People are not always right
Oct 30, 2010

People are not always right

In remarks after losing the recent Toronto mayoral race to Rob Ford, unsuccessful contender Joe Pantalone made the remake that "the people are always right". This is a frequent sentiment expressed around elections. While I understand and agree with the pro democracy implication being espoused, the actual statement is objectively false. The people are not always right and acknowledging this does not detract from the important of democracy.

When an aggregate of people believe things inevitably there are contained a series of verifiable, falsifiable truth statements. Consider early 2003 in the US where slightly over 50% of the US was polled to believe there was a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. This is patently a false claim without supporting evidence and when people elect representative based partly on a belief in false facts the result cannot be objectively "right".

This extends beyond merely factual claims but to moral ones. Large majorities have previously believed in slavery, black segregation and other similar issues. These are moral issues we can objectively determine to be morally unacceptable in any reasonable moral system we might come up with. Simply because a majority believes a moral claim is not evidence for its moral validity.

It is partially for this reason of the failings of the people that modern democracies have many checks and balances and enshrine moral codes separate from the current beliefs of the people. Charters, bills of rights and constitutions as well as the judiciaries that adjudicate them are not just checks on governments but checks on the people that represent them.

Of course, I am being somewhat disingenuous for the spirit of the comment is undoubtably that we have a democracy that enshrines the will of the people and the results of an election should be respected. To the extent that this is the point, I completely agree. However, we should not allow the statement to lull us into a sense of complacency with the results merely because the people voted for them and indeed we should actively work to change public opinion where we think the people are wrong. Simply assuming that, by definition, the people are always right in a democracy is a dangerous pitfall.

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