Sunday Snippet: H. L. Mencken (1880 - 1956)

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

In many parts of the world, having a representative democracy is highly valued. We don’t want to be governed by some dictator nor do we want our leader to be selected simply by birthright. In the historic Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln famously said that the American government “of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” However, not everyone agrees with this kind viewpoint.

One such man was American journalist and critic H. L. Mencken. In the quote above, he questions the validity of a representative democracy, because he questions the ability of the typical citizen to understand what he or she truly wants. He questions whether the “common people” know what is good for them. This absolutely makes Mencken something of an elitist, but this is a genuine concern.

Kids These Days…

Consider this. Let’s say that you have a child who is old enough to speak, but is still too young to have any real concept of money. You offer them a choice between a bag of candy and a $100 bill. There’s a good chance that the child will choose the candy, not knowing that the $100 bill can be used to buy a lot more candy. While it wouldn’t necessarily be fair to equate the masses with a group of toddlers, it is true that common sense isn’t all that common. Otherwise reasonable people can make a lot of bad decisions, because they really don’t know any better.

When you look at an entire population, you’re going to have some people who are better educated than others. You’re going to have some people who are smarter than others. The problem is that you’ll also have a large number of people who are misinformed or misguided, leading them to vote in such a way that is really contrary to their beliefs or to the overall betterment of the country. At the same time, the people at these kinds of extremes are also likely to be the most vocal. Those who sit somewhere in the middle may be less passionate, less vocal, and hence less likely to vote.

That’s a risk. And Mencken believed that the system of a representative democracy is one in which “inferior men” are able to dominate their “superiors.”

Tell Me Your Own Politik

So, what’s the solution? It wouldn’t be all that fair for all voters to be screened based on education, intelligence or knowledge. Instead, it is far better to have a more educated and more intelligent populace on the whole, one where a greater number of people all across the spectrum are more motivated to have their voices heard and to cast their ballots.

Then, better decisions will be made by the decision makers that we put in office… we hope.