Limits of Reason and Critical Thinking

Hear me out. The Age of Enlightenment and after is based on the notion that ordinary people are rational, capable of reason, and critical thinking. I may not get out much, but I don’t notice a lot of evidence of this. In fact, I feel that the original proponents of this didn’t get out much either. And when they did, they congregated together.

I’m not talking about rote learning and being functionally literate. I’m talking about being able to suss out solutions to novel challenges. Call me an elitist, but I noticed this in my classmates at both university and grad school. I could count on one hand the number of people I would consider to be more than rote learners. I can report similar results when I taught undergrad economics. And to be honest, even rote learning seemed to be a challenge beyond reach for many.

Some may accuse me of being an elitist or a misanthrope, and I understand the motivation, but I could also be critiqued for claiming elephants to be large land mammals or ice to be cold. To be fair, notions of intelligence are sketchy enough without trying to measure reason and rationality, so I am speaking generically and metaphorically as I have no good measure either. I’m operating on intuitions.

The right hemisphere is about creative problem-solving.

In reading Iain McGilchrist’s books, he might argue that these people are just left-hemisphere dominant. That’s all rote activity. The right hemisphere is about creative problem-solving. I may be wrong, but I think it’s more than that.

As a metaphor, pick your favourite high-performing athlete. I’m not into sports, so I’ll toss out some names. Perhaps you’ve heard of some: Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappé, Leo Messi, Virat Kohli, Micheal Jordan, LeBron James, or whomever. Who’s your favourite athlete? Leave a comment.

I might have practised some 10,000* hours a year for decades and I wouldn’t have been able to elevate my skills to the level of any of these. Moreover, even if I were to target someone in the lowest centile of all professional athletes in any given sport, I wouldn’t likely reach that level. I was holding out for curling, but alas, I still don’t think so. If you happen to be a professional athlete, then switch metaphors to music or art and ask if you could then reach the pinnacles of these disciplines.

The point I am trying to make is that when it comes to reason, most people aren’t even rank amateurs. They are more like pigeons playing chess. And let’s be serious, whether these pigeons are playing chess, checkers, go, or croquet, they aren’t going to fare any better.

Phenotypes such as brown eyes or red hair are determined. Aspects such as height and intelligence have propensities.

When a person is born into this world, some aspects are determined outright, whilst others have propensities. Phenotypes such as brown eyes or red hair are determined. Aspects such as height and intelligence have propensities.

At birth, a person’s height is limited by some upper limit under optimal conditions. If I encounter nutritional deficits or some other stressors, this theoretic height may never be reached. I feel the same is true for intelligence and how well we can reason. I don’t particularly agree that IQ scores are a great measure, but I’ll use the notion conceptually since most people likely know of them and generally how they work. In a nutshell, a score of 100 is considered average, give or take a standard deviation in either direction, so roughly speaking about 68.26 per cent of people in a population fall between 85 and 115. This leaves about 16 per cent above and below average. By extension, about 85 per cent of people are average and below.

I’d like to assert is that the majority if not the entirety of this cohort cannot reliably reason or think rationally or critically.

What I’d like to assert is that the majority if not the entirety of this cohort cannot reliably reason or think rationally or critically. They can memorise that 1 + 1 = 2 and Paris is the capital of France, but novelty and synthesis are pretty much out of scope. And they can reason about small things in small doses.

Practically, this means a couple of things. Firstly, on the positive side, they can be trained to be drones. Wage slaves. Most jobs in the world are rote. Insert tab A into slot B. Follow an algorithm or procedure. This is not limited to so-called unskilled labour. This goes all the way up the food chain to doctors and lawyers, two rote professions if there are any.

Secondly, on the negative side, they cannot be trained to participate in democratic processes. This is a failure of insight of the Fathers of the Enlightenment. Is that a thing? Moving on. To be fair, they did notice. Plato noticed, too. This is why, among other reasons, they sought a republic over a pure democracy. The problem, besides bad incentives and ulterior motives, is that many of these people aren’t any, or materially better, thinkers. Recall my previous reference to lawyers. How many politicians are lawyers? Q.E.D. OK, so I’m being irascible, but still.

