Gary Gutting: Should We Cancel the Election?

Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Mark Fredrickson found a post of his on the New York Times online opinion pages. The post is set up as a dialog between the author and Socrates. It is a typical mix of valid points and elitist dogma.

SOCRATES: I’m against it.

GUTTING: I see what you mean. It’s going to be nasty, brutish, and long — not to say immensely expensive — but of course if we want a democracy, there’s no alternative.

S: I disagree. You shouldn’t hold the election at all. You should flip a coin instead.

G: You don’t see any difference between Obama and Romney?

S: Oh, I do. I’m very impressed with Obama, no question. He’s intelligent, courageous, self-controlled and has a good sense of justice. Just the sort of person I had in mind for my philosopher-rulers. But none of that’s going to make a difference to the American voters. The election’s likely to be close, and in any case the outcome will turn on the October unemployment report, the price of gas, an Israeli attack on Iran, who has the most money for attack ads in the last two weeks or some other rationally irrelevant factor that you don’t yet have any hint about.

G: But surely you’d prefer to let Obama make his case to the American people rather than let blind chance decide the outcome?

S: I think letting the American people decide is no different from leaving it to chance. The vast majority of you don’t know enough about the issues or the candidates to make anything like a reliable decision. (It was the same in Athens in my day.)


G: Well, aren’t we voters at least pretty good judges of character and competence?

S: I see nothing in the history of your elections to suggest anything of the sort. Is there any reason to think that over, say, the last 50 years, you’ve elected the “better man” at least half the time?

G: You may be right about this or any other particular election. But it would be crazy to give up the general idea of having elections. At a minimum, the people can tell if a government is grossly incompetent, deeply corrupt or even imposing tyranny. The fact that we have elections that can “throw the rascals out” is our only defense against the worst sorts of government.

S: You may have a point there. I always said tyranny is the one form of government worse than democracy. Let me modify my proposal. Once the parties have chosen their candidates — maybe through some tobacco-free version of the old smoke-filled room — you should immediately have a national referendum on whether to have an election. If things are appallingly bad, people will vote to have one. Otherwise, I’m sure they’ll choose to save money and aggravation, and flip the coin.


G: So you trust the politicians more than you trust the people?

S: Yes, I do. For all their failings, most politicians are reasonably sincere, honest, and much more intelligent and educated on the issues than their constituents. Very few of them come up to the standards I set, but once freed from the necessity of courting uninformed public opinion, most of them could do a creditable job of making decisions in the public interest. And remember, without elections, politicians would no longer need the vast amount of money that gives big donors so much influence.

G: O.K., maybe you’re on to something.

5 Responses

  1. This attacks the wrong problem. Much of the time we have to chose between two packages or persons, neither of which is really what we want.
    Choose groups of deciders by lot and let them generate the alternatives.


  2. John, I agree. Gutting, however, would like to keep the average citizen well away from the levers of power, it appears.


  3. This is addressing the wrong issue, the people put forward as candidates are already grossly unrepresentative, the random choice has to be within a representative sample.


  4. >”For all their failings, most politicians are reasonably sincere, honest, and much more intelligent and educated on the issues than their constituents.”
    Makes you wonder what world he lives in. One without Weapons of Mass Deception, obviously. Or maybe not.

    >”it’s not a good way (no better than chance) of choosing policies and leaders.”
    Hooray. Tyche be praised. It’s a tiny chip out of the cast-iron certitude that elections are the be-all and end-all.


  5. > It’s a tiny chip out of the cast-iron certitude that elections are the be-all and end-all.

    I don’t think this is more than a standard reactionary “the people don’t know what’s good for them, let the responsible people decide” attitude.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: