Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Certain Weakness…

A certain weakness in democracy is that, functionally, the only real qualification of an elected official is the ability to persuade a majority of ordinary people to vote for him or her. Popularity, one might say, is thus a constant (as in a mathematical context); it was thus in the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, and still is in the twenty-first century. But effective rule then becomes the function of at least two variables that can and do change over time. One of these is the size of the electorate that votes for any one representative. The other is the quality of the electors measured in education, wisdom, and sense of responsibility.

When the number of electors is relatively small, the candidates are better known; as that number increases, the electors’ knowledge of the individual thins out and therefore becomes more and more abstract. The costs of learning about the candidate mount—for the individual voter; knowledge certainly requires, minimally, expenditure of much more time. More and more mechanical means of communications (beyond personal contact and word-of-mouth reputation) must be used; money becomes ever more necessary to use the new means. Natural candidates—who emerge quite, ah, naturally in day-to-day contacts (and this still happens at the village level)—may not even come close to running. Huge competitions precede even the first stage, that of achieving the status of candidacy!

The quality of the electorate changes as the franchise is granted to people of ever less “natural” (that word again) qualification. The minimum is that of a householder, male or female, to be sure. To this one might add—of a certain age. In our history the age qualification was moved downward; it should have been moved up. Property qualifications have been removed—whereas they should have been retained but modernized: must pay a mortgage or pay rent. The combination of extending the franchise to anyone—and removing the candidate from direct contact with the public by increasing size, produces a new kind of representative who, quite evidently, is no longer capable of effective rule.

This came to mind today when Brigitte read me an editorial in New York Times titled “Dangerous Imports,” reporting on Congressional efforts to cut the FDA’s budget—despite the fact that two-thirds of fruits and vegetables, 80 percent of seafood, half of the medical devices, and 80 percent of active ingredients in medications are imported. We have, alas, far too many legislators who believe that regulation (not least of food safety) is some kind of arbitrary malevolence directed by the Left against the corporate sector—rather than a by now traditional process of protecting public health.

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