Are Americans Too Dumb for Democracy?
Saturday, June 9, 2012
Are Americans too dumb for democracy?
Of late, there has been a spate of articles and op-ed pieces that suggest the answer to this question is an emphatic yes: The majority of Americans are simply too hopelessly ignorant to make the kind of intelligent decisions that are necessary to preserve a healthy democratic system.
Judging from the tone of these articles, America is currently suffering not only from an epidemic of obesity, but an epidemic of stupidity.
True, many of these complaints are apt to strike the neutral observer as suspiciously partisan, as when liberals lay the blame for the dumbing down of America on the doorstep of the Republican Party, and especially its Tea Party wing. But some advocates of the “too dumb for democracy” thesis have taken the higher and presumably non-partisan path of objective science—a fact brought to my attention some months ago by an article intriguingly entitled: “People Aren’t Smart Enough for Democracy to Flourish, Scientists Say.” Who were these scientists, and why were they saying such a thing?
What the learned elite feared was the emergence of cunning and charismatic demagogues who would play on the ignorance of the people in order to obtain sole power for themselves.
The scientists were a team of psychologists working under Dr. David Dunning of Cornell University, who concluded after their research that “very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is.” Because it takes an expert in taxation to intelligently assess the worth of a proposed tax reform, for example, the average person will obviously lack the competence to make a judgment on the reform in question. Worse, he will lack the ability to recognize who the actual experts in the field are, leaving him vulnerable to political charlatans who will appeal to his emotions and not his reason. And what is true of a proposed tax reform will be true of any of the complicated challenges that face a modern nation like our own, from healthcare, to national self-defense, to fiscal policy, to global warming.
Underlying this argument are two assumptions. First, Dunning and his team assume that dumb ideas are the exclusive privilege of dumb people—or, more generally, that dumb people have bad ideas, while smart people have good ones. Second, they assume that dumb people are dangerous to the American democratic system. Both assumptions, however, are open to challenge.
To begin with, let us agree that there are a lot of dumb ideas floating around. Is this any proof that Americans have gotten stupider? Not at all. Extraordinarily intelligent men have held extraordinarily dumb ideas. George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Thorstein Veblen, and Jawaharlal Nehru were all brilliant individuals. All of them thought that the USSR under Stalin was a genuine worker’s paradise. A very dumb idea. On the other hand, during the same period, many unschooled dolts regarded the Soviet Union with an irrational and even paranoid horror—and they were quite right.
From time to time, extremely intelligent people become infatuated with ideas that later generations of equally intelligent people look back upon with shudders of revulsion. Consider the enormous number of progressive intellectuals who supported eugenics programs at the beginning of the last century, in contrast to the attitude towards eugenics of progressive intellectuals in the post-Holocaust generation. It would be silly to try to explain this difference by arguing that the pro-eugenic intellectuals were less intelligent than the anti-eugenic intellectuals.
Judging from the tone of these articles, America is currently suffering not only from an epidemic of obesity, but an epidemic of stupidity.
Only someone abysmally ignorant of the history of ideas could believe for a moment that high intelligence is any guarantee against the lure of dumb ideas. The dumbest idea you can think of almost certainly owes its origin to an intellectual. Most people are born natural slaves? The wise Aristotle. Aryan supremacy? The erudite Arthur Gobineau.
Even if we concede that intelligent people often have dumb ideas, doesn’t it seem rather self-evident that stupid people will invariably have stupid ideas—assuming that they have any ideas at all? And doesn’t this preponderance of stupid ideas doom popular democracy to failure, just as the Cornell psychologists claim?
Proponents of American exceptionalism have an obvious rebuttal to this argument. It is called history. Even if we grant that Dunning et al have made a strong a priori case why democracy shouldn’t flourish, the historical evidence is that American democracy has flourished quite well. Could it have flourished even more? No doubt—but the relevant question is one of historical comparison. What nation has a better track record of success, measure it any way you wish? If Dunning is defining a successful form of government as one in which the leaders invariably adopt “very smart ideas,” then the United States clearly fails to meet their standard of success. But that is like arguing that multi-billionaire Warren Buffet is not a successful businessman because, by his own admission, he has made some bad investment decisions.
More decisively, a little reflection on our nation’s past suggests that if the dumb were going to do democracy in, they would have done it long ago.
The dumbest idea you can think of almost certainly owes its origin to an intellectual.
Here’s a thought experiment: How much could the men who voted for Andrew Jackson in 1828 tell you about Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, Lord Kelvin’s thermodynamics, Cantor’s theory of transfinite numbers, Keynesian economics, Turing machines, cybernetics, or the Internet? Nothing, absolutely nothing.
