Are Americans Too Dumb for Democracy?
June 13, 2012
The best hope for democracy still lies in the unregulated marketplace of ideas, in which the maxim ‘Let the buyer beware’ remains the surest safeguard against cheats and charlatans, including those waving their PhDs in your face.
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?
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.
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.
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…