Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Why Democracy Sucks

An uncut repost of my column from the Stanford Daily, also available at

(For the record, I called Bush's victory over a year ago. I thought I had put in on my website somewhere, but appraently I forgot. The economy would recover, Iraq would be indeterminate and Bush would win. Not that this means anything.)

Why Democracy Sucks.

In just three days, Americans, at least half of them anyway, are going to exercise their inalienable right to vote, so I thought I would take this time to assert that Americans are too stupid to decide who gets to be president. Actually, not so much stupid as ignorant. I freely place myself in that category.

The useless presidential debates consisted of two politicians repeating oft-heard sound bites, containing little substance. But who can blame them. My friends watching were mostly commenting about facial tics, vocal inflection, and accidental misspeaks. No one cared about policy questions or substantive issues. Who could be bothered?

I was further disheartened listening to NPR’s coverage of California’s ballot propositions. I was horrified by how ill-informed the experts were, much more so the callers, and could only assume the listeners were worse. As for the vast majority of voters who don’t even pay this much attention, I shudder.

I find it disturbing how people who devote just a few minutes of their days to these issues feel qualified to second-guess policy makers who devote their lives. This is exacerbated by campaigns such as Rock the Vote which encourage the attitude that your opinion, no matter how uninformed, should count.

Two weeks ago, Jon Stewart self-righteously showed up on CNN’s Crossfire, lambasting the show’s hosts for reducing complicated issues to partisan spin. Yet CNN, like Stewart, is merely providing what viewers want. No one watches PBS’s News Hour.

Yet I believe the people too are blameless. I used to think education was the answer to all of today’s pressing problems. Like Bush, the answer I used to have for poverty, inequality, affirmative action, democracy, etc., was better education.

Recently, somebody asked me which candidate I favored. I equivocated because incredible as it may seem, I honestly like both. Yet she pressed: if the election were a tie how would I vote? I admitted I don’t know. I am not nearly qualified to make such a decision. I—product of arguably the best education in the world—was insufficiently informed to answer.

The dirty little secret of rational choice political theory is that it is basically irrational for people to vote. The chance of one vote affecting the outcome of an election is so miniscule that it makes no sense for people to bother, much less expend the effort to properly learn the issues to make an educated decision. We’ve known this since Plato.

Philosopher John Dewey had a beautiful thought though. He argued that since musicians and poets can convey incredibly complex ideas to a broad audience, social scientists would one day learn to convey complex policy questions in a way that could be broadly understood. However, unless the Daily Show is the beginning of a revolution in social science communication (just crazy enough to be true), we are a long ways off.

So do I have a solution? Well no, though I’d first abolish the Californian proposition system, pernicious legacy of the progressive movement. However, I might argue that maybe the spittle and facial tics during the debate really matter. Maybe since voters are ill-equipped to judge the policies of the candidates, the best they can do is to assess their character.

Better still, I propose a radical new system of elections with a rule that you can only vote for somebody you’ve personally met. Hanging out in Singapore, I was surprised to find that despite the essential absence of political competition, Singapore seems reasonably well governed. The secret, a senior minister told me, is that members of parliament are able to meet their constituents personally. He holds open houses every Wednesday, and spends one day every weekend going door to door.

The personal contact rule takes advantage of the millions of years of evolution that have left humans with social and cognitive tools extremely well adapted to interpersonal interactions. Judgments are aided by networks of social connections. Candidates should be friends or friends of friends. Bad candidates are quickly identified and removed from office. Then, the candidates, one for each community, collectively choose a new executive. Essentially, the electoral college as originally envisioned.

Of course this system has many problems and is mostly just a pipe dream. But it’s a thought.

Not that it even matters. Psychologists know well that we attribute too much credit to the person, and not enough to the situation. The character traits of the person in office matters a lot less than we think. In a recent cross country analysis, two economists, Jones and Olken, find that the policies of democratically elected leaders have no detectable impact on economic growth. Incidentally, they do find that the policies of autocratic leaders significantly retard development.

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