Bryan Caplan  

Voter Irrationality in Animal Farm

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I recently talked my sons into reading Orwell's Animal Farm as their bedtime story.  [Warning: spoilers.]  They loved it - my asides on the Soviet allegory included.  Most of the book shows how the pigs twist the egalitarian animal revolution into a pig's aristocracy... until one pig, Napoleon, twists the pig aristocracy into a one-man totalitarian state.  But Orwell's model is far subtler than the digest version sounds.

His democratic socialism is plainly visible.  Yet he's too perceptive a story-teller to imagine that the animals' only problem is "lack of democracy."  Instead, Orwell shows that democracy is fragile because voters lack the intelligence and rationality to make it work.  Early on, he emphasizes the vast intellectual disparity between rulers and ruled:

As for the pigs, they could already read and write perfectly. The dogs learned to read fairly well, but were not interested in reading anything except the Seven Commandments. Muriel, the goat, could read somewhat better than the dogs... Benjamin could read as well as any pig, but never exercised his faculty... Clover learnt the whole alphabet, but could not put words together. Boxer could not get beyond the letter D...

None of the other animals on the farm could get further than the letter A. It was also found that the stupider animals, such as the sheep, hens, and ducks, were unable to learn the Seven Commandments by heart. After much thought Snowball [one of the top pigs] declared that the Seven Commandments could in effect be reduced to a single maxim, namely: 'Four legs good, two legs bad.' This, he said, contained the essential principle of Animalism...

The rank-and-file animals are not merely ignorant; they're willfully gullible:

The birds did not understand Snowball's long words, but they accepted his explanation, and all the humbler animals set to work to learn the new maxim by heart. FOUR LEGS GOOD, TWO LEGS BAD, was inscribed on the end wall of the barn, above the Seven Commandments and in bigger letters When they had once got it by heart, the sheep developed a great liking for this maxim, and often as they lay in the field they would all start bleating 'Four legs good, two legs bad! Four legs good, two legs bad!' and keep it up for hours on end, never growing tired of it.