Active Thinking Topic 11 - Effective Democracy With Stupid Voters

Monday 2 August 2021, 6:30 pm - 8:30 pm

Any replies to the organizer -

Venue: Cafe Brunelli, 187 Rundle St · Adelaide (You must buy a drink or something. We are 'renting' the space for 2 hours)

About Focus Questions: a) Please read them before you come to the meetup. Think about them so you have more than "instant opinions" to offer. b) Feel free to add more focus questions. c) THE FOCUS QUESTIONS ARE JUST A MENU TO CHOOSE FROM. From this menu we can discuss whatever seems interesting. d) Focus questions are not intended to push one viewpoint! You can adopt any position you wish. We actually like friendly disagreement - it can lead to deeper understanding

Focus Questions

1. Are you a stupid voter? Who is a stupid voter? Is voting stupidly the same as being a stupid voter? (e.g. see "The Unexpected Power of Stupidity" @ )

2. "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all others" [Winston Churchill]. Do you agree with Churchill? Why/Why not?

4. Parliaments in democracies worldwide are overwhelmingly composed of lawyers. Is this representing the people? Seriously? Practising lawyers are 0.34% of the Australian population. What would be a more satisfactory solution for 'representative democracy' ?

3. Imagine you wanted to create political constituencies for different groups of people in Australia. Suggest a list of such groups and how you would choose their representatives. Would this be superior to the present representation based on districts? Do you think that there would be greater democratic participation beyond simple voting if people were represented by special interest groups they understood?

4. Modern national governments (whether democracies or something else) take on responsibility for a vast number of complicated fields which their leaders (mostly lawyers) usually know very little about and often can't control. Most voters do not understand that the blind are leading the blind. What is the best solution to this problem?

5. How can democracies succeed with major national projects which are sabotaged for electoral advantage? Issues like climate change & environment, energy, major infrastructure, public health & pandemics etc require complex, long term planning to succeed well. At the moment such challenges are hostage to short term defunding, change or manipulation for political advantage, especially in elections.

7. It might be possible to devise "perfect" systems (choose your ideology or religion) but it is not possible to create perfect human beings. Every government worldwide has police, prisons, and a so-called defence ministry, and they all face similar human problems. What is the least worst solution to giving stupid, misinformed, uninformed, part-time insane, or variously criminal individuals as much freedom as they can handle without destroying the rest of us?

8. How can we limit the power of leaders without crippling effective decision making? Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Every organization and government worldwide is littered with people whose minds have been warped by power. How effective is the 'division of powers' in Australia [Executive, Legislative, Judicial]? Should the media be given more formal power to expose bad governance?

9. Without fair rules (laws) reliably applied there can be no real democracy. How fairly is law applied in Australia? Is it possible to have a fair legal system when nobody (including lawyers) understands many laws?

10. What is the solution to military economic canibalism? Almost every empire and country in history has eventually been eaten and destroyed by their own military. This has happened either in wars, or in arms races. Arms spending is usually popular with citizens and weak leaders often turn to external "threats" to regain support. [Examples "America has spent $6.4 trillion on wars in the Middle East and Asia since 2001", leading to over 800,000 deaths -  . Other examples: a) an arms race economically destroyed the Soviet USSR and still keeps Russia poor; b) I (Thor) suspect that China's leader, Xi Jinping, to stay in power depends heavily on military spending to satisfy PLA generals. He has many powerful civilian enemies]

Extra Reading

Thor May (2013) "The Democracy Problem". The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: " Like huge numbers of people worldwide, Australians in general know little real history, and will therefore repeat its mistakes. If tyranny again becomes the norm, as it has been in most places over the last 5,000 years, with the memory of goldfish they will think it was always that way."]

Thor May (2015) "The Unexpected Power of Stupidity". The Passionate Skeptic website @  Quote: ["If we all understood each other perfectly 100% of the time, our judgements of other people’s stupidity would probably reduce by about 95%. We never understand each other perfectly, even after long acquaintance, and there is no prospect that we ever will understand each other perfectly ..."]

