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Stupidity below and love of power above October 20, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Education, Politics.
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Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter, and I often wonder if this will ever cease to be the case. After all, if we look around us, the organizations that are most innovative and efficient, that are best at encouraging excellence and learning from mistakes, are not run democratically. Steve Jobs doesn’t need a majority of his company’s employees (or of his customers) to approve his every strategy. Generally, the greater the number of people who participate in making a decision, the worse the decision will be. (It is said that a camel is a horse designed by committee.)

Of course, this is all fine so long as Steve Jobs doesn’t have the power to put anyone in jail, levy taxes, or declare war. We have learned the hard way how important it is to limit the power given to any individual. The problem is that our system of government seems to mostly produce politicians whose main (if not only) skill is getting people to vote for them. And sadly, this is still most easily accomplished by appeals to emotion (especially fear), rather than by rational argument. Moreover, politicians have an interest in perpetuating whatever state of affairs will cause people to continue voting for them.

In “Freedom and the Colleges,” Bertrand Russell claims to have no doubt that democracy is the best form of government, and yet:

There is perhaps a special danger in democratic abuses of power — namely, that being collective they are stimulated by mob hysteria. The man who has the art of arousing the witch-hunting instincts of the mob has a quite peculiar power for evil in a democracy where the habit of the exercise of power by the majority has produced that intoxication and impulse to tyranny which the exercise of authority almost invariably produces sooner or later. Against this danger the chief protection is a sound education designed to combat the tendency to irrational eruptions of collective hate. Such an education the bulk of university teachers desire to give, but their masters in the plutocracy and the hierarchy make it as difficult as possible for them to carry out this task effectively. For it is to the irrational passions of the mass that these men owe their power, and they know that they would fall if the power of rational thinking became common. Thus the interlocking power of stupidity below and love of power above paralyzes the efforts of rational men. Only through a greater measure of academic freedom than has yet been achieved in the public educational institutions of this country can this evil be averted.

We need our educational system to produce a population that is rational enough and critical enough and well-enough informed, so that politicians will leave a five-minute conversation with the average voter feeling neither smug nor depressed, but challenged.

There is perhaps a special danger in democratic abuses of power-namely, that being collective they are stimulated by mob hysteria. The man who has the art of arousing the witch-hunting instincts of the mob has a quite peculiar power for evil in a democracy where the habit of the exercise of power by the majority has produced that intoxication and impulse to tyranny which the exercise of authority almost invariably produces sooner or later. Against this danger the chief protection is a sound education designed to combat the tendency to irrational eruptions of collective hate. Such an education the bulk of university teachers desire to give, but their masters in the plutocracy and the hierarchy make it as difficult as possible for-them. to carry out this task effectively. For it is to the irrational passions of the mass that these men owe their power, and they know that they would fall if the power of rational thinking became common. Thus the interlocking power of stupidity below and love of power above paralyzes the efforts of rational men. Only through a greater measure of academic freedom than has yet been achieved in the public educational institutions of this country can this evil be averted.

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