We frequently hear in electoral debates the cry “but that is not what the people want.” In recent debates this cry has been raised concerning both the gun question and the health care question. It supposes that the proper purpose of government is to give the people what they want, or at least what a majority of them want. Opinion polls are therefore taken, and policies advanced which agree with the polls. This is a false and dangerous idea. First of all, polls are only as good as their methodology, and can be easily manipulated by the way the question is framed, and by the choice of people polled and their number. Even more importantly, their validity depend entirely on the state of knowledge about the subject on the part of those polled. This is especially the case when the subject under consideration is one that raises strong emotional reactions, as is the case with the debate about guns.
On a more fundamental level, this forms a part of the wider debate concerning the proper function of government itself. It is often claimed that the best form of government is that most closely resembling direct democracy. Under this theory the ideal form, which is in fact relatively feasible given modern advances in communications technology, would be for everyone to vote directly on every significant measure. Objections are raised to this idea on the grounds of security and accuracy, since many mistrust technology, and consider it too easily manipulated by the technologically sophisticated. There is some merit to this argument, but this is far from being the most cogent objection. For one thing, it implies that if these issues could be satisfactorily overcome then all would be well.
There is, however, a much more fundamental reason why this would be a terrible idea: it is not in fact the function of government to give the people what they want. First of all, this aim cannot be achieved. The best that can be done in this direction is to accede to the perceived desires of the majority of those participating in the election. As has been demonstrated many times, the only electoral system that could even determine the will of the majority of the electorate (as opposed to the majority of those actually voting) would be one which it was compulsory for all eligible voters to cast a vote. Even such a system would suffer from the same drawbacks as opinion polls: it would depend on the way the question was framed, and on the state of knowledge of the electorate, both of which can be manipulated. But this again is merely a surface objection, and leaves open the possibility that such concerns could be overcome if the process could be perfected.
The underlying objection to this approach is that its fundamental aim is wrong, and the proper solution lies in recognizing that government cannot and should not base its decisions and policies on the perceived desires of the people or even of a majority of the people. This is not to say that it should do the opposite, and act automatically in defiance of the will of the people, but rather that this should, if considered at all, be a minor consideration.
This may seem like a shocking assertion, but an examination of the proper nature and purpose of government soon reveals its truth. Part of our fundamental human nature is that we are a highly sociable species. This means that we are driven by our nature to form groups. This is not universal among animals; indeed one of the most intelligent animals we have found is the octopus, yet these animals show no signs of becoming a dominant species. This is thought to be due to the fact that they are a solitary (non group forming) species. This means that there is little opportunity for the young to learn from their elders, so each generation has to learn everything from scratch. We, on the other hand, have progressed as far as we have largely because our social nature drives us to form groups of all kinds, and one manifestation of this is what we term society or culture. To understand societal behavior and rules we must examine the nature of groups in general.
The absolute rule of social groups of all kinds is that without exception they put limitations upon the freedom of action of their members. Other than an anarchists club or perhaps a solipsists’ convention, both of which would be self-contradictory, all groups follow this rule. The trade-off is that in return for giving up some of our freedom of action we gain the benefits inherent in being members of the group. It is true that in the case of society itself we do not have a practical choice in the matter; we are automatically enrolled whether we want it or not, and for this reason we need to consider carefully how we set about making the rules of this particular group. If we join a voluntary group and then find that the restrictions are not worth the benefits we can always leave the group, but separating ourselves from society itself is in today’s world almost impossible.
What is not changed by its involuntary nature is that society will always restrict the freedom of its members. There is no meaning to a society that does not do this. The reason for this uncomfortable situation is that the interests of the group are different from, and usually at odds with, the interests of each individual member. This can be best illustrated by looking at a different kind of group, but one which follows the same principles, namely a sports team. Other than its voluntary nature, we can observe the same tension between the interests of the individual team member and the interests of the team itself. For instance in most cases team members will want to maximize their playing time, and where there are points to be scored they would prefer that they themselves score them rather than their team mates. Frequently however the overall interests of the team might be best served by having others on the field, or by passing the ball to someone better positioned to score. The essence of learning to play on a team, therefore, is learning to subordinate our individual interests to those of the team.
This is also the lesson of living in a society. We must recognize that we have two separate identities, and that those identities are in conflict. We are each an individual with needs and desires ot our own and at the same time we are members of a group, society, that has its own conflicting needs and desires. This on turn means that when making decisions that affect all of us we must set aside one of those identities, the individual one, and think only of the needs of the group.
I realize that this is a very high standard of behavior, and that people will always vote at least to some extent by their own self interests, and politicians will always pander to that fact. Probably the best I can reasonably expect is that voters will at least consider the needs of the society when they vote, and accept the fact that it is not in fact, and should not be, the proper aim of government to please you. Its proper aim is to see to the orderly running of society and the protection of the interests of those least able to protect their own interests.