23 December 2009

On Voting Tests

What I advocate, here, is this: Whereas (for obvious reasons) people are required to demonstrate competence in driving before being permitted to drive automobiles on public roads, therefore (similarly) before people are permitted to become engaged in democratic governance, they should be required to pass relevant competency tests. Stated negatively, just as incompetents aren’t permitted to drive on public roads, they shouldn’t be permitted to participate in public referendums or elections.

Almost 2400 years ago, Aristotle saw a root problem with democracies:
In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme.
An additional root problem with democracy is, as Churchill said:
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
Henry Mencken added what seems to be an especially poignant description of the American form of democracy:
Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses.
In fact, sometime I think that the U.S. is hell-bent on attempting to validate Aristotle’s prediction:
Republics decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms.

But setting aside such negative assessments and predictions, consider Churchill’s famous statement:
It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.
Consider, also, George Bernard Shaw’s assessment:
Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.
What I would ask the reader to consider is the possibility of maintaining democracies (i.e., “people rule”) but remedying the problem of “election by the incompetent many” by specifying which of the people are permitted to participate in governing their nation.

Perhaps readers will agree that a superficial reason why “democracy is the worst form of government” is because of the Tragedy of the Commons. That is, people (either individually or in groups) as well as corporations conclude that it’s to their immediate advantage to take what they can, while they can, from “the commons” (resulting, e.g., in resource depletion, pollution, climate change, and of course, both individual and corporate welfare, e.g., in the form of tax benefits).

The cause of the Tragedy of the Commons is, of course, that advantages of robbing the commons are focused (on individuals or on corporations that exploit the commons) while disadvantages are diffuse. For example, although an individual fisherman may realize that fishery stocks are being irreversibly depleted, yet he has economic incentives to focus on catching what fish he can, to try to earn enough money to get through the year. Similarly, corporations will seek exemptions from specific labor and environmental restrictions, so they can be successful against domestic and foreign competitors.

Equally obvious is that the solution to the Tragedy of Commons is to establish relevant laws (restricting use of specific commons). As James Bovard said:
Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.
Legislators have learned, however, that if they want to be re-elected, promulgating such laws in a representative democracy requires approval by the electorate – who in turn must be convinced that protecting specific commons is to their advantage. I therefore suggest that it’s “superficial” to claim that the Tragedy of the Commons is the reason why “democracy is the worst form of government”. Instead, I suggest that the real reason (and the real tragedy) is that, in so many instances, the electorate (“the incompetent many”) is either uniformed or misinformed.

Thomas Jefferson saw the problem and proposed his famous solution:
I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.
It’s easy to agree with Jefferson’s solution in principle, but in practice, huge difficulties have arisen and continue to arise.

Some of the difficulties in applying Jefferson’s solution can be traced to Aristotle’s assessment:
All men by nature desire knowledge.
Support for Aristotle's assessment might now be put this way: as a general rule, knowledge increases our chance of survival; therefore, our desire for knowledge is now part of our nature, “programmed into our genes”.

It doesn’t necessarily follow, however, that the knowledge (which we’ve been “programmed” to seek) need be correct. In the long run, genetic advantages usually accrue if the knowledge is correct, but for short durations, individuals apparently are satisfied more with possessing almost any knowledge (even if it’s incorrect!) than with confirmation that their “knowledge” is valid. Stated differently, it seems that, more than they desire accurate information, many and perhaps most people desire certainty. As a result, many people (perhaps the majority) are prone to adopting any of a huge number of “conspiracy theories” (especially if such theories are promoted with certainty) as well as similar, wild (and usually simplistic) speculations.

Practical difficulties with Jefferson’s proposal are then apparent. Thus, when Jefferson suggests that “we inform [the people’s] discretion”, two immediate questions are: 1) Who will do the informing? and 2) Are the people sufficiently intelligent and educated to discern which “information” is valid and which is bogus? For example, although scientists are currently trying to inform people (for their benefits) that the current rate of consumption of the Earth’s resources is unsustainable, that greenhouse gases will cause global warming, and that no gods exist or have ever existed (the latter to try to convince people to base their opinions on evidence rather than data-less speculations, thereby to try to convince people to tackle our problems more intelligently); yet at the same time (and for their own benefits), corporations promote more consumption of their goods and services, fossil-fuel industries promote the idea that anthropogenic global warming is a hoax, and organized religions promote the wild speculations that their gods exist.

Of course, Jefferson also saw that the root problem was a poorly informed (or misinformed) public:
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.
Throughout his life, therefore, he worked to improve public education:
I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people… Preach… a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know… that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.
But although Jefferson was prepared to wrestle with securing legislative approval for universal education, he encountered another problem for which he was apparently unprepared, namely, the unwillingness of some parents to have their children educated. About this problem, Jefferson wrote:
In the constitution of Spain… there was a principle entirely new to me… that no person born after that day should ever acquire the rights of citizenship until he could read and write. It is impossible sufficiently to estimate the wisdom of this provision. Of all those which have been thought of for securing fidelity in the administration of the government, constant reliance to the principles of the constitution, and progressive amendments with the progressive advances of the human mind or changes in human affairs, it is the most effectual…

Is it a right or a duty in society to take care of their infant members in opposition to the will of the parent? How far does this right and duty extend? – to guard the life of the infant, his property, his instruction, his morals? The Roman father was supreme in all these: we draw a line, but where? – public sentiment does not seem to have traced it precisely… It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible… education of the infant against the will of the father…

What is proposed… is to remove the objection of expense, by offering education gratis, and to strengthen parental excitement by the disfranchisement of his child while uneducated. Society has certainly a right to disavow him whom they offer, and are permitted to qualify for the duties of a citizen. If we do not force instruction, let us at least strengthen the motives to receive it when offered.
As far as I know, such a proposal for “disfranchisement… while uneducated” was never enacted (at least, not in the U.S.). Yet, given what is currently occurring in many of the world’s democracies (perhaps especially in the U.S.), with too many youngsters not diligently pursuing their education and with so many “special interests” skillfully using the mass media and modern marketing-techniques to promote their own interests (and their lies!), and given that the only bulwark against such propaganda is informed and critical thoughts of the people, I therefore think that, to revitalize democracies, it’s time to resurrect Jefferson’s proposal, “trace it precisely”, and gain voter approval to implement it.

Specifically, I recommend initiatives that culminate in national laws requiring that, before becoming engaged in politics at any level of government (and either as a voter or as a candidate for office), all youngsters be first required to pass a nation-wide, standard examination, demonstrating general knowledge as well as critical- (or evaluative-) thinking capabilities.

And I’ll add that gaining support for such initiatives in many western nations (possibly requiring constitutional amendments) may be easier than might first be thought, since so many current voters seem discouraged both with the high-rate of school dropouts and with the poor quality of the education at so many public schools, maybe especially in the U.S. and the U.K. In other nations, different root problems must be overcome. In Pakistan, India, and Indonesia, for example, the cause of the “incompetent many” seems to be the criminal failure of leaders to invest in quality, public education. In addition, essentially all of us in other nations could learn from what seems to be occurring in Japan, S. Korea, and Taiwan, where followers of traditions established by Confucius and the Buddha have already adopted Aristotle’s wise prescription:
Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life; those, the art of living well.