The problem is that the masses have been taught that participative democracy is both good and a right to be cherished. And it would be if the population were up to par. In the United States, they’ve had challenges in the past with literacy tests to limit access to the polls, but one, this wasn’t testing the right thing, and two, as I said at the start there isn’t really a test for this particular capacity.

Let’s imagine that there was a test. And let’s further imagine that it was somewhat aligned to IQ score. Let’s say that the threshold kicks in just over 115. This would mean that only 15.9 per cent of the adult population would be able to vote. Even if the threshold was met at 100, that would still eliminate 50 per cent of eligible voters. That would not go over very well. Remember these people are rote learners, and they learned that (1) rights are inalienable and sacred and (2) voting is a right. Justified or otherwise, you could expect a revolt, even in America where people are afraid of their own shadows. They aren’t the French showing their numbers in yellow vests. They are much more docile when it comes to things like this. Gun-related violence is another story, but unless they are shooting each other this is where fending for their rights end.

perhaps we could start allowing chimps to participate in the process

And maybe I am wrong, perhaps we could start allowing chimps to participate in the process. I’ve heard a lot of good things about dolphins and octopuses. I look around me, and I see a lot of nice people. People who enjoy life and are nice to talk with, maybe even about the weather. But being affable doesn’t make one a critical thinker. It doesn’t make a great foundation for government or even the selection of government.

Voting Chimps

The 64,000 question is what to do. The problem, as with any challenge involving people, is that it involves people. We could construct a test, and the affluent would find a way to bribe to get a favourable result or pay for the rote information and strategy to pass the test. They already use both of these approaches for college admissions, so I wouldn’t expect anything different here.

On a final note, some including Kant and Chomsky have argued that there are limits to human reason on a global level. I am just applying this to the local level, and there are many more local limits that never come close to encountering this higher global limit. That’s a challenge in and of itself.

In the end, you can rest assured. No one is going to voluntarily give up their voting rights any time soon. No meaningful test is on the horizon. The system will likely implode on itself first. In some places sooner than others.

* Yes, I know there are only 8,760 hours in an earth year. I was hoping you didn’t notice.


Being in a band is hard. It’s like being married to a bunch of partners, and if you are a band and not just some cat with some supporting characters, you’ve got artistic differences to consider. This is where I soured on direct democracy.

Slotrocket is the name of one of the bands I performed with. We played under this name exactly once, but let’s rewind to the democracy bits.

Skipping a lot of the details, I played bass in this line-up. It was a 3-piece with a focus on alt-post-grunge-nu-metal, but we all came from different places musically. The drummer came from speed metal, death metal, and maths rock. The guitarist-vocalist came from Classic Rock, Grunge and Nu-Metal. I came from all sorts of places, but I wanted to focus this project on the post-grunge thing. For the uninitiated, this is the likes of Seether, Three Days Grace, Breaking Benjamin and so on.

We didn’t have a name. Since we only played with friends and at parties and sometimes provided the backing for live karaoke, it was just us. We did arrive at the name of Breached, but it turned out that a Canadian band was already calling dibs on that, so we just let it slide—especially when they released an EP in the vein of early Incubus.

But then the guitarist-vocalist didn’t want to hold both roles. Too much effort. He didn’t care which. In the end, they found a female singer who was interested. It seems that there was a mixup in communication. They asked if I minded if she joined us during our next rehearsal. I figured it was just another live karaoke session, so when I said yes, it turns out that she was now a member of the band. Truth be told, I didn’t think a female would cop the vibe I was seeking. She was no Lacy Sturm or Amy Lee. She didn’t know any grunge material as she was more of a Country gal. But that’s not the story.

The story is the name. We deliberated for well over a month to settle on a name. We decided to create a spreadsheet. We’d all force rank the entries. And each of us had infinite veto votes to kill an offending entry from the list.

Skipping ahead a few chapters, I liked Rapeseed. It was a benign word that sounded edgy. The boys were fine with it. Notsomuch, the girl. There was no particular rush until we booked a gig—the gig. We’d need a name to promote.

