One popular theory to explain the failings of democracy is the MPAI (Most People Are Idiots) theory. There are times when it does seem that way but on the whole I don’t buy it. I don’t really believe that most people are idiots.
As individuals some people certainly are stupid but most people are not. They manage day-to-day living tolerably well. They make reasonably sensible decisions. They don’t try to cross the street without checking for traffic, they don’t swallow disinfectant because the disinfectant bottle looks vaguely like a soft drink bottle, they don’t go swimming if the life guards at the beach tell them there are sharks about, they don’t drop cigarette butts into cans of petrol.
And yet when it comes to acting en masse, when it comes to electing governments or voting in referendums, people often do things that are every bit as stupid as dropping cigarette butts into cans of petrol. How is this possible?
The answer is that people generally have very little understanding of the issues at stake. This is not because they’re idiots. It’s because the issues are hopelessly complicated. Economists have very little idea of how the economy actually works, and they have spent years studying it. Climate scientists have no idea how the world’s climate really works, even after immense sums of money have been spent in researching the subject. Foreign policy is even worse. Untangling the webs of suspicion, resentment, opportunism, greed, fear and clashing ideologies and religions in the Middle East or Eastern Europe is a daunting prospect for scholars who have spent their whole careers studying the subject.
How can any ordinary person possibly hope to have a clear understanding of such issues? It’s not enough to have the necessary intelligence – the real problem is that how many of us can afford to spend several years researching the political situation in Eastern Europe, several more years studying climate science and several more years studying economics before casting our vote? If we had both the intelligence and the leisure time to do this we might be able to make an informed decision. We don’t have the time, so we don’t make an informed choice. We choose our governments the way I chose my last car. I know virtually nothing about cars. I wouldn’t know a carburetor from a crankshaft. I wanted a big car and I wanted a station wagon. I’d owned several Holdens and they’d been OK. The salesman seemed less sleazy and less pushy than most used car salesman. The price seemed reasonable. So I bought the Holden Commodore wagon that the salesman in question wanted to sell me.
I made my decision on the basis of brand recognition, price, my vague idea of the sort of car I wanted and my personal impressions of the salesman.
That’s pretty much how most people cast their votes in elections. Take the last Australian election. Brand recognition counted – we’d had a Liberal government from 1996 to 2007 and they’d been fairly competent. Personal impressions counted – Tony Abbott seemed to be, by the standards of politicians, fairly honest and straightforward. Vague ideas of the sort of government we wanted counted – the Liberals’ policies sounded moderate and sensible enough. Price counted – he’d promised to abolish the hated carbon tax.
As it happens my car purchase worked out well. Nineteen years later I’m still driving the same car and it still runs. Our choice of a Liberal government was perhaps less successful although the alternative would undoubtedly have been worse.
But is this really a good way to decide on the government of a country? What happens when there’s a really crucial issue at stake? What happens when a country is likely to face a serious foreign policy crisis? What happens when a country has to confront the sort of situation that now confronts Europe, involving the possible settlement of millions of immigrants who may or may not integrate into European society? It is immensely difficult to predict the results of various foreign policy options. Serious misjudgments of such matters, involving a relatively minor crisis in the Balkans, plunged Europe into the horrors of The First World War. Any misjudgment on the matter of immigration could spell the end of European civilisation. Can we really rely on leaders who were elected on the basis that they seemed like fairly decent people, or that their party had governed tolerably well in the past, or that their policies sounded OK?
Actually the situation is even worse. The reasons I’ve given above that influence our voting behaviour are at least somewhat rational. In reality though voting decisions are often made on purely emotional and entirely irrational grounds. People choose a candidate who promises to save the planet because saving the planet sounds like the right thing to do emotionally. People choose a candidate who promises to deliver social justice because social justice is a concept that pushes the right emotional buttons, even if it has no actual meaning.
Of course it’s easy enough to point out some of the reasons we get such bad governments, but what is the solution? That, Dear Reader, will have to wait for a further post!