Saturday, December 15, 2018

Does Cognitive Science Undermine Democracy?

Did you know there’s a straightforward cognitive scientific argument against democracy? Here it is:

(1) People are inherently irrational (as shown by cognitive science).
(2) Unless somehow corrected, this irrationality is bound to manifest in a population on average or in the aggregate. 
(3) Irrational government is ill-equipped to recognize or address, let alone to solve, large-scale, complex problems such as those that arise in a globalized world. 
(4) Therefore, giving political power even indirectly to the majority of citizens in a society (rather than to individuals who may be exceptions to the rule of irrationality and who thus comprise some minority) is unwise.
Cognitive science has confirmed that logic and science are counterintuitive, that we’re biased against reason. See, for example, this summary of twenty-four of our cognitive biases. To name just a few, there’s the Sunk-Cost Fallacy, according to which we irrationally cling to things that have already cost us. This is how gambling addictions work. Or there’s the Barnum Effect of our seeing personal specifics in vague statements, by our filling in the gaps, which is how astrology and Tarot readings work. There’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect: the more you know, the less confident you’re likely to be, and conversely (and disastrously) the less you know, the more confident you’re likely to be. So the most ignorant and least qualified are likely the loudest voices in the room. This, of course, explains Trumpism. Or there’s Declinism, according to which we remember the past as better than it was, and expect the future to be worse than it will likely be. This explains the popularity both of the Garden of Eden myth and of future-oriented, apocalyptic narratives, as well as the conservative appeal to traditions. And so on and so forth.

Then there’s this list of ten politically incorrect psychological findings about the immorality of human nature. For example, “We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human.” Moreover, “We believe in karma—assuming that the downtrodden of the world deserve their fate.” We’re “blinkered and dogmatic,” since “we see opposing facts as undermining our sense of identity.” Moreover, we’re “vain and overconfident” in that “most of us walk about with inflated views of our abilities and qualities, such as our driving skills, intelligence and attractiveness.” Also, “We favour ineffective leaders with psychopathic traits,” since these traits “are more common than average among leaders.” And “men and women are sexually attracted, at least in the short term, to people displaying the so-called ‘dark triad’ of traits—narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism—thus risking further propagating these traits.”

Democracy and Subjugation

All of which will have some evolutionary advantage or other that’s no longer relevant to an awakened species that can recognize nature’s absurdity. But the point is that the broader something’s appeal to us, the more we turn to our average behaviour and choices which express the flaws of our nature, the more irrational the eventual outcome. Democracy empowers the majority and is thus liable to be an engine of irrationality in the political sphere. When we vote in an election, the idiosyncratic reasons for our choice in a politician are discounted. All that matters is the total of votes received, and in a sufficiently large population the idiosyncrasies average out, leaving the deficiencies of our nature as the culprits in accounting for the winners and losers. Thus, any notion of popular wisdom is oxymoronic. That is, there’s no such thing as wisdom that emerges generally across a large population. If such a population happens to act wisely or for the best, that will be accidental because the average reasons for the popular embrace of the policy will be irrational. The synoptic view of human affairs is therefore harrowing because at that sociological level of explanation, there’s no rhyme or reason for what's observed; instead, mob behaviour is farcical and disappointing in its animalism.  

This isn’t to say an undemocratic government would be automatically superior, since there’s no guarantee a rational minority would find its way to political power in, say, an aristocracy or a kleptocracy. True, when only a minority has political power, there’s at least the chance of wise policy taking hold, since the ruler’s individual caliber won’t be dulled by the will of the mob. The monarch or plutocrat can dictate policy according to his or her more or less rational understanding of the situation, and in an undemocratic system the majority has no veto power (unless the mob rebels and overthrows the dictator). Thus, rationality has at least a chance of emerging in undemocratic politics, whereas the irrationality of human nature drives majority rule. Alas, autocratic societies have a different downfall, which is that when a minority has power over the majority, that power is concentrated and so the minority is naturally corrupted by its godlike position. However elite the upbringing of the ruling class may be in a meritocracy, oligarchy, or some other undemocratic system, this training typically can’t prepare the ruler for the pitfalls of godlike power.

