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Does democracy necessarily assume that the voters are rational and educated? I was always of the opinion that democracy was the best system because there is no way in non-democratic systems to ensure that the state is acting in the best interests of the people. Is this a compelling argument or is there a better counterargument? Do the arguments that "voters are irrational" or "voters are unduly influenced by the media" really defeat democracy? Is it better to have a well-intentioned non-democratic state look after the interests of the people?

August 1, 2013

Response from Andrew Pessin on August 1, 2013
Wonderful question, deserving of complicated book-length responses .... As (I think) Churchill said, democracy is a terrible form of government, but even so it's less terrible than every other possible form ... A few disorganized thoughts. I suppose some might hold that "ideal" forms of democracy would exist where voters are rational, educated, etc. (and historically various democracies have tried to restrict franchisement to those who fit various conditions -- such as having property, being literate, etc.). Of course, those forms of democracy tend to be seen these ways as involving those in power propagating their power and suppressing those below them ... Even if you're okay with restricting the vote in some such way, democracy is messy -- even very educated, rational people disagree. (Ask three professional philosophers, get four opinions ...) So I suppose that if the goal of government is to act "in the best interests of the people," what you would most like would be very wise, autocratic rulers -- forget majority votes, forget even votes of the majority of educated citizens, just make the decisions yourself! (A philosopher-king, a la Plato, would be nice here.) But of course we all know the problem here -- power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely ... There probably haven't been too many genuinely wise, benevolent autocratic rulers in history ... So (some conclude) the best thing to do is go the opposite direction -- maximize the franchise -- let EVERYONE vote, get involved (more or less... ok, not children ...) But here what you probably have to give up on is the idea that gov't is "in the best interests of the people" -- after all, who could define that, what are "the people," esp. in a heterogenous society with many different interests in conflict ... Instead, gov't is about doing "the will" of the people, whatever exactly that means -- with no guarantee (and perhaps very little likelihood) that the will of the people is actually aligned with the "best interests" of the people .... But since nobody -- not even the wise autocratic ruler -- can really claim a monopoly on knowing what the best interests are, at least, in such a system, people are "getting what they want" ...

just a start .... great (hard!) question ...


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