In his article “Equality” (The Spectator, CLXXI, pg. 192) C.S. Lewis identified two arguments in favor of democracy, one of which he considered valid, the other invalid. The valid argument democracy is that people are inherently sinful, and that there is every reason to suppose that people who are given power will abuse it. If the people are given a voice in selecting their leaders, the leaders are less likely to abuse their positions. I take this to be uncontroversial. The invalid argument in favor democracy is that people are inherently good and wise, and therefore deserving of having a share in governing. Quite the opposite, Lewis says: “I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people — all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumors.”
Our current political season is of course dominated by people who believe advertisements, think in catchwords, and spread rumors. Indeed, if there’s been anything else going on I’ve missed it entirely. This, and other developments, have given me occasion to reflect on the nature of communal decision making.
The humanism that Lewis criticizes can be updated to postmodernism. There is no notion of inherent goodness, but rather a claim that all individual claims to truth are power plays designed to assert power. If somebody claims to be interested in truth rather than power, then that is just a sneaky way of trying to seize power. One can develop a political morality from this analysis in two ways. You can either try to be the strongest and seize power, which was popular in Germany from the time of Nietzsche until around 1945, or you can develop a pluralistic society that somehow assigns weight to all points of view. There is no ultimate reality, in this analysis, there is just a sort of negotiated middle ground, which merely has to be defended against the baddies who make such manipulative power plays as to claim that 2+2 really does equal 4, that the world really is round, that you really shouldn’t murder.
I’ll then update Lewis in this way. When we are making decisions as a group—whether in a committee for an organization, or even at the societal level—there are two reasons that we would seek to involve a diverse group of people. The first reason—the legitimate reason—is that each of us has our own perspective on the world, but none of us sees the entire picture. “Where there is no guidance a nation falls, but there is success in the abundance of counselors” (Proverbs 11:14, NIV). The second reason is that there is no actual reality—no actual best solution—so that the best we can do is try to appease a variety of power centers. The group decision is simply a negotiation of competing interests.
An example of the importance of taking in a diverse set of views. In the 1990s police developed the “broken window” principle: if police kept after people in a neighborhood about seemingly trivial details, it raised the image of a neighborhood as a whole, leading to a decrease in crime. Something as simple as enforcing trivial municipal ordinances (i.e., broken windows, loitering) actually leads to a decrease in violent crime. I’ve read about the broken window principle in a variety of articles; Malcolm Gladwell discussed it in one of his books. It’s a great story because it seems like a win-win: enforce the laws, communities improve, crime drops. Over the last couple of years, however, we’ve found that there’s another point to view to that: that the police are harassing poor people—who, given current demographics, are more likely to be black people. Given that every interaction with the police carries a certain probability of someone getting shot—even if that probability doesn’t seem to depend on race—then the broken window principle means larger numbers of black people getting shot by the police. That’s not competing visions of reality; it’s mathematics. But I did not consider the mathematical logic until I had reason to think about things from another perspective. That’s why I know we need to rethink the broken window principle.
An example of illegitimate decision-making from diverse views. One time a committee chair was reporting on a controversial decision. He said that all of the members of a committee who voted in favor did so for his/her own reason. There was no single, widely-accepted argument in favor of making that particular decision. This is foolishness. Even if that committee had representatives of every point of view, and even if they had all individually considered the matter wisely, it is apparent that their discussions didn’t lead to any shared conclusion about reality. It wasn’t a discussion, it was a poll.
Even as I write this I have that sinking feeling you get when you realize that the idea you’re putting forward is unlikely to be understood, much less implemented. Is a lively debate about reality, leading to conclusions about reality, and then to a decision based upon reality, too much to ask? For the most part, it seems that the answer is ‘yes’. Certainly at the national level, none of our political structures is oriented towards developing consensus and moving forward. They’re aimed rather at the baser second-tier democracy of determining the will of the majority. At lower levels—levels at which I participate—I am a little more hopeful… a little more.