"You Can Vote But You Can't Choose What Is True" written by Yuval Noah Harari, February 3, 2020
On occasion I quote from others and include them here in my work. Y.N. Harari is a thrice published author of significant repute in 27 languages. He is also a lecturing Professor at an Israeli University, one who meditates for two consecutive months each year, and speaks around the world distilling his thoughts and ideas on a world eager for his insightful thorough examination.
The balance of this post will brew, boil and deliver his points on 'what democratic elections actually are.' This piece appeared in the New York Times, and I quote directly:
""The 2020 election season in the United States, which enters a new phase Monday, with the Iowa Democratic caucuses, will probably be among the most divisive and contentious in American history. The results will reverberate around the world, and will most likely shape the global order for years to come. As the political temperature rises to the boiling point, people on all sides should reflect on what democratic elections actually are.
Elections are not a method for finding the truth. They are a method for reaching peaceful compromise between the conflicting desires of different people. You might find yourself sharing a country with people who you consider ignorant, stupid and even malicious — and they might think exactly the same of you. Still, do you want to reach a peaceful compromise with these people, or would you rather settle your disagreements with guns and bombs?
Since elections are a method for reaching a compromise about our desires, in the polling stations people aren’t asked “What is the truth?” They are asked “What do you want?” That’s why all citizens have equal voting rights. When searching for the truth, the opinions of different people carry different weights. But when it comes to desire, everybody should be treated the same.
In the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum, the eminent biologist Richard Dawkins protested that the vast majority of the British public should never have been asked to vote in the referendum, because they lacked the necessary background in economics and political science. “You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right,” Mr. Dawkins wrote.
Yet his analogy is flawed. Holding a plebiscite on whether to accept Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is a ridiculous idea, because that is a question of truth that should be left to experts. When discussing relativity, the opinion of one physics professor counts for far more than the opinion of a thousand history professors or a thousand lawyers.
But the question that appeared on the ballot in the 2016 referendum was not about truth. It was: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” That’s a question about desire, and there is no reason to privilege the desires of experts over those of everyone else.
You could argue that desires are nevertheless formulated on the basis of facts, and that the Brexit debate hinged on proving or refuting certain economic theories. For example, would leaving the European Union result in an increase or a decrease in Britain’s gross domestic product? Most people are not equipped to answer such a complicated economic question. Therefore, you might conclude, Brexit really should have been left to the experts.
If G.D.P. was the only relevant consideration, then Brexit should indeed have been decided by a small group of experts. However, people may well have wished to leave the union for other reasons, even if such a step leads to economic disaster. In a democracy voters are perfectly entitled to prefer nationalist sentiments and religious ideals over economic interests.
Experts might decry such preferences as “irrational,” but allowing experts to dictate what people should want is the high road to totalitarianism. There’s a joke that a Communist activist once addressed a group of workers and promised them, “When the revolution comes, you will all eat strawberries and cream!” A worker raised his hand and said, “But I don’t like strawberries and cream.” The Communist immediately replied, in a slightly menacing tone: “When the revolution comes, you will like strawberries and cream.”
Outlawing the Truth
Since elections are about desire rather than truth, experts should not be given special voting rights. But for precisely the same reason, elected governments should respect the independence of science, the courts and the media. Government represents the will of the majority of the people, but the truth should not be subordinated to the will of the people, because people very often will the truth to be something other than it is.
For example, Christian fundamentalists very much desire the Scriptures to be true and the theory of evolution to be false. However, even if 90 percent of voters are Christian fundamentalists, they should not have the power to dictate scientific truth or to prevent scientists from exploring and publishing inconvenient truths. Unlike Congress, the department of biology should not reflect the will of the people. Congress can certainly pass a law declaring that the theory of evolution is wrong, but such a law does not change reality.
Similarly, when a charismatic leader is accused of corruption, his loyal supporters usually wish these accusations to be false. But even if most voters support the leader, their desires should not prevent journalists and judges from investigating the accusations and getting to the truth. Even if a parliament passes a law declaring that all accusations against the leader are false, such a law does not change the facts.
Of course, scientists, journalists and judges have their own problems, and cannot always be trusted to discover and tell the truth. Academic institutions, the media and the courts may be compromised by corruption, bias or error. But subordinating them to a governmental Ministry of Truth is likely to make things worse. The government is already the most powerful institution in society, and it often has the greatest interest in distorting or hiding inconvenient truths. Allowing the government to supervise the search for truth is like appointing the fox to guard the chicken coop.
To protect the truth, it is better to rely on two other methods.
