely the tiny number of intelligent and well-informed people and target the great mass of ordinary people who know very little and understand even less. This is, after all, what democracy is all about.
And what better way to capture such folk than to appeal to their emotions? Appealing to their limited intellects would be an amusing folly that would waste precious time and money, whereas it’s easy to rouse the mob by means of fear-mongering, scapegoating, and stirring up gloriously patriotic hatred.
So the successful politician filters out unsuitable voters by crafting simplistic and rather ugly lies that anyone with an IQ larger than their hat size will see through in an instant. By definition, those who gleefully chant the moronic and venal soundbites the candidate feeds them will never work out they’re being taken for a ride and used as mere patsies. They are thus the perfect voters and will continue to vote for the candidate regardless of what happens in reality, for reality is a place such people never actually visit because it’s too complicated for them to grasp.
This is why the tsunami of populism that’s swept the globe since 2015 has been so successful in undermining the most basic values of civilization. The politicians who, intentionally or otherwise, have ridden the wave of populism to power have benefited from running a Nigerian Scam on the great mass of people who are actually eager to be taken for a ride. From the infantile blusterings of the orange moron Trump to the xenophobic mindlessness of Brexiteers, the Nigerian Scam has been an enormous success. Politicians the world over have watched in admiration and copied assiduously the core techniques — and have garnered inevitable success therefrom.
And just as the Nigerian scammer cons people out of their own funds, so too do our politicians bribe citizens with their own money. “Vote for me and I’ll create more jobs!” “Vote for me and I’ll provide more free ice-cream!” But who, in the end, will pay the taxes necessary to pay for these promises (if indeed they are ever even fractionally fulfilled)? The voters themselves!
Scammers prey on people’s desire to believe there’s an easy route to getting free ice-cream forever. Scammers prey on people’s endless gullibility and relish the ignorance that makes such credulousness possible. In the old days it was priests who held the monopoly on such scams, promising to wire the simple-minded to an eternal ice-cream parlor in the sky in return for regular payments to the Church here on Earth. Today it is the political class who hold a near-monopoly on the Nigerian Scam, promising the simple-minded an eternal ice-cream parlor here on Earth in return for regular votes at the ballot-box.
One could, at least in theory, observe that it’s not really very helpful to rely on a political system that is little more than one long tiresome scam. But if we were insensitive enough to make that observation, well, that wouldn’t be democratic, would it? And we all know that democracy is the best scam that’s ever been invented in the history of inventing things.
And so we carry on as we are, happily wiring our votes to an endless succession of ever-more-blatant scammers, always believing that this time, surely this time, we really will get all the free ice-cream we’ve been promised.