I came up with Slotrocket. Again the boys were fine with it; her notsomuch. However, she didn’t veto—later claiming that she didn’t think we could possibly be serious. Since I booked the date and created the adverts, everything seemed to go under the radar—or under the rug.

A bit before the show, I was distributing material and advertising on our media outlets (as it were) and she caught a glimpse of the promo mats. Let’s just say that she was not amused. Still, when the time came, we performed.

OK, so I skipped over some stuff—the months of pouring over a spreadsheet. Our goal was unanimity. The name didn’t have to be everyone’s top pick, but we did need to attain a consensus view. As it happened, two of the biggest decisions came about by accident, and they both resulted in hard feelings.

It’s not that the 3 or 4 of us couldn’t have eventually come to a unanimous decision amounting to all of our first choices, but this would have taken time—and who knows how much.

One may feel justified accusing me of allowing perfection to be the enemy of the good, but that’s just something apologists tend to say, as they defend their preference for democracy.

Are we too dumb for Democracy?

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. I wanted to post a fairly robust piece arguing against democracy, but it is proving to be a bit daunting of a task. There is a lot of data and information to support this position. Too much, in fact. I’ve decided to step back and approach supporting this position more academically (which is to say, less blog-like… citations, footnotes, counterpoints, and the rest).

“Democracy don’t rule the world, You’d better get that in your head; This world is ruled by violence, But I guess that’s better left unsaid.”

—Bob Dylan

As it happens, I’ve been spending a lot of prep time reading, reviewing, watching online content, and so on. To be honest—I know, right?—, I’ve been engaging in deliberate selection bias, seeking arguments and evidence to make my case. In fact, it’s not too difficult to locate. The reality is that most people, such as David Moscrop, who asks Are We Too Dumb for Democracy? are creating provocative titles to grab attention, but their punchline is always ‘of course not’ and let me tell you why not by peddling hope and optimism. There is a reason self-help books sell.

Where I am now as 2021 has bled into 2022 is to try to create a structure around my thoughts. So far, it looks like this—not necessarily in this order:

  • Position and setup
  • Prima facie arguments
  • essential strawman counter arguments
  • historical backdrop – pre-enlightenment until now (pro-dem args)
    • Celebrity supporters (Marx, Churchill)
    • Celebrity anti-dem peeps (Plato, Churchill, Washington, Adams)
  • Shaky grounds and necessarily suboptimal outcomes: Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem
  • Possible people-based solutions
    • Are we too dumb for Democracy? (David Mascop’s defence)
      • Reconciling worldviews: Individualism versus Collectivism
      • Dealing with rational ignorance and unknown unknowns
    • Against Democracy (Jason Brennan’s proposed epistocracy solution)
      • Effective mob rule (better voters: or how to avoid learning from Jim Crow era mistakes)
    • The representatives (what about better-qualified representatives: or Plato was a dumbass)
      • Jeremy Benthem’s Panopticon — watching the watchers
  • People-based counter arguments
    • US / UK politics (your country likely sucks, too)
    • SCOTUS partisanship (SCROTUS? — evidently, this term already exists. Now I feel bad)
    • Jury systems
    • Rittenhouse – Pathetic paternalism and subverting outcomes
  • What about…?
    • Anarchy and Libertarianism
    • Deliberative Democracy
    • Republicanism
    • Epistocracy
    • Sortition 
    • Tea Leaves
  • And so what? Where to go from here?

Special guest appearances by…

  • Irrationality, cognitive dissonance and other biases and deficits, logical fallacies, and hubris
  • Misanthropy versus pity
  • Limits of intelligence and IQ

Obviously, this is a work in progress, so the structure and contents may change and discovery may lead me down different paths.

Woe Anarchy, Democracy, and the Rest

Think about it: The average person has an IQ of 100. Essentially, half of the people have lower and half have higher. Not a good hand to be dealt. I don’t particularly buy into the whole IQ thing, but it serves this line of logic. Adopting this framework and reflecting on normal or so-called Gaussian distributions, this means (pun initially unintended) that within one standard deviation of the mean, 68 per cent of the population falls, which is to say having an IQ between 85-115.*

Zut Alors!

