Democracy: Whither Epistemic Validity?

15 Mar

It doesn’t take long for a person to realize that the current democratic model is deeply flawed. The continued failure of about thirty percent of Americans to realize that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction speaks volumes of the limitations of the current information stream and the democratic system based on it. As our democratic stands now, it works, or more accurately doesn’t work, in the following way – it needs three years of continuous coverage that the war is going catastrophically for about 70% of the citizens to finally realize that it is indeed going badly. In other words, the current democratic model not only has a substantial time lag in information dispersal (and hopefully action) but also a model that doesn’t respond to gradual increases in problems like gradual increase in poverty. In other words, it is a ‘frog in the hot water’ (oblivious of the gradual rise in temperature) model. And while we respond to pointless scandals and excel at slaying imaginary ghosts, we can build little momentum towards solving some of the most exigent problems in an optimal way. I argue that the current state of democracy has a lot to do with its modern origins that were based on that period’s exigencies and the then prevailing wisdom (Adam Smith).

The modern origins of democracy that typically begin with the democratic US point to a system formed in response to elite and colonial excesses. The chief worry at the time was to prevent the exercise of power by a small minority with no vested stake in the welfare of the masses. Hence, appropriately, the system of democracy that was formed as a result of it was tailored towards distributing power to common citizens and hence, in turn, maximizing the legitimacy of the decisions made. Critically, since the British excelled at monopoly, ‘founding fathers’ (themselves rich) strove to institute Capitalist attitudes towards trade, private ownership, and business.

Modern democracy was never geared towards coming up with the ‘best’ decision or maximizing some other utility function. To analyze democracy’s claims to making ‘best’ decisions, one has to make a number of leaps including that every citizen is aware of his self-interests and larger public’s interests; each citizen forcefully hawks his or her ideas in the marketplace of ideas, and that the best information and best arguments will win in this marketplace and form the basis for legislation. In other words, claims to the normative superiority of democracy it seems to come from a reasonably well-functioning market of ideas – a market that is not driven by the most saleable or seductive ideas but by the ‘best’ ideas (which it hopes would sell the most). This, in turn, seems like a particularly botched hypothesis in a market with pervasive ignorance, as Converse et al. have shown.

The concept of an idea marketplace deserves further attention for that is from where all possible benefits of democracy are actually supposed to accrue. The fact is that while a lot of theoretical energy in the field of democratic theory has been tailored towards justifying the moral superiority of democracy over other systems, an ailment that I believe can be traced to Cold War days, there has been little focus on critiquing the fundamentals of democracy. If look at the time period just before Cold War, there was a lot of intellectual energy invested in analyzing whether having a Capitalist economic system puts at risk the functioning of the marketplace of ideas. There is little doubt in my mind that if profiteering is the guiding principle of information distribution, let alone the entire society, it seems unlikely that good information, a requisite for the marketplace of ideas and citizenship, will flow unpolluted. The idea that the market can let alone decide and assess an accurate value on each piece of information and give to the citizen at the appropriate time in an appropriate manner is ludicrous at best. It comes as no surprise to me that economic market has increasingly usurped the democratic marketplace of ideas. A prime exemplar of the usurpation is the proclamation that head of Ford once made when he said, “What’s good for Ford is good for America.”

There are two points that one can glean from the above discussion – one is that there is little doubt that the current democratic system is fatally flawed and its flaws primarily stem from a stilted realization of the marketplace of ideas. If we indeed want to continue with some form of governance that takes into account public opinion, we must strive to make the public more informed about issues. To the extent that people can be made more informed by instituting reforms in media, we must do so. Alternatively, we can try to come up with better decision making models that provide better incentives to citizens to be informed and for lawmakers to aggregate the choices with less pressure from lobbyists. Deliberative polling model, which takes a random representative sample of the populace and lets them deliberate about issues, does just that. But it fails to fix the wider malaise that afflicts the wider body politic. It is likely that a combination of the above two methods presents us with the best chance of succeeding as a democracy.