Plato, Aristotle, Democracy, and the Quality of Political Decisions

A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers. Plato
Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth. Aristotle

I’m with Aristotle here. Plato is well known for his aversion to democracy (see here; Aristotle is more moderate in this respect). With this quote, Plato initiated the long tradition of juxtaposing rule by experts (or meritocracy, aristocracy or whatever) and rule by the people (majority rule in a democracy). This tradition is, of course, intuitively attractive. Politics is a profession like any other. You wouldn’t have a popular vote on the best design for a bridge, so why on government policy and legislation? Better give political power to those who know what they are doing. (In Plato’s case philosophers, but I guess his contemporary followers would prefer other types of expertise).

I accept part of this argument, but I include the need for popular control of experts, thereby safeguarding democracy to some extent. What I want to do now in the current post, is go a step further, and claim that the quality of political decisions doesn’t necessarily or always depend on expert knowledge of the matters at hand, but rather on mass participation in the decision process, and hence on democracy. Or, more precisely, on a democracy that isn’t just about electing and controlling experts but also about large numbers of people participating in the determination of policy and legislation. The important thing here is the element of MASS participation, of numbers.

What’s interesting in the Plato quote above is the implied opposition between knowledge and numbers, typical of Plato of course. But we can turn this around, and say that knowledge DEPENDS on numbers. The equal participation of large numbers of people in a democracy results, perhaps not in more knowledge stricto sensu, but at least in better decisions compared to the political inequality that goes with rule by experts. The opinion of the people, as established through democratic decision procedures, is – potentially at least, and given certain preconditions – better than any other opinion (which does not mean that the people are infallible).

Why is this? In ideal circumstances, the opinion of the people results from an inclusive, widespread and free discussion, guaranteed by human rights, among large numbers of people who all have an equal say. A discussion in which as many people as possible participate in an equal way contains the largest possible number of arguments for and against a proposal. Such a discussion, therefore, makes it more likely that false arguments are refuted and that good arguments are recognized and are widely tested. Two heads are better than one, and 4 better than 2 etc.

A group of individuals is more intelligent than the sum of the individual intellects. Massive participation means massive criticism and this improves the quality of a proposal which can survive this massive criticism.

Political equality is a value because it improves the quality of decisions. This idea is also behind John Stuart Mill’s defense of equal political participation rights for women:

The inequality of the sexes has deprived society of a vast pool of talent. If women had the free use of their faculties along with the same prizes and encouragements as men, there would be a doubling of the mass of mental faculties available for the higher service of humanity. The injustice perpetuated against women has depleted the human condition: every restraint on freedom of conduct of any of their human fellow creatures … dries up pro tanto the principal fountain of human happiness, and leaves the species less rich, to an inappreciable degree, in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being. John Stuart Mill

Excluding or neglecting certain opinions or certain people from political decision procedures does not only harm the interests of the people concerned but also harms the thinking process of the community and the quality of common decisions. The best decisions – on average – require the equal participation and activity of as many persons as possible.

Elitism has always been very popular, both at the right and at the left of the political spectrum. Decisions of the “common people” are said to be stupid by definition. The people are not qualified to rule and are perhaps, not even qualified to choose their rulers. An elite must rule the people and this is in the best interest of the people. The people must be protected against their own stupid decisions. Only an elite has the necessary qualifications to rule. It knows better than the people what the people need and it knows better how to achieve the real goals of the people. That is the legacy of Plato.

However, an elite is more likely to make wrong decisions because it does not know all possible arguments and it does not have to submit itself to criticism. Large scale discussion is not an obstacle for action; it is a necessary condition for wise action.

The majority of the plain people will day in and day out make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller body of men will make in trying to govern them. Theodore Roosevelt

Be that as it may, how do I explain the phenomenon of demagogy or the often very irrational, unreasonable and emotional reactions of the people (lynching, for example, or voting for Hitler)? Of course, nobody in his right mind would maintain that the people are always reasonable, rational or infallible. The quality of the decisions of the people can only be good in the setting of ideal democratic procedures in which discussion, deliberation and argumentation take a prominent place. This setting is an ideal but many existing procedures come very close to this ideal. If the right institutions, mentalities etc. are given, then the ideal can become a fact.

Besides, individuals or elites are often just as unreasonable, emotional or irrational as large groups of people. It is even easier to excite a small group than it is to excite a large group, because it is more difficult to have a unity of feeling in a large group. There are more conflicts and contradictions in large groups than in small groups, which makes it unlikely that a large group of people gets excited in the same way.

