Are You Smart Enough to Live in a Free Society?

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Thu, Jan 29 - 9:00 am EST | 4 years ago by
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The Good Life - Are You Smart Enough?

Honestly now: Do you have what it takes? We all like to think we’re smarter than average, but the math is cruel. Half of us are below median intelligence, and some of us are considerably lower. So why should we think that freedom is a good policy for everyone?

I believe freedom is the best policy, but sometimes that is a hard argument to make. A free society presupposes that people are capable of living self-responsibly. That in turn presupposes that they have enough intelligence to do so. And a free democracy presupposes that the majority will consistently make good political decisions. That also presupposes they have enough intelligence to do so.

But a strong claim can be made that it’s naive to think that most people are smart enough. So let’s take up that hard challenge, since only by facing the best arguments on all sides can we be most certain of our own conclusions.

Here’s sobering anecdote, courtesy of columnist Marilyn vos Savant, about just how low the average intelligence can be. vos Savant has the distinction, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, of having the highest score ever on IQ tests.

A reader wrote to vos Savant with a perplexing math problem he had been debating over dinner with his wife and brother-in-law. Suppose that you pour one cup of 100% bran cereal into a bowl, and then you pour one cup of 40% bran cereal into the same bowl. What percentage of bran is now in the bowl?

The reader’s wife said 140% — apparently one should add the two percentages to get the right answer. The brother-in-law disagreed, holding that one should subtract the lower from the higher percentage, so the correct answer is 60%. The reader himself thought that 140% and 60% were both wrong — and that the right answer depends on whether one first pours the 100% bran or the 40% bran into the bowl.

Here we have three individuals who cannot do basic math. What are the chances they have the cognitive skills necessary to make it in our complex, high-tech world? Can they calculate the percentages for, say, good nutrition or the compounding interest rates on their credit cards? One has only to consider how many people out there are obese or have out-of-control debt. Intellectually, they are nearly helpless to navigate the complicated modern world by themselves — and in the name of freedom we leave them to their own devices.

It gets worse. Perhaps you can do basic math. But let’s not forget that the three citizens above can easily outvote you on any public policy issue. What are the chances that their three math-challenged votes will be better than your one math-informed vote — on budgetary calculations — on judging acceptable levels of chemicals in foods — on whether vaccines are a good idea — on the science of climate? So what are the chances that democracy is anything more than a slow suicide of the collectively stupid?

Maybe a managed freedom is best for most people. Of course some of us are smarter than others. So those of us with the brains (that’s you, me, and vos Savant) can do good by making the important decisions for our less intelligent brethren or at least firmly nudging them in the correct direction. Wouldn’t that be better for the unsmart than leaving them to their own precarious intelligence?

So, the argument concludes, let’s be blunt: We should design the political system to give power to the smart. Let us forthrightly take decision-making power away from the less intelligent — for their own good and the good of society as a whole.

In ancient times, Plato argued that we need philosopher-kings. For our modern science-and-technology-intensive society, we can update that: We need philosopher-scientist-kings.

Do you shrink from the dictatorial sound of that? Perhaps we needn’t go to such extremes and can include some democratic elements. We can permit everyone to vote and have the majority of votes determine which candidates will be given the authority to make the important decisions on our behalf. Or to make our choices as voters even easier, let’s have political parties pre-select suitably smart candidates, and we voters will choose the best from among them.

But our representatives, once elected, will soon face a problem. They will realize that the world is very complex and that many, many important decisions must be made – but they themselves don’t always have the necessary knowledge to decide wisely.

So they will create a series of government agencies staffed with intelligent experts — about manufacturing and trade, about banking and finance, about food and drink, about pharmaceuticals and medicine, about transportation, and about the education of our children. Those expert agencies will be empowered to make the necessary decisions on our behalf, and we can live happily knowing that the smart people are in charge of our lives.

I’ve just described something like the current system of the United States and most of the world’s developed nations. Depending how one counts, we live in something that should be called a Doubly-Indirect Paternalist Democracy or a Thrice-Removed Benevolent Aristocracy. We citizens can makes some choices, but within a framework selected and enforced by our intellectual-superiors.

In that system, those of lower intelligence are protected from the consequences of their ignorance in their own lives, and the rest of us are protected from the consequences of their voting in our public lives. Perhaps some tinkering with the system is necessary — but if the logic of the above argument is sound, then we already live in the best of all possible political worlds.

So we have a challenge for those of us who want to live freely. We want to choose the education of our children. We want to decide for ourselves what to eat and drink. We want to make our own plans for our financial futures. We even want to choose our own physicians and insurance plans, and much more. But why should that matter in the light of the above argument for paternalism?

Note that the paternalist argument is driven by fear — fear of the stupid and the uninformed. We need to protect them from themselves because we fear that they can’t make it on their own. And we need to protect ourselves from the stupid and the uninformed, because we fear the consequences of their large-number political power in a democracy.

Those fears are not irrelevant considerations, but they are not the basis for a proper political philosophy. Why not? That is the subject of my next article.

Don’t miss last week’s column: How to Discriminate Properly

Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .

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