Majority Rules

It is an odd assumption that a majority of men and women will invariably reach the correct decision in matters sometimes too complicated for a single person. Consider the vote — a recent vote in the United States being a case in point. The sitting president received less than the majority of the popular vote (which was remarkable) but a majority of the those in the Electoral College, supposedly of sounder minds, decided to hand the nuclear codes to a man just stupid enough to want to use them.

There has been much discussion over the years about the wisdom of trusting a majority of folks when perhaps one person might be better positioned to find the correct answer. I, for one, would prefer not to ask a majority of my fellows whether or not my appendix need be removed. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill both warned against the “tyranny of the majority,” the tendency of large numbers of people to sway the remaining few to vote their way. Consider the vote to invade Iraq when the minority was swayed by a vocal majority to engage in what was clearly an immoral action: the invasion of another Sovereign nation on the pretense that they had “weapons of mass destruction” when, in fact, they had none. There is certainly such a thing as the persuasive force of majority opinion. I dare say we have all felt it at one time or another.

A number of people, including Plato, thought the majority nothing more than a collection of uninformed twits. After all, the majority of those determining Socrates’ fate voted for his death. Another to express his disdain for the rule by majority is Thomas Carlyle who considered the minority to be nothing more than a number of like minds all of which might very well be empty. Specifically, regarding the push toward “universal suffrage” in his time, he said:

“. . .can it be proved that, since the beginning of the world, there was ever given a [majority] vote in favor of the worthiest man or thing? I have always understood that true worth, in any department, was difficult to recognize; that the worthiest, if he appealed to universal suffrage, would have a poor chance. John Milton, inquiring of Universal England what the worth of Paradise Lost was, received for answer, Five Pounds Sterling. [Railroad tycoon] George Hudson, inquiring in like manner what his services on the railways might be worth, received for answer, Fifteen Hundred Thousand [pounds sterling]. Alas, Jesus Christ asking the Jews what he deserved, was not the answer Death on the [cross]? — I feel it almost a shame to insist on such truisms.. . .  The mass of men consulted upon any high matter whatever is as ugly an exhibition of human stupidity as this world sees.”

This sentiment was strongly echoed in the 1940s by Joseph Schumpeter in his study of democratic citizenship when he noted that

“And so it is with most of the decisions of everyday life that lie within the little field which the individual citizen’s mind encompasses with a full sense of its reality. Roughly, it consists of the things that directly concern himself . . . for the private citizen musing over national affairs there is no scope for his will and no task at which it could develop. He is a member of an unworkable committee, the committee of the whole nation, and this is why he expends less disciplined effort on mastering a political problem than he expends on a game of bridge. . . . the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way that he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again.”

Consider: the majority is nothing more, nor less, than the collective opinion of individuals many (if not all) of which are based on nothing more than gut feelings. If one person can be mistaken then a thousand persons can also, collectively, be mistaken. No one put the point more forcefully than Alexis de Tocqueville in his remarkable study of Democracy in America:

“A majority taken collectively is only an individual, whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual, who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their character by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I would never grant to any number of them.”

The problem is, of course, if we don’t trust the majority then whom do we trust? Plato wanted an enlightened despot and Thomas Carlyle also wanted an heroic authority figure who embodied both wisdom and strength, enlightened enough  to keep his eye always on the common good and never to succumb to the temptations of power and self-interest. History has shown that such people are rare — though some, like Marcus Aurelius, have appeared from time to time. In any event, the notion of an enlightened despot may well be the dream of romantics and idealists detached from the real world.

But the real question is why we should trust a majority of men and women when we do not trust even one or a few?

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A Sort of Despotism

In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States for nine months ostensibly to examine our prison system, but in fact to examine the American political system. He later wrote Democracy In America, a most remarkable book that very few read any more (sad to say). In a chapter of that book titled “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear” he provided us with an analysis that is as timely today as it was when he wrote it, proving once again that the classics are always relevant:

“I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observer is an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is a stranger to the fate of the rest, — his children and private friends constitute for him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them but he sees them not; — he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country

“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes it upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. . . . it seeks to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that people should rejoice, provided that they think of nothing but rejoicing. . . . it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of their happiness, it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principle concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and sub-divides their inheritances — what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

“Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for those things: it has predisposed men to endure them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits.

“. . . The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

“By this system [of electing those that govern them] the people shake off their state of dependency just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again. . . . .  this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.

“. . . It is, indeed, difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed: and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring form the suffrages of a subservient people.

