(The following editorial first appeared in the April 1999 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Thirty-five others, on a wide range of topics, are collected in the 2002 Tor book Which Way to the Future? A different one (usually one not available in the book) will be posted here a few times a year. And, of course, brand-new ones appear in each issue of Analog.)
Sometimes essayists, like dentists, hit nerves. Dentists usually aren't trying to; essayists often arebut sometimes we hit nerves we weren't even aiming for.
For example, in my September 1998 editorial, "Invisible Enemies, Intelligent Choices," I ended with the words, "Decisions that affect everybody are everybody's business, and the idea that anybody's opinion is as good as anybody else's just doesn't hold water." That drew letters from a number of readers who said they agreed with what I said but felt uncomfortable with the implications.
Well, good. That has long been one of the purposes of Analog editorials: to show up inconsistencies in people's beliefs by leading them down one path of reasoning to a conclusion that they want to reject. Ideally, the resulting discomfort should force them to resolve the conflict by thinking about which belief they really holdor whether they need to reject both in favor of a third alternative.
In this case, I wasn't trying to say or imply anything about forms of government. I was simply stating a simple, irrefutable, almost self-evident fact: a right opinion (one that matches reality, such as "Fire burns) is worth more than a wrong one (one that doesn't match reality, such as "Fire has no effect on flesh"). But I'm glad some readers went beyond what I said to draw a disquieting conclusion about government.
That conclusion they drew was that, if all opinions are not equally valid, and good decisions must be based on valid opinions, then the ideal form of government must be a meritocracy, with decision-making limited to people who understand the issues. This disturbs people because it seems incompatible with the belief that all men and women are equal and should have an equal voice in government. As a particularly articulate reader named Beth Clarkson put it, "[the statement that all opinions are not equally good] is absolutely true. On the other hand, I have serious problems with anyone wanting to tinker with the idea of universal equality as the philosophical basis of our society. . . . America is founded on the . . . belief that 'all men are created equal.' This is a belief I hold quite dear despite its obvious falsity. I feel that a society in which people, and their opinions, are not considered equal is a society with a potential for abuse, injustice, and bad decision-making that is far worse than that incurred by the pretense that such a belief is true."
Well, maybe. Certainly there is potential for abuse and injustice in a society that considers some of its members' opinions worth more than others because of who holds themparticularly if it acts on that view by disenfranchising certain classes of people. Whether the dangers inherent in that abuse and injustice is worse than those inherent in decisions being made by ignorant masses is debatable and likely to vary from case to case.
And disenfranchising certain classes of people is not necessarily implicit in what I said, anyway. That inference depends on one or more hidden assumptions: that a meritocracy has to be small, and/or that the only way to keep ignorant voters from running the show is to disenfranchise them.
Quite likely that's enough hint that you can see where I'm heading, but please let me spend a little longer sneaking up on it.
We have two principles in apparent conflict:
- If decisions are going to significantly affect the lives of many people, it's important that they be made on the basis of a sound understanding and analysis of the factors involved. In short, decision makers should understand what they're deciding aboutwhich, ever more, means not only following the news and commentary in the media, but understanding something about how the physical and natural world, and the technology we've derived from it, works.
- If decisions are going to significantly affect the lives of many people, it's important that all the people affected should have a voice in making them. In short, everybody has a right to vote.
So which is more important: the right to vote, or the need to be right?
Ideally, many of us might say that both are highly important. In practice, we might recognize that any crowd of voters will include some who don't know enough to make a well-informed decision. So do we have to choose between entrusting our most important decisions to a small "elite" and entrusting them to a mob that, as a group, may have no idea how to make a rational decision?
At first glance, it would seem that we do. Hence the discomfort of my correspondents. Decisions like whether to dump raw sewage into our rivers (or, in a representative government, to elect people who are likely to do so) really can do tremendous damage to everybody, so it is important that they be made sensibly. But if we try to round up all our citizens who understand chemistry and ecology very well, and have them decide for usthe "meritocracy" my correspondents fearwe run just as great a risk of their abusing their power because the rest of us don't know enough to keep tabs on them.
Both dangers are serious. It's not clear that either is categorically more dangerous than the other.
So is there a way we can guard against both ?
I think there is. The fact that my correspondents didn't mention it suggests to me that too many of us have given up on public educationand that's something we don't dare do.
