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Context

It's said that "Democracy counts the heads but doesn't weigh the brains". I think there's a book with that title but I didn't read it.

So, what if the less intelligent people organize in large numbers in a democracy? They could force governments to make bad policies.

Questions

  • Is this the biggest disadvantage of democracy? Or are there other bigger ones?
  • What are the possible solutions to eliminate/prevent the situation of "stupid people in large numbers" in a democracy?

Here, by the term "stupid people", I mean the commonly understood meaning. A person who's ignorant, lacks intelligence and/or knowledge, etc.

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    Just because you dislike the opinion of some people, they are not stupied. The majority of the people should decide, this is the definition of democracy, everithing else would be dictatorship.
    – convert
    May 2, 2022 at 13:18
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    @ShivCK Parts of the US used to have "tests" to determine whether people should be eligible to vote. The tests were used to exclude people of color. The tests given to whites versus the tests given to people of color were not the same. May 2, 2022 at 15:00
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    There's a contradiction: by definition if said people are not intelligent then they lack the intelligence to collectively recognize that they would form a powerful majority if united. let alone to actually do it. More seriously, the question is based on the flawed reasoning that "stupid people" are all the same, they agree together and want the same thing. This is completely wrong, of course: intelligent or not, people disagree about a lot of things. To some extent, one could say that "stupid people" would be smarter than "smart people" if they could find a consensus between themselves.
    – Erwan
    May 2, 2022 at 15:23
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    But how to define what is unscientific, illogical, harmful to self or others? And more important who should define that?
    – convert
    May 2, 2022 at 15:49
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    "The tests given to whites versus the tests given to people of color were not the same." - @DavidHammen, In many cases, this was not true. The tests were the same. But they were designed so that only literate whites living in white communities had any hope of passing them. A similar thing was done in England for entrance tests to private schools. Those tests had questions on them such as, "What drinks would you tell the kitchen staff to prepare an hour before dinner with prominent guests?". That's the problem with measuring 'intelligence'. It can be highly subjective and contextual.
    – ouflak
    May 3, 2022 at 14:42

5 Answers 5

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I think that the conventional answer would be that compulsory schooling should ensure that all citizens are sufficiently well educated to participate fully in the democratic process.

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    You mean like German schools in the 30s? This too can be warped.
    – uberhaxed
    May 2, 2022 at 18:00
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    @uberhaxed Indeed. Things like lessons about "Jewish privilege". And never forget they had whatever a "Disinformation Governance Board" would be called in German. Must stomp out that pesky "free speech" thing...
    – Just Me
    May 2, 2022 at 18:09
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Is this the biggest disadvantage of democracy? Or are there other bigger ones?

Any answer to that would be opinion-based / subjective. Indeed, for those who prefer to live in a monarchy/authoritative regime, the biggest disadvantage of democracy is that the people rule, not the monarch/dictator.

What are the possible solutions to eliminate/prevent the situation of "stupid people in large numbers" in a democracy?

A weighted voting system in which the weight of one's vote is in direct ratio to how intelligent they are.

That itself poses a problem though: how to measure intelligence? Who is gonna decide on what the gauge will be, "stupid people in large numbers"?

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First off, the problem isn't 'stupid' people (a term I put in scare-quotes because it is not well-defined). The problem is thoughtless, reactive people: people who let their gut instincts and base emotions dominate their reason. Such people can be quite intelligent, but their intelligence is warped into the advocacy of pride, greed, fear, hatred, or other non-rational states. Reactive people are easily manipulated by unscrupulous authorities and political actors; that's the essence of demogoguery.

That being said, we should remember that such people are always a strict minority of the population; a set of smallish groups with outsized political voices because they are emotionally stimulated. As the saying goes, one screaming child can disrupt a room full of adults. Children are naturally ignorant, self-righteous, and unfiltered until they are taught better manners. Some adults (under stress) reject manners and returned to that primal state, creating a collective headache for society. But the solution in both cases is to avoid rewarding them for their bad behavior, so that they eventually learn that manners serves them better.

