Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Scientists Aren't Smart Enough to Understand Democracy, Blogger Says

Some scientists have apparently concluded that people are too stupid to run a democracy. One would think the roughly 400-year history of democracy on the North American continent would have humbled the researchers at least a bit. But apparently not. Here's the first sentence from Yahoo! News:

The democratic process relies on the assumption that citizens (the majority of them, at least) can recognize the best political candidate, or best policy idea, when they see it.

Already we're into some thorny problems. What's the "best" candidate or idea? Do the scientists know? If not, how can they test their theory? Also, what does "best" mean in this context? Saying that there is a best candidate implies that there is some ordering of candidates from best to worst, and that a sufficiently knowledgeable person could choose the best among them. Does that seem remotely likely?

Speaking of testing the theory, here's what the scientist actually did:

Mato Nagel, a sociologist in Germany, recently implemented Dunning and Kruger's theories by computer-simulating a democratic election. 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.

Is it beyond the pale for me to point out the irony in a German researcher building in the assumption that the candidate with the best leadership skills is the best one? I seem to recall one inter-war German Chancellor who was widely hailed as a great leader. But I risk Godwinning my own post.

More to the point, was it necessary to test this by computer simulation? Garbage in, garbage out: once the various, and highly dubious, assumptions have been made, the conclusion is inevitable, but meaningless.

Nagel concluded that democracies rarely or never elect the best leaders. Their advantage over dictatorships or other forms of government is merely that they "effectively prevent lower-than-average candidates from becoming leaders."

This is perhaps the most tendentious part of the entire story. It may be the case that democracies rarely elect the "best" leaders. Heck, I'm willing to stipulate that it never happens. Maybe there's some mayor of Podunk who could this country like a finely oiled machine, and we'll never know. But so what?

Democratic governments are not run by a solitary individual. In the U.S., the President has lots of power, but he is checked by other power centers. Our democracy does not elect a dictator who rules over us without limit. Rather, many leaders are elected who each control some threads in a web of power. We individuals doing the electing have many outlets available to us: local school board members, city council members and mayors, state legislators, state governors, U.S. congressional representatives, U.S. Senators, and finally Presidents.

Taking the contention of the researcher to heart, we understand our neighborhood better than our whole town, our town better than our whole state, and our state better than the whole country. So it's probably true that we do a poorer job evaluating Presidents than school boards. But that's no reason to trash democracy. Rather, it's a good rationale for federalism: local decisions made at a local level.

Finally, the notion that the election of ideal leaders is the primary goal of any system of government is at best incomplete. Democracies, for instance, shine in at least two other areas. First, they provide an orderly means for one government to be replaced by another one. When a dictator dies (or is deposed), succession is often a problem. Perhaps there are multiple children who squabble over who gets to rule. Perhaps a military strongman grabs at the brass ring. One simple advantage of a democracy is that the new leader knows he at least has a majority behind him, and that support helps stabilize the transition. (It's notable that the least stable democracies, e.g. Italy, are parliamentary ones that are usually run by a coalition. Thus the leader does not have the unequivocal support of a majority.)

Second, democracy, unlike other forms of government, helps to promote civic responsibility. The subject of a dictator may need to be clever and know how to navigate the halls of power, but he has no stake in the process. The citizen of a democracy does, and can, at least theoretically, make a change. That mere fact can make an enormous difference, but again we return to the need for federalism, since change is easier at the local level than the national.

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