Luke Buckmaster (19 July 2021) "Idiocracy: a disturbingly prophetic look at the future of America – and our era of stupidity - Mike Judge critiques the nonsense of the modern world in this dystopian 2006 comedy – which, in 2021, feels more like a documentary - Idiocracy is available to stream via Google Play, Amazon and iTunes". The Guardian @

Mariano Sigman and Dan Ariely (2018) "How can groups make good decisions?" TED talk @  [Thor, comment: Really interesting. The big challenge is to find a way for the wisdom of small groups to be translated into an online mechanism for the large scale governance of millions. Anonymous avatars would kill it stone dead - you wind up with extreme trolls. Then getting a balance of the population to participate is another tough one. Voluntary participants tend to be over-committed to some issue. We sure don't have real 'participatory democracy' the way things are working now.]

Gerd Gigerenzer, "Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions Paperback" (Kindle $14 on Amazon  ). Also youtube @  [in this guest video, Gigerenzer is sharp, but ignore the incoherent host]. Professor Gigerenzer has travelled the world testing doctors, and found that over 80% of doctors can't correctly interpret basic statements about medical risk. [Thor, comment: Democratic choice requires a willingness to take informed responsibility for your actions. The two key words are "informed" and "responsibility" (yours). The first requires effort+skill. The second requires courage. Strong tendencies in ALL political systems are a) to discourage or obstruct you from becoming well informed with skilled enquiry; and b) to persuade you that challenging a controlling elite is a waste of time, too difficult, and maybe dangerous to your health. Is it only political systems that show this pattern? No! The same patterns are seen in education, in employment, in finance, in law, in medicine ... and so on. Gigerenzer is especially interesting because he is trying to challenge the paradigm of defensive medicine where (often misinformed) doctors regard patients as mindless idiots, just as political elites regard voters as mindless idiots]

Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. (May 24, 2016) "In 2014 we published a study of political inequality in America, called “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Our central finding was this: Economic elites and interest groups can shape U.S. government policy — but Americans who are less well off have essentially no influence over what their government does". Washington Post @

Yascha Mounk (March 2018) "America Is Not a Democracy - How the United States lost the faith of its citizens—and what it can do to win them back". The Atlantic @

Christopher Knaus 13 July 2021 "Regulations governing conduct of Australia’s federal MPs are weakest of comparable nations, study finds - Australia should implement a parliamentary code of conduct with strict, enforceable anti-corruption laws - ‘Nurses, teachers, and public servants are bound by codes of conduct. Why do we give our elected representatives a free pass to behave as they please?’ ". Brisbane Times @  [Thor (opinion. You may disagree) - putting party loyalties aside, my perception is that the current federal administration in Canberra has been one of the most inept and corrupt since federation in 1901]

Annika Smethurst (July 15, 2021) "State and federal governments support a marriage of convenience". Brisbane Times @  [Quote: "Voters are increasingly prepared to vote for one party in the lower house and different one in the upper house. ... They may feel that one party is better suited to the service delivery role of state government such as managing schools and hospitals, whereas another party is stronger at managing tax receipts and the borders".]

Matthew Knott (July 14, 2021) "‘An assault on liberty’: Biden sounds alarm on Republicans’ effort to restrict voting rights". Brisbane Times @

Paul J. Weber (July 13, 2021) "Texas state Democrats flee in last ditch effort to stop GOP voting bill - Democrats in the Texas Legislature on Monday bolted for Washington, DC, and said they were ready to remain there for weeks in a second revolt against a GOP overhaul of election laws, forcing a dramatic new showdown over voting rights in America". Brisbane Times @

