I hear this argument a lot recently: “Sure, the people want X or the polls say Y, but what if the people are just wrong?” We need to be honest about the answer to this question.
In some ways, the fact that this question is cropping up is a symptom of the escalation of our rhetoric in American politics today, and the rhetorical division between differing sides in political debates. Whether coming from politicians, media personalities, or the comments of the mass populace on the internet, rarely do we hear “I see things differently” before “Your are wrong”, and rarely do we hear “I don’t understand you” rather than “You are stupid.” These are the times that we live in.
We when we reflect on our own cultural consciousness, there is a sense that we feel like the “other side” is alien and unknowable: not only do “those people” disagree with us, but we can never truly comprehend how they think. There is no hope of compromise or intellectual discourse, because the other side is constantly being presented as though it is incomprehensible, baffling, and alien.
“How can liberals possibly think that taxing the wealthy will lead to a productive society? That’s insane?”
“How can conservatives possibly not understand the benefits of raising minimum wage? They must just be evil.”
The consequence of this attitude, on both sides, is the complete rejection of changing someone’s mind as a goal. Each side sees the world divided into two camps: those who are right on the issues, and those whose mental processes are so twisted and alien that they are impossible to convince.
As a result, you get callers who dial in to talk radio shows and say this:
“I understand that the majority of people want a higher minimum wage, and they think a higher minimum wage will benefit society. But what if they are wrong? Just because people want something, doesn’t mean it won’t end up being destructive. How can we suppose leaving thing up to a popular vote when the people might simply be wrong about what really works?”
I understand where this kind of sentiment comes from. I really do: it’s a natural outgrowth of the way that we handle our political rhetoric in the United States today.
But it also makes me sad, because when someone asks this question it means that he has forgotten one of the single most important assumptions of Englightenment era political philosophy, one of the single most important building blocks that was assumed by our country’s founding fathers.
In a representative style of government, the way that the great thinkers and philosophers and politicians of the era should go about affecting social change is through education.
That is the way it is supposed to happen in a representative government.
Because all of the great social and political philosophers of the last several centuries understood that “the people might be wrong”. But they also had great optimism and faith that a smart person who was a clear thinker and a good speaker could convey the truth to the masses, urge them to see what was rational and true and correct, and bring them over to his side.
The way to “fix” a broken system is not to try to overpower a populace that is “just wrong” … it is to educate that populace.
Of course, both sides on any issue should be doing this. This is exactly what our founding fathers, and the European philosophers who came before them, envisaged. The people who (for example) believe that all industry should be privately held will go out and make their best, smartest, and most coherent arguments; the people who believe that some industry should be run by government will go out and do the same for their own side; and in the end, the people will think for themselves, will decide what makes sense, and will vote for the best solution.
If your own view – the best view, according to you – didn’t get voted for, then the problem is that you weren’t convincing enough. And you need to learn how to be a better educator.
Unfortunately, learning how to be a good educator is hard. It’s much easier to try to trick people, or force people, or undermine the system. So that’s what politicians do whenever they can.
But if you are looking at our system of government from a purely ideological standpoint – how should our system work – then the answer is very simple.
If the people are wrong, then it’s your job to educate them and convince them otherwise.