An IQ score of 100 wouldn’t be that bad if it was calibrated to Einstein or Hawking, but it’s not. The average police officer in the US has an IQ of around 103. Think about it. This is who democracy is asking to be in charge; this is who we expect to make good voting decisions. Amor fati. Memento mori.

Continuing on my It’s People riff, I am further struggling with options. As a Disintigrationist, I don’t feel compelled to provide answers, but as a personal matter, it seems that I am stuck in the middle. Idiocracy was supposed to be satire, but it’s serious.

So, accuse me of being an elitist. Call me a misanthrope. But it’s more patho-anthropy. It’s pity. Dunning-Kruger, be damned. On the one hand, a hierarchical structure leaves us with self-interested opportunists, megalomaniacs and narcissists; on the other, we get to know the political opinions of the Paul Blart‘s and Homer Simpson‘s of the world. And there’s nothing in between.

The Devil You Know

Following Plato’s Republic, the current system presumes a sort of meritocracy that elevates those who excel at politics to rise to the top. Optimistically, this is precisely what happens; pessimistically, this is precisely what happens. This is as good as it gets—self-serving politicos doing all they can to maintain their positions.

But what about the other people? Surely some honourable people are attracted to the political calling, right? Some who make it into the system are spat out by it; some are marginalised; the remainder are corrupted by it.

Then there’s the other side of the coin. There’s something to consider with local democracy. At least you know the idiots you are dealing with, but that’s not really a consolation. Here, Plato noted the benefits of rhetoric.

15 Things You Should Know About Dogs Playing Poker | Mental Floss
Police break up an illegal poker match—doggy style

Given the limited prospects for even a third-tier suboptimal solution, we might be better off by adopting RNG as a ruling system. No boundaries. No parameters. Remove any interference by humans. They’ll only muck it up.

Where to Go from Here

Hyperbole aside, what is the solution? Nazi Germans took a stab at it, but of course, they were idiots, too. Plain and star-bellied Sneetches. Pots calling the kettles black. People have tried literacy testing, income and wealth testing, lots, and any other number of approaches. The challenge is to have a system with no human intervention. Sadly, even this system would necessarily be constructed by humans, so we’re pretty much doomed.


Finally, to silence those who might label me an elitist, no, I don’t think that a society comprised and governed by people only with IQs at and above, say, 160 would fare much better because the problem is broader than facile intelligence.

* If your reaction is ‘but my IQ is in this range’, you may now get my trepidation.

It’s People

No, this is not some riff on Soylent Green. At the end of each year, like Janus, I tend to reflect to then look ahead to the next year. My interest at this juncture is anarchism. This is not a new interest. As I’ve written, I consider myself to be an anarcho-syndicalist or anarcho-communist, save for a few fundamental problems, each of which might just distil down to the same root cause.

My issue with syndicalism is that it centres on the worker. And whilst some workers remain relevant and pivotal to the system, it seems that workers may become less and less critical in the operation of the economy and of the society at large. As I work in a place where I can witness the immaturity and incompetency that sees this further in the future than some, I can still interpolate some speculative future where the vast majority of humans are no longer necessary cogs in the machine. This obviates anarcho-syndicalism in favour of anarcho-socialism.

Whilst anarcho-syndicalism centres on the worker, anarcho-communism is focused on the person without regard to their state of employment. This sounds even more equitable. So what’s my problem? It’s people.

These days, many people whitter on about democracy. Many are disappointed by republican apparatus and seek something closer to direct democracy. This is not the exclusive flavours we’ve witnessed in history—where the landed gentry get a vote. It’s a full-on participative democratic free-for-all—save for children and animals and non-sentient beings, it goes without saying.

The core problem is the same, whether archy or anarchy: people are the weak link. Arguments have been made that bringing decisions close to the source of the problem yields a better solution, if one defines better are more equitable, but this doesn’t translate into something universally or categorically better outside of this particular dimension. If equity is your sole goal—and I’m neither sure that it’s the right goal to optimise nor a particularly interesting goal in the first place, as it feels that this is merely a local solution to a global challenge; so equitably distributing deck chairs on the sinking titanic or sharing the wealth as the climate tips well beyond any hope of recovery.

