The Power of the Multitude: Answering Epistemic Challenges to Democracy
by Samuel Bagg, McGill University
Debates about the value of democracy have often turned on the competence of ordinary people. Critics since Plato have argued that average citizens are too ignorant or immoral to be trusted with political power, while defenders of democracy have tried mightily to vindicate the “wisdom of the multitude.” Unfortunately, the terms of this debate are seriously misleading. By focusing on the “epistemic” question of who has the appropriate skills and knowledge to govern, both sides have largely ignored the most compelling argument for democracy: i.e., that it helps prevent anyone from consolidating and abusing their power. As a result, critics have overstated the attractiveness of alternative regimes, while democrats have understated the challenges posed by voter ignorance, often relying on unpersuasive claims about the “collective wisdom” of large groups. This article demonstrates that compared to non-democratic alternatives, the institutions of electoral democracy more reliably prevent elites from “capturing” the state and using its power for their own private ends—even if ordinary people are as politically incompetent as critics claim. It thus presents a robust, realistic defense of democracy, as well as a more promising set of tools for diagnosing and repairing its demonstrably serious flaws.