Luke Harding, Julian Borger and Dan Sabbagh (15 July 2021 ) "Kremlin papers appear to show Putin’s plot to put Trump in White House. The documents [also] appear to confirm the Kremlin possesses compromising material on Trump". The Guardian @  [Thor, comment: A late arrival from the Kremlin's National Security Council. Pretty interesting, though whatever mayhem in USA the Russians hoped for was enthusiastically generated by Americans themselves. Perhaps the biggest takeaway at this late stage is that Putin's holy of holy secrets are being leaked by his own mob. Now who's planning what in Russia's fake democracy?] [Quote: "Vladimir Putin personally authorised a secret spy agency operation to support a “mentally unstable” Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election during a closed session of Russia’s national security council, according to what are assessed to be leaked Kremlin documents. ... The key meeting took place on 22 January 2016, the papers suggest, with the Russian president, his spy chiefs and senior ministers all present. ... They agreed a Trump White House would help secure Moscow’s strategic objectives, among them “social turmoil” in the US and a weakening of the American president’s negotiating position".]

Kirill Martynov (July 6, 2021) "How Vladimir Putin Runs Russia Without Intermediaries or Institutes - Russia is ready to become the first country in the world where public politics and governance are carried out via daytime TV". Moscow Times @

Scott Foster (July 13, 2021) "China-US contest will come down to education - America's decline in K-12 schooling is a huge blow to its competitiveness at a time when China's schools are on the rise". Asia Times @

Banu Güven (July 16 2021) "Opinion: Turkey's Erdogan has reached the event horizon - Five years after the failed coup attempt and despite a systematic purge of his rivals, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan still fears losing his grip on power". Deutche Welle @  [Quote: "under emergency rule, Erdogan started the widest purge in Turkish political history. Tens of thousands of people — military officials, judges, prosecutors, bureaucrats, academics — were expelled from their jobs without cause and replaced by inexperienced party loyalists. Journalists, authors and members of civil society were sent to prison without any prospect of release. Politicians, including his rivals, had been jailed already. ... Like all tyrants, Erdogan's reaction to diversity is anger, violence or denial at best."] [Thor, comment: Erdogan, originally, was one of the best mayors that Istanbul ever had. After being elected president, power affected him psychologically, as it does with so many others. He is quoted as saying "Democracy is like a tram. You take it to your destination, then get off." ]

Sam Levin (16 July 2021) "Israeli spyware firm linked to fake Black Lives Matter and Amnesty websites – report. Researchers say web domains masquerading as activist, health and media groups are used by governments to hack targets." The Guardian @  [Quote: "Activists who are targeted may click on links that appear to be from trusted sources and then be taken to a site with innocuous content or redirected elsewhere, he explained. “But this website, which was specially registered for the purpose of exploiting their computer, would run code in the background that would silently hijack control of their computer,” he said. The malware could enable “persistent access to essentially everything on the computer” potentially allowing governments to steal passwords and documents or turn on a microphone to spy on a victim’s surroundings."]

Michael Janda (16 July 2021) "Tax Institute releases 287-page reform wish list to fix 'broken' taxation system". ABC News @ [Quote: "One of Australia's leading membership groups for taxation experts, the institute systematically attacked Australia's more than 10,000 pages of tax laws with a 287-page paper called The Case for Change. ... previous estimates had put tax law compliance costs at $40 billion, but that was from the Henry tax review more than a decade ago, and the cost was likely more than $50 billion now."]
Tao Zhang (July 19, 2021) "Silenced in China: the Covid ‘truth-tellers’". Asia Times @

Damian Carrington (July 20 2021) "Reckless’: G20 states subsidised fossil fuels by $3tn since 2015, says report - Support for coal, oil and gas remains high despite pledges to tackle climate crisis". The Guardian @  [Quote: " Australia increased its fossil fuel subsidies by 48% over the period, Canada’s support rose by 40% and that from the US by 37%. The UK’s subsidies fell by 18% over that time but still stood at $17bn in 2019, according to the report. The biggest subsidies came from China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and India, which together accounted for about half of all the subsidies.]