Moreover, if each social unit—however that’s defined—is sovereign and autonomous, then this might operate OK on an intrasocial level, but how are intersocial conflicts resolved? What if a predacious 100-count society encounters a 50-count society over access to some local finite resource? It seems that numbers will prevail—the tyranny of the majority.

The other challenge I have with democracy and anarchy is that political interests will coalesce and power systems will emerge. To prevent such eventualities could be considered fascistic or authoritarian, so how is this resolved. Returning to the 100- versus 50-count societies, what if the 100-count wished to install a leader, so they vote for their leader to rule over the 150? This seems all but an inevitability.

I don’t have an answer. And though I am familiar with governmental and societal structures as well as with anarchy, I’ve not seen this addressed beyond hopes and wishes, attempting to move an ought to an is.

Democracy Casino

« Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried. »

— Winston Churchill

Those of us in the West defending Capital-D Democracy with passion know this quote by Winston Churchill. We accept the inherent frailties in the system of Democracy because at least we get to participate. The sentiment generally follows a path of (1) it’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have, and (2) if we could have a benevolent dictator, things would be so much easier to tidy up around the edges—only we can’t trust the succession of the benevolent dictator; (3) a Republic is Democracy levelled up. This solves many of the weaknesses of Democracy. Plato said that Socrates said so. So it must be true. Always trust men in togas.

Let’s unwind this ball of twine. Taking the quote in context, Churchill had just been voted out as Prime Minister so he was feeling a bit of a sting of democracy in action. He was being conciliatory whilst attempting to euphemise his sour grapes sentiment.

At a casino, the odds are stacked against you. As with casinos, you can raise your fist and rail at the casino for not making you better off exiting the system than when you entered it, but everyone will tell you that you should have known better. Some will encourage you with ‘Better luck next time’. Casinos and Democracy alike, if you are relying on luck for positive outcomes, you may need to consider taking another look.

At the start, Democracy is untenable even in a classroom textbook context with no frictions. At any scale, it can’t yield optimal results. What this means is that even if Democracy was operated with the precision of dispassionate AI logic, it would still be suboptimal. By extension, this means that outcomes move from suboptimal to less than mediocre when we add humans and emotions to the equation. On top of all this, what it is that we are optimising compounds these challenges. Coming to accord here is paramount. In American baseball lets consider this to be strike three.

So what about this proverbial benevolent dictator. This actually adds nothing to the equation. If the ideas of the dictator happen to align with everything our hearts desire as individuals, it does nothing to the dissenters. They are left in the same position, which is to say disenfranchised—effectively outvoted. If we are the dissenters, thus we are disenfranchised. Not that we will have been enfranchised in any case, but our desires will remain as unmanifest as if we had lost the vote.

A Republican construction, not the trademark, circle-R, Republicans, who are the Tories of the United States of America. Let Freedom ring, and don’t tread on me Republicans. These follow the Platonic franchise. This Republican construction merely kicks the tin up the alley. We’ve got fewer voters with the same suboptimal outcomes, but now we’ve exacerbated it with principle-agency problems. Not only might one’s vote not be heard, but this agent may have secured office on the promise of delivering our wants only to take the ball and run with it in another direction. Off the playground. No universal healthcare for you lot. Yoink!

In the end, Democracy offers nothing but hope. Pandora’s box hope and empty promises. It’s a specious proposition of smoke and mirrors. And to be honest it’s more smoke than mirrors. Echoing the words of a wise poet, and the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters, but no pearls.

So, wait. What do I mean by mathematically untenable? Kenneth Arrow demonstrated that no voting systems, whether in theory or in practice, will yield optimal results. Again, this is before humans are introduced into the equation. No form, whether all or nothing, instant run-off, proportional, ranked, and so on. There’s simply no way. With as few as 3 voters and 3 initiatives, voting fails. Add voters and initiatives and it fails harder. Add human voters and it fails miserably. Many of us rail at the candidates and aspects of the system such as disenfranchisement and gerrymandering, but it had already failed prior to this. We’ve been sold a bill of goods, and the contents are rotten.

