It [is impossible] to separate the democratic idea from the theory that there is a mystical merit, an esoteric and ineradicable rectitude, in the man at the bottom of the scale—that inferiority, by some strange magic, becomes superiority—nay, the superiority of superiorities. What baffles statesmen is to be solved by the people, instantly and by a sort of seraphic intuition. This notion . . . originated in the poetic fancy of gentlemen on the upper levels—sentimentalists who, observing to their distress that the ass was overladen, proposed to reform transportation by putting him in the cart. (H.L. Mencken, from Notes on Democracy, 1926)
What people mean by “democracy” is some combination of good government, protection of individual rights, extremely broad political participation, and widely shared economic prosperity. One might as well throw in an ideal body mass index and a cure for influenza. It’s all good, but meaningless. Democracy has no useful definition. The reason we say we like it is that we refuse to think about what it means.
There is a definition many people pretend to believe, unless they are pressed. It is much narrower, and goes like this: If a group is constituted to decide as one, then any numerical majority of that group can make decisions. These decisions can be binding on all (majority rules the totality), or binding just on some class or group specified in decision itself (majority rules the minority). While I have already said that all definitions are not really useful, this version seems to be the one that many people hold.
The problem with the narrower definition I stated is that no one could really believe it, at least not in isolation from lots of other assumptions. One is left to wonder whether democracy, in the sense of rule by the people, is a conceit or a fraud. As a conceit, it may be harmless enough. It may even be useful, because it celebrates the wisdom and good will of the common person. This sort of mythology has a calming, leveling effect on public discourse.
If a fraud, however, then we are in darker and more forbidding terrain. The pretense that we found rectitude in the multitude is dangerous. The public invocation of the public wisdom simply holds citizens down whilst we steal their purses, or send their children off to war.
There are two linked ideas about democracy, and it is important to keep them separate. The first is the existence of a good, of a right (best) thing for the society to do. This is a question that has both normative and positive elements. It may seem strange to question the existence of “the good” in politics, but in fact it is simply not obvious that a society can discover transcendent principles of the good through voting.
The second aspect of the democratic idea is the problem of choosing rules or institutions most likely to lead to the discovery of the good (assuming it exists). There are two very different approaches to the problem. The positive, ends-based approach emphasizes the properties of the voting or preference revelation techniques as if they were estimators. One can then apply quasi-statistical techniques, much as if an estimator were being subjected to Monte Carlo testing. That is, given a configuration of preferences in which some “good” alternative is embedded by construction, what are the relative frequencies with which different techniques discover it?
The other approach, normative and process-based, focuses on the fairness or legitimacy of rules themselves, as means. There is an obvious assumption in this approach, one that has led two generations of public choice scholars (see, for example, Riker, 1982, Liberalism Against Populism) to question it, but it persists nonetheless. That assumption is that “fair” processes necessarily lead to “good” outcomes.
Republican elections in the nineteenth century were seen as a means of exerting control over elected officials, and little more. We have to balance this against the expansive modern faith in, and practice of, democratic governance. The rules, procedures, and the basic “machinery” of democratic choice have not kept up with the faith people seem to have in the wisdom of the majority. To some extent, this is the fault of officials in the states, who have failed to give enough thought to problems involved in implementing new paperless voting technologies. (Sure, some of these folks are crackpots, and Keith Olbermann is a nutjob, but Caesar's wife has to be above reproach) (More accurately, Plutarch has Caesar say, "I wished my wife to be not so much as suspected.")
But the other problem, at least as important, is that the academic establishment in the U.S. has done a poor job making students understand the limitations and dangers of unlimited democratic choice. For both reasons, the mismatch between what we demand of democratic institutions and what they can reasonably deliver endangers the stability of our system of government.
While this danger may be most significant in the U.S., there are also dangers when we foster the secular trend toward reliance on “democracy” as a means of reconciling disagreement in other nations. What social choice theory teaches us is that we cannot expect institutions to produce consensus in the face of disagreement, unless (a) certain arguments or positions are outlawed, or (b) choice is left up to a single individual, or dictator.
People seem to believe in the value of consensus, but they do not appear believe in either domain restrictions or dictatorship. Policy makers must face the fact that the failure of voting institutions to produce consensus is really two separate problems:
- Our technology of democracy is too old, and prone to abuse or at least distrust. We must bring voting technology into the 21st century, because we accept much less than is possible.
- Our ideology is utopian science fiction. So, we must also take voting ideology back to the 19th century, because we have come to expect much more than is possible.