Home/Alan Jacobs/Dialogue on Democracy, Part 8

Dialogue on Democracy, Part 8

B. Wow, haven’t seen you in a while.

A. Yeah, sorry about that. I’ve been checking out the Seasteading Institute.

B. Goodness, you are serious, aren’t you?

A. Yes, serious — but also critical. Nothing if not critical. But when we left off you were beginning to make a rousing pitch for the renewal of democracy, or something like that —

B. Something like that.

A. — Right. But surely you’ll admit that the rise of Trumpism makes your case harder to sustain, yes? I mean, how could anyone who would vote for a blustering, arrogant, narcissistic, pathologically dishonest blowhard like Trump ever be said to have a legitimate right to vote? I think it was Camus who said that democracy is devised and maintained by people who know that they don’t know everything — but these people do think they know everything when in fact they know nothing!

B. My views of Trump are close to your own, though I think your description of him errs on the side of generosity. But I would account for Trumpism, for the Trump phenomenon, rather differently than you do. I want to remind you of something I said the last time we were together: “people are interested in and even knowledgable about politics – but politics only on a human scale, a scale appropriate to the range of their experience and interests. Many, perhaps most, of the pathologies of our current political order are products of inhuman scale.” Critics of Trumpism rarely acknowledge, much less reckon with, the uncomfortable fact that the very people who make shockingly bad decisions when they’re participating in national politics — and make no mistake, I think the decision to vote for President Trump is shockingly bad — are quite reliable, even shrewd, within their local sphere of action. I would be willing to bet that many of the people who say they want Trump as President wouldn’t even think about supporting him if he were running for Town Dogcatcher.

A. Really?

B. Yes, really! I mean, you need to know very little about Trump to realize that he simply couldn’t be counted on to do what he promises — even vows — to do. If Trump were dogcatcher, wild dogs would terrorize the town as he was explaining to his personal stylist that he’d like to be just a teeny bit more orange. (Though he’d put the whole power of his office behind the search for a Pekinese who growled at him once.) The question is: Why do people know this kind of thing on the local level but fail to grasp it on the national or international? It’s because none of us understand matters that get beyond the human scale. We’re all in the iron grip of Dunbar’s number.

A. But this is precisely why I’ve made my case for a new aristocracy — and why I think most people would not just accept but prefer it, in that they would be delivered from the need to think about things they can’t understand.

B. Your argument would be plausible were it not for some assumptions planted deep within it: namely that your neoaristoi can make themselves invulnerable to such constraints as Dunbar’s number, and can overcome the cognitive biases that other, lesser people are subject to. But we have strong reasons to question those assumptions. There’s a really sobering moment near the end of Thinking, Fast and Slow where Daniel Kahneman, who has done more than anyone else in the world to help us understand the range and extent of cognitive bias, writes:

What can be done about biases? How can we improve judgments and decisions, both our own and those of the institutions that we serve and that serve us? The short answer is that little can be achieved without a considerable investment of effort. As I know from experience, System 1 is not readily educable. Except for some effects that I attribute mostly to age, my intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues.

Let me stick with Kahneman’s work for a minute. You have repeatedly commented on how irrational most people are, and I have sometimes agreed with you. But Kahneman suggests that we tend to make that claim because we have a deeply unrealistic sense of what counts as rational:

The definition of rationality as coherence is impossibly restrictive; it demands adherence to rules of logic that a finite mind is not able to implement. Reasonable people cannot be rational by that definition, but they should not be branded as irrational for that reason. Irrational is a strong word, which connotes impulsivity, emotionality, and a stubborn resistance to reasonable argument. I often cringe when my work with Amos is credited with demonstrating that human choices are irrational, when in fact our research only showed that Humans are not well described by the rational-agent model.

Kahneman goes on to say that “Although Humans” — Humans being actual people, as opposed to the “rational agents” often posited by economists, whom Kahneman calls Econs — “are not irrational, they often need help to make more accurate judgments and better decisions, and in some cases policies and institutions can provide that help.” Indeed they can.

A. They can? Didn’t expect you to go there! Are you about to become a proponent of paternalistic nudge theory?

B. Well, that’s sort of where Kahneman is. But not me. I think of nudge theory as a way of dealing with both cognitive biases and the human dislike of being dictated to — the same dislike of being dictated to that animates much of Trumpism — without adjusting the structure or scale of our governing institutions. I’m going to push for something considerably more radical — as radical as your New Aristocracy, though in something like the opposite direction. I’m going to make a case — a kinda new case — for subsidiarity.

A. Oh good grief.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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