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  • Victor C. Bolles

Incompetent Democracy

On the evening of December 22, 2020, President Trump announced via a Twitter video that he was dissatisfied with the COVID-19 relief bill negotiated by Congress and passed with strong bipartisan majorities. I don’t think anybody in Congress or in the administration believes that this is a very good bill. It really is a mishmash of a lot of things, many of which President Trump noted in his Twitter feed have nothing to do with addressing the challenges presented by the pandemic or providing relief to those impacted most severely by the pandemic.

But as bad as the COVID relief bill is, it at least provides some very needed relief. President trump’s rant, three days before Christmas, threatens to delay any relief even further for the people suffering the impact of the pandemic. The relief bill passed with veto proof majorities from both houses of Congress, but President Trump has not vetoed the bill, he has just not signed it (he did veto the National Defense Authorization Act). The President appears to be attempting a pocket veto by not signing the bill because this Congress must soon adjourn for the newly elected Congress. All this presidential and congressional maneuvering will only further delay the implementation of the vital measures in the relief bill (as well as the non-vital ones)

On Sunday, December 27th, President Trump relented and signed the COVID relief bill as well as the omnibus spending bill ending a week of chaos. The incompetence shown by the US government in the delay in the delivery of urgently needed assistance has caused great anguish in the most vulnerable sectors of the country. But Georgetown University professor Jason Brennan states in his book, Against Democracy, that this massive incompetence in our elected leaders is only to be expected. He states that much of the electorate is, itself, incompetent and that it is illogical that incompetent voters could elect competent leaders. Mr. Brennan cites the results of surveys by the Pew Research Center, the American National Election Studies (ANES) and others that show that Americans know very little about their government.

In a survey of questions from the US citizenship test taken by Newsweek magazine (Take the Quiz: What We Don’t Know), 88% could not name one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, 80% did not know that Woodrow Wilson was president during World War One, 61% did not know the length of a senator’s term, 81% did not know how many members are in the US House of Representatives, and 40% could not name who the US fought in World War Two.

Professor Brennan points out that many Americans do not vote and that this is probably a good thing since many of the uninformed and ignorant people in the country are among those non-voters. Drives to increase voter participation (egged on by false campaign promises, negative ads or other chicanery) swells the numbers of ignorant and apathetic voters who are being swayed by political hacks for partisan reasons and do not improve the quality of our democracy.

Professor Brennan’s book promotes a concept he calls epistocracy or a limited democracy of the intellectually qualified or knowledgeable. This sort of smacks of Plato’s Republic where the people are ruled by elite philosopher kings backed by specially chosen guardians. But Plato’s Greek republic does not appear to be a very nice place, even for the philosopher kings and the guardian warrior class that receive no salary and who renounce riches in order to be incorruptible.

Undaunted, Professor Brennan points out that there are many people driving on our roads but that the right to drive is not unalienable. It must be earned by passing a test (which, if it was the citizenship test, would mean far fewer cars on the road). But literacy tests and poll taxes, have a sordid history in the United States where such requirements were used to disenfranchise blacks. Literacy tests would never be acceptable to the American public no matter how much it might improve the operations of our democracy.

Much of Professor Brennan’s book appears to be a thought exercise aimed, not at the general reading public, but at an elite group of political science academicians found on college campuses around the country. But there are certain insights that are thought provoking and worthy of discussion.

He cites Scott Page’s ideas about how diversity can help in problem solving, but as was discussed in my commentary On Diversity (June 16, 2016), the participants must “agree on what the problem is and what would count as a solution.” But while this might work in a research study or a scientific investigation, in real-world politics agreement on the nature of the problem is impossible given the division of the political parties.

Professor Brennan states that politics is a zero-sum game, either I win, and you lose, or I lose, and you win. That makes people in the opposing parties civic enemies. And this has been the case ever since the 1800 presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Professor Brennan cites research by Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood that showed, in evaluating job candidates, political affiliation counted far more than qualifications, by around 70 to 80 percent and that politics was even more divisive than race. Brennan states that hating people is fun and that voters have every incentive to vote in ways to express their tribal biases.

I can attest that the various participants posting on the Edifice of Trust Facebook page, intelligent and usually respectable people, degenerate into vicious hateful antagonists who believe that Republicans want to kill people and that Democrats want to enslave everyone in a Communist hell on Earth. Is that the best we can hope for the future of our democracy?


It is interesting that the same ignorant and apathetic people that make up the US electorate and have so fouled up our political system are the same ignorant and apathetic people that make up the consumers that have made our free market economic system such a wonderful success. American consumers make dumb purchase decisions just like they make dumb political decisions. So why do the economic decisions of millions and millions of consumers create an economic miracle and those same people create a disaster when they vote?

First off, the US democracy is not a total disaster. It has lasted 232 years and has faced many of the same divisive problems over the years that we have now. And the Framers of the Constitution were cognizant of the potential problems with democracy and tried to include checks and balances, not only on the branches of government, but also on the people, specifically the majority. The bicameral houses of Congress with staggered terms for senators are designed to slow down the democratic process. This allows time to rethink rash opinions and let new information come to light. Senators were originally selected by the state legislatures and were not directly elected by the masses, hopefully isolating them a bit from political wrangling. According to Brennan, the justices on the Supreme Court are among the most learned legal minds in the country and function like what he calls an epistocratic council where wiser heads can counter the rash actions of legislatures or executives.

At our founding and for many years thereafter, government was small so there was a larger scope for win/win human interactions as opposed to win/lose politics. People could live their lives unhampered by government involvement. Citizens created a huge number of civic organizations that catered to the diverse needs of the people. Charities not only for hospitals and medical research but also for symphonies and art museums. Alexis de Tocqueville was amazed at the number and diversity of civic organizations in America, especially in comparison to Europe. In his book, Democracy in America, he wrote, “American of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small…”

These voluntary associations allowed Americans of all stripes to associate as they pleased. They could join based on their personality types, interest, education, gender or ethnicity. Everything from radio-controlled airplane flying clubs to the Knights of Columbus. But as the scope of government grew, the scope of civil society shrank as described by Niall Ferguson in his book, the Great Degeneration. And voluntary association was transformed into mandatory regulation. And the win/win civil society that complemented the win/win free market economy was transformed into a win/lose partisan political battle.

But big government does more than crowd out civic associations. As de Tocqueville stated, “it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

The drive by the left to place ever greater power into the hands of the government will crowd out and diminish the vibrant civil society that made the United States so unique and so successful. Those people are ignorant of government because they devote their time and energy to the infinity of other things necessary for a fuller life.

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