Democracy revisited: Have experts had enough of the people?

The wisdom of the crowd (Dan Perry photo)

There are two important assumptions behind democracies established to date. The first is that human children, just like cats, refrigerators and tsetse flies, do not know and understand enough about our increasingly complicated world to be allowed to vote. The second is that humans who are adults do. So they are given franchise.

This presupposes, for example, that there is a reasonable chance these adult humans have taken the time to study global warming, and possess the tools to render a considered verdict on whether business as usual will or will not soon put London, Cairo and New York under water.

I think you see the problem.

Years ago, during the 2003 election campaign in Israel, I met a man who ran a pickled goods emporium in the Carmel market. He said Ariel Sharon was a disaster. His positions were about as leftist as can be. “I say don’t just give the Palestinians East Jerusalem,” he said. “Give them the west as well — and be rid of the religious!”

I was shocked to hear such a thing. When I recovered, I predicted Sharon would win.

“Sure!” he replied. “I’m voting Likud. They’re like my football team. They’re idiots, but that doesn’t matter.”

It was at that moment that I began to suspect that there was a problem with democracy: political debates would change nothing if minds were closed, actions were not linked to outcomes, and intellectual laziness prevailed.

Ever since that day, it has been getting more and more absurd. The will of the people is being done in a way, but big problems can be identified with ease:

  • Democracy was never intended to be tyranny of the majority; it is a broader system that aims at fairness and outcomes. Fifty-one percent cannot decide to kill 49 percent democratically, because rule of law is protected. This the incoming Israeli government wishes to undermine; a majority may think that’s fine.
  • The people’s will can be manipulated by modern communications models that circumvent the gatekeeper, the free media. The enemies of true democracy have hastened this by denigrating the media as self-appointed eggheads or toadies bought and paid for by elites. This resonates among embittered people throughout the declining West.
  • Many people are depressingly clueless about important things even without the manipulation of dark forces (a telltale identifier of these dark forces is that they tend to capitalize Nouns to drive the literate insane, which pleases their base).

For those who care about democracy in the classic sense it is getting pretty hard to dispute that we are not achieving optimal results.

This is not entirely new. As Winston Churchill is supposed to have said (he may not have originated the quote) democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the rest. It gets chosen as the least bad option — but the principle is not absolute. If we knew annihilation would occur as a consequence of a democratic event most of us would choose to suspend that event. That’s bad, but Armageddon is worse.

This hypothetical scenario does not happen much because you never really see disaster coming (although the 1933 burning of the Reichstag was a major clue) — and because we have all been told to believe in the wisdom of the crowd.

It is a pleasant and progressive idea, but has it legs?

For every task, there is a minimal level of intelligence needed for success. To drink a cup of coffee low intelligence suffices. To write “The Origin of Species,” it does not.

Many will object to these very words as elitist, but everyone breaks this way when stakes are high. Who among us, when diagnosed with a brain tumor, would decide between different procedures and treatments based on a referendum among the people? Every reader will choose some version of dictatorship of the intelligentsia.

Right now the world has a brain tumor. Israel has a brain tumor. America has a brain tumor. Britain has a brain tumor. The Arab world is on life support. But we treat this in a more cavalier way than we would our own individual peril.

The minimal intelligence needed to understand what is happening in the world is rising all the time. Things were simpler once, including 126 years ago when New Zealand became the first democracy by giving women the right to vote.

Now we have the connectedness of markets as they rise and fall, massive technological disruption, and natural and man-made disasters that know no borders. When the intelligence needed to understand all this exceeds the average person’s, democracy has a built-in problem. Have we passed this point?

Yuval Noah Harari argues in “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” that “individual humans know embarrassingly little” yet will propose “policies regarding climate change and genetically modified crops, while others hold extremely strong views (on) Ukraine and Iraq without being able to locate those countries on a map.”

It even gets worse with what one might call the Perry Paradox.

Most elections don’t matter much. The CDU or the SPD in Germany are not that far apart, and that is very lucky for Germany as long as they dominate the landscape (which they might not for long, if Italy is any indication).

But every now and then an election matters. In most such cases, of elections that matter, the major sides present plausible arguments. There is no right and wrong; things reduce to intuition or random outcomes, and we hope for the best.

But sometimes an election matters; one side is right and the other is saying 2 plus 2 is 10. On these rare occasions, where the choice matters and one side is right, most of the experts line up and try to persuade. Does this help or hinder?

Evidence suggests the masses are in such rebellion against “global elites” that when educated and successful people point right they will turn left just out of spite, almost no matter the consequences. Indeed, Michael Gove declared that the “people have had enough of experts” while leading a pro-Brexit campaign that drove the knowledgeable batty with its shameless lies about the economy.

That’s more or less what happened in the United States with Trump, and it was a major factor in the April 9 election in Israel. Not a lot of experts in anything but political machination supported Benjamin Netanyahu’s right.

How many Israelis could tell you the population of Gaza and the West Bank, and therefore comprehend the demographic consequences of the right’s undermining of prospects for partition? My random poll says maybe one in five come even close.

What to do about this situation is tricky. Democracy, despite this epic imperfection, possibly is the least bad system. We have no means of agreeing on a benign and expert dictator who would handle things with style and success. All such projects including well-meaning military coups have ended up in tears. Reasonable ideas like imposing a baseline of knowledge as a condition of suffrage will be torn to shreds by populists and rejected by the majority.

I have but this to propose: invest in education. Intelligence cannot be raised, as far as I know, but it is not the only factor that enables a person to have a rational point of view. Knowledge matters no less, and can be affected very much.

My wife is a teacher; there may be no higher calling. Education is the only hope, yet almost everywhere teachers are not well paid, classrooms are too big, and in some places higher learning is priced well out of reach. In democratic countries this is indirectly the choice of the people, but I predict they can be moved effective politics; with few exceptions everyone wants a core curriculum of education. And if not, in this one case, ignore them.

Fund education better, countries of our increasingly complicated and interdependent world! Fund it well, and fund it fast.

PS: The reputedly ultranationalist Sharon won the 2003 election and then turned on a dime and pulled out of Gaza, leaving amazed professional peacemakers eating his dust. Was it Deus ex machina? Did the experts somehow get him to listen? Perhaps the people did know best after all.

(A version of this article appeared in timesofisrael.com)

  • Follow Dan Perry at twitter.com/perry_dan

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Author, entrepreneur and technologist who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Working on solutions to help media thrive.

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Dan Perry

Dan Perry

Author, entrepreneur and technologist who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Working on solutions to help media thrive.

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