Leadership and Democracy

We use the vote to tell our governments what we think, but how do we know what to think?  Does making a decision on the basis of the available evidence mean that our reasoning is balanced for us by that evidence?  And can we mean what we say or do if the brain makes us do it under the influence of its inputs?  In fact, are we just being carried along on a tide of influences that appear to us as our opinions?  Is this why our choices get skewed by the facts that happen to grab our attention or the past experiences that bias our views?  Then what does this say about voting in democracies that are meant to operate on the balance of public opinion?  Are we any better when it comes to collective decision-making?

Can a consensus of opinions draw us nearer to the truth?  When confronted with an irresolvable dilemma it might seem reasonable for an individual to commit the choice to the toss of a coin.  However, we don’t want to commit to chance important choices on matters of national policy, so we might listen to the debates and take note of the opinion polls giving us a statistical insight into the balance of public opinion?  But can we really claim to know the collective mind?  Can we rely upon the statistics to give us the facts?  Can democratic opinion resolve a dilemma in any event?  Is the opinion of the masses any less fickle than the singular decision of a dominating leader?

Does democracy enshrine the sovereignty of the majority over ‘the right thing to do’?  Ironically, our dilemmas appear to be most acute when we give ourselves an either/ or predicament.  So what can the statistics reveal about issues that split a population down the middle?  Suppose there are millions of coins in a bag of national treasures and they happen to tumble out at random.  They would tend towards a balance of 50/50, heads and tails, with the trend towards this balance increasing as the number of coins increases – the reason being that the coins don’t know what they are doing.  So when our mass choices at elections and referenda tend towards such a balance of opinions, might this not mean that the statistics are indeed telling us something about ourselves – that the balance of collective opinion is no better than chance?

Mike Laidler