Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

A Sense of Proportion

Written by johnleemk on 1:29:13 pm Apr 29, 2007.

Demagoguery is dangerous to democracy. Man remains very much an irrational creature, prone to being swayed more by emotions than by reason. Some studies have indicated that voters decide who to support based first on emotions, and then attempt to justify their decision by resort to facts, rather than the other way round.

It is for this reason that demagoguery can be, and often is, harmful, for how it undermines the basis of reasoned democratic decision-making, and strengthens the irrational appeal to illogic in order to justify a public policy decision.

In particular, a sense of proportion is often lost in the emotional appeals of demagoguery. By focusing on one or two outliers, on one or two anecdotes, politicians can sway public emotion and thus opinion in the direction of an irrational decision.

Economist Paul Krugman cites one particular example from the mid-1990s, when then-United States President Bill Clinton campaigned vigorously for greater assistance to unemployed middle-class families.

Krugman has brought up statistics indicating that the American middle class was not particularly harmed during the relevant period, and that the true sufferers were those in the lower classes, but Clinton drummed up support at the time by pointing to a few outlying cases of suffering middle class households.

A sense of proportion is particularly lost when it comes to moral or religious issues. Again, in the United States, there are Christian fundamentalists who have massacred the staff of abortion clinics because they feel that abortion is murder.

The question is, why have these same people not gone on a rampage in the prisons of America, murdering the murderers of people who have already led productive lives and contributed to society, rather than murdering doctors who murder babies who cannot even feel a thing? Where is the sense of proportion?

Or take the issue of homosexuality and transsexuality. Some fundamentalists have gone as far as to murder homosexuals and transsexuals. Again, if sexual sin is such an issue, why have these people not murdered adulterers and fornicators, people who do more harm than homosexuals by actively breaking up marriages and families?

It is crucial that policymakers avoid taking the proportionless opinions of demagogues into consideration when making decisions. A pure democracy, where decisions are made entirely by referenda, is simply not practical precisely because of this.

That is why so many policymakers are not actually elected, but appointed by the elected. By not having to face the whims of a finicky and irrational electorate, policymakers can maintain some sense of proportion while going about their jobs, rather than succumbing to the irrationality of the crowds.

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