Not so long ago, everyone on Earth would agree that Kings and Queens and Emperors Sultans and Tzars were the only legitimate form of governance. For well over six thousand years all of humanity lived under such systems both small and, increasingly, large, with only the briefest of interludes. Those individuals at the very top of the social apex were believed to be appointed by god, acting through the process of primogenitor or force of arms, to oversee their subjects in the same way a strict parent oversees small children. The fact that all too often these Kings, Queens, Emperors, Sultans and Tzars were infantile incompetents notable only for an inflated sense of self-entitlement was merely a sign of how mysterious indeed are the ways of invisible magic pixies.
Today we believe in a different myth: democracy. Everyone and their pet hamster now believes that to be democratic is to be modern and fair. That’s why during the Cold War, East Germany styled itself a democracy and why today’s North Korea proclaims the same thing. Democracy is shiny and the best of all possible worlds. It’s why African despots insist on holding rigged elections so they can afterward proceed to loot their countries in an entirely democratic way. The USA is even willing on a regular basis to undertake illegal invasions of far-away countries and kill hundreds of thousands of people in order to show them the marvelous benefits of the democratic system.
The fact that democracy reliably delivers highly dysfunctional outcomes is as resolutely ignored as the fact Kings and Emperors reliably delivered highly dysfunctional outcomes. We humans are simple animals and we believe whatever we’re told, never questioning the fundamental principles and never noticing how our beliefs rarely if ever correspond to reality.
Today, if someone claims that something is democratic, everyone jumps up and down excitedly and believes it therefore must be entirely legitimate and the right thing to do. Just like they used to jump up and down excitedly when a Queen or a Sultan proclaimed something, because that would also self-evidently be legitimate and the right thing to do.
The bedrock of democracy is the belief that government must respond to something called “the will of the people.” Nobody knows how to define what we mean by “will of the people” so we pretend it means a majority of voters electing one or other political Party whose policies thereafter must consequently be democratic because they reflect the supposed will of the majority. Underlying the belief that the will of the majority bestows legitimacy is the belief that individual people are mentally competent enough to understand complex reality and know that what they think they want will produce desirable outcomes, rather than simply voting for one Party out of habit or sheer ignorance or because they like the smile of a particular candidate or because they hate women or want to see dark-skinned people thrown into cages.
This wonderful belief in the ability of voters to vote coherently is akin to that formerly held by economists regarding “rational self-interest” in human actors. Alas, every single study that has been performed in the last hundred years regarding the human ability to think and act with anything approaching coherence and long-term self-interest has shown that we are almost entirely without the ability to reason. Nor have we any capacity to understand the consequences of our actions. People regularly do things that result in terrible self-harm, and then keep on doing them. People make atrociously poor decisions and then congratulate themselves on their perspicacity, blaming the resultant bad outcomes on other people or on factors beyond their control.
Let’s take the simplest possible example: when we look around us we see that nearly everyone today is fat and unhealthy. This is almost entirely the result of very poor lifestyle choices en mass. If people are incapable of making adequate decisions regarding factors as simple as eating and exercising, why are we supposed to believe these same people are capable of performing the self-education necessary to begin to grasp complex realities such as the economic inter-dependencies of nations? Or have any comprehension of the long gap between improvements in female education and access to reliable contraception and resultant improvements in economic performance? Or in fact have any comprehension of anything of importance at all? And then act on this understanding in a coherent and rational way?
Even the most rudimentary understanding of any matter of significance is largely absent from the mind of nearly every citizen. The average person knows nothing of importance but can readily name the characters of ten different popular television shows. This is not exactly the basis required for decision-making on matters of international importance. Even primary-school knowledge is absent from the heads of most people. In twenty-seven years living and working in the USA, on literally hundreds of different occasions and in many different locations from the affluent San Francisco Bay Area to the backwoods of Tennessee, I’d ask people to sketch a map of the world. Not a single American was ever able to produce even a vague resemblance. Most could sort-of draw North America; South America was a kind of squiggly tail. A round blob, sometimes to the left of North America and sometimes to the right, was “Europe.” Few knew that the massive continent of Africa lay to the south of Europe and none had the slightest inkling of anything Asian. Some thought Australia was slightly to the east of New York. None of the hundreds of people I asked to sketch a map of the world considered it to be of significance that they were utterly incapable of doing so.
If people are largely unable to preventing themselves from cramming buckets of Kentucky Fried Cancer down their throats every day and are totally clueless about the world in which they live, how can they prevent themselves from being duped by glib-talking demagogues who feed them simple-minded lies and promise them free ice-cream forever?
The concept of “wisdom of the people” is as firmly grounded as the concept of Papal infallibility. It has no more relevance to reality than a belief in the divine right of kings.
