… is from page 181 of the 1997 Johns Hopkins University Press edition of H.L. Mencken’s indispensable 1956 collection, Minority Report:
Democracy gives the naturally incompetent and envious man the means of working off his dislike of his betters in a lawful and even virtuous manner. Its moral effect is thus inevitably bad. It puts a premium upon on of the basest passions of mankind, and throws its weight against every rational concept of honor, honest and common decency.
DBx: For all of its imperfections, democratic decision-making is arguably the best means of choosing the quantity of genuine public goods to supply – that is, for making decisions that are genuinely collective. Occupants of a meeting room vote to decide on which particular temperature to set the room’s thermostat; owners of units in a condominium building vote to decide how much money to spend to refurbish the lobby; members of a church vote to decide which pastor to hire; citizens of district nine vote to decide which candidate will represent them in the legislature. Allowing everyone affected by decisions such as these to have a say in such decisions is superior, for many reasons, to allowing one person, or a select subset of persons in the group, to make such collective decisions.
But contrary to popular, lazy thought, the superiority of democratic decision-making on this front does not imply that, therefore, replacing private decision-making with democratic decision-making makes for fairer or better decision-making. Fully applicable here is the lesson conveyed by the old saw about two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.
The vast majority of decisions are not collective ones. From the color of my underwear, through my choice of which music to play in my car, to the terms of the agreement that I strike with my employer, I – like everyone else – regularly make decisions that are no one else’s business but my own. But if other people are nevertheless given a say, against my will, in such decisions of mine, not only are other-people’s incentives to make good decisions for me less intense than are my own such incentives, my own such incentives themselves weaken. In the limit – say, if my vote is only one among those of 1,000 people who determine the terms of my agreement with my employer – I have almost no incentive to vote prudently. The reason is that the outcome of the voting procedure will not be determined by my vote. So why should I bother to weigh carefully the different options and trade-offs? Even I – the person whose employment-contract terms are being chosen – would rationally be an irrational voter.
Expanding democratic decision-making beyond the realm of genuine collective choices into the realm of choices that can and should be made individually not only unleashes the horror of making everyone’s private business the business of everyone, it also sweeps away whatever rationality there would otherwise be in decision-making. All responsibility is eliminated.