We get a sense of this sobering reality from the tales of celebrity burnouts who commit suicide or resort to drug abuse because they’re ill-prepared for wealth and fame, which is to say for the unearned luxury and virtual omnipresence that makes for the absurd life of a god. What should drive celebrities insane is the miracle of their success. Their wealth is often as unearned as that of a lottery winner, given the role of chance in such affairs, and by definition their fame is due to their appeal to the majority, which (given the above reasoning) makes their popularity irrational and so, once again, unmerited or otherwise embarrassing and undignified. Far from a blessing, a miracle would of course be a curse since a miracle would refute the natural order. When someone is elevated to celebrity status and is showered with enough money and attention to effectively turn the celebrity into an angelic, transhuman being who lives in heaven on earth in the midst of the humdrum life of the majority, this hapless angel ought to suffer the curse of divinity. Any properly divine being would be obligated to commit deicide, to escape the absurdity of being a god, which is why the thrust of Philipp Mainlander’s dark pantheism is psychologically superior to commonplace monotheistic myths. Beyond celebrities, though, there’s the more specific seduction of political power, of the power to rule over other people, which is why leaders tend to have psychopathic traits. Thus, while leaders in an undemocratic system may be rational, their reasoning will likely be turned to selfish or other corrupt ends, in which case the management of such governments or corporations will be more or less evil rather than just dumb. (Politically speaking, autocracies are hierarchical and conservative (masculine), while democracies are egalitarian and liberal (feminine).)

Education, Capitalism, and the Special Case of America

In any case, as indicated by the qualification in (2), democracy can be tempered with an effective education system, as in the Asian and European social democracies that consistently score higher than the United States in educationWhen a democracy’s education system fails, its government will likely exacerbate the problems it’s tasked to solve. That is to say, unless extraordinary effort is taken to address our inherent unworthiness to govern ourselves, let alone a country, democracy channels our worst instincts and biases. As the ancient Greek philosophers saw, democracy degenerates into demagoguery, short-term thinking, and a mob mentality.

The United States, though, is immensely powerful, which seems mysterious at first glance since an irrational populace shouldn’t be expected to succeed in its ventures. However, the source of American power is economic rather than political. America is innovative and militarily superpowerful because of its capitalist system, which likewise channels its citizens’ vices, albeit to more productive ends. Whereas elected representatives are saddled with a cockamamie mandate, owing to the ignorance and folly of the majority of voters (unless their education system is top-notch), businesspeople exploit nature’s creative power, given the principle that necessity is the mother of invention. Mass irrationality or natural automatism makes for a nightmarish struggle to survive with barbarism around every corner, as in animal life in the wild. However, just as evolution harnesses the threat of gruesome death to create myriad body-types that adapt and thrive to an indifferent environment, capitalists take advantage of the freedom to lie, cheat, and steal their way to wealth and to the functional heaven on earth. The opportunity for upward mobility is afforded by consumerism, by the business model in which industrious fraudsters capitalize on mass irrationality, selling us products that make us worse off in the short or long run. (See, for example, Coca-Cola.)

As Sartre said, hell is other people—given, we should add, that people on average are irrational. Owing to that fact, social life in a free society is appalling on various levels, because we’re free then to be ourselves. Again, assuming we don’t have a heroic education system, our true selves will be shameful and so when we express ourselves, our culture will degrade. The quality of our arts, for example, will decline, as in the case of hit music, and we’ll be forced to pretend that truth and merit are subjective and relative. Still, we can serve as cogs in the capitalist megamachine: we can function as sheeple, as zombified consumers whose lusts and fantasies and jealousies can be put to work. We choose, then, to attempt to buy our way to happiness. This profits especially a cabal of oligarchs who eventually doom the capitalist system, entrenching their wealth by forming monopolies and limiting the competition to improve the techniques for exploiting mass weaknesses.

Of course, even if our education system happens to be exemplary, that only means we’ll be well-informed, on average, about how the world works, in which case we’ll have to struggle all the more to submit to some myth that makes the rational life worth living, the alternative being the depression, anxiety, and ennui that are the hallmarks of modern enlightenment. The dilemma, then, is that cognitive science shows either that democracy is a perilous form of government unless we learn to reverse our worst inclinations, or that should we educate ourselves to be worthy of self-rule, we’ll be mired in cynicism and nihilism. The rise of the intellectual dark web, the global authoritarian backlash against liberal democracy, and the decline in fertility of advanced countries in Europe and East Asia speak to this dynamic. In the United States, excellence in education is hardly the source of Trumpism; rather, that country’s historical skepticism about government, going back to the American Revolutionary War, has been exploited by demagogues who peddle this or that self-serving conspiracy theory—about how the Jews or the globalists or the liberal elites or the foreigners are taking over the country at the expense of some aggrieved group such as white middle-class males. In short, Americans secretly prefer the anarchy of the mythic Wild West and so are easily turned against out-groups that are alleged to have undo power.