If the fundamental premise of democracy is fallacious it is not surprising that the outcomes are reliably of very poor-quality. When we look back through history, a lazy mind sees only a seemingly inevitable series of apparently unconnected events. This lack of comprehension is what permits belief in the wonders of democracy to persist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. People are eager to invent all manner of explanations that magically exculpate democracy from blame, just as they invented all manner of explanations that magically exculpated incompetent rulers from blame, and just as Catholics invent all manner of explanations that magically exculpate the Pope of the day from blame. And of course in Russia, peasants invent all manner of explanations that exculpate Putin from blame for the disastrous state of the nation.
In short, we are excellent at finding ways to avoid looking at reality but extremely poor at being able to discern our own shortcomings even when they have catastrophic consequences on the largest possible scale.
Compared to these fundamental cognitive limitations, the other enormous flaws inherent in representative democracy seem trivial by comparison. The fact we require no demonstration of competence whatsoever in our candidates, and no demonstration of competence whatsoever from our voters, follows automatically from our unthinking belief in the supposed merits of the democratic system.
After all, if we demanded demonstration of competence before granting privileges, that would be dreadful. Just imagine how undemocratic it would be if we were to start insisting that people pass a driving test before being permitted to drive their vehicles unsupervised on public roads! Just imagine how awful it would be if we insisted that surgeons actually have to become trained before they start slicing people open! So undemocratic! So elitist! And how totally unfair if we can’t simply vote for whoever we want to be pilot of the aircraft the next time we board a passenger jet.
It’s clear from the three simple examples above that every aspect of society can benefit from a thoroughly democratic approach.
Of course, sarcasm aside, it’s easy to argue that comparing driving licenses to voting is unfair. After all, incompetent drivers could only kill a handful of people before they too die in a self-induced accident. Street-corner surgeons could only kill a few hundred patients. And democratically elected experience-free pilots could only kill as many people as were in the aircraft they so brilliantly flew into the ground.
But incompetent mendacious politicians elected by ignorant foolish voters can harm tens of millions.
So it’s obviously far more important that we have adequate systems of governance than we have adequate systems of road safety. Yet today we have things precisely the other way around.
The complete failure of representative democracy is clearly seen in our inability to tackle climate change, our inability to stop ourselves denuding the oceans, our inability to deal with astonishing disparities in wealth, and in many other areas besides. But what do we see today? People running to hide under the bed of nostalgic patriotism. A tsunami of mindless populism where great masses of ignorant foolish people vote for stupidities like Brexit, Trump, PiS, AfD, Orban, Putin, Modi, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Le Pen, and so many others. A collapse of political norms in favor of the pursuit of power at any price.
More than two and a half thousand years ago, Plato noted that democracy always ends in tyranny because there is always a sufficiently large number of citizens who are readily swayed by the idle lies and empty promises of a glib-tongued demagogue.
It’s simply not good enough to keep chanting “democracy is better than kings and queens.” That’s like chanting “the Wright brothers’ Flyer is better than strapping wings to our arms.” It’s not clever to compare one dysfunctional system to another and argue that we should be pleased because one is fractionally less dysfunctional than the other. If we took this attitude in everyday life we’d still be living in caves.
Today we have automobiles incomparably more luxurious and safer than anything on the roads a mere forty years ago. We have jet aircraft that can transport people safely over thousands of kilometers in relative comfort and without incident, so that the worst complaint is about the quality of the in-flight meal. We have digital toys that can connect anyone on the planet with anyone else, instantaneously. None of these things would have been possible if yesterday’s proto-engineers had sat back and said, “well, at least flint is better at making sparks than granite.”
The recent defeat of Donald Trump has resulted in excitable commentators and ordinary citizens alike jumping up and down squealing loudly about “the triumph of democracy.” Which is precisely the same as being excited by the fact that after a massive airplane crash caused by people voting for an incompetent pilot, the fire brigade and ambulance services then show up on the scene to gather up the corpses strewn amid the wreckage. And it totally ignores, as US citizens generally do, the picture seen in the rest of the world. Brexit will destroy the UK, in Europe right-wing neo-fascist groups continue to gain adherents, in India the repellent Modi has set a course for sectarian bloodshed on a scale that will rival or outdo the slaughter seen during Partition, and nearly everywhere else we see democratically-elected leaders consolidating power and becoming dictators.
Set against this, imagining that the temporary reprieve offered by a Biden administration that will in fact accomplish nothing of significance represents a vindication of representative democracy is at best an absurd delusion and at worst a catastrophically misguided willful misreading of reality. It is no different from the empty-headed Trumpies squealing about a “stolen” election.
It may be impossible for us, with our limited ape-brains, ever to come to terms with the reality of what we are and the hardwired limitations within which we must operate. It may be impossible for us to shed our delusions and attempt a more adequate engagement with reality. It may be infeasible for us to accept the fact that the vast majority of people will always be incompetent to offer an opinion on matters of importance.
In which case, as our technological marvels continue to amplify our follies, we will not have many more years in which to enjoy the fruits of our error.