Towards Unreason

January 27, 2011

An interesting debate amongst the intellectual arm of the left-wing blogosphere was kick-started on Norman Geras’ blog on January 1st, in reaction to some Guardian stupidity. It concerned democracy, what that term represents, and the relative capacity of voters to engage with it.

I’d like to stick my oar in briefly on the latter subject, because quite apart from ‘democracy’ being banded about a bit too much, ‘rational’ has to be one of the most abused words in the philosophical lexicon. The assumptions hidden in the phrase ‘the rational approach’ can be alternatively used to bemoan commoners’ inability to understand what libertarians think is obviously the best way of arranging things, and justify the repression of individual irrationality that constitutes socialism.

I don’t want to dive into that arena, but I would like to make a small point about rationality. Typically, we would define some acting irrationally as acting against their best interests. The example given in the democracy debate is of people changing their vote to the incumbent if their football team wins; the extra support this gives to the status quo in the mind of the football fan being enough to determine their democratic choice. This admits of no analysis of policy or character to determine which representative would best suit their interests. This would appear, at the outset, to be irrational.

However, there’s a hidden assumption when making such a judgement about rational choices, which is that thought – analysis, calculation, learning and so on – is free. It has no cost. That it’s always the right option to spend thought on determining the best possible outcome for oneself of a given range of options.

The problem is – and here I suspect a natural bias of very clever people comes into play – is that thought is not free. It costs time, and it costs energy. And it will cost more of both of those if your brain happens to be relatively inefficient at whatever task you set it. I’m sure the extremely clever amongst us barely notice the picocalories they burn while thinking, but those of who have to drag up each and every notion from the Stygian abyss of the limbic system most certainly do.

There are goods associated with voting that are not dependent on your choice, including demonstrating your social responsibility, taking part in the community, and indicating that you care about the outcome of an election affecting your nation. It is not irrational to want to receive those goods while not being willing to spend the resources necessary to determine the best outcome for oneself. In order to make one’s decision in those circumstances one could rely on proxy factors which require less effort to access, including the suitability of the status quo for oneself. The latter would be influenced by the outcome of a football game, even though that outcome is incidental to the election. To do so would not be irrational, but rather a sensible use of resources – assuming the range of outcomes for that election was such that failure to select the best course had relatively little impact.

Democracy, therefore, does not produce the best government per se, but the best government for a given expenditure of resource against a given range of outcomes. Therefore, I can quite confidently predict that as the differences between the main parties narrow, you’ll get progressively worse government, because (a) less is at stake, and (b) as a result it becomes less worthwhile to analyse the outcome when determining your voting choice. This doesn’t mean that democracy itself is at fault, merely that our establishment is rather letting us down.

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