The democratic process relies on the assumption that citizens (the majority of them, at least) can recognize the best political candidate, or best policy idea, when they see it. But a growing body of research has revealed an unfortunate aspect of the human psyche that would seem to disprove this notion, and imply instead that democratic elections produce mediocre leadership and policies.

The research, led by David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, shows that incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people’s ideas. For example, if people lack expertise on tax reform, it is very difficult for them to identify thecandidates who are actual experts. They simply lack the mental tools needed to make meaningful judgments.

The results of the study are worth a read.

Consider this George Carlin quote: Just think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize half of them are even stupider.

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that we’re calling people stupid. We know it is in bad taste but we’re mature enough to discuss the quote: The above quote is simple math. What it implies though is that half the population–the smarter half–is going to be perennially dissatisfied with whatever the people of a democracy choose. I’ll wager that this gap widens with time because smarter people progress faster than the average population. We then reach a point where the smartest have little recollection of the sample population they belong to.

Recall the free speech debate in India. The smartest few considered Salman Rushdie’s pseudo-ban at the Jaipur Literary Festival an attack on the very foundations of democracy. (Forgive me for paraphrasing the most paranoid of the lot.) They attack the government for not protecting free speech. (The government made no such promise.) They attack writers like Chetan Bhagat for having an opinion–a reasonable one at that, if I may add–different from theirs.

The language of the debate ought to have struck you as something that would take place in the United States, not India. I think this was a symptom of the above gap I was talking about.

How about the Anna Hazare crusade? The same gap.

Elections in U.P.? Same.

The only positive for the smartest few is that one can make a steady (trickling) stream of income writing a newspaper column.


I’m not criticizing those fighting for free speech in India. More power to them. I just observe (which is just a nice way of saying I follow a couple of folks on Twitter and read a few blogs).


Thank Purnima for my return from the hiatus. I realized I’d rather write here than explain to her why I wasn’t writing.