The myth of “The People”

There is a lot of anger in the UK at the moment about its government, and justifiably so. The way the public sector is organised in this country is far from how I would prefer it to be, and many of the current government’s policies in my opinion are bad. Like this one, for instance.

A certain current of opposition goes a bit further, and argues that the problem is that the government has lost touch with what it is supposed to do, which they reckon is to “serve the will of The People”. Some of them are calling for a “revolution”, or a “people’s assembly” to change, and generally to expand, government’s function. By which I think they mean putting people in charge of it who will “serve the will of The People” and thereby make everything awesome.

It’s a very positive view of what government can achieve if it’s done right: so much so in fact that they think it should do a lot more, possibly everything. Only, now they’d do it for “The People’s will”, in supposed contrast to the current system.

I disagree, for reasons that might seem a bit pedantic or even stupid at first, but bear with me. The government is not failing to serve the will of the people, because there is no such thing. “The People” does not have a “will”, because it is not a person, and only people have wills.

“Well, obviously,” you say, “by ‘will of The People’, I mean what a majority of voters want, or some other mechanism for choosing how things should be that accounts for everybodys’ desires”.

Fair enough – but “will of The People” is a misleading term for that. We are used to dealing with individual people, with consistent preferences, and that is what is conjured up in our minds when we talk about a “will”. But there is no guarantee that what a group of people will decide – however they do it – is consistent enough to warrant the term “will”. In fact it almost certainly won’t be.

“The People” is an irrational agent

Suppose we have a plot of land, and we can grow apples, bananas, or pears, but only one. To decide, we could take a poll: “which of apples, bananas or pears is your favourite?” The votes come in: 30% have apples as their favourite, 30% bananas, 40% pears. Great, let’s plant pears, more people want that. But wait a sec – that’s against the “will of the people”, as 60% don’t want pears.

Ok, we’ll try again. We’ll take each pair of potential fruits and ask everyone which they prefer, and narrow it down like that. The votes come in: 60% prefer apples to bananas; 60% prefer bananas to pears; and 60% prefer pears to apples.

Which should we plant? Not apples, because “the people” prefers pears. Not pears, because “the people” prefers bananas. And not bananas, because “the people” prefers apples. Oh dear, I guess we’re not going to do anything then. We starve.

The reason for this unfortunate situation  is that this definition of “The People’s will” does not ensure a consistent set of preferences, and in fact as long as there are at least three courses of action none that considers all members’ preferences can.

When asked “do you prefer apples or bananas?”, and “do you prefer bananas or pears?”, a real person who preferred apples to bananas and bananas to pears would prefer apples to pears – the two questions are enough to figure out how they rank the three goods. (By the way this is exactly what economists mean by people being “rational”. There are counterexamples, but it’s broadly true of almost all of almost every person’s choices under almost all circumstances).

But as the example above shows, it’s not true of groups of people: there is in general no way of ranking outcomes for the population consistently with the way each of them does. If, of the people who prefer apples to bananas, enough prefer bananas to pears, and enough pears to bananas, majorities can be inferred  that prefer apples to pears and pears to apples.

So, even if the most wonderful group of angels is in charge of it, even the most completely democratic government you could ever imagine is necessarily coercive. And the more things you have it decide, the more coercion is likely.

And this is inherent, not some flaw that can be fixed with some complicated voting structure, or super majority mechanism or something. It’s because government action is forced purchase by everyone, to the exclusion of alternatives they may prefer.

Maybe all this is obvious. It certainly seems it when written down. You might be surprised to hear that this rather banal observation warrants the grand title of “Arrow’s impossibility theorem” in an area of economics known as public choice theory. And actually almost everyone is aware of it on some level. But they don’t act like it.

Consistent “Democratic Socialism” is an oxymoron

For example, some people despair when they see that majorities back both that UK citizens should have unrestricted access to EU countries, and that EU citizens should not have unrestricted access to the UK, and make very patronising remarks about “the people’s” ignorance. Leaving aside the fact that this particular story left out the “don’t know” column in their presentation of the survey results, which is sufficient to account for the disparity, and that the impacts of the two questions on the relevant populations are asymmetric and uncertain, why do you expect a consistent preference from a majority of people at all?

And then there are the Utopian Revolutionary Types I mentioned before, some of whom are angry at “neoliberalism”, and what they see as “rule by the market” in the great part of life, and want to replace it with a “democratic system” of distributing all wealth and goods, or at any rate more of them than currently are, and in a different, better, way. But if there’s inconsistency in social choice between three goods, how bad is it going to get when you try to do it with everything?