David Crowe and Shane Wright (July 22, 2021) "A former supreme court judge has labelled the federal government’s $660 million car park fund “corruption” amid warnings that ministers may have breached laws that required them to spend taxpayer funds in an efficient and ethical way". Brisbane Times @

Thor May (2014) "What will be the dominant ideologies of the 21st Century?". Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "The 20 th Century revolved politically around competing interpretations of Capitalism, Communism, Socialism and Fascism. These are all ways to organize the lives of people on a large scale. Are real alternatives or new interpretations likely to emerge in the challenging years ahead? What might they look like?"]

Frank Chen (July 23, 2021) "China has a ‘lying flat’ youth problem - Beijing seeks to lure disenfranchised youth into the workplace and down the wedding aisle but many still prefer to 'lie flat'". Asia Times @  [Thor, comment: Motivation for the masses is a tough call. For a while you can hype people up on ideology or religion, or to fight a war ... but life is short and folk want to know what's in it for them. Even in 1998 (my first jobs in China) in state owned stores assistants would say 'méiyǒu' (don't have) for items barely out of reach. There was no reward for effort. That why communism failed, and in the Soviet Union too. Low level workers in USA are often the same, for the same reason. Now China on the ground is about ruthless, uncontrolled capitalism, expecting workers to slave 12 hours a day for a pittance and be cast aside at 35 years old. So young people are saying 'bugger it' and dropping out, or as they say, 躺平; tang píng; lying flat. They are actually following the lead of young workers in Japan, for the same reason. So much for propaganda and ideology. And also so much for the fake choices offered to ordinary people by democratic voting in the West.]

Rob Harris (July 26, 2021) "Federal Labor dumps negative gearing policy, backs tax cuts" Brisbane Times @ 

David P. Goldman (July 27, 2021) "Xi Jinping’s stock market populism - Rule by decree in capital markets is a risky enterprise as abrupt regulatory change is toxic for entrepreneurship". Asia Times @  [Thor, comment: This isn't just about China. The factors in play apply to all countries. The particular family/education examples raised by Goldman here are common to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The gig economy issues he discusses apply equally to USA and Australia. And the fruits of inequality - collapse of the social contract - apply worldwide. ... The actual success of any social or political system arises not from a stated ideology [capitalism, communism, theology, or whatever) but from the real incentives felt in everyday living. Those incentives may be economic, or for some people they may be something else, but without them sooner or later the whole enterprise falters.]

Bill Fryer (July 17, 2021) "What did you learn too late in life?" Quora @  [Quote: (quoting physicist Brian Cox) " Look across the political landscape of any country, identify the people with blustering certitude and don't vote for them. ... We have to embrace doubt and uncertainty. We shouldn't be afraid of it. That's what research science is. It's what running a country is, too. Democracy is a trial-and-error system, based on the recognition that it's very difficult to run society". Cox was talking about thinking scientifically. Cox believes we should not vote for politicians who are too sure of themselves, because this means they are not thinking scientifically. ... Science is not a collection of absolute truths. Scientists are delighted when we are wrong because it means we have learnt something. What we think is true is always an approximation of what is actually true. Sometimes it’s a very inaccurate approximation. ... At the heart of empirical science is skepticism. Scientific skepticism involves suspending judgment until we have reliable evidence".

=> Thor, comment: Bill Fryer is right about the nature of scientific inquiry and the uncertainties of governance. Alas though, the bulk of people will always vote for the bearers of simple certainties, even if they are wrong. That is, they vote for politicians who seem like themselves, and consider such mirroring an ideal of democracy. For this reason, we appear to be condemned to political leaders who are either too simple minded for a complex world, or who have great skill at deceiving their voting base about their actual outlook and agenda.