For those of us today who feel strongly that we are enslaved by a government not of our choosing and who can only wait and hope that when we next exercise our free choice of new representatives there will be profound change, these words ring true in our ears. But de Tocqueville was spot on in noting the illusion of freedom we live with, convinced that our freedom consists in having twenty-seven varieties of cereal to choose from in the grocery store when, in fact, it consists in the ability to make informed choices based on knowledge of which of those cereals will make us sick. And we are not born with that knowledge, it comes from an education carefully designed and from the example of others around us who seem to know and to base their choices on that knowledge.

Our present system of government is being sorely tested. It remains to be seen if enough people are intelligent enough and determined enough to take back their government from those who would possess it and continue to “stupefy” the citizens. It remains to be seen, that is to say, whether enough of our citizens refuse to be ” a flock of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

Levelling Down

In 1962 Gabriel Marcel wrote in Man Against Mass Society that as the world trends toward “mass man” (i.e. a homogeneous human population resulting from a growing tendency to be alike) human minds would tend toward mediocrity. There would be a leveling down, not up. The “A” grade would no longer connote excellence, it would be the norm — as indeed it has. Excellence becomes average and average is supposed to represent excellence. Indeed, excellence will no longer be recognized and even despised, as will “greatness.”

Alexis de Tocqueville saw this coming, in America at least, when he visited in 1831 and listened to what people had to say and what sorts of things they thought were important. He concluded that:

“I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they would seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.”

Poets like Shelly also saw this happening around him and fought to maintain his individuality — and others, following his example, became individuals just like Shelly.

But, more to the point, the “freedom” that Tocqueville mentions here is identical with the freedom sought by so many Americans today, namely a freedom from constraints, a freedom from those who would be “in your face.”  But a freedom from constraints is not freedom, it is chaos (by definition). Real freedom requires constraints — as John Locke pointed out long ago and anyone who ever tried to get on a crowded tow-lift at a ski slope can attest.

What Tocqueville is speaking about, of course, is the American tendency to keep up with the Joneses, as we say. If they buy a camper, we must buy one as well — perhaps even one slightly larger than theirs. But the tendency to seek out others who think like ourselves is a part of what Tocqueville is concerned about as well. We avoid reading or listening to those whose opinion differs from our own so we hear only those things that want to hear, those things that reinforce our own preconceptions and make us feel wiser. This is happening on our college campuses, as I have mentioned in previous posts, and it is very worrisome indeed. We fear difference and we find comfort in sameness. Even those who should be champions of difference in the name of cultural diversity.

But the thing about the leveling down of the human mind that is most distressing is that comes at a time when keen minds are absolutely necessary to deal with the many problems of a global nature that humanity faces in our day and age. And the fact that we have a mediocre mind in the White House who has attracted a plethora of mediocre minds around him who all deny such things and global warning, beat their collective chest in the face of international threats, and cut into the budgets of social programs to further develop the military and build walls the keep different people out — all of this is very disturbing indeed.

A democracy, especially, requires open minds  meeting together to seek and try to find the best solution to complex problems. All sides of every issue need to be heard and taken seriously — and not dismissed with a wave of the hand and a sneer. As John Stewart Mill told us years ago, we don’t know anything about an issue until we have heard from those who disagree with us as well as those who agree with us.

But all this is the result of the leveling down of our minds in a mass culture that relies on the entertainment industry to tell us what to like and dislike — and what to buy. In a commodified culture, like ours, the trend toward a leveling down is even more pronounced than it might be otherwise, because the messages drummed into our heads hourly all tell us to be like everyone else. “Buy this coat: it’s very popular.” Be “liked” on Facebook — or else. It does not encourage difference and individuality and while those who seek to be different are at times over the line, they are to be admired — even if they do so in much the same way.

Coming Unraveled

As a high school student in Baltimore I used public transportation to go back and forth to school. It was standard procedure to get up and give one’s seat to elderly folks, especially elderly women, who would otherwise have to stand. All the boys did it. We also said “sir” and “ma’am” to our teachers, and held the door for women, did what we were told to do, did not interrupt, and spoke only when spoken to. That’s what we were taught. My wife tells me she was raised in pretty much the same way in Kansas City, Missouri — though she was the one the doors were held open for. When we raised our two sons we were very concerned that they also learn good manners, that they were courteous and considerate of others. These rules were self-evident as far as we were concerned. It was the way we were raised and we wanted our sons to go forth into the world armed with the basic tools that would allow them to get along with others. It seems to have worked as they are both happy and successful in their lives and careers.

But the older I get the more I realize that this sort of thing is out-dated. People simply don’t spend much time raising their kids any more, even less teaching them manners. Much of this, of course, arises from activists who felt that good manners were pretentious and often demeaning to women, together with the pop psychologists who wrote best-selling paperbacks in the 50s and 60s telling parents not to thwart their children’s spontaneity, that suppression and discipline were wrong; all of this, of course, was reinforced by the entertainment industry that showed spoiled, ill-mannered  kids in charge and insisted it was funny. In the end we eventually said “good-bye” to good manners as children became the center of many a family gathering and the adults simply shut up when the children spoke and forgot the word “no.”

