America’s favorite reality television program, the presidential election, aired its latest episode this week. As I have argued previously, presidential debates and television debates in particular degrade public discourse by their very nature, regardless of who the candidates are. Nonetheless, it is hard to ignore the two men seeking to be chief executive. For the conspiratorial, the candidates represent the product of the powerful nefarious forces that they see behind all major political events. But the reality is much more disturbing–the candidates reflect the fundamental problems of democracy.
I don’t believe democracy should be ended tomorrow, but I do believe we should have a healthy fear of it. I want as few areas of human life handed over to the democratic mob as possible. I think that technocrats who could plan society don’t exist, but even if they did the democratic process would never discover them for at least 6 reasons:
1. Democracy’s basic premise is false
“It remains impossible to separate the democratic idea from the theory that there is a mystical merit, an esoteric and ineradicable rectitude, in the man at the bottom of the scale,” wrote H.L. Mencken mockingly in Notes on Democracy. “What baffles the statesmen is to be solved by the people, instantly and by a sort of seraphic intuition.” This notion is so utterly without merit, so baseless and absurd as to need little rebuttal. Yet no politician could survive five minutes under democracy without appealing to its validity. “My platform expresses the Will of The People,” each claims.
Political platforms aren’t created in a vacuum—they reflect the underlying ignorance of The People. In America, political “action” is more common than political knowledge. There’s no need to list extensive polling information here. Voter ignorance is a banality and a cliché, not a controversy. The problem is much more basic than just philosophic and economic illiteracy. More Americans can name the three stooges than the three branches of government. When “The People” enter the voting booth in two weeks, you can be sure that they will not know what they are doing with or without a third debate.
2. In democracy, the most ignorant voters determine elections.
This third presidential debate was devoted to The Undecided Voter, according to numerous media reports. It represents the fact that some Americans apparently still don’t know enough about the two top contenders for self-appointed “Leader of the Free World.” These voters will decide the election, and they are among the least informed in the nation. Polling data on undecided voters analyzed by The New York Times revealed that “they are rather less knowledgeable about politics and much more likely to say they follow news and public affairs ‘only now and then’ or ‘hardly at all.’” Moreover, nearly sixty percent thought either Democrats controlled the House of Representatives or didn’t know.
Obama has been president for four years, and Romney has been running for the office since 2007. These voters are not seeking more information—they generally have no idea what the “information” they need would even be. Informed people don’t need a third debate. We won’t be waiting breathlessly to hear what “zinger” Barack will sling next, or what Mitt’s latest gaffe will be to make our decisions, nor will we be trying to decipher who looks “more presidential” on TV. America’s political holdouts apparently will.
The mere fact that Romney’s poll numbers shot up after the first debate indicates that these image contests really do matter to undecided voters. Both candidates know this, so their debate antics will target this group. In appeals to the ill-informed or misinformed, arguments connect only tangentially, if at all, to the truth. Candidates know they can say anything they want since these two groups will never seek outside information. This fact alone should terrify. America’s politics has produced a system where the five percent least informed Americans will break a political tie between already ignorant people.
3. Voters are rationally ignorant.
Not only are voters ignorant, but they lack good reasons to become informed. No single voter will ever decide an election, so apart from simple curiosity, few have any incentive to educate themselves. Good policies created by politicians elected by informed voters are what economists call a “public good.” Like the mythical lighthouse of Econ101 fame, we all benefit from an educated electorate, but since each individual vote will not create good policies or even determine an election, no voter bothers to learn much about the candidates or issues. Democracy grants power to the ill-informed without giving them incentives to become well-informed.
4. Voters are passionately ignorant.
Worse than being ignorant, America’s political mob doesn’t realize its own condition. It still holds political beliefs with all the conviction of a Sunday morning preacher. Voting provides Americans with a low-cost way of expressing their biases, fears, and hopes. People use voting to demonstrate their altruism or their commitment to a cause, and like sports, it provides a cheap psychological payout for fans of the Republican and Democratic teams. You can be part of the victory, even if you just watch the celebration on television.
As economist Bryan Caplan explains in The Myth of the Rational Voter, voters’ irrational beliefs are not randomly-selected, but express underlying human biases—xenophobia, patternicity, pessimism, and equating prosperity with employment. I would add the “do something” bias to that. As H.L. Mencken once wrote, in democracy, “to lack a remedy is to lack the very license to discuss disease.” Voters demand solutions that may not exist to problems that also may not exist. Democracy is a breeding ground for passionate “Do Something” voters. Ignorance not only votes—it votes with signs that demand action NOW, and always in capital letters.
5. Democracy rewards ignorance.
Politicians who fail to stroke the democratic mob’s biases and play to their irrational fears lose. If your campaign requires educating the ignorant, teaching the illiterate to read, and leading babies to their first independent intellectual step, politics will naturally select against you. In real life, people receive feedback from reality when they make financial or social mistakes. In politics, everything is about concealing that reality from the voter. Tell them that social benefits can increase while cutting taxes. Elections reward only those who either share the masses’ ignorance or those who will pretend they do.
6. Democracy creates a tragedy of the commons.
Voters face what economists call a “tragedy of the commons,” a situation where shared or “common” resources like fisheries are depleted because each fisherman knows that if he does not take what he can now, another fisherman will later. Each voter has an incentive to treat the public treasury like a fisherman treats the common fishery: abusively. Elderly voters steal from the young through Social Security. The young steals from the elderly on fixed incomes with low interest rates driven by inflation. The poor rob the rich, and the rich rob the poor. The never-ending cycle of “reciprocal plunder,” to use Frederic Bastiat’s phrase, is as inevitable as fish depletion in a commons.
Knowledge of even one of these facts should terrify those who seek to expand the role of the state into ever greater areas of economic and social life. Democracy might be the least dangerous option for political action, but that only means that we should seek alternatives to political action whenever possible. We should remove as much of human life from the whims of the mob as we can. The ultimate fulfillment of the democratic ideal of self-ownership and self-rule is not to be found in democracy, but in the market. Only in the market can people rule themselves, but not others.
Related: How Debates Make Us Dumber