Are human beings worthy of democracy?

Human beings aren't cut out for democracy, even though we’ve yearned for self-rule since the days of Plato and Aristotle. The characteristics with which we are endowed by nature work against us.

Take, for example, democracy’s requirement for virtue (honesty and integrity) in the pursuit of justice for every citizen. Humans, to the contrary, are one of many species evolved to deceive others. We are inveterate, accomplished liars, as Robert Trivers says in his book The Folly of Fools. This protective characteristic wards off predators and allows us to spread our genes more effectively. But the mantle of virtue is thereby replaced with the cloak of deception.

Statesmen and scholars champion education as necessary for citizens to deal competently with today’s complex issues. But our human tendency to deception and posturing has led us to argue about whether and how to educate people, while our educational system crumbles beneath us. We’re becoming one of the international losers in education, while Russia has the largest percentage of university-educated adults.

A democracy requires the assimilation and use of facts in decision-making. But studies recently reported in Pacific Standard, show human beings carry from childhood misbeliefs, misconceptions and theories that aren’t true. We prefer to bend facts, logic and knowledge to conform to our own prejudices and preferences. Even scholars distort and diminish new information to conserve existing beliefs. How, then, can we claim the ability to function as citizens of a democracy?

We know from our national experience that democracy thrives when citizens put others and the community before self. But individualism, coupled with social Darwinism, has reversed the progress of previous centuries toward achieving a healthy balance between community needs and self-interest. Now it’s “every man for himself.” And that leads to the decay of democracy.

What Alexis deToqueville celebrated as American civil society in the 19th century has crumbled while privileged elites enrich themselves with no thought for society’s needs. Milton Friedman and the neo-conservatives aggravated the situation by advising corporations to be concerned only for the satisfaction of their stockholders, not for the community’s well-being.

On a similar note, research by Gregory Clark in his book Farewell to Alms, reveals that humans from many cultures, over time, are not happier just because their incomes increase, even among the poor. We look next door: we’re happier only when our increased earnings accrue at the neighbor’s expense. Our sense of well-being depends on beating out someone else. How can we hope to develop consensus around shared values when we’re so obviously competitive?

Democracy also requires honesty and integrity in matters of international conduct. Peace and stability are essential for a smooth-running economy and effective institutions of self-governance. But humans continue to exhibit a propensity for violence. Despite our technology, and our bent for analysis and problem-solving, we’ve been unable to avert the temptation to make war. So, do we claim self-governance only to allow ourselves to beat up on other nations?

Finally, democracy requires vigilance, engagement, action. This is how we preserve and protect our system of checks and balances. But the daily struggle for food, shelter and child rearing distract us from political concerns. We’ve also developed a penchant for demanding expensive government services without having to pay more in taxes. How can we pretend to cherish democracy when we’re unwilling to pay our fair share of running the nation?

These are just a few of the reasons I contend we’re not cut out for governing ourselves. As much as we might like to think we’re capable, the facts demonstrate that our human characteristics make self-rule impossible. Even when we seem to have made some progress over the last half millennium, we find ourselves regressing to an older nature.


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