In my last post, I discussed one criticism of our book, that our definition of democracy was somewhat poorly defined. In this one, I will address what is easily the most common criticism that we get: that we are arguing against a straw-man. Once again, I think the most articulate version of this criticism comes from that same Amazon review that I noted in my last post:
Would any reader seriously doubt that the broad-as-all-outdoors “democracy” they invoke is inferior to the alternative — an absence of “free, fair and meaningful elections”? Does someone need to read this book to decide whether to live in, say, Japan or even France over Iraq? Surely not. If I may mix metaphors, the book is preaching to the choir while attacking a straw man, rather than a real problem. By framing their problem in the way they do, they make their main argument about the superiority of “democracy” utterly uncontroversial. At the same time, and despite its intrinsic interest, all the stuff O&E tell us about psychological experiments is rendered superfluous as support for this main argument.
I admit that there is a kernel of truth to this criticism. In particular, some of the arguments of the book are trying to convince you that living under a democratic regime is better than the alternative–although there is, in my mind, a good reason for that, which I will get to below. But I think that the straw-man criticism is, in general, unfair. There are lots of actual men, and women, who we are arguing against.
Who are these people?
1) The Growing Movement to Combat Voter Ignorance By Making Voting More Difficult (mandatory citizenship classes, tests, etc.)
Drew Westen, a Professor of Psychology from Emory and author of the book The Political Brain, has proposed something like this, as has Jason Brennen, the author of The Ethics of Voting. It’s an idea that’s been floated on CNN, among other places.
If you’ve read some social psychology (and are therefore pessimistic about human knowledge) and have an interest in politics, this idea might seem like a good one. But if you’ve read our book, you’d know that it would be disastrous–not only is there no evidence that a slightly more informed citizenship would make better decisions, but the test itself could cause a reduction in the perceived fairness of the democratic process.
In the book, we try to explain why democracy works, and why it doesn’t work, so that we can make careful improvements in intelligent ways. Think about going to a doctor. You don’t want a doctor who recommends that you remove a lung just because you have a cough. Before you make changes, you want the doctor to explain to you exactly how things should be working, what’s gone wrong, and how the fix will make things better. In the same way, as we make decisions about who should/should not vote (because of ignorance, or voter identification, or citizenship, or whatever), or make any other changes to our democratic process, we should have some idea about what makes our democracy successful before we start tinkering with things.
2) Those Who Believe in the Coming of Chinese Dominance
Arvind Subramanian, author of the book Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance, is probably the most prominent purveyor of this notion, but there are others. Eric X. Li had a forceful New York Times editorial about it, and you if you watch cable news or just talk politics you hear common fears about China expressed in off-hand ways by many people. While it is true that China has had a prolonged booming economy (although that in and of itself should be a warning–no one yet has managed to escape the boom and bust of the business cycle forever) these analyses tend towards the mistake of underestimating political concerns. As we demonstrate in our book, the Chinese economy is built on a bed of sand: its authoritarian regime. If you assume that China will never have any economic or civil problems again, then sure, they could be a long-term threat to American hegemony. But that regime has yet to demonstrate that it can deal with internal dissent without driving tanks over protesters in Tienanmen Square–and let’s be honest here, that’s really bad for business, not to mention the fact that one of these days the tank drivers might decide that the protesters have the right of it.
And, of course, it’s not just China. Every once in awhile, some segment of academia or the media or the public circles back around to the idea that the public is just so ignorant and irrational, and the people who govern some autocratic country are just so smart, that we can’t possibly beat them. Right now its China. Twenty years ago, it was Japan and the so-called Asian Tigers (Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea), who were either non-democratic (Singapore) or whose trade and economic policies were supposedly somewhat divorced from electoral political concerns (Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea). And before that, of course, was the Communist threat. Each of those cases is different, of course, but at the end of the day people are still just as ignorant and irrational as ever, and democracy is still standing.
3) Those Who Believe Democracy is Fundamentally Flawed But Don’t Like Authoritarianism
In Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter, he argues for a “market-based” approach to governance as an alternative to democracy, although doesn’t specify what that is. Wired magazine recently posted an article arguing for exactly the kinds of lottery voting or sortition systems that we argue against in the book. These are much more radical suggestions than requiring voters to pass a civics test, of course, and have not been taken as seriously. But the suggestions are out there, and I do think it is important to understand why these ideas are an over-reaction to the supposed problems of democracy.
Of course, most commonly, like in this Economist piece, someone will lament voter irrationality as an intractable problem that will necessarily lead to awful outcomes for our countries, but will offer no real solution. And while this is not a group that we are arguing against, per se, I do think that they make up an important part of our audience.
In particular, I know many people in that third group. I have many friends, family members, and acquaintances who complain constantly about the state of American politics and the sorry state of the American voter, and they tend towards doom-and-gloom scenarios as a result. They don’t have any particular solutions in mind–we all like to complain about problems without having to shoulder the burden of offering real solutions. But the net weight of that complaining is to create an unnecessary pessimism about the state of politics and the health of our government and country.
Which is why a lot of the book is aimed at simply offering those people with an optimistic outlook–yes, people are irrational and ignorant. In fact, it is important to demonstrate to those people that we aren’t simply being naive. For every story they have of voter ignorance, or voter irrationality, or a broken electoral system, we can provide you with a worse one. And not only that, but we can demonstrate to you why those problems are intractable–not only won’t they get any better, but most of them can’t get any better. And yet, despite all of that, we can show you how democracy works really well, and tell you something about why that is the case.
So to my erstwhile Amazon critic, I would respond that no, we aren’t actually trying to convince people that Iraq is a worse place to live that France. But we are trying to convince some pessimistic Frenchmen, fed up with the seemingly idiotic choices being made around them, that in fact they have it pretty darn good and that things aren’t nearly as bad as they might seem at first glance. And I believe that there is value in that.
Finally, I would like to make two other notes here about the goals of the book, since I’m on the topic. One of the other explicit goals of the book was to introduce some of what Danny and I felt were the most important findings in Social Psychology and Political Science to a general audience. Education is good for us all.
Our other explicit goal was to remain as non-partisan as possible. Most books out there that apply these findings of irrationality and ignorance to politics tend to do so in a very partisan way, and the result comes across as pretty arrogant, at least to me. ”People are irrational and ignorant, which is why they don’t agree with the smart people like you and I.” Caplan and Westen both have this problem. But ignorance and irrationality don’t know political boundaries. They apply to everyone, including the authors of the book. Which, I suppose, is my way of saying that the book isn’t perfect, but it is the best I could make it at the time, and I do think that it contributes something valuable to the political dialogue, in the United States and in democracies around the world.