Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Who Decides? - Aristotle

There is something about Aristotle that makes my mind wander back to the works of Robert Heinlein.  In this case the discussion of various ways of governing brought me to a couple of Heinlein quotes that I'll share here. 
The quotes are from a book called 'Time Enough for Love'.  In the book, an incredibly long lived man named Lazarus Long is kept from death by his ancestors who want to find out what wisdom he has acquired in his life.  He scoffs at the idea but relents and keeps a journal in a section simply titled 'The Notebooks of Lazarus Long'.  In that section, these two quotes are back to back:

"Democracy is based on the assumption that a million men are wiser than one man. How's that again? I missed something."
"Autocracy is based on the assumption that one man is wiser than a million men. Let's play that over again, too. Who decides?"
Of course in any million people, the amount of people what will have the expertise to decide any kind of technical question will be overwhelmed by the ignorant majority.  This sometimes leads to wistful, late night discussions of having a benevolent dictator or some such.  "We need someone who can cut through the politics and do the common sense things that need doing."  That kind of thing.
But of course, how would you pick such a person?  You'd need to know what their thoughts were on budgets and defense and the environment and health care and so on.  You'd need to know what they thought of tax policy and abortion and gay marriage and so on and so on.  In other words, you could only pick such a person after they had gone through the political process. 
And then you'd risk the movement to tyranny.
This is why we go with democracy.  We'd rather have the messiness and uncertainty.  We'd rather be able to correct course if we go badly off track.  (One could argue that every major election in the US since 2006 have been course corrections.)  We want the legitimacy that majority rule brings.  And if the ignorant majority sometimes swallows up the wise few, well, that's an ok price to pay.

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