Because general education that works is the one and only way I can see to head off both dangers at once.
I recognized the fundamental dilemma in "Invisible Enemies, Intelligent Choices," when I wrote, "An interesting problem, of potentially life-and-death significance, can and does arise in such decisions: what if an ignorant majority believes it's perfectly all right to dump untreated sewage in the water supply, but an informed minority knows it isn't?"
The answer is implicit in the question. If an ignorant majority is allowed to do something that will hurt everybody, then everybody is in trouble. If an informed minority is allowed to impose its desires on everybody else, everybody will quite likely soon be in a different kind of trouble.
Therefore our major decisions cannot safely be entrusted to either ignorant majorities or informed but self-interested and autonomous minorities.
Which leaves only one alternative: we must have an informed majority. A radical proposal, I realize, but the fundamental presumption of a successful democracy is an informed, interested electorate. Merely letting everybody vote, even if they know nothing about what they're voting on, provides absolutely no assurance of generally beneficial decisions. I seriously doubt that you would want your plumbing or dentistry done by a committee of people who know nothing about plumbing or dentistry. The folly of that is self-evident to most of us, yet we do very much the same thing when we let important decisions about the whole country be made without regard for whether the decision-makers know what they're doing.
If we want to stop doing that, we have two choices. We can abolish democracy and turn the decision-making over to panels of "experts," and hope that they're as interested in our welfare as in their own; or we can make a real, serious effort to make sure that most voters do know what they're doing.
There are at least two possible variations on that theme. One approach is to establish some means of requiring citizens to demonstrate minimal knowledge and competence as a prerequisite for the right to vote. This amounts to a meritocracy, as my correspondents feared, but it's a somewhat peculiar meritocracy: anybody can join it. All anyone has to do is take the trouble to learn enough to pass the test, whatever form it may take. There's no limit on size, and in principle this meritocracy could include the entire population.
In practice, of course, you could never get the experiment tried in today's social climate. (I won't say "never" in any broader sense, because all kinds of things have already happened in American society and politics that earlier generations would have found inconceivable.) Any sort of proof of competency would surely be compared to the literacy tests used in some of the darker episodes of our history to keep minorities from voting. The cries of "Racially motivated!" would be so strident that you couldn't get anybody to listen to the real motivation, or to suggestions for reducing or eliminating any ethnic side effects.
Which leaves us, in practice, with the other variation on How to Get Lots of Knowledgeable and Reasonable Voters: don't disenfranchise anybody, but increase the number of well-educated voters to the point where they can win elections by sheer force of numbers. That's not easy either, but it's what we need to do. It's a daunting prospect, when you consider the mess that constitutes so much of public education today, and the fact that the popular image of a well-educated person is inherently a caricature.
But consider the alternative: if we don't make a majority of the voting population take their job seriously, and learn enough to do it well, you are going to have life-and-death decisions about your future made by people who are incompetent to make those decisions. So youno matter who you arehave a vested interest in making it happen. That will require improving schools throughout the land, even in such drastic ways as abolishing the concept of self-esteem as a birthright instead of something to be earned. I don't mean just rich people's schools or white people's schools or black people's schools; I mean everybody's schools.
But it will take much more than that. It will also require changing attitudes throughout the land. We need to make being smart something for everyone to aspire to, not to ridicule. We need to show at least as much respect for somebody who can write an outstanding novel or explain something that's never been understood as for somebody who can hit a ball over a fence a lot of times in one season. The other side of the same coin is that willingly not learning should never be seen as "cool," but as stupid and pathetic. Social pressures in school need to be supportive, encouraging people to stay in and get all they can from the available resources. (Or get out and get all they can from the available resources. I'm well aware that some people learn better outside school than in it; the important thing is that we all need to learn, and keep learning, however we do it.) We must stop treating education as a low-stakes game, and start treating itand votingas serious business where results matter .
And none of us should be shy about pushing things in that direction. It is our business; every vote cast in ignorance hurts us . Changing such attitudes may seem a tall order, but it has been done in other areas. Look what's happened to the social status of smoking in the last couple of decades. If enough people want it to, it can happen to attitudes toward learning and citizenship, too. We can have both universal suffrage and intelligent government, but that's the only way I've thought of to get them.
And how many things can you think of that we need more?