Friday, July 10, 2009

The Problems with Democracy I

A new study by the Pew Research Center shows that there is a vast disconnect between the views of American scientists and the American public. Only about half of the public agrees that climate change is caused by humans, and 11 percent believes climate change doesn't exist at all. About one third of Americans believe there is still an ongoing debate on the subject. Meanwhile, nearly all scientists believe that human activity is directly related to climate change.

Many in the scientific community acknowledge that they have not done enough, and scientists in general do not do enough, to actively engage the public with regard to their research and findings. The media also deserves some blame for focusing too much on "both sides" of issues, instead of on objective expertise. But ultimately, scientists tend not to have any more say in public policy than anyone else, and in many cases, are largely overlooked or ignored.

The notion of American democracy is predicated upon the will of the people. And though it is not always the people who in fact have their will carried out (I'll touch on this in a later post), it is clear that the will of the people—the laypeople, if you will—is not necessarily the most logical, utilitarian, or even remotely beneficial drive for public policy. Indeed, the average person is caught up in their own narrow context within society (How much money will this cost me? How does this benefit me? Why should I care?).

One of the biggest selling points for conservatism is its championship of low taxes. And don't get me wrong; I don't like paying taxes either, and I happen to think there is a huge amount of government spending that is unnecessary, wasteful, and even harmful. But many Republican politicians capitalize on Americans' general attitudes by justifying our seemingly innate selfishness with their tirades against spending—even on programs that will ultimately serve to benefit far more people in the long run (e.g. universal health care).

Americans don't want to be taxed and don't want to have our money taken away. Americans don't want "government standing between you and your doctor," and don't want to have to pay more for the energy we consume. And so it makes sense that politicians exploit these widespread aversions. But this black and white idea of government staying out of our business and leaving us and our money alone simply doesn't make sense. In a world where no perfect market exists, it is government's responsibility to protect consumers, provide people with basic services that everyone should be entitled to (education, health care, public safety, etc.), and address negative externalities that affect citizens who would otherwise not be able to defend themselves.

When people are thinking strictly about their wallets—in part because politicians and the media are only fanning the flames of citizens' all-too-narrow perspectives of public policy—it serves to undermine the well being of society as a whole. Americans too often don't possess the wherewithal to make sound judgments about what policies would be best for them and the country as whole, especially in the long run.

And this doesn't even account for the increasingly frightening reality that people outside of the US are greatly affected by our activities. In the case of climate change, the people who are most vulnerable to losing their livelihoods, largely because of our country's exorbitant consumption habits, have absolutely no voice—within the context of our narrow Westphalian nation-state democracy—to be able to enact or even influence any changes.

The idea of the "perfection" of republican democracy is still hotly debated. People with no expertise or far-reaching knowledge about most subjects elect representatives—often for reasons that have little or nothing to do with policy initiatives—who are meant to serve the needs and wants of their constituents (and often exploit constituents' fears and selfish tendencies to maintain their own power). Policymakers and their advisers are too often far disconnected from the scientific community, and see no political advantage to seeking expert advice. Meanwhile, their policies can affect Americans and non-Americans alike who are unable to influence the political process at all. Modern democracy has serious flaws that continue to go unaddressed today.

Then again, as Winston Churchill once said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried." Benevolent dictatorship, anyone?

Images: Statue of Liberty (, taxes (, Julius Caesar (


  1. "Americans too often don't possess the wherewithal to make sound judgments". Agreed! The danger isn't that people are flawed, but that they seek rationalization for their flaws and so vote and act even more according to their vices. The true definition of conservatism. You make a lot of good points. But you should cite other blogs so that you start getting traffic.

  2. The possession of the wherewithal to make sound judgments is a key aspect missing in the American mindset, but why is it missing?

    Putting aside the lazy folks who do not want to be informed, look at where people are getting their information. It's not a marketplace of ideas anymore; it's a business and ideas are not based on facts but what people will buy. Should we really be listening to Glenn Beck or Al Sharpton about anything? Do people really expect these pundits to give it to us straight?

    People flock to these personalities because they simply reinforce what they already personally believe. It's sad that these are the people who are shepherding a lot of America's sheep, but it's where people get their "information" without being bombarded with facts and logic that may contradict their way of thinking; it's also the most convenient.

    So yes, we need to be more informed and we need to do more of our own objective research, but we also need more trustworthy and bright television personalities (and other conduits of mass media information) whose primary goal is information, not money.

    I don't see it happening, but a man can dream, right?