So, the solution to the problem of reactive, unreasoning citizens — the demagoguery problem — is twofold:

  1. Ensure broad suffrage and participation. Demagoguery isn't merely about stimulating the emotions of the people who agree. Demagoguery relies on making democratic participation repulsive to people who disagree. If enough people are repulsed by the frantic antics of the emotionally reactive minority, then the minority can win where they would otherwise lose.
  2. Create the possibility of mass nullification. Demagogues leverage this-or-that, us-or-them, left-or-right dichotomies to increase the appearance of threat and raise emotional heat. Offering the third possibility that nothing will be decided, no one will be elected, or nothing will happen makes emotional tension counter-productive. People repulsed by the process will always nullify, just out of annoyance and spite.

I've long held that the starting point for revising democracy in the modern world is establishing quorums for public elections, just as they have for almost every other voting context. Setting (say) a 75% quorum — i.e., that no election is valid unless 75% of the eligible voters cast a ballot — would force political parties and political actors to be cautious and inclusive. Alienating voters would carry the risk of missing the quorum and nullifying the ballot, meaning that no political actor gets what they want. That is the only way they will learn. It would be a rocky transition, obviously, but well worth it in the long run.

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    "...remember that such people are always a strict minority..." There is not reason that this need be true. In my observations, rational decision making is the exception rather than the rule. Nullification seems like an interesting proposal, but I fear it would still be gamed by actors who benefit from inaction. E.g. opponents to new regulations can achieve their goals via a 'No' vote, OR by discouraging voter participation to deny a quorum.
    – eclipz905
    May 2, 2022 at 19:18
  • @eclipz905: Well, we're back to the 'Leviathan' problem of early LIberal theory. Either we assume that people are essentially irrational and follow Hobbes' belief that men must bind themselves under strict authoritarian rule, or we assume that people are essentially rational and follow Locke, Rousseau, and Adam Smith towards some form of Liberal democracy or republic. I only assume that men can be rational, and then the problem becomes structuring a system which encourages and privileges rationality. THE alternative is giving up on the Liberal project entirely. May 2, 2022 at 20:14
  • Perhaps. I am more partial to the sentiment that "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." There exist multiple concerns which must be weighed against each other. In practice, intelligence of decision-makers ends up mattering less than their motivation. Assuming all parties are at least partially motivated by self-interest, I trust the collective decision making of a less than rational but fully enfranchised general public over that of a brilliant autocrat.
    – eclipz905
    May 2, 2022 at 20:53
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    @eclipz905: Hmph. Self-interest is a poor posture in most democratic politics, because self-interested people lack the knowledge and perspective to make properly self-beneficial choices. One has to think collectively, because all benefits derive (ultimately) from the community as a whole. It's a pity the concept has so much traction in modern political thought. But i'm glad we're both wanting to keep the spirit of democratic liberalism alive... May 2, 2022 at 21:38
  • I don't advocate self-interested decision-making. I merely argue that it is evidently the norm among humans. Poor posture or no, it's a very reasonable assumption for nearly all politics, and quite useful for modeling. We're left with a conflict for those in positions of power who OUGHT TO serve the public interest, but WANT to serve self interests. Any good political structure must account for this. Democracy resolves the conflict of interest by distributing power so widely that the numerous self-interested decisions aggregate to a decent approximation of the collective public interest.
    – eclipz905
    May 2, 2022 at 22:43
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If the majority of the population is stupid it means that there is a serious problem in the culture and educational structure. In this case the stupidity would be widespread at every level and it would affect any sector of the society. In such country the economy and the overall state administration would be in such a poor state that the form of government would not be the major problem. The governments would make bad policies even without a stupid group of voters forcing them to.

Of course the only solution to such situation is a radical education reform, but this would not apply only to a democracy.

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There is no solution because there is no problem.

Democracy is not a fact-finding exercise. It's a consensus finding exercise. Consensus opinions can be wrong, but so can any curated opinion. That's not the point though.

Elections are decisions on governing, not on what is right or wrong.

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