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, these attitudes have been augmented in the schools by the “self-esteem” movement that insists that kids be told they are great even though they are unmotivated and the projects they turn in are trash. This has given rise to rampant grade inflation and an age of entitlement in which every Tom, Dick, and Sally are rude and self-absorbed and expect things to be handed to them. Manners, at least, have gone the way of the dinosaurs and we are now surrounded by folks who aren’t fully aware that others share their world and who demand that their needs and wants be fulfilled immediately, if not sooner. This point was emphasized in a recent blog where I also quoted some wise words from Edmund Burke about the importance of manners to civilization, which, as Ortega Y Gasset told us a long time ago is above all the desire to live in common. You may recall Burke’s words:

“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there. . . Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify. . . .barbarize or refine us. . . .they give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

About three generations later, the same basic idea had evolved somewhat and was expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting the United States for nine months and going home to write Democracy In America:

“If you do not succeed in connecting the notion of virtue with that of private interest, which is the only immutable point in the human heart, what means will you have of governing the world except by fear?”

As I mentioned in that blog, with the demise of manners (and morals), society necessarily falls back on civil laws to keep order — that is, laws without the support of manners and morals to give them strength, only fear of reprisal. And with the recent events surrounding the jury trials of George Zimmerman and Marissa Alexander, as noted in a recent blog, one shudders to think how the average person will come to regard lawmakers, the role of law, and civil courts in this country. The outbreak of violent protests over the Zimmerman case, especially, in which a guilty man was found not guilty on the grounds of an insane law reflect well-founded — and understandable — doubts about the sanctity of both law and the courts in Florida, if not the rest of the country. This concern, coupled with the demise of manners and the reduction of morality to matters of opinion (“Who’s to say?”) suggest that the final strands in keeping a civil society together seem to be coming unraveled — held together only by fear in one of its many forms.

I have noted on occasion the birth of a new barbarism, evidenced by increasing numbers of folks who are tattooed, pierced, ignorant, linguistically disabled, self-absorbed, disdainful of history and tradition, and disrespectful of others. The Romans welcomed the barbarians from the Germanic tribes into their armies and their world as their Empire disintegrated.  We have bred our own. And with the huge surge in the sale of weapons recently, we are talking about armed barbarians.

The Christmas Spirit

It does seem a bit early to begin thinking about Christmas, though the stores and the TV commercials have been all in our faces about gift giving since last Fall. I can remember when the stores would at least wait until after Thanksgiving to set up their Christmas displays. But that was then. Now some of the department stores in our area are already having “pre-Christmas” sales to dump some of the merchandise they don’t want to get stuck with at year’s end while others indicate they will be open on Thanksgiving day to get a jump on the competition. I do realize that this is the time of the year when the businesses that comprise the heart and soul of this great nation make their maximum profits, so if I complain I am beating a dead horse. But I can agree with the brilliant satirist Tom Lehrer when he tells us that the proper spirit of Christmas as practiced in this country is the commercial spirit. In fact, he wrote a song about this season that begins as follows:

Christmas time is here, by golly

Disapproval would be folly.

Deck the halls with hunks of holly

Fill the cup and don’t say when.

Kill the turkey, ducks and chickens

Mix the punch, drag out the dickens.

Even though the prospect sickens

Brother, here we go again!

I suspect that gallons of ink have been wasted reminding us what Christmas is supposed to be about and the words have, for the most part, fallen on deaf ears. So I won’t go there. Instead, I would like to consider a broader issue: the inherent contradiction between the central message of the New Testament and capitalism which has captured our hearts and souls. The latter involves the domination of many by the few in the name of profits, whereas the former stresses the subordination of self for the sake of all in the name of love. The contradiction has fascinated me since I wrote a senior thesis in college on R.H. Tawney’s remarkable book Religion and The Rise of Capitalism. As Tawney was careful to point out, and as Max Weber also argued, Christianity has survived by making innumerable compromises to capitalism: the contradiction has been resolved by Christianity giving up the field almost entirely. What remains in our commodified culture are a few devout followers, empty churches, and remnants of the Christian ethic in the form of the Golden Rule that surfaces most often in moments of crisis — all mere suggestions of the doctrine preached by the founder of Christianity who insisted that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven.

