V.2: Government by the Masses or by Experts?

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Government by the Masses or by Experts

America’s founders expected the nation to have government by the masses and by experts at the same time.

They looked for a “natural aristocracy” to lead the nation. That phrase means the natural leaders of society. They expected those leaders to take a few weeks or months each year away from their farms, law practices, or other occupations to do the people’s business. And those experts were to be elected by the masses. In that way, America would have government by the masses and by experts.

The U.S. Constitution was written in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The majority of delegates, those who decided the wording of the document, were called Federalists.

Since the Federalists presumed that only … a self-conscious elite could transcend the [nation’s] many narrow and contradictory interests … the measure of a good government became its capacity for insuring the predominance of … natural leaders who knew better than the people as a whole what was good for the society. (Wood, [1969] 1998, 562)

The Anti-Federalists rejected the new U.S. Constitution because it created an overpowering national government led by experts.

They were the minority in the Constitutional Convention. Most of them either left the convention early in disgust or fought to the end and refused to sign the document. Thomas Jefferson was not a delegate in that convention, yet he expressed the Anti-Federalists’ fears very well, when he wrote:

Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree [through education]. (Jefferson, 1788, 159)

Jefferson did not oppose the Constitution, like the Anti-Federalists. But he had misgivings about it, especially before the Bill of Rights were added. He simply pointed out the need to educate voters so they could make better election choices. But is education of voters enough to protect their liberty?

Do we need more direct government by the masses in order to protect our liberty? John Stuart Mill, a British political economist, thought so:

People think it fanciful to expect so much from what seems so slight a cause — to recognise a potent instrument of mental improvement in the exercise of political franchises by manual labourers. Yet unless substantial mental cultivation in the mass of mankind is to be a mere vision, this is the road by which it must come. (Mill, 1861, 8.2)

If education produces better decision-making, then should the most educated have the most voting power?

Obviously, Jefferson is right that better educated people will make better election choices. But in the following quote, John Stuart Mill adds a controversial twist, showing a different point of view from what he said above about manual laborers:

Until there shall have been devised … some mode of plural voting which may assign to education, as such, the degree of superior influence due to it, and sufficient as a counterpoise to the numerical weight of the least educated class; … the benefits of completely universal suffrage cannot be obtained without bringing with them … evils. (Mill, 1861, 8.15)

It is not useful, but hurtful, that the constitution of the country should declare ignorance to be entitled to as much political power as knowledge. (Mill, 1861, 8.16)

So Mill pointed out a dilemma: there are reasons for giving electoral power to the masses as well as reasons for giving that even more of that same power to persons with more knowledge or expertise. So this dilemma muddies the water when we consider government by the masses versus government by experts.

Unfortunately, today we live under the illusion that we the people can control our government experts only through the voting booth.

So we have the silly notion that there’s no way to improve our government, except by replacing one gang (party) of politicians with a different gang. Some might even say that our educational system has brainwashed us into believing we only have such limited choices. But aren’t our choices really infinite?

Do you believe that the voting booth gives you a real say in government? Can you imagine a way to improve our election process? Is there a better way to balance between government by the masses and government by experts?

This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.

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Jefferson, Thomas. 1788. Notes on the State of Virginia. Documenting the American South. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2006. https://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/jefferson/jefferson.html (Accessed Oct. 15, 2019)

Mill, John Stuart. 1861. Considerations on Representative Government. London: Parker, Son, & Bourn.

Wood, Gordon S. [1970] 1998. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. 1998 edition. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Chapel Hill and London: Copyright © 1970 by the University of North Carolina Press; new preface copyright © 1998 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.org

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