Of course, they had a good excuse for not knowing about these things. No one in 1828 could possibly know about them because none of them had as yet come to pass. Yet, back in 1828, there was still plenty of ignorance to go around. Indeed, the election of Andrew Jackson was seen by many as the test case of a democracy so indiscriminately inclusive that everyone, even the most illiterate buffoon, was allowed to cast his ballot, no matter how drunk he was, provided, of course, that he was a drunk white male.
Even in the Age of Jackson, America had its learned men. But in those days, to be learned meant knowing how to read the classical languages, and being reasonably familiar with the canonical texts of the ancient Greeks and Romans. This had an advantage. It was easier for the learned to judge the learning of other learned men, because the domain of learning was so much smaller than it is today.
During the first half-century of America’s democratic experiment, the concern of the learned class was not the ignorance of the masses as such. They expected the masses to be ignorant—except, of course, about what was of immediate concern to their happiness and livelihoods. What the learned elite feared was the emergence of cunning and charismatic demagogues who would play on the ignorance of the people in order to obtain sole power for themselves, and who would thereafter behave exactly like the series of dictators who had left their fatal mark on Greece and Rome.
The average person will lack the ability to recognize who the actual experts in the field are, leaving him vulnerable to political charlatans who will appeal to his emotions and not his reason.
In 1828, many of America’s learned class, though not all, were convinced that Andrew Jackson would turn out to be a demagogue right out of the pages of Plutarch—a military hero, like Sulla or Caesar, head-strong and impetuous, who would set himself up as a dictator and abolish the rule of law. The learned were right up to a point: Jackson was head-strong and impetuous. Yet, at the end of his two terms as president, Jackson stepped aside and the bland, but politically artful, Martin Van Buren took his place. For the remainder of the 19th century, the main complaint about America’s democratic electorate was not that they handed power to demagogues, but to non-entities. Lincoln, who was elected as a non-entity, was transformed by events beyond his control into a great man; but he wasn’t elected because anyone thought he already was one.
It is true that various American presidents have been called demagogues by their opponents, including Lincoln. But, judged by the standard of Plutarch’s classical demagogues, not to mention the far more odious demagogues of the 20th century, such as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Mao, the United States has an outstanding record of refusing to entrust too much power into the hands of any single individual. Some might want to explain this by referring to the checks and balances of the United States Constitution, but the real credit for this achievement should go to the homespun pragmatism of ordinary Americans, familiarly known as common sense.
This, however, brings us to the strongest argument that can be made in support of the “too dumb for democracy” thesis. Mere common sense might have been enough during the Age of Jackson and, indeed, for several generations following. But common sense is simply not enough to deal with the complexity and challenges of the 21st century. This is why we need to rely upon experts to make decisions for us.
Let us recall that the Cornell psychologists offered up their research as if they were engaging in a purely scientific study. Perhaps they even thought they were. Yet their findings provide obvious ammunition to those who advocate that the United States should adopt the so-called European model of government, in which virtually all the major issues facing our nation would be decided by experts in the relevant field, and not by the ill-informed popular electorate. This argument, decked out in the latest psychological apparel, actually goes back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, all of whom believed that the common people, the demos, were not intelligent or dispassionate enough to govern themselves. Indeed, the Cornell psychologists under Dunning are only updating the classical political argument for elite rule.
The historical evidence is that American democracy has flourished quite well.
There is, however, a serious problem with this update. From the time of the ancient Greeks up until the Age of Jackson, proponents of political elitism have championed the rule of the wise man, and not the rule of the highly specialized expert with advanced degrees. This makes a critical difference. Wise men, by nature, can recognize other wise men. As we noted earlier, the same was true of the learned men who lived in the Age of Jackson, who could recognize each other thanks to the shared knowledge of classical literature. But the same isn’t true of the highly specialized experts of today.
The “too much to know” argument doesn’t just apply to the average guy; it also applies to today’s experts. An outstanding scholar in one particular field, after all, is bound to be a complete ignoramus in many others. Take the case of someone we’ll call Frank. Frank is one of the world’s most brilliant neurologists. Obviously, Frank is in a position to pass an expert judgment on the views of his fellow neurologists, but what about the ideas of an economist? In dealing with areas outside his own field of specialization, Frank would appear to have no cognitive advantage over his automobile mechanic, George.
