Who Is the People? Pt. 1

We’re used to lies in politics—we practically demand them from our politicians—but nonsense is another matter, and we often let nonsense go about its work of misleading us without ever paying it much mind.

This isn’t to say that lies can’t do a great deal of harm. In politics the lie has always been the instrument of tyrannies and shams, and even the worst lie can find believers. But we have a sense of what a lie is. We write books about the political lie. We debate it on Twitter and cable news. Because we’re quick to find it in the words and deeds of our adversaries, to some degree we’re attuned to it.

Nonsense, on the other hand, typically has no agent or knowing perpetrator and thus is far harder to spot. It seeps out of our myths and popular prejudices and then is propelled along of its own inertia, all the while escaping scrutiny.

Precisely what makes it so dangerous is that nonsense always contains self-contradictions. And if we start with a contradiction, even the good and the wise can arrive at any conclusion at all.

Lies can’t cohere with reality, but nonsense can’t even cohere with itself. Nonsense scrambles our thinking much more completely than any lie. And in liberal democracies, perhaps the worst gob of political nonsense is our set beliefs surrounding the People.

One of the bedrock ideas of Enlightenment political philosophy is self-government: the only legitimate basis of government is the consent of the governed, as John Locke wrote in his Second Treatise of Government. The People are ultimately sovereign. But how do we translate this ideal into a practical system of governance and collective decision-making? “Democracy!” we answer, and it’s in this space between question and answer where the nonsense grows.

In Locke’s conception, we enter into a tacit social contract with one another, which obliges us to “submit to the determination of the majority.” A decision by majority vote isn’t necessarily an “act of the whole,” but it’s made on behalf of the whole, and furthermore proves necessary given the need for governing bodies to act despite contrary individual interests. Locke’s social contract theory doesn’t satisfy everyone, but it at least lets us see democracy as a means to an end, and not the end in itself.

Democracy can lead to what John Stuart Mill famously called a “tyranny of the majority.” Can a majority, say, strip a minority of its right to vote? If the answer is no, if we need something beyond majority rule to govern justly, then in a moral sense voting systems are a kludge. (There’s a reason that, throughout history, the only democratic governments to find success or longevity are those which established institutional counterweights to majority voting, such as vetoes, senates, and independent judiciaries.) Majority rule is merely the approximation of consent. If government can only be justified on the basis of consent, then democracy is something crude and imperfect, like chemotherapy.

Today, talk of democracy and the People is so rhetorically potent that to our ears anything “democratic” is good and anything “undemocratic” is bad. Politicians (even politicians who lose elections!) insist that they represent the Will of the People. But the implicit belief that self-government demands an obedience to the Will of the People—what Rousseau called la volonté générale—seems invariably to lead to topsy turvy nations where rulers can justify any terror or oppression in the name of the common good.

Invoking the Will of the People is so powerful because it turns an argument about politics—the business of government—into an argument about legitimacy—the right to govern. This is why we can dismiss any policy out of hand by simply calling it “undemocratic,” as if we’re casting a spell. It’s telling that, for all its use in liberal democracies, this stuff is cited even more in countries like Venezuela and Turkey. The worst thing one could be in Robespierre’s France or Mao’s China was an Enemy of the People.

But what is the Will of the People, this slippery concept that everyone cites and no one defines? How should we go about measuring it? Through just what mechanism can we express our Will and make collective decisions?

Collective decision-making is a very hard problem because, well, on some level it doesn’t actually exist. What I mean is that any form of collective decision-making fails to reconcile individual preferences along some dimension or another. Kenneth Arrow proved this quite precisely: there is no decision rule that can satisfy all of the criteria which we would think of as constituting a fair and rational voting system. This may be hard to believe, but every conceivable voting rule necessarily involves some level of irrationality or contradiction. The “Will of the People” is a concept without a consistent meaning. It has no concrete referent. This idea of the People, who can express their Will through a vote, is literally and straightforwardly nonsense.

You can find Part 2 in this series here.