What is Democracy? (39): Government of the Stupid, by the Stupid, and for the Stupid?

When the merits and demerits of democracy are discussed, we often hear that it’s not very wise to let the people govern themselves. Democracy must be rejected because the will of the people is necessarily ill-considered, emotional, stupid, based on instinctive and hasty reactions and so forth. The people are said to be disinterested, apathetic, indifferent and generally not smart enough to deal with the complex problems of today, and this is a sufficient reason to exclude the people from political decisions. They are not qualified to rule and are perhaps not even qualified to choose their rulers. Something which no amount of education can possible remedy. Politics should therefore be something inherently unequal.

This rejection of democracy is only correct when applied to a limited kind of democracy in which there is no place for public debate and active participation guaranteed by freedom rights. It is evident that the debates which precede and which are almost automatically engendered by a democratic vote, a referendum or a council meeting, vastly increase the willingness and the ability of the people to judge complex matters. If the people are allowed to vote on a certain issue, then many of them will instantly start to debate the issue and will become aware of the different arguments in favor of and against a certain solution. The same is true for those merely watching the debates.

This awareness not only increases the knowledge of the people, but also their interest in the issue and in related issues. Political participation eliminates the lack of knowledge and interest harmful to its functioning, at least to a certain degree. Why would you be interested in and knowledgeable about something if you can never use your knowledge in active deliberation and decision taking? Why would you have an opinion if this opinion will never have serious consequences, and if nothing depends on your decision?

The “stupidity argument” against democracy is therefore circular: it excludes people from politics because they are supposedly too stupid for this “profession”, but they lack knowledge precisely because they are excluded.

What is Democracy? (26): Democracy or Experts?

The proper judge of the expert is not another expert, but the user: The warrior and not the blacksmith for the sword, the horseman and not the saddler for the saddle. And evidently, for all public (common) affairs, the user, and thus the best judge, is the polis. Cornelius Castoriadis

The best method of choice is to choose experts by their success. The best experts to choose are the ones whose bridges have not fallen down. In this the more views about what is actually happening, or has happened, the better. Dictators or oligarchies are more insulated from what is going on than the people at large. To find out whether the people have actually been fed, the best people to consult are the people themselves. Ross Harrison

A frequently heard argument against democracy is that the job of governing requires expert knowledge. The government is better left in the hands of experts. The “populace” has other things to do than investing in the knowledge necessary for governing. I’ve mentioned this argument in my post on Plato.

Now, let’s leave aside for a moment the obvious objection against this argument – that many acts of government have nothing to do with knowledge but are rather a matter of judgment, values, personality, character, conviction, courage etc. All things in which no one is an “expert”.

Let us grant that certain parts of the act of governing are better left to experts with the appropriate knowledge, for example the management of the road and bridge infrastructure as in the quote above. But even though the people sometimes need individuals with expert knowledge in places of government, it is up to the people to choose and judge the experts and the result of the experts’ work, because this kind of judgment requires as much information on what is happening as possible.

It is wrong to say that you always need an expert to judge an expert. The role of experts must always be integrated in and subject to a democratic system. Experts should only play a supporting role. They use their knowledge and truth to assist the people, often at the level of means and not at the level of goals.

First, there has to be a decision on whether or not to build a bridge and only then can the experts come into play. The decision to build a bridge is not only based on facts, mathematics, if-then calculations etc. Values and interest play an important part (for example, ecological values). It is up to the people to decide on their goals, and when values come into play there often is no knowledge available to do this. They decide if they need a bridge and they determine which values will be served by having a bridge and which other values can possibly be harmed by the bridge. These value-questions will rarely be the consequence of knowledge and truth. They cannot, therefore, be left to experts.

In politics, values are more important than truth or knowledge. I do not think that there can ever be a certain answer to the question whether a particular bridge ought to be built or not, whether dishonest asylum seekers ought to be expelled or not, whether education has to continue until the age of 18 or not, etc. This kind of decision will be based on discussion, debate and arguments, not on truth. Once there is a decision on these questions, we can leave the technical aspects to the experts: how do we expel dishonest asylum seekers, which techniques do we use, what is the planning etc. It may be possible to find elements of truth and knowledge at this level, in which case we may need experts. But it can happen that these techniques again give rise to value questions (for example, the use of stock cars for the expulsion of dishonest asylum seekers).