Too Complicated for Democracy?

A breakfast discussion this morning about the Indiana Legislature and “Right to Work” reinforced a concern I’ve harbored.

For years, when I heard discussions about “Right to Work,” it seemed obvious to me that everyone should have the right to work without being forced to join a union. That, after all, was the way the issue was framed, and I was totally unaware that the reality was more complicated. Once I understood the issue more fully, I changed my policy preference.

The problem is, more and more issues are like Right to Work. No matter how simple the framing, the policies themselves require more in-depth knowledge in order to genuinely understand what is at stake. Formulations that compare decisions about the national budget to those you make for your own household, “Dirty Harry” approaches to criminal justice, “we just need to deport illegal immigrants” simplifications and numerous other “everyone knows” “it’s just common sense” approaches to government decision-making are simple, deceptively appealing, and usually (but not always) wrong.

The question is: how well can democracy work when even the most diligent voter (and how many of those are there?) is unlikely to be informed about the complexities of the policies being proposed by candidates?  How can we citizens make good decisions in an increasingly complex world?

I don’t have the answer to that question. But in a complicated world, a measure of humility would seem to be in order. At the very least, voters should cultivate a healthy suspicion of candidates displaying too much certitude–candidates who tell us the problems are simple. And we should run like hell from the ones who profess to have all the answers.