Sunday, June 23, 2013

Component Failure.

When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand.

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.
H.L. Mencken.

As I've agrued before in some of my previous posts, H. L. Mencken is a political commentator that is easily enjoyed but rarely taken seriously. Part of Mencken's problems is that he writes so well that his writing becomes more of interest than the message he is trying to get across. Mencken was contemptuous of democracy famously describing it as a system of jackals leading jackassess.  At the heart of Mencken's contention was the notion that the average man simply does not have the intellectual capacity to participate fully in democracy. Mencken was also perceptive to note that the reason why this is so stems mainly from the fact that men tend to make emotional decisions rather than rational ones.

This isn't an idle charge. One of the prerequisites for successful action is the both an an accurate degree of situational awareness and the ability to generate an appropriate response. In order for democratic systems to work democratic theory, likewise requires that the voting public be fully informed and able to act appropriately in order for democracy to function appropriately and adapt to the challenges that threaten its survival. Voters, who act out of ignorance, will support policy responses which don't correspond to the necessities of reality. The net result, then, is that democratic systems gradually become divorced from situational realities and collapse eventually ensures. If Mencken is right,  the democracy is doomed.

Modern America--and the rest of the West--are based on the idea that broadly representational democracy is the best system of government. The one that most ensures an individual's rights and opinions and protects its citizens from abuse.  Indeed, much American foreign intervention is directed towards spreading this ideal; an ideal which I once believed in but do not now.

The position that I have taken isn't based upon some prior belief of a "natural order" or some sense of elitism, rather, it's based upon a notion akin to John Boyd's OODA loop: It's a control theory problem.
If democratic man is unable to weigh evidence rationally and deliberate dispassionately his situational awareness will become lessened and his actions thus become increasingly ineffective.

Unfortunately, the bulk of cognitive neuroscience points in this direction. In this rather depressing survey paper, Motivated Reasoning in Political Information Processing: The Death Knell ofDeliberative Democracy? by Mason Richie, convincing evidence is laid out that the average voter is unable to engage in dispassionate deliberation. Motivated Cognition, a.k.a the rationalisation hamster, ensures that information which is emotionally unpleasant is kept at bay.  Both sides of politics do this, but there appears to be some evidence that the Lefties have a stronger hamster.

Note, that this critique of democracy is not based upon a superior alternative, rather, the fundamental unit of the democratic system, the individual, has been shown to be unable to perform as expected scientifically.  Most people prefer their own version of reality to the truth, and in fact have highly developed defensive mechanisms to prevent their fantasy world from being disrupted.

The reason why all governments in the West are progressively becoming dysfunctional is because of the mental capacities of the average voter. Corrective action which is necessary to stabilise society is politically unpalatable and thus the system errors accumulate till it all comes tumbling down.




17 comments:

kurt9 said...

What you and Mencken say about democracy is probably true. However, is there really any alternative?

If people are by nature good, then any system ought to work. But if people are by nature either incompetent or bad, then there is no point in placing one person or group of persons in charge of all others.

Concentration of power in any form of monopoly entity represents a form of systemic risk. The only way to reduce this risk is with as much decentralization of power as possible, which means strictly limited government.

mdavid said...

I agree with this post, but it seems unnecessarily complex.

John Adams, a founder of the world's longest lasting democracy, was succinct: Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. He could have added "educated" to the formula.

Franklin put it another way: Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!

Christians would do well to not put their faith in democracy nor politics in general.

Dale said...

Of coure, the original design of representative democracy assumed small enough districts that all candidates would be known to the voters or their close friends; with federalism allowing the same arrangement among the state leaders to pick the national leaders by personal knowledge, not the way we do it nowadays.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Kurt9

However, is there really any alternative?

Yes there is, I personally prefer a limited franchise, with the qualification being based on some practical practical real world test.

Concentration of power is a problem, but you don't have to dilute it endlessly to limit it. Having, lets say 30% of the population as voters would limit the power quite a lot.

Having a good intentions are not enough. Most of the Lefties are people with good intention but hopelessly out of touch with reality. Factual knowledge and understanding matters.

Jimmy Carter was a genuinely good man and Richard Nixon morally dubious. But Carter did far more harm to U.S interests than did Nixon.

@mdavid.

My interest is in what makes a workable society. John Adams typically echos the Anglo mindset where political interests are adversarial. What would be best if people could work out what's in everyone's mutual interest.

@Dale

There is a good case for local democracy. People tend to have a good grasp of things when they are local and immediate, and have directs consequences. It's only when they have to decide on things that are abstract or remote that their cognitive limitations quickly become apparent.

Anonymous said...

One reason so many people vote on the basis of emotion is that most politicians, encouraged by the media, make appeals to emotion and always have. Also, as Dale points out, government was much smaller and much more locally oriented back then than it is now.

Puzzle Pirate said...

Caplan has an article about how bad voters are in a democracy.

http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2013/06/debate_does_dem.html

The Social Pathologist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Social Pathologist said...