Simon Speakman Cordall and Martin Chulov (28 July 2021) "Tunisia’s political crisis greeted with indifference on streets of capital - There is little sign of anger against apparent coup, but some lament the threat to fragile democracy". The Guardian @  [Quote: "Protesters who had raged on Sunday before President Kais Saied sacked the county’s prime minister and suspended parliament were absent from sites that days before had been febrile hubs of discontent. Instead, passersby seemed to go about their business caring little about the gravity of the moment. In some parts of Tunis, the mood was almost celebratory. After the storied success of Tunisia’s revolution and decade-long crawl towards democracy, the standard bearer of the Arab spring appears exhausted and uncertain. The slow pace of change has worn down many of its citizens, and the Covid-led global slowdown has led some to defer to the certainty of strongman rule over pledges of a brighter future made by political leaders].

Leah MacLennan (29 July 2021) "Cory Bernardi has given his blessing, but will this be a second coming for the Family First Party? ABC @

Jonathan D James (August 21, 2017) "As Australia becomes less religious, our parliament becomes more so." The Conversation @  [Quote: "The 2016 Census revealed that more than 30% of the Australian population identify as having “no religion” – a label that overtook the Catholic faith figure .. Surprisingly, [declared] Christians currently number more than 40% of the Coalition government and about 30% of the Labor opposition. This is high for a nation labelled “secular”... When federal parliament is in session, the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship meets fortnightly, with about 60 members from all sides of politics in attendance. This is more than a quarter of total parliamentary members. Not all Christians in parliament choose to attend the fellowship".

James Carden (July 28, 2021) " France, US losing civilian control of their militaries - The principle of civilian control of the military is being challenged in very public ways in both democratic countries." Asia Times @

David Crowe (July 30, 2021) "The ruthless decision Albanese had to make - Anthony Albanese and Jim Chalmers decided months ago to use the dead of winter to drop Labor’s old tax policies into a deep crevasse so they could lighten their load on the march to the next election". Brisbane Times @  [A reader comment: "Steve - We lost two elections with a series of progressive policies that saw us fall short of forming government. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result and oppositions dont get voted in, governments get voted out, so this makes political sense. Changes are better done from government, not opposition. Labor will inherit a massive debt and the case for meaningful budget windbacks will be much easier to make". ]

Paul Daley (31 July 2021) "Rule-breakers and anti-lockdown marchers are boofheads – but the biggest failure is the government’s". The Guardian @  [Quote: "Scratch most Australians and you’ll find a conformist. Ingrained iconoclasm, individualism and innate anti-authoritarianism are about as characteristic as that mythical egalitarianism. If lockdown rules enable some to get drunk on takeaway margaritas in the name of “exercise” they’ll go for it. If the rules don’t, they won’t. No. Government systems failures, more than wilful individual disobedience, has been the biggest problem in this crisis so far".]

Paul Strangio (2 August 2021) "Who was Australia’s best prime minister? Experts rank the winners and dunces." The Guardian @

Nick Bonyhady (August 3, 2021) "Services Australia used ‘learner’ staff to process complex robodebt refunds - A confidential report the government used to show it had properly refunded more than half a billion dollars from the unlawful robodebt welfare recovery scheme reveals “learner” staff were used to assess refund payments. ... Services Australia, which managed the welfare recovery scheme, has been repaying people since mid-2020 but the process has been done manually because it did not keep proper records of which purported debts were unlawful and which were not".Brisbane Times @  [Comment, Thor - Malevolent incompetence is the only proper description for what Services Australia (Centrelink) has become, and that incompetence is a deliberate ideological outcome. Robodebt, had it's illegal origns under Scott Morrison as the minister at the time, it lead to deaths and lives ruined It was only abandoned when confronted by Australia's largest ever legal class action (organized by Bill Shorten). The repayment of Robodebt's illegally extracted debts has been equally evasive, obscure and reluctant. Robodebt is iconic of one of the worst governments in Australia's history, yet the inability of most voters to grasp what has gone on means that they will vote, as usual, according to prejudice, not knowledge, so poor governance will continue.



 Effective Democracy With Stupid Voters (c) Thor May 2021 

return to Ddiscussion