The Circularity of General Acceptability?

David writes:

“What makes you boss?” is not meant to be rhetorical. I think in some cases there can be a satisfactory answer. My argument was that “because I know best” isn’t a satisfactory answer.

Frankly, if you can accurately say “because I know best,” it seems a lot more satisfactory than if you can accurately say “because there are more of us.” Let me hasten to add that David tries to offer a more sophisticated account based on what he calls “general acceptability,” but this seems very close to a circular defense of democracy.

Or is it? David explains that:

I think that your moral/political expertise is only a justification for your political authority if your claim of expertise is generally acceptable. Not to everyone, however crazy or vicious, but to some wide range of divergent views that are neither crazy nor vicious even though many will be incorrect (call these the “reasonable” views or something, and work would need to go into defining its boundaries, of course).

To be honest, I view e.g. the economic views of the average American as at least moderately crazy and vicious. So perhaps I can recast my argument in David’s terms. Unless we’re going to take the circular route and make popularity the standard of what’s “reasonable,” then my claim is many of the public’s views simply aren’t reasonable.

I don’t expect David to agree, but I would like to know how incorrect the majority can get before he’s willing to say it’s too unreasonable to be the boss.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan argues that voters are not just ignorant, they’re irrational. According to Caplan, when the cost of holding irrational beliefs is low–as it is in religion and politics–we should expect a lot of irrational belief. “Even when his views are completely wrong,” Caplan writes, “[the voter] gets the psychological benefit of emotionally appealing political beliefs at a bargain price.” But the low personal cost of irrationality has a high social cost. Caplan provides statistical evidence of voters’ “systematically biased beliefs” in economics, and argues this undermines the electorate’s ability to implement good policy. Caplan suggests we should rely “less on democracy and more on private choice and free markets,” in addition to several other provocative reforms sure to make civics teachers blanch.

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Bryan Caplan’s lead essay, Brown University political philosopher David Estlund argues that neither of Caplan’s proposed alternatives to democracy, markets and experts, satisfactorily correct for the problem of voter irrationality. With respect to experts, Estlund observes that political questions are moral as well as empirical: “[M]aybe … my morally wise mother would perform better overall than the economists. That settles nothing, since there is no entitlement to rule others based simply on the fact that you know what is best.” As far as markets go, Estlund says “Voters and market actors are the same people, so we should expect the charges of ignorance and irrationality to be leveled against people in both guises… In the aggregate many market mistakes, like voting mistakes, affect everyone.”

  • University of Virginia political philosopher Loren Lomasky compares Caplan’s criticism of democracy and defense of expertise with Plato’s argument in The Republic, while noting that in a modern system of representative democracy, voters choose among candidates, not policies. “If voters are as intellectually maladroit as Caplan suggests,” Lomasky writes, “then they are incapable of mastery of their elected representatives,” who are thus left with a fairly free hand to set policy. “What [voters] can do, though, is ‘throw the rascals out,’” and that, Lomasky argues, is good enough.

  • Jeffrey Friedman argues that Caplan’s charge of voter irrationality relies on the unrealistic idealizations of economic theory and that “[v]oters who don’t understand economics because they haven’t been exposed to it, or because they’ve been exposed to it but have found it tough going, aren’t irrational; they’re just ignorant.”