But we don’t like this message and as is so often the case with things we don’t like, we ignore them — like global warming for example. But the fact remains that the religion that so many people claim to follow demands of them sacrifices they are simply unwilling to make, so they have replaced it with a more entertaining, commercial imitation. Christmas as we celebrate it in this country is simply the most graphic symptom of a cultural malady that suggest similarities with ancient Rome: it attests to the undeniable fact that it is not love of our fellow humans that motivates us; it is, as Lehrer tells us, our love of money. Indeed, Tom Lehrer wasn’t the first to point this out. By no means. He was beaten to the punch by the remarkable Alexis De Tocqueville who visited this country in 1831 and noted that  “..[Americans] have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote a novel about a man who truly wanted to follow Christ while living in a secular world in which the message Christ preached had become mere words. The novel was titled The Idiot, and the title says it all: the protagonist simply didn’t fit in and was thought a fool. Anyone who really wanted to follow the teachings of the New Testament would be so regarded in a world where commerce is at the center of our lives and politicians ignore all other issues when running for public office except “jobs and the economy.” Has your life gotten “better” in the last four years?

Business is not an inherently bad thing, but the profit motive that drives so many people in business (with rare exceptions) most assuredly is in conflict with a doctrine that focuses upon charity and love of our fellow humans. It is pointless to claim we are loving those we exploit and make dependent upon us or when we ignore those in need in our attempt to accumulate as much wealth as possible. In the end we must admit that Christianity has been forced to capitulate to capitalism. Any doubts we might have disappear at this time of the year, as Tom Lehrer reminds us:

God rest ye Merry Merchants

May ye make the Yuletide pay!

Expertise

Alexis de Tocqueville visited this country in 1831 and stayed for only nine months. At the end of that time he wrote his Democracy in America which has become a classic. Even today we marvel at the man’s astute and penetrating observations of the customs and behavior of the Americans he watched so carefully. One of the things he was struck by was our love of “equality.” As de Tocqueville says, “I think democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.”

What this means, I take it, is that we don’t want anyone else to be thought any better than we are ourselves. If anyone dares to presume to be superior to us in any way, we are quick to bring them back down to earth. The notion of moral equality, which is a powerful idea and central to our entire judicial system, has expanded to involve a general leveling down, a sameness of persons that refuses to admit that anyone can be regarded as in any sense whatever superior to any one else. This, of course, is absurd. It is called “egalitarianism,” and it has swept this country and Europe as well. Ortega y Gasset talks about it at some length in his Revolt of the Masses.

One of the notions that has been dismissed in our insistence that no one is any better than anyone else is the notion of expertise. I have touched on this notion in previous blogs, but it deserves a more thorough discussion. An expert is one who is supposed to know something the rest of us don’t know. When, in the spirit of egalitarianism, we insist that everyone has a right to his or her opinion, that my opinion is just as deserving of serious attention as yours — no matter who you are — we may have taken things a step too far. I recall some years ago one of my students balking at something Socrates said in a dialogue we were reading. I wanted him to expand on his notion that Socrates was somehow wrong in what he said, but the student couldn’t get past the notion that “it was just Socrates’ opinion.” The student also had his opinion which he was certain was just as weighty as that of a man who had thought about the matter for more than sixty years. Yet he could give no reasons. He thought none were necessary!

I mentioned in a previous blog the expertise of the physician, which we seldom question — though as our age becomes more and more litigious this profession may be brought down to our level as well. But at this time it remains a cut above the rest of us. Also, the automobile mechanic, though here again, skepticism has led us to question the trustworthiness of our local mechanic, whether or not he is being completely honest with us. But, for the most part, we acknowledge expertise in a few  areas. Very few. I would argue that we must allow it in a great many more.

When Scot Hamilton tells me that the triple toe loop I just witnessed was not up to par, I should listen. He knows whereof he speaks. He sees more than I do (or can, even in slow motion). Troy Aikman tells me something every Sunday during football season I didn’t know, pointing out things going on the field I never saw until he pointed to them. After only nine months, de Tocqueville became an expert on the American political system and the customs of the people of this country. The list goes on. There are people who have much greater experience, more extensive knowledge, and heightened sensitivity and deeper insight that enlarges their world. One of the reasons de Tocqueville’s book is regarded as a classic is because he saw so much so clearly. He made some mistakes, to be sure, but he was right more often than not. To refuse to listen to these people on the grounds that they are “no better” than I am (which is confusing and almost certainly irrelevant) is to close off part of my world and shrink it down to a fraction of what it might be.

Our love of equality, our determination to bring the lofty down to our level, is understandable and certainly warranted in courts of law or moral discourse. But it is misplaced in the real world where there are people more intelligent, more experienced, more sensitive, than ourselves. We really should listen to what they have to say. We might learn something.