It’s easy to feel discouraged in the United States of America sometimes.
Yet through the years, the more widely I read, and the more I listen to politicians, scholars, and other influential people discuss and debate any given topic in any given field of expertise, it doesn’t seem likely that anyone exists, however brilliant, who could know or understand enough about any subject to craft public policy on their own. No one mind can hold all the relevant knowledge that should be brought to bear in crafting a good law. It’s not just technical knowledge that’s the problem: an expert in a field could, at least theoretically, access enough of that sort of knowledge on their own, from their colleagues, their library, and the Internet, though it still seems unrealistic that one person could put it all together in a reasonable time frame. The far bigger problem is that no one person could escape their own biases sufficiently to craft laws that are just for everyone.
Let’s consider pre-Revolutionary France for an extreme example of how a meritocratic but short-sighted few, ruling over a non-participatory citizenry, can bring about societal collapse. France, like other European societies at the time, was ruled by a heritable meritocracy of a monarch and an aristocracy, and an appointed clergy, who all had the wealth and leisure, unavailable to most people, to afford an education. These ruled a populace which they kept in strict subjection, for the people’s own good, of course. Yet these meritocrats could not put themselves into the sabots (wooden clogs of the peasantry) of the majority of the people. (The Estates General, made up of representatives from various classes, advised the king, but had little power to begin with, and it decreased over time; the Third Estate, made up of the poorest members of French society, had the least power, and the burden of taxation fell almost entirely on them.) As they saw it, the classes of society were properly kept in their place to fulfill their respective roles, and to undermine this structure would be to undermine the delicate balance of a functioning society. They were proven wrong: the intolerable condition of their lives caused the laboring classes to revolt and overthrow their rulers. While the monarch, the aristocracy, and the clergy considered themselves best suited for rule, they lacked the knowledge, the insight available only through the experience of what it takes to make the life of a laboring person not only bearable enough forestall rebellion, but satisfying and remunerative enough to encourage more productivity. They lacked the epistemic humility that wise people have. If the ruling elites were more informed, say, by the input of the people they ruled over, perhaps they could have thought of ways to harness human energy and facilitate creativity as market societies would later do. But since they shut themselves off from the input of the majority of the population, their policies were ill-informed and short-sighted, and their society eventually collapsed. This was the fate of so many undemocratic societies, that it seems most likely to be the fate of all.
‘But wait a minute!’ you may object. Why would we expect better results in a democracy, when it’s at least as likely and probably more, that the average person’s vote is based on just as narrow, less-than-fully-informed self-interest as that of the aforementioned meritocrats?
So it’s not that the average voter must be wise or fair for their vote to count, though it’s better that they are, since this speeds up the process of creating a better government. What matters most is that society as a whole is well informed. A society can only become knowledgeable enough to create a government that’s well-functioning, impartial, and more conducive to the flourishing of all of its constituents, by this crowd-sourcing of information. Since no one mind, or no few minds, can hold enough information or understand enough points of view to do what’s best for everyone, it’s everyone who must provide the necessary knowledge.
Let’s consider a modern example of how not voting not only leads to more oppression, but to well-intentioned yet bad policy resulting from self-imposed ignorance: the disenfranchisement of convicts. Those convicted of serious crimes are punished with the loss of some of their civil rights, at least for awhile, and this often includes the right to vote. While I understand the deterrent effect of many types of punishment, including the loss of some rights and privileges, the loss of the vote does little good in this respect. Each individual prisoner loses little when they lose the vote, but society loses a lot: as we punish criminals by taking away their right to vote, we undermine our society by making it that much less informed.
As we are only significantly realizing now, our criminal justice system is not only rife with mistakes, but with affronts to human dignity and assaults on human rights. For example, we’re discovering that our ‘common-sense’ reliance on eyewitness testimony and police interrogation techniques has led to an unacceptable rate of false convictions. We’re finally discovering that our ‘tried-and-true’ methods of police interrogation and psychological questioning routinely generate false testimony and false confessions. This includes 20%-25% of exonerations for serious crimes based on DNA evidence (an alarming rate, since relevant DNA evidence is available only in a substantial minority of cases). There are a wealth of examples of people convicted because of the brain’s ability to create false memories, especially if an authority figure or medical ‘professional’ induces them, or because eyewitnesses misunderstand or misremember what they saw. Consider the rash of cases in the 1980’s and 1990’s where scores of childcare workers were falsely convicted of ritualistic child rape and torture. Or the Norfolk, Virgina murder/rape case, in which four grown military men (who had passed mental- and bodily-health tests to join the Navy) were coerced into giving contradictory confessions. The list of problems with our justice system does not end there, not by a long shot: there’s our long history of junk forensic science, prison overcrowding, official indifference to prison rape, solitary confinement-induced mental illness, and law-enforcement policies which generate higher recidivism rates and help turn petty criminals into hardened, violent ones through over-punishment.
None of this is to say that merit doesn’t matter, of course it does. In modern democratic societies, we not only vote directly for specific laws and taxes, we vote for representatives, specialists whose job it is to be better informed on the issues than the average person, or have expert advisers, or have achieved a higher level of education. A democratic republic such as ours can be seen as a type of meritocracy, since the idea is that the people, as a whole, elect representatives based on their merits as well as on the likelihood that they will best represent their constituents’ interests. But even so, the fact that they are voted in by all of the people still ensures that the whole range of interests are represented, and the widest possible range of knowledge is brought to bear.
Here’s my two cents on the matter: VOTE! You matter! Your interests, your input matter! Don’t just throw your hands up in the air, sigh, stay home, and play into the hands of those who have, in recent years, been throwing up roadblocks to keep certain people from the polls, disproportionately effecting the poor, those disabled by age or illness, and otherwise disadvantaged people. After all, do you think it’s likely that such an effort would be made by those in power if voting doesn’t matter? Think about it.
Sources and Inspiration:
Berlow, Alan. ‘What Happened in Norfolk.’ New York Times Magazine. August 19th, 2007.
Childress, Sarah. ‘Why Voter ID Laws Aren’t Really About Fraud’. Oct 20, 2014. Frontline.
‘Day-care sex-abuse hysteria’. (2014, December 29). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
‘Estates General (France)’. (2014, October 5). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Fontevecchia, Agustino. ‘As New York City Crushes the Food Truck Business, Mexicue Pushes a New Model’. Forbes. May 23rd, 2014. ‘http://www.forbes.com/sites/afontevecchia/2014/05/23/...
Fraser, Scott. ‘Why Eyewitnesses Get It Wrong’ TED talk. May 2012
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2011.
Lightman, David. ‘Wall Street crisis is culmination of 28 years of deregulation’. McClatchyDC. Sept 15th, 2008. http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2008/09/15/52559/wall-street-crisis-is-culmination.html
Loftus, Elizabeth. “The Fiction of Memory” TED talk. June 2013.
‘Meritocracy’. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Jan 8, 2015.
Mills, Steve and Maurice Possley. ‘Man Executed on Disproved Forensics’. Chicago Tribune, Dec 9th, 2004. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0412090169dec09-story.html#page=1
Perrilo, Jennifer T. and Saul M. Kassin. ‘The Lie, The Bluff, and False Confessions’. Law and Human Behavior (academic journal of tje American Psychology-Law Society). Aug 24th, 2010.
Perry, Marvin. Western Civilization: A Brief History, Vol II: From the 1400’s. Boston: Wadsworth, 2009 https://books.google.com/books?id=7SIKAAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Perry,…
Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Had Declined. New York: Viking Penguin, 2011 https://books.google.com/books?id=J7ATQb6LZX0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=inauthor…