Anti-Democracy Sentiment Going Mainstream

This article is going viral right now on Hacker News: In Praise of Passivity, by Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado.

Political actors, including voters, activists, and leaders, are often ignorant of basic facts relevant to policy choices. Even experts have little understanding of the working of society and little ability to predict future outcomes. Only the most simple and uncontroversial political claims can be counted on. This is partly because political knowledge is very difficult to attain, and partly because individuals are not sufficiently motivated to attain it. As a result, the best advice for political actors is very often to simply stop trying to solve social
problems, since interventions not based on precise understanding are likely to do more harm than good.

This article could be posted anywhere, both on liberal and conservative communities, and it would be praised. Anti-democratic sentiment, as part of the recent backlash against ‘low information’, transcends the left/right dichotomy. Especially since 2013, on forums and communities like Reddit, Hacker News, and 4chan, and in general mainstream discourse, people, particularly smart, well-informed people, have become increasingly skeptical of democracy, for many reasons:

1. Democracy is predicated on the falsehood or wishful belief that humans are intrinsically of equal worth (one person, one vote). However, Social Darwinism, which is becoming acutely relevant in post-2008 society, as wealth inequality keeps widening (particularly with smart people earning more than the less intelligent and having more social status), throws cold water on the hopeful belief that everyone is intrinsically, upon conception, equal. No, by virtue of IQ, which is a biological trait, some are perhaps born ‘better’ than others, and this cognitive disparity manifests in individual socioeconomic outcomes. Even liberals who wish to believe in the false god of egalitarianism and equality, when pressed, concede IQ is accurate measure of the worth/value of an individual to society. Why else are parents, many of whom identify themselves as liberal, in New York spending so much money and time on tutoring and other programs in the hope of having their children admitted selective elementary schools that screen for IQ, in order to give their children an ‘edge’ in today’s hyper-competitive economy. When you read stories of high-IQ web 2.0 founders and venture capitalists making hundreds of billions of dollars seemingly overnight, or high-IQ homeowners in Silicon Valley making millions of dollars as their homes appreciate, or how wealth inequality keeps widening between advanced degree holders and everyone else, it’s hard to accept with a strait face that IQ is just a number or that everyone is equal. Maybe equal under a set of laws or the ability to cast only a single vote, but that’s not saying much. I’m pretty sure most people, if given the choice to forfeit their vote in exchange for a million dollars, would choose the money.

He’s right:

2. As the article mentions, the very people who cast the votes, and thus influence policy, are often ignorant of the issues, as also noted by anti-democracy pioneer Bryan Caplan. Also, voters are persuaded by convenient narratives and sound bites that are repeated by the news media, not cold-hard reality. Sometimes the ‘best’ or most feasible policy, of the alternatives, is not the one that is the most popular. Obama came to power promising ‘retribution’ against Wall St., fewer wars and less interventionism, as well as affordable healthcare and education, student loan debt reform, and an abundance of good-paying jobs for all. It was a message that, not surprisingly, appealed to many voters, but failed to live up to the hype and high expectations. Letting people ‘vote for what they want’ is the fundamental problem with democracy. Most people won’t realize their expectations are unreasonable and or come at a cost to a minority, as well as being naive on important issues. Libertarians, more so than most ideologies, realize the limitations of democracy. Although anyone can have unrealistic expectations or be naive, libertarians and reactionaries are at least aware of this problem, whereas too many view democracy as infallible or an unalloyed good.

3. Efforts costing trillions of dollars and costing many lives to spread democracy in the Middle East, largely failed.

4. Democracy does a poor job allocating public resources, compared to alternatives like utilitarianism. Democracy is about what ‘feels good’ (every life is precious, worth saving); utilitarianism is about optimization. Two examples include special education and healthcare. Because of the belief that every life is worth saving at any cost, a disproportionate amount of public healthcare (5% of patients are consuming 50-80% of healthcare resources) is spent on costly end-of-life care, as well as for rare diseases. Any politician that advocated rationing of pubic healthcare, such as by IQ or prognosis, to control government spending would obviously lose, with expected parallels drawn between rationing and ‘Nazism’ – a label that is carelessly thrown around and has a tendency of shutting down debate. The same misallocation problem is also observed in education, particularly special education, which gets substantially more funding than gifted education even though both extremes are equally represented on the Bell Curve. Instead, too much money is spent on those who will likely achieve the least.

Related: On Not Letting Cognitive Capital Go To Waste

5. Democracy can hurt the productive minority. This is why the founding fathers created a constitutional republic instead of a democracy, to protect land owners who were the minority, and to prevent ‘mob rule’. The phrase “tyranny of the majority” was used by John Adams in 1788, and gained further prominence in Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville. James Madison, in Federalist Paper 51, wrote: “It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.” But there are two extremes here: as shown in #4, democracy means spending too much resources on less productive minorities, but democracy can also hurt more productive minorities.

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