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My problem with democratic hubris

July 28, 2009

Not long ago I used to be a firm believer in democracy, of course. But the more I look around and the more I find myself refining my previous thoughts. The first doubts started with the Bush doctrine of spreading democracy for the sake of democracy, and the various claims that democracies are more peaceful. Now, clearly, dictatorships are not any better and in fact very often they are much worse. But, political scientists who study these things have shown that the distinctions are not so stark. The underlying mechanisms are quite similar: there’s a winning coalition that detains all the power and which tries more or less to reap consensus to stay in power. The more radical conclusion, in effect, is that we get the politicians that we deserve. In other words, the majority, no not even that, the median opinion (which is an abstract aggregate concept, not any real person) decides what to do for the rest of us. Ok, so what’s the problem with that? The problem is in the way the median opinion is aggregated. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to aggregate and sum our individual wisdom. More often, voting and opinion polling ends up collecting our most irrational and narcissistic thoughts. Simply because there’s no incentive to not do so. In fact, politics acts as some kind of oceanic group therapy. Seeing our beliefs confirmed in victory can be sublime. On the other hand continuously switching allegiances from topic to topic is hard to do if not deranged. The last cycle of elections gave me two instances that clearly confirmed this for me. First the Prop 8 vote in California: here was a delicate process of individuals signing private contracts (a gay marriage agreement) and succeeding in getting their agreements notified by judges, and swoop, with one strike o the ballot box “the majority” decides that they should all be voided! In short, a lot of people were asked to voice an opinion in matters that don’t concern them in the least. This is not democracy, it’s opiniocracy. The second event happened here in the city of Manhattan, KS. A league of concerned citizens put on the ballot a proposition for a total smoking ban in the local bar district. The measure is absurd in its draconian attitude: no smoking on the premises, nor 30 feet from the entrance of such premises, nor in any of the parking-lots, etc…Now the winning majority probably never stepped foot in Aggieville, and doesn’t plan to do so in the future, and never mind the fact that there is a wide range of options with bars that do not allow smoking, bars that do, bars with open air patios etc…But heh we live in the same district so we are bound by an invisible bond and the “Baptists” have to numbers, so I guess they are the moral winners, right?

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