Moreover, as this article shows, the backlash is brought about by the suspicion that the American-led liberal order which ascended after the Cold War is bankrupt. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington could have eschewed the prerogatives of the world’s only superpower.
This sensible alternative was barely discussed in official circles, however. Instead, both Democrats and Republicans quickly united behind an ambitious strategy of “liberal hegemony,” which sought to spread liberal values far and wide. Convinced that the winds of progress were at their back and enamored of an image of America as the world’s “indispensable nation,” they set about using American power to topple dictators, spread democracy, sanction so-called rogue states, and bring as many countries as possible into security institutions led by the United States.
Most of the neoliberal efforts, though, ended in failure:
Relations with Russia and China today are worse than at any time since the Cold War, and the two Asian giants are once again colluding against us. Hopes for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians have been dashed, and the rest of the Middle East is as divided as it has ever been. North Korea, India, and Pakistan have all tested nuclear weapons and expanded their nuclear stockpiles, while Iran has gone from zero enrichment capacity in 1993 to being nearly a nuclear weapons state today. Democracy is in retreat worldwide, violent extremists are active in more places, the European Union is wobbling, and the uneven benefits of globalization have produced a powerful backlash against the liberal economic order that the United States had actively promoted.
Of course, the leaders of neoliberalism, including George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama were the beneficiaries of elite educations. Still, their imperialist mentality owed more to American culture’s narcissism, xenophobia, and other such irrationalities than to rarefied books.

Wisdom would have dictated a cautious approach to the United States' superpowerful status, not a hypocritical global misadventure that spread liberty from the barrel of a gun and so discredited American principles. A wise person would know that power corrupts and would sooner surrender a dominant position than revel in it. Thus it was democracy that injected the American government with the public’s inflated self-image and with Hollywood-driven zeal for combat. The two-faced American dream, belied by the country’s dysfunctional Congress and politicized Supreme Court, crumbling infrastructure, modest upward mobility, and astronomical level of economic inequality fired the American public’s imagination, because most Americans were susceptible to flattering myths about their greatness on the international stage. On average, we’re all susceptible to some such foolishness. But now that the wreckage of liberal democracies is plain, and that with hindsight we can judge that the legacy of a fake progressive president like Clinton or Obama is rightfully a troll like President Trump, we should reckon with the source of these ironies: we give free rein to our abysmal nature, because we’re encouraged to love rather than to loathe ourselves. But to learn the extent of our existential irresponsibility is to hold ourselves in contempt and to hesitate to impose the fallout of our stupidity onto anyone else. As a result of the naïve humanist’s faith in the goodness of human nature, modern democracy facilitates the opposite dynamic.


  1. I've thought about this. The fact, seeing as how the less-qualified person has won the White House in pretty much every Presidential election in my lifetime in which there was not an incumbent, it seems somewhat obvious. certainly, any system in which anyone but the masses decided the outcome would have produced a President Trump.

    The truth is that it probably would produce a lot of President Doles or President Romney or Kerry. (Well, I suppose not - there would be ego-maniacal opportunists who would figure out how to rig the system under any system...)

    I'd always sort of suspected the primary system allowed the major parties to water down the final choices a bit, keeping populist choices from getting through, and maybe the Dems, with their super-delegates, sort of do that, but I've lost faith in that theory.

    And I'm hesitant to even say these things, because I seem to be going a step further than you and valuing the choices of our "betters." But the current circumstances (and not just at the top, of course) have made me start reconsidering.

    1. Again, the United States is a special case, because it's largely a plutocracy rather than a democracy, as the 2014 Princeton study showed: "Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism."

      Still, the US is a free society, meaning that its citizens have many personal liberties and these are expressed in countless ways that indirectly impact the government. Besides the voting, then, there's a cultural irrationality in a free society (call it pop culture) that can distort the leaders' thinking. Granted, the elite politicians are wealthy and live in a different world than the average voter (in the real heaven on earth that most people can't enter). But they have to pay attention to polls, whereas a dictator can ignore them and resort to brute force or gross propaganda to prevent insurrection. In a free society, politicians see themselves as representatives of the people rather than as aristocrats, so they soak up the cultural delusions one way or another. If you identify with the society, if you pay any attention to pop culture or to the majority will, even if you don't apply that will at the policy level, you'll still be infected by mass bias, to some extent. Hence the gridlock in Washington, owing to the social media atmosphere that's prevailed since the 1990s.

      A rogue leader like Nixon is an exception, since he acted more as an intellectual dictator. Trump would be in the same category except that he's mentally incompetent, so he's more of a hammer wielded--or a giant middle finger pointed--by a pack of trolls. (See my upcoming satirical article on that point).

      As complex as some of these matters might be, there does seem like a big problem with democracy: why would we want to unleash mass irrationality? The solution is clear: get your education system in order rather than letting it crumble or be preoccupied with standardized testing.