The Cornell psychologists would probably respond to this objection along the following lines. Unlike his mechanic George, Frank will be able to recognize who the real experts in other fields are. Following the maxim, “It takes one to know one,” Frank will be able to detect a genuine expert in economics by asking the right questions. Do they teach economics at a prestigious university? Have they won the Nobel Prize? Were their articles and books favorably reviewed by their peers?
Admittedly, there is something persuasive about this response. After all, this is how many of us actually go about deciding how much respect to give to someone’s opinion. But respecting a man’s opinion is not the same thing as verifying its truth for yourself. Indeed, to replace the question, “Is Dr. So-and-so right about the economy” with the question, “What is Dr. So-and-so’s standing in the field of economics?” is a clear example of the seductive cognitive blunder that Daniel Kahneman addresses in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.
A little reflection on our nation’s past suggests that if the dumb were going to do democracy in, they would have done it long ago.
In a chapter entitled “Answering an Easier Question,” Kahneman explains that when human beings face a question that is too difficult for them to answer, they often substitute an easier question for it. The easy question naturally provides them with an easy answer, but this easy answer does not really address the actual question facing them, luring people into making irrational decisions.
Many years before I became acquainted with Kahneman’s work, I was given an excellent lesson in easy question substitution by my mother. Whenever I took her to see a new doctor, she would invariably ask me the moment we left his office, “Did you like him?” She didn’t ask me this question out of curiosity or politeness. She was trying to decide whether she should see this particular doctor again. What she really wanted to know was, “Is this doctor a good doctor?” But because she lacked the expert knowledge to answer this question, she substituted another question that was far simpler: Did I like him?
I used to tease my mother for posing this question. I patiently explained to her that it was irrelevant whether I liked her doctor or not. My personal feelings about him said nothing whatsoever about his medical qualification, especially since I knew nothing about medicine myself. Yet my mother was only doing what we all do when we substitute an easy but irrelevant question for the dauntingly complicated question that actually faces us. But the danger of this approach is obvious. What if I had been charmed by a dangerous crackpot, whose treatment might have shortened my mother’s life?
Frank, our hypothetical neurologist, will probably not behave like my mother when it comes to appraising the policy recommendations of an economist. Instead of asking his son whether he likes the economist personally, Frank will ask questions such as: Do other economists respect him? How often have his articles been cited? Where does he teach? Yet what all these questions have in common is that they are easy-to-answer substitutes for the real question—is the economist actually giving good advice? True, Frank’s substitute questions may appear more sophisticated than my mother’s much simpler one, but in truth they are no more rational. Investigating the credentials of a policymaker fails to address the real question: Will the economic policy actually work? So while experts in one field may be able to identify experts in other fields, they will be in no better position than the average Joe to judge whether these experts are giving good advice.
Let us agree that there are a lot of dumb ideas floating around. Is this any proof that Americans have gotten stupider? Not at all.
Ironically, it is modernity’s very demand for expert opinion that most threatens experts’ status as cognitive authorities whose judgment can be implicitly relied upon by the general public. The more we call in the experts to help us out, the more we discover that experts are by no means unanimous on any of the topics that are of serious importance to us. Worse, there seems to be a law that as the number of experts in a field increases, so too does the number of conflicting expert opinions.
To take only the latest example, consider the question of whether men should take the PSA screening test for prostate cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has said that they should not, while most urologists say they should. Faced with this disagreement among experts, how is the ordinary man to decide this question? And if experts can’t agree about an issue as completely devoid of political significance as the PSA test, how much faith can we put in their objectivity when it comes to politically charged questions? In these cases, an expert in one field will tend to agree with an expert in a different field, not because they agree on the scientific facts, but merely because they share the same political alignment, which is a quite different thing.
In the final analysis, it is as foolish to blame the experts for not agreeing as it is to blame the average guy for not being an expert. The difficulty we human beings face in making the right decision is not owing to our lack of smarts. The challenge we face is one we all face together—it stems from the maddening complexity and relentless perversity of the world we live in. It is cognitive hubris to think that any degree of intelligence or expertise can do away with this most stubborn of all stubborn facts. The best hope for democracy still lies in the unregulated marketplace of ideas— though, as in any market, the cautionary maxim “Let the buyer beware” remains the surest safeguard against frauds, cheats, and charlatans, including those waving their PhDs in your face.
FURTHER READING: Harris also writes “The Hayek Effect: The Political Consequences of Planned Austerity,” “The Occupy Movement and the Communism of Everyday Life,” and “Science and the Republican Brain.” Jonah Goldberg contributes "Republicans Have Bad Brains?" Alex J. Pollock says "Smart Will Never Mean 'Not Wrong'."
Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group