The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat (and why we misunderstand democracy at our peril)

The US Senate recently held three crucial votes on climate change. And, in other news, Rudyard Kipling wrote a short story in 1913 entitled ‘The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat‘.

It was my father who introduced me to The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat, which he described as one of the funniest stories he had ever read. Senses of humour vary, of course, but I have to say I rather agree with him: it is an iconic romp, beginning with the mundane matter of an unjust speeding ticket, and ending with worldwide ridicule for the offending village. Like much of Kipling, there are powerful undercurrents of revenge and matters taken too far.

The plot goes something like this: an English village is merrily making money be entrapping motorists, and hauling them before the local magistrate, who is part of the plot. In revenge, a journalist, an MP and an impresario manage to hold a special meeting of the Geoplanarians there. With the benefit of copious amounts of alcohol, they manage to persuade the villagers to vote that the Earth is flat. They then proceed to publicise this through the mass media, which, in 1913, is still relatively new.

Kipling makes a number of side-swipes at popular gullibility, the power of the press, the power of an oppressive judiciary, and the power of pomposity. However, the underlying point is all too obvious for being understated: no democracy has the power to determine what is, and is not, fact.

A lot of people have been sharing on Facebook their concerns that the US Senate voted by a narrow margin that climate change was not caused by human activity. What is less frequently shared is that the Senate voted overwhelmingly that climate change was genuine, and not a hoax. However, the Senate was just as misguided in doing this as in narrowly determining that climate change was not man-made.

It would be easy to characterise this as ‘Americans versus Science’, which is an attractive cultural stereotype for the British. In the words of Zack, the underperforming ex-boyfriend in Big Bang Theory, “That’s the great thing about science — there are no right or wrong answers”. Actually, Zack is closer to the truth than he knows. As Karl Popper would point out, science is a process of discovery, not a body of proven fact.

 

Democracy itself is widely misunderstood. It is Aristotle, of course, who laid down our first notions of democratic theory. He was not necessarily a fan (he also claimed that slavery was an essential part of society, a section of his Politics which is frequently glossed over). To Aristotle, the three forms of government were monarchy — government by one — aristocracy — government by the noble — and polity — government by the citizens. Each of these, where the government was for the benefit of all, had a debased form, where the rulers governed for their own benefit. These debased forms were tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy: government by what we would now call the ‘lowest common denominator’.

We should not, in any case, confuse Greek compulsory adult, manhood, citizen collective decision making with modern representative democracy. The crucial difference, though, is not the extent of the suffrage, nor the notion of representation, but the duty of all citizens and all representatives to vote for the benefit of all. This principle of non-selfishness is what qualifies (at their best) modern democracies for Aristotle’s term ‘polity’, rather than little more than mob rule.

It is crucial that we recognise the duty ‘the benefit of all’ rather than ‘the benefit of the majority’ or ‘the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people’. It may not always be possible to achieve the benefit of all, but the moment we relax the duty, we open the door for many of the tyrannies the 20th century explored in such detail. I do not wish, at this point, to bow to Godwin’s law (all internet discussions spiral to an appeal to the tyranny of either Hitler or Stalin), or its corollary, the Jacobin terror. However, if we consider the treatment of collaborationist intellectuals in France during De Gaulle’s interim government (excellently discussed by Baert), where people were sentenced to death after a trial lasting less than a day, for purely intellectual crimes, we have to recognise what happens when a democracy relaxes its duty for the benefit of even one or two of its citizens. 1.

Probably everyone reading this article already agrees with this. Please do forgive me for the excursus.

What we perhaps recognise rather more seldom is that the Aristotelian principle of ‘benefit of all’ also helps to set limits around exactly what a democracy can vote on. I have lost count of the number of panels, boards, committees and assemblies I have observed, or sat on over the last thirty years which have attempted to deliberate on things over which they have no authority, or no control. The Oth rule in any constitution—sometimes appended as the final rule—is that no decisions of the executive, or the council, or the board, or whatever it is, can override the law. When this is appended, it is usually in the form of ‘if any decision is subsequently found to be illegal, this does not affect the other parts of a decision’. In my experience, the problem is not decisions subsequently found to be illegal, but decisions which the body knows it doesn’t have the authority to make without having recourse to the courts.

In most cases, a good chair reins the discussion in. I have very seldom had to experience a minuted decision which was outside the scope of the particular body.

However, the ‘-1st’ rule, which should go even before the Oth rule, should be that ‘this body exists to determine the beneficial actions it will take, and for no other purpose’. This does not mean that we should in any way stifle open debate, since open debate is the means by which a body reaches its conclusions, but the only conclusions a corporate body can legitimately take are about its actions in the future. It cannot overturn its actions in the past. It certainly cannot issue pronouncements about what is true, and what is not.

Actually, the action of democracy is even more divorced from our concept of truth even than that. By its nature, democracy must be both transparent, and inscrutable. It must be transparent in that there must be open access to what decisions were made, who was eligible to make them, and whether they voted or not. In British elections, whether or not someone voted is a recorded fact which is made publicly available afterwards. Not everyone is aware of this. In the UK’s parliamentary democracy, which way the representatives vote is also recorded, and all the speeches made available through Hansard. At the same time, democracy must be inscrutable, and here it differs entirely from judicial process.

In a court of law, the jury is called upon by the judge to make the best judgement available based on the evidence and the arguments presented. A higher court may overturn the decision if it finds that the evidence was unsound, or that the jury or judge acted perversely in their decision.

In a democracy, each person makes up their own mind on how to vote. Even in an open ballot, such as when MPs vote, the representative is not required to state why they voted in that way. They may vote based on the evidence, or their conscience, or their party whip, or by drawing Scrabble letters out of a bag, or on the basis of any other reason or non-reason they like. They may be challenged to explain why they voted that way later, and they may decide that it is electorally or personally in their interests to explain, but they are not required to do so. The only exception to this is that they must declare an interest if they stand to gain by voting in a particular direction.

For this reason, no one can ever authoritatively say “the House voted in this way because…”.

This brings us back to where we began. A democratic body, no matter how august, has no authority to determine matters of fact, be they scientific, historical or artistic (it was this notion of artistic fact which was so much at issue in the post-Vichy trials). Not only does the body lack the authority, but its members cannot be required to ‘vote with the facts’. The members will vote any way they want to vote. They should vote for the benefit of all, but future benefit is not amenable to simple factual inquiry. Analysing the way they voted tells us nothing about what is true, only about what effect they believed they would have by casting their vote.

I regret very much that the US Senate has narrowly determined that climate change is not caused by human action. I am much more worried that the US Senate thinks it can be voting about ‘what is true’ at all, even when they do get the answer right.

Show 1 footnote

  1. We should also recognise that too many checks and balances are removed when the press, government and judiciary are all working to essentially the same agenda

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