@Anon

You've got it the wrong way around.

The politicians all know that the key to swaying the mob is through emotion, not reason. "Hope and Change", "a better future", "justice for all" are all bromides designed to motivate the emotions whilst subduing intelligence.

The great cultural fault line in modern Western Society is the assumption of rationality in the average man. Most men are simply not rational when it comes to big issue items because it overwhelms their curiosity or intelligence.

Elusive Wapiti said...

"I personally prefer a limited franchise, with the qualification being based on some practical practical real world test."

Intriguing. What would you test? And, more importantly, who would write it, administer it, and score it?

The Social Pathologist said...

@EW

I'm not so much for having some "elite" as much as I am for disenfranchising the obviously stupid. I'd rather have Richard Nixon have the vote than Jimmy Carter, even though Nixon was the more dubious morally. Government is a practical skill not an exercise in simple moral virtue.

The first aim is to keep out people who can't manage their own affairs. This should be the most basic rule of government, and the obviously corrupt. Those on the government welfare, those who are criminals or insane should not have the vote.

Secondly, some proof in being able to manage your own affairs is also necessary. i.e owning a house outright, completing a higher degree in education ( a proper degree, not some inflated trade qualification.)

Thirdly, excluding those who have too much money, as they weild too much influence.

What you really want is a large pool of bourgeois running the show.

It's not going to be perfect but it will be less stupid.

The Social Pathologist said...

@EW

Today I thought of another group of people I would deny the vote to; those who are buffered from the consequences of their actions. Public servants (who are impossible to fire) trust recipients etc. Excessive wealth is just as dangerous as idiotic poverty. Too many wealthy people are protected from the consequences of the their own stupidy by the cushion of their wealth. Tenured University Professors are the same.

The important point is that those who make the decisions must also suffer the consequences of them. Reality is the ultimate error corrector.

mdavid said...

SP, What would be best if people could work out what's in everyone's mutual interest.

Good luck with that!

Anonymous said...

The problem with trusting Nixon to stay in power would be that he was not above undercutting the democratic process for his own gains.

When someone can stay in power without any real effort or threat of removal they become complacent and put their own needs ahead of those of the people. There are uncountable examples of this throughout history.

King Richard said...

I was working on a very similar post, even so far as referencing the OODA loop!
Democracy is too flawed to survive itself. Hans-Herman Hoppe pointed out the economic parallel - it is public ownership of the means of government, so it suffers from the Tragedy of the Commons. Hoppe hopes that anarcho-capitalism would somehow avoid the trap of Democracy, but I fear his arguments apply to his own wishes.
What does Hoppe demonstrate is inherently superior to Democracy?
Monarchy.

The Social Pathologist said...

When someone can stay in power without any real effort or threat of removal they become complacent and put their own needs ahead of those of the people. There are uncountable examples of this throughout history.

Once again, power does not need to be diluted endlessly to be limited. Nixon was only able to undercut the democratic process because the democratic process in undercutable. There is no 100% foolproof method of governance. The choice is to pick the least worst. I'm pretty confident that universal suffrage is not the best method.

@King Richard.

The more cognitive science I study, the more I become monarchical. Though, Monarchy has its own problems. As I see it, what matters is not who is on the top but who is in the middle. The middle moderates the excesses from the top as well as the bottom. The more I think about the subject the more I feel the states power should rest amongst the bourgeois and less amongst an aristocracy or plebeian mass.

Cane Caldo said...

@SP

"The more I think about the subject the more I feel the states power should rest amongst the bourgeois and less amongst an aristocracy or plebeian mass."

And what keeps the aristocrats from buying the bourgeois? It seems like that would be the first thing done. In fact, that seems exactly like what is being done in the US. Clinton, Obama, Gingrich, etc.

Revoking the right of the vote from the top 1% of earners affects exactly 1%. I'm not sure this is the change we're looking for; unless you're saying they shouldn't be allowed to hold office. Well, they generally don't hold office now. Like any good aristocrat, they generally hire people to vote and run for them.

Stray thought: It would be pretty funny to see rich folks enriching a candidate as to disqualify him on the basis of wealth. "Murdoch knocks Smith out of Senate Race with $10M gift!"

ElectricAngel said...

@SP,
There is a good case for local democracy. People tend to have a good grasp of things when they are local and immediate, and have directs consequences. ...
The more cognitive science I study, the more I become monarchical.


You might check out the thoughts of fellow Croat John Zmirak on that. His ideal government was the Hapsburg Empire, especially in its late phase. Certainly the Czechs have not produced anywhere NEAR the level of art music that they did while a part of the A-H Empire.

But the political system you're looking for ought to accord with your faith. One word applies here: subsidiarity. Politics has become impossible largely because the politicians are deciding things where they have no specific local knowledge, and where they rarely suffer the consequences. See Taleb's Antifragility for a fuller explication.