Democratic Deficit

StupidityThe story that most grabbed my attention this week is the one that states that democracy can’t work because it relies on stupid people who are too stupid to realise how stupid they are.

And I include you and me in that last statement. When we vote, we’re asked to pass judgement on the competency and ideas of those who would lead us on issues that are beyond us.

The story appeared on Life’s Little Mysteries and is based on the work of Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Jason Kruger who say: ‘incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people’s ideas.’

Worse still, we tend to overestimate our own intelligence and think we’ve come to a rational conclusion when we’ve done nothing of the sort. We are under the illusion that we somehow know better.

The example quoted in the San Fransico Chronicle goes like this:

Let’s say a politician comes up with an ingenious plan that would ensure universal health care while decreasing health care costs.

According to Dunning-Kruger, no matter how much information is provided, the unsophisticated would 1) be incapable of recognizing the wisdom of such a plan; 2) assume they know better; and 3) have no idea of the extent of their inadequacy.

Furthermore, a German sociologist ran a computer simulation to test Dunning and Kruger’s theory:

In his mathematical model of the election, he assumed that voters’ own leadership skills were distributed on a bell curve — some were really good leaders, some, really bad, but most were mediocre — and that each voter was incapable of recognizing the leadership skills of a political candidate as being better than his or her own. When such an election was simulated, candidates whose leadership skills were only slightly better than average always won.

And when you think about it, aren’t most modern leaders just slightly above average? Or to put it another way, how many truly great leaders have there been?

A few spring to mind, like Churchill and Roosevelt, but these tend to be the leaders in charge when their countries were under serious threat. More to the point, they successfully guided them out the other side. There was JFK, of course, although he tends to be remembered for what he might have done as much as for what he did.

Elsewhere there are the likes of Mandela and Gandhi, but again they were great at a time of momentous change for their countries.

Universal suffrage wasn’t achieved in the UK until 1928 when all women were given the vote and came even later in the US with the Voting Act of 1965. In short, democracy is a system that is still in its infancy.

Democracy Despite ItselfPerhaps we get the leaders we do because the Dunning-Kruger theory is true. I certainly don’t behave altogether rationally when I put my cross on a ballot paper. My politics have become entrenched over time, so that is where my vote goes and I justify it afterwards.

It’s a fascinating subject and I haven’t even got on to democratic evangelism – spreading our vision of democracy around the world as did the missionaries of old in the van of an imperial army.

But lest I become too cynical, next on my reading list is Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn’t Work at All Works So Well.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

3 comments… Add yours
  • Robin Day-Pudding 11th March 2012

    Why should an intelligent voter who has pored through all the manifestos and judiciously weighed up where he/she should put his/her cross have exactly the same voting rights as an eighteen year old lad/lass who hadn’t thought about it at all and just scribbled a cross down with his/her mates “for a laugh”? Democracy is a chimera, an illusion. Real power lies with Rupert Murdoch, self-made billionaires and aristocratic landowners. Twas always thus.

  • Roger Green 13th March 2012

    Ultimately, one can’t know everything. On some local issues, I trust the judgment of others who’ve been sage in the past.
    On the national level, the folks are so transparently awful that it’s much easier.

  • Katherine 14th March 2012

    We should go back to the Roman Senate system. I don’t know much about it, but it seems sensible to me.


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