The Paradox of Representative Democracy

The paradox of representative democracy is that we elect representatives because we are collectively ignorant, but we can only evaluate and choose those representatives by the same ignorance.

[Video: Undecided Voters]

We elect representatives to get an in-depth understanding of the issues and make decisions on our behalf because most people don’t have time, resources, or ability to do it themselves; but it turns out that the same in-depth knowledge is needed in order to successfully evaluate and choose a good representative, which we are already by definition unqualified to do.

So we elect someone we think we can trust.

But when they get the in-depth understanding that we sent them there to get and it leads them to choose differently than we, the less informed, think we would have chosen, we feel betrayed and vote them out, even though theoretically that is exactly what we sent them there to do in the first place.

If we were qualified to evaluate whether our representatives were making the right decisions then we wouldn’t need representatives in the first place. That is why people fall back on party affiliation and ideology.

As Winston Churchill is purported to have said: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried…”

That is one reason why limited government, with issues being handled at the most local scope is superior to big, unlimited government. People are most qualified to evaluate candidates and issues closest to them. Big government brings one-size-fits-all solutions that will never be able to account for local differences and needs.

It is discouraging that low-information voters often decide elections.  But the fact is that few of us have sufficient information to make truly informed decisions. While we may not be low-information voters, it will always come down to intangibles and making decisions without sufficient information.

In other words, it comes down to an act of Faith.

Category: politics
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One Response to The Paradox of Representative Democracy

  1. Agellius

    This is an excellent analysis. I hadn’t thought of it this way before. I have often thought of the fact that stupid people have such a large say in whom we elect and how campaigns are run. (Maybe I should say ignorant instead of stupid. But no, stupid enters into it just as much, I think.)

    But I hadn’t thought of the fact that we elect people who specialize in politics because most of us can’t. Yet many of us think we know as much about politics as the specialists do. It’s sort of the same reason most of us take our cars to mechanics instead of working on them ourselves. In that light, it seems silly to act as though we know as well as our mechanic does what is good for our cars.

    Then again, when people disapprove of the job their elected representatives do, it’s not always because they’re doing a poor job at the practice of politics per se. Politics is not a thing like auto repair, where there’s one correct way of doing it — by which I don’t mean there is only one method of performing a repair, but that there is only one goal to be reached, one specification which has to be met in order for the car to be operating as it was designed to.

    Whereas in politics, we may admire a politician’s skill in the political art, yet disapprove of specific actions that he takes, according to other criteria, for example on moral grounds, or prudential, etc. In judging him to be unfit to represent us after he does things we disagree with, we’re not necessarily claiming to know as much as he does about the practice of politics. We might just be saying that we don’t like the ends towards which he is working in putting his skills to work.

    And ends are things that anyone can judge: You don’t need to be a professional politician to judge, for example, that it’s wrong to force people to pay for contraception and abortifacient drugs, which is something Obama ended up doing, which was not necessarily predictable from the way he presented himself in the last election. So there is not necessarily a paradox in someone having elected Obama to represent him, yet later concluding that he is no longer fit to do so; it’s not necessarily a case of the people who voted for him to “get an in-depth understanding of the issues and make decisions on our behalf” suddenly deciding that they know the issues as well as he does. It’s more a situation where he sprang something on people that they did not foresee, on an issue on which one does not need to be a specialist in politics to make a moral judgment.

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