This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.
Democracy is popular. Other than self-serving polemic promoted by authoritarian regimes or by dispossessed elite, it is rare to find anyone criticising democracy. For thoughtful people, democracy is, as that Churchill cliché goes, “the worst form of government except for all the others.” Yet some—perhaps even a lot of—scepticism is warranted in terms of democracy’s role in the long war between Dogma and Reason that has been in progress for much of human history.
Indeed, it is possible to argue that most—if not all—big political debates are essentially different forms of the fundamental conflict: should humans follow some form of dogma, or use knowledge, reason & critical reasoning in making decisions. What individuals do in their private lives is less of a concern. How they decide on public issues matters a lot more. Should slavery be banned? Should abortion be declared criminal? Should women be allowed to willingly immolate themselves on the pyres of their dead husbands? Should cloning be allowed? Should we allow foreign direct investment in retail? Should voting rights belong to citizens or to all people living in the country? The most vexing questions of politics are essentially dogma vs reason, playing out in different contexts.
So what role does democracy play in this conflict? Do democratic states always tend to push the moral envelope towards greater reason? For instance, aren’t democracies more liberal than non-democracies? Perhaps yes. But this might merely be a temporary correlation: are they liberal because they are democracies, or democracies because they are liberal? We can’t say for sure, as there are other factors at play that might have made societies more liberal, democratic or both.
Bryan Caplan has a compelling argument on why democracies fail:
“In the view of most democracy skeptics, it fails because it does not do what voters want. In my view, democracy fails because it does what voters want. In economic jargon, democracy has a built-in externality. An irrational voter does not hurt only himself. He also hurts everyone who is, as a result of his irrationality, more likely to live under misguided policies. Since most of the cost of voter irrationality is external—paid for by other people—why not indulge? If enough voters think this way, socially injurious policies win by popular demand.[The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies]
Mr Caplan’s argument is that people have systematic biases that, unlike random biases, do not cancel each other out. In other words, if biases towards colour of shirts were random in the electorate, then they would cancel each other out and no particular colour would be more likely to win. However, if people had a systematic bias towards purple even to a small degree, the electoral verdict is quite likely to go purple. (Read the book to understand more deeply how this happens)
This argument, in itself, is a powerful indictment of democracy. It explains why democratic governments choose policies that are bad for them. If we factor in “education” (in the sense of reasoning, critical thinking and open-mindedness) then democracies can amplify dogma, in extreme cases, into a vicious cycle where society surrenders to dogma.
Consider a democracy where a simple majority of the people have an unshakeable dogmatic belief that Everyone Must Wear Purple Shirts. The rest of the people have a shakeable belief in everything and make up their minds based on available facts. Since the facts do not point to any advantage of purple shirts, they disagree with the Dogmatists who insist on purple shirts. Let’s assume everyone votes. It is quite likely that the politician who runs on a “Wear Purple” ticket is likely to defeat her competitors. And once she acquires political power, depending on her political strength, she is likely to change public policies to promote the wearing of purple. She is likely to focus on the education system, introducing purple into the curriculum so that she has an inherent advantage against the Reasoning politicians. In the future, politics will be about the shade of purple that people must wear.
In this highly simplified example, Democracy worked, the majority got what they wanted, but Reason lost. The real world is more complex, but the fundamental argument remains valid. To the extent that people subscribe to dogmas, democracy is a risk to Reason and values that derive from it.
Mr Caplan sees democracies failings as an argument for governments to let the market determine economic outcomes (his book consciously limits itself to economics). Given the risk democracy poses to Reason*, and therefore, to itself we should go further. The zeroth requirement is for democracies to be constrained by a republican constitution that affirms fundamental rights.
First, those who prefer a slightly more reasoning society than a slightly more dogmatic one must unequivocally defend freedom of speech and expression. Unpopular and dissenting voices must not only be tolerated but enjoy absolute protection. As my colleague V Anantha Nageswaran noted during a recent conversation on this topic, actors in ancient India enjoyed total freedom and protection for what they said on stage. Likewise, court jesters. Such freedoms are protected in many democracies, but your mileage varies depending on which democracy you are speaking out in. Freedom of speech and expression must be protected in law and in practice.
Second, those who believe minds should not surrender to dogma must hold up the freedom of education. This means that while the government can pursue uniform standards, syllabi and curricula in its role of delivering a public good, it should not be allowed to monopolise the curriculum. People should be free to start and send their children to schools of their choice, teach and learn curricula of their choice, with no interference by the government or self-appointed custodians of public values. If this means some parents send their children to religious schools, nature schools or witchcraft & wizardry schools, so be it. It would be a small price to pay in the defence of Reason.
Third, the separation of powers into the legislature, executive and judiciary is not only for the purpose of ensuring that no single entity is too powerful. It charges the judiciary with the duty to defend the constitution and dispense justice without reference to what is popular. Here again, your mileage varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, from time to time. In recent years we have had the US Supreme Court under John Roberts declaring it is not the job of the Supreme Court to “protect people from the consequences of their political decisions”. In India, while courts have been criticised for judicial activism and overreach, cases of judicial populism have received lesser attention. Trials by jury suffer from the defect that they subject questions of guilt and innocence to popular mores. This doesn’t mean trials by judges escapes the defect completely: judges are cut from the same cloth as jurors, and both from that of their compatriots. One way to reduce such risks might be for judges to come from other jurisdictions—rotate them more frequently across states, and bring in foreign judges from similar jurisdictions.
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