The absolute best you can say about this kind of “democratic socialism” is that in a population of completely uniform people with identical preferences it would correctly allocate things in the way that everybody by definition wants, which they presumably would have done anyway. So it’s at best useless. In a real population of diverse individuals it will be a very dumb way of organising things indeed.

This is generally dismissed with a wave of the hand, the statement that “obviously democracy’s not perfect”, and maybe a Churchillian quote. And maybe you’re thinking: “well, obviously I don’t mean all the people when I say “the people”. I mean ‘people with less than a certain amount of money’. Or maybe ‘people who work in a physically demanding job, or who work at all, and don’t just rely on income from capital assets that they inherited’”.

And if you prefer those people, fair enough, but don’t call the people you favour “the people”, and yourself a democrat, because excluding people from a say in the objective of government action is the opposite of democracy.

The truth is that democracy just isn’t a very good mechanism for doing most things. Markets are generally good because they respect everybody’s choice to allocate their own resources, and generally they know best how they want to use them.

It’s true that those choices are restricted by the individual’s own resources, and that sometimes when they choose to consume something that can hurt others, so there are potential moral problems with markets.

But it’s equally true that the overall possibilities of a society are limited by all its individuals’ resources, and that groups forcing others to differently allocate those resources necessarily hurts them, so even if there is some problem with markets, it doesn’t follow that government will be better. So I favour the former over the latter, all other things being equal.

The right kind of corruption

I think some of the Utopian Types recognise that government acts by force, but actually regard that as an argument for more government. So, they reckon the fact that government forces reallocation of resources is a good thing, it’s just that currently it’s the wrong group of people forcing the wrong other group of people to allocate their resources wrongly, and that all we need is the right group of people to force the right other group of people to allocate their resources correctly. Basically: “government is corrupt, so we need a lot more of it. Just the right kind of corruption”.

In a sense, I agree: we do need the right kind of corruption. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a government, or that if we do, it shouldn’t be democratic. We should, and it should be.

It’s just that the kinds of things it should do should be limited to things which for whatever reason we can’t do individually. I can think of good, if perhaps not wholly watertight, arguments for using it for: defence; protection of private property and personal safety; and providing a minimum standard of living, health and education, for instance.

But the burden of proof should be on those promoting its use for that, and the structure of society should be such that it facilitates that justification process. Basically, I’m not anti-government, I’m a government sceptic. Government is a terrible but probably necessary thing, and should be treated as such.

The Utopian Types have the opposite view, that government is a potentially awesome but difficult thing, and we should structure society to enable it to do what it can because the best way it could do stuff  is potentially really great, never mind all the terrible ones we might get.

I find that a dubious argument, if only because there are a lot more bad ways of doing things than good ways, and the information necessary for making the good way is difficult or impossible to obtain.

Now, I’ve been assuming all along that the Utopian Types were angels with the best of intentions. I think a lot of them are; quite a few of them are my friends.

But suppose you weren’t an angel with the best of intentions, were aware of government’s role as a means of forcing one group’s preference on everybody, and wanted to use it to force your own view on everybody else. What would be the best way of pitching that to a democratic society? Well, you’d say you wanted government to act for “the will of the people”.

Calling a subset of the population “the people” is a very good political marketing strategy for evil or selfish people looking to use government for their own benefit at others’ expense, because everyone believes themselves to be part of “the people”, and if it’s in the interests of “the people” then it’s in mine.

But all government is about imposing one group’s values on another by threat of violence, so anyone who uses this term is either ignorant or manipulative, and you should be wary of them. Let’s give Russell Brand the benefit of the doubt and say he’s just ignorant.


3 thoughts on “The myth of “The People”

  1. Nice pos, but I think you are being a bit unfair to Brand.

    In his book he calls for the opportunity for more, smaller autonomous societies. And explicitly states/accepts that some such communities may be founded or racist or other non-PC principles. His ‘demand’ is that each community doen’t impose on other communities. Pretty libertarian stuff.

    How he wants *his* society to work is irrelevant as long as you need not be part of it, or let it have power over you – which is something he substantially concedes.

    The challenge is for people to believe that their liberty is best protected by ensuring that everyone elses liberty is protected (even if they are using it in a way you despise).


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