In closing, my point is that Democracy is over-sold. It’s hype appealing to emotion. We’ve got illusions of self and personal agency intertwined with illusions of control. And it is used to lull people into believing they have an impact. Instead, they complain when things don’t quite work out. A near-perfect analogy is railing at the casino when you don’t get the payout you had expected. Or that lottery ticket. It’s not that Democracy is a bad system. It’s just not all it’s cracked up to be.

And it’s not like you are being over-billed and getting ninety-nine per cent of what you bargained for. You are more likely getting less than half, and the rest is filler. You are paying for filet mignon, and you are getting bologna. You’d not accept that outcome at a restaurant, yet with Democracy, the best one can defend is that it’s imperfect.

And do politicians exploit these at every opportunity? No, as hard as they try, they miss some opportunities to exploit, but they are yet another nail in the coffin of the dream of democracy.

What Reason?

Any system built on the presumption of widespread capacity for reason is bound to fail. The ability for most humans to ‘reason’ is clearly abridged and homoeopathic. And this is before one factors in cognitive deficits and biases. This is separate from sense perception limitations.

Nietzsche was right to separate the masters from the herd, but there are those in both classes with these limited capacities, though in different proportions.

People are predictably irrational

In economics, we have to define reason so narrowly just to create support the barebones argument that humans are rational actors—that given a choice, a person will take the option that leaves them relatively better off—, and even with this definition, we meet disappointment because people are predictably irrational, so they make choices that violates this Utilitarian principle. And it only gets worse when the choices require deeper knowledge or insights.

Democracy is destined to fail

This is why democracy is a destined to fail—it requires deeper knowledge or insights. The common denominator is people, most of whom are fed a steady diet of the superiority of humans over other species and lifeforms and who don’t question the self-serving hubris. They don’t even effectively evaluate their place in the system and their lack of contribution to it.

To the masters, who are aware of the limited abilities of the herd to reason, it seems like hunting fish in a barrel. If we convince the herd that they have some control over their destinies, that’s as far as it needs to go, but among the masters, there are subclasses, so people in these factions are also vying for position, so each employs rhetoric to persuade herd factions.

No one is sheltered from the limitations of reason

To the people out reading and writing blogs and such, confirmation bias notwithstanding, they may more likely to be ‘reasonable’ or able to reason, but try as they may, no one is sheltered from the limitations of reason.

More on this later…

Democracy à la Carte

I’ve been pondering the notion of democracy. This is not new for me. I’ve looked around and asked myself, ‘If democracy is so great, why is it not more widely adopted’. I don’t mean why don’t other countries try it? And I don’t mean to confound the issue by arguing that a republic is not a democracy, the last refuge of the desperate.

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. 

H. L. Mencken

Mencken offers more critique in his Notes on Democracy.

What I wonder is why, if it’s so good, why don’t companies structure democratically? Why not the military? I’ve always found this particularly humorous: An autocratic, socialised structure defending democracy. Some of the biggest democratic flag-wavers are military and ex-military.

I know that most military members in the US would be lucky to work flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Some speak of the mental illness and homelessness of military veterans, but this misses the direction of the arrow of causation. These people had a free ride, room, and board on Uncle Sam’s dime in the States—some other denomination elsewhere. It’s really no wonder that one wouldn’t want to give these people a voice in military affairs, and yet they do get a voice in civilian affairs. It’s a good thing almost half of Americans eligible to vote don’t.

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

Winston Churchill

I’ve already mentioned that democracy is a sham and its best feature is the illusion of control. I suppose if I come up with something better, I might write about it. Until then, it’s just one of many mediocre options.

Interestingly, some people’s options are asinine. Frank Karsten hawking his book and ideology on Beyond Democracy thinks that downsizing is the answer. Hans-Hermann Hoppe agrees, as he posits in several essays in Democracy: The God that Failed. I don’t disagree, but his basic point seems to be that 300MM people deciding is too much, so perhaps 10MM or 20MM might work better. What’s the limit? Why not 150? How is conflict among this smaller political units adjudicated? With this downsizing, how does the system control the urge for upsizing? In the end, this feels like more Libertarian, anarcho-capitalistic mental masturbation, which as I type this feels redundant. Unfortunately, the common denominator is people, and that’s Achilles’ heel.

