We Don’t Need Elections to Figure Out What People Want

I read today a very thought-provoking piece by Yuval Harari, a historian and philosopher. “You can vote but you can’t choose what is true.” A paraphrased summary of his thesis: Elections are awful ways of determining what is true. For that, we need to turn to experts and institutions, not popularity contests. However, elections are not about finding out what is true, but rather, about finding out what people want. And if a majority of people want a certain thing, whether it be Brexit or any other hot button topic of the day, then our political system should respect and grant the people their desires.

There is much that I agree with Harari on. But Harari is badly mistaken about the need for elections in order to determine what people want. For one simple reason. For the most part, we already know what people want.

People want economic security, so that they don’t have to worry about feeding, clothing and housing themselves.

People want material prosperity, so that they may enjoy leisure activities such as travel or fine dining.

People want physical security, against local criminals, foreign invaders, and an overzealous police state.

People want to live long healthy lives, free from disease and other ailments.

We do not need elections to determine whether or not people want those things, because the answer is already very well known for our most important needs. What people disagree on, and what elections really come down to, is figuring out the best way to achieve the above objectives.

Some people believe that the best way to achieve economic security is through taxpayer-funded social safety nets. While others believe that the best way to do it is through cutting taxes on corporations and the rich.

Some people believe that the best way to achieve material prosperity is through free trade, while others believe that the best way to achieve it is through trade barriers.

Some people believe that the best way to gain physical security is through a criminal justice system that is focused on civil rights, rehabilitation and gun control. While others believe that the best way to achieve it is through punitive deterrence and self-defence.

Some people believe that the best way to improve our healthcare system is through Universal Medicare. Others believe the answer lies in strengthening Obamacare. And yet others believe that the answer lies in dismantling both and letting the free market work its magic.

These are the hot button issues that divide our countries today. The issues that truly determine the outcomes of our elections and the makeup of our governments.

And yet, despite these vehement disagreements, it is remarkably clear what people want. No one fundamentally wants “Medicare” or “Obamacare” or “Free Markets” – people just want good affordable healthcare. No one dreams of “Free Trade” or “Tariffs” – people just want economic security.

It is true that there are a handful of issues where people disagree in principle, and want truly different things. Issues such as Abortion. Issues where neither side mounts much in the way of a factual or logical argument, because they both recognize that it is a purely subjective question with no objective answers.

But such issues are the exceptions, not the norm. Most voters on most debates pay close attention to facts, evidence and logic, because they recognize their centrality in resolving the disagreement. The things that truly divide and decide our elections aren’t fundamental differences in our desires. But rather, the truths we believe about the best way to achieve our shared desires.


Harari wisely points out that if the goal is to find truth, elections are an awful way to go about it. Using a popular vote to decide if we should adopt Universal Healthcare, is indeed like letting passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on. The analogy may not be perfect, but it is far more accurate than the “do-you-like-strawberries-or-apples” alternative.

As Harari points out, the best way to uncover truth is to reject popular opinion and to lean on the strengths of our institutions. He is also not the first to point this out. America’s own founding fathers had vehemently come out against democracy and fashioned the nation as a constitutional republic, for this very reason. To quote John Adams, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

This is precisely the reason I had argued in past articles that we need to radically reinvent our current conceptions of democracy. We need to reinvent it in the image of methodical jury trials, not cheerleading contests. We need to reinvent it to resemble our most successful search engines, not a vacuous twitter mob.

The most important questions that our elections are seeking to answer, is not what we want, but how we can get what we want. And elections are truly the worst way to find that answer.


Related Links:
It’s Time to Reinvent Democracy
Democracy by Jury
Reinventing Democracy – The Google Way

Discussion thread on /r/philosophy