The Stupidity of the Elites

Sergio Malbergier writes (“E a estupidez, estupido!,” Folha de S. Paulo, September 11) about what marks, according to him, the current Brazilian presidential campaign: The utter ignorance of the voters. Malbergier believes that candidates and their marketers are so convinced of the electorate’s stupidity (Malbergier does not seem willing to differentiate between stupidity and ignorance) that they will always and without fail bet on hollow proposals that ignore elementary economic principles.

Malbergier is right, of course. Candidates, not only in the Brazilian campaign but in any other at any place on the planet, are fully convinced that the people are but a mass of brain-dead idiots ready to be molded and manipulated according to the politicians’ caprices. But Malgerbier goes further than only how politicians see the situation; to him the people are indeed stupid. The unpopularity of proposals centered around “austerity” measures are proof of that.

There is a certain inferiority complex in that diagnosis, since in Europe the population showed strong opposition to welfare spending cuts. Leaving aside questions of the relevance of austerity programs (after all, corporate subsidies are overwhelmingly larger than welfare projects), I intend to focus on the more basic question: Are the people stupid?

Some economists like to use the concept of rational ignorance to describe the behavior of the voters. It is simply not worth it for the average individual to worry about political questions over which he will not have any palpable influence. According to this theory, the people are bad at voting because the incentives to pursue knowledge about relevant social issues are insufficient. Costs are too big in comparison to possible benefits in elections that involve hundreds of thousands or millions of other individuals.

Of course, that doesn’t happen by chance: Representative democracy is designed to mitigate the power of opinions that come from below. The system is set up in a way that perpetuates the influence of the political elite and minimizes significant changes. Representative democracy guarantees at most that there should be some degree of rotation between the power elites that control the state with no violence; before western democracy took over, changes in the elite in control of the state required too much bloodshed. This does not mean that the people exert no influence over the government, but it does entail that this influence is much smaller than is conventionally assumed. The very definition of what is subject to public discussion or what the social issues are is guided by the elite’s opinion.

However valid, rational ignorance seems to be limited. The population, as a whole has uninformed opinions about political and economic themes not because they are stupid or don’t see the benefits in getting informed, but because these questions never present themselves clearly to the public.

The intelligentsia believes that the people are incapable of thinking for themselves and that any social changes will be resisted by that ignorant public. Candidates count on the reactive conservatism of a large sector of the populace to get elected. None of the candidates that lead the presidential polls intend to push any relevant change in frequently debated issues. For instance, changes to abortion, gay marriage and drug legislations are themes that are simply not present in their “proposals.” But that happens only because these questions are never subjected to public debates.

Evidently, the people are going to be against drug legalization; that is the status quo. Public opinion polls that are supposed to reflect the average opinion on a given matter only reflect the status quo. Current institutions exist because they are supported by the population. If the people generally did not agree with them, it would be hard for them to resist for long. Stating that the people are against drug legalization says absolutely nothing: Drug liberation has not been subject of public debate. Only if it was would the people be forced to develop a more or less coherent set of beliefs on the matter.

It is convenient for the intellectual and political elite to assume that the people are stupid or invariably ignorant, because then those elites get carte blanche to act on behalf of everyone.

But to have the people stop being ignorant about issues that affect their lives, it is not enough to bemoan it. Their opinion has to be heard.

Intellectuals and politicians will probably not buy this argument. Maybe they are the stupid ones.

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