Democracy in America

In the furtherance of my critique of Democracy, I’ve gone back to re-read de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, an original critique, though with much promise at the time.

In the introductory chapter, de Tocqueville notes the tradeoffs democracy makes. Essentially, he recognises the mediocrity, but he senses it’s somehow worth it. I break up his paragraphs and italicise for emphasis.

I admit that, in a democratic State thus constituted, society will not be stationary; but the impulses of the social body may be regulated and directed forwards;

Here de Tocqueville presumes the metanarrative of progress and all it entails.

if there be less splendor than in the halls of an aristocracy, the contrast of misery will be less frequent also;

The middle class served this purpose, but this benefit is being eroded as the acquisitive classes have learnt how to game the system and pillage the public coffers.

the pleasures of enjoyment may be less excessive, but those of comfort will be more general;

Here he considers the masses, but he fails to distinguish them from the aristocracy, now manifest as the 1%.

the sciences may be less perfectly cultivated, but ignorance will be less common;

Literacy may be elevated under this system, perhaps owing as much to the needs of Capitalism than of Democracy. In the US, the pair are inextricable.

Here, de Tocqueville is spot on. I won’t defend science or progress, but if this is a goal, the post-truth era is testament to the need for cultivation. Science is like investing: there is a compounding effect. Failing to progress effects downstream advancements, not linearly, but geometrically.

the impetuosity of the feelings will be repressed, and the habits of the nation softened;

there will be more vices and fewer crimes.

Interesting point, but I won’t linger; vices are morality plays, and crimes are tautological—though I suppose he is hinting that the demos will consider fewer situations to qualify as crimes, and so they’ll be relinquished to the realm of vices.

In the absence of enthusiasm and of an ardent faith, great sacrifices may be obtained from the members of a commonwealth by an appeal to their understandings and their experience;

each individual will feel the same necessity for uniting with his fellow-citizens to protect his own weakness; and as he knows that if they are to assist he must coöperate, he will readily perceive that his personal interest is identified with the interest of the community.

The nation, taken as a whole, will be less brilliant, less glorious, and perhaps less strong

Alexis de Tocqueville

The nation, taken as a whole, will be less brilliant, less glorious, and perhaps less strong;


but the majority of the citizens will enjoy a greater degree of prosperity, and the people will remain quiet, not because it despairs of amelioration, but because it is conscious of the advantages of its condition.

Tocqueville gets partial credit for this insight.

If all the consequences of this state of things were not good or useful, society would at least have appropriated all such as were useful and good;

Tocqueville misses the mark a bit here, tripping himself up on a somewhat Utilitarian—if not Pollyanna—worldview.

and having once and for ever renounced the social advantages of aristocracy, mankind would enter into possession of all the benefits which democracy can afford.

But here it may be asked what we have adopted in the place of those institutions, those ideas, and those customs of our forefathers which we have abandoned.

The spell of royalty is broken, but it has not been succeeded by the majesty of the laws;

the people has learned to despise all authority, but fear now extorts a larger tribute of obedience than that which was formerly paid by reverence and by love.

Here de Tocqueville appears to suggest a citizenry that fears rather than reveres its government in classic Machiavellian splendour.

I perceive that we have destroyed those independent beings which were able to cope with tyranny single-handed;

the weakness of the whole community has therefore succeeded that influence of a small body of citizens, which, if it was sometimes oppressive, was often conservative.

the Government that has inherited the privileges of which families, corporations, and individuals have been deprived

Alexis de Tocqueville

but it is the Government that has inherited the privileges of which families, corporations, and individuals have been deprived;

Ever the Madisonian, de Tocqueville shows concern of the consolidation of power.

the weakness of the whole community has therefore succeeded that influence of a small body of citizens, which, if it was sometimes oppressive, was often conservative.

The division of property has lessened the distance which separated the rich from the poor;

Although there was more egality…

but it would seem that the nearer they draw to each other, the greater is their mutual hatred, and the more vehement the envy and the dread with which they resist each other’s claims to power;

…and Tocqueville was prescient here—, the enmity of the haves of the moneyed classes crashes full-force into the have nots as the fabric of separation becomes more and more threadbare, as with Samhain this weekend.

the notion of Right is alike insensible to both classes, and Force affords to both the only argument for the present, and the only guarantee for the future.