First, academic institutions, the media and the judicial system have their own internal mechanisms for fighting corruption, correcting bias and exposing error. In academia, peer-review publication is a far better check on error than supervision by government officials, and academic promotion often depends on successfully uncovering past mistakes and discovering unknown facts. In the media, free competition means that if one newspaper avoids publishing a scandal, its competitor is likely to jump at the scoop. In the judicial system, a judge that takes bribes may be tried and punished just like any other citizen.
Second, the existence of several independent institutions that seek the truth in different ways allows these institutions to check and correct one another.
For example, if powerful corporations manage to break down the peer-review mechanism by bribing a large enough number of scientists, investigative journalists and courts can expose and punish the perpetrators. If the media or the courts are afflicted by systematic racist biases, it is often the job of sociologists, historians and philosophers to expose these biases. None of these safety mechanisms are completely fail-proof, but no human institution is. Government certainly isn’t.
There are of course other crucial reasons to protect the independence of academic institutions, the media and in particular the courts. Democratic elections are about human desire, and the one desire everyone shares is the desire to win. How then can we make sure that powerful political parties don’t rig the game in their favor?
In a football game, it is obvious that the referee cannot belong to one of the competing teams. When players argue whether there was foul play or not, they need an independent arbitrator to settle the matter. The same is true in a democracy. It too is a game with rules, and even a majority of voters should not be allowed to break these rules. For example, if 51 percent of voters pass a law barring the other 49 percent from participating in future elections, some independent referee should call “foul!” and strike down that law — even though the majority of voters support it. In most democracies, that independent referee is a supreme court, and if the supreme court’s independence is compromised, the democratic game turns into a majority dictatorship.
Damn the Bears
As an example, let’s consider the crucial case of climate change. The question “Do human actions cause the earth’s climate to warm?” is a question of truth. Lots of people wish the answer to this question to be “no,” but their desires don’t change reality. So it would be ridiculous to put this question to a plebiscite in which all people enjoy equal voting rights.
Instead, this question should be answered by the relevant experts. If most climate experts answer “yes,” while most voters say “no,” we should believe the experts. The majority of voters should not have the power to stop academic departments and media outlets from studying and publishing undesirable truths.
Of course, when it comes to making policy decisions about the climate crisis, in a democracy the will of the voters still reigns supreme. Acknowledging the truth of climate change does not tell us what to do about it. We always have options, and choosing between them is a question of desire.
One option might be to immediately cut down greenhouse gas emissions, even at the cost of slowing down economic growth. This means incurring some difficulties today but saving people in 2050 from more severe hardship, saving Bangladesh from drowning, and saving the polar bears from extinction. A second option might be to continue with business as usual. This means having an easier life today, but making life harder for the next generation, flooding much of Bangladesh, and driving the polar bears — as well as numerous other species — to extinction. In choosing between these two options, the desires of experts should not override the desires of other people.
The one option that should not be on offer is hiding or distorting the truth. If we prefer to take it easier today, and damn the Bangladeshis and the polar bears, we are entitled to vote for that in a democracy. But we are not entitled to pass a law stating that climate change is a hoax. We can choose what we want, but we shouldn’t deny the true meaning of our choice.
Separating desire from truth is hardly a new idea. It has always been crucial for well-functioning democracies. But in the 21st century it is becoming more important than ever, because new technologies are making it easier to manipulate human desire.
The combination of biotechnology with information technology gives governments and corporations the ability to systemically hack millions of people. We are very close to the point when some governments and corporations will know enough biology, gather enough data and command enough computing power to know us better than we know ourselves. With the help of powerful new algorithms, governments and corporations will then be able not only to predict our choices, but to manipulate our desires and sell us anything they want — be it a product or a politician. When this revolution is complete, the algorithms could make sure not only that you will like strawberries and cream, but that you also will like the ruling party.
In a democracy, the government represents the will of the people. But what happens when the government has the power to systematically manipulate the will of the people? Who then represents who?
To make matters even worse, we are now seeing the rise of populist regimes that first gain power by inciting hatred against foreigners and minorities, and then systematically attack any institution that might limit their power. Their primary targets are exactly those institutions that protect the truth: the media, the courts and the academy. Populist regimes fear the truth because it doesn’t obey them, so they claim it doesn’t exist. The typical populist leader flatters people by telling them that the only thing that matters is their desires. Experts who point out inconvenient truths are rebranded as traitors who oppose the will of the people.
To safeguard the future of democracy, we must keep truth independent of desire. It is not enough to declare loyalty to the abstract ideal of truth. The key is institutions. However imperfect, only institutions can turn ideals into social practices.
|Yuval Noah Harari|
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