The poor man retains the prejudices of his forefathers without their faith, and their ignorance without their virtues;

he has adopted the doctrine of self-interest as the rule of his actions, without understanding the science which controls it, and his egotism is no less blind than his devotedness was formerly.

If society is tranquil, it is not because it relies upon its strength and its well-being, but because it knows its weakness and its infirmities;

a single effort may cost it its life;

everybody feels the evil, but no one has courage or energy enough to seek the cure;

Alexis de Tocqueville

everybody feels the evil, but no one has courage or energy enough to seek the cure;

the desires, the regret, the sorrows, and the joys of the time produce nothing that is visible or permanent, like the passions of old men which terminate in impotence.

More Illusion

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Democracy and thinking that the emperor is wearing no clothes, but in dialogue, I am having difficulty getting people to understand that I am talking about democracy as a concept—the very essence of democracy—, not how some place or another has implemented it. My point is that democracy is a silly system built on false hope, smoke, and mirrors.

Some get it, and they fall back to the Churchill quote:

‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…’

—Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947

But this misses the point.

First, Churchill’s logic is limited to ‘forms that have been tried‘, a minuscule set to be sure.

Next, perhaps he is talking a position of not letting perfection be the enemy of the good. Except there is no one seeking perfection. The question is: what is good enough? Is Democracy in and of itself good enough? And it doesn’t end there, are there systems—even theoretically—better than democracy? And then, how might these systems fair when humans populate the model?

The problem is a systems thinking optimisation problem—and then there’s the question of what democracy is attempting to optimise. Clearly, this is a multifactor model, so what outputs are being optimised? It’s not likely that this would be a steady state model, and much of this relies on an unstable preference theory, so what is optimal today might no longer be optimal tomorrow—or in ten minutes.

how does one optimise a heterogeneous model?

As anyone who follows me know, I have a problem with the notion of progress as well, so participants can vote on various definitions of progress and various initiates toward that end, and, of course, other participants would prefer the comfort zone of the nostalgic and familiar instead. So, how does one optimise a heterogeneous model?

In the business world or entertainment, we are all familiar with the concept of death by committee, the slow deliberative process that mostly yields diluted results—results that might make the participants feel that they had a voice (perhaps), but—that would be ineffectual.

I am not eschewing coöperation.

I am not eschewing coöperation. I’m of the age where the Beatles were a big influence on me—and the Rolling Stones—, so I cherish the partnerships of Lennon-McCartney and Jagger-Richards. Their solo material paled miserably. The collaboration was synergetic. But there is a reason Ringo and Charlie were not asked to participate in the song-writing process. Their inputs would not have improved the output. Even imagine listening to an album of Ringo tunes: Act Naturally, Yellow Submarine, Octopuses Garden, What Goes On, Don’t Pass Me By, and Boys? Really? Right? And he only contributed to two of these anyway, save for lending his vocal instrument.

consider the concept of diminishing marginal returns

As I continue down this stream of consciousness, I consider the concept of diminishing marginal returns. So, even if there were a democratic system that could theoretically be optimised, it would have to face the human factor—and that would be subject to the diminishing marginal return of knowledge and information—, as we’d go down the participation pool from highly knowledgeable to low-information voters. And this doesn’t even address vested interests and conflicts of interest. It doesn’t even touch on the point that people are predictably irrational.

Plato’s Republic, in all of its elitist glory, offered a solution for this—aside from the philosopher-leader: a republic of the meritorious and virtuous (as if these were meaningful or measurable concepts). At least we wouldn’t be scraping the bottom of the barrel—or would we be?

merit being honed is how to gain and exert power and political competency

The problem with Plato’s meritocratic approach is that the merit being honed is how to gain and exert power and political competency—how to play the game of politics. And notion of virtue was nothing more than a façade, so rhetoric and the decorum of appearance is all that matters in this model.

Clearly, this stream is coming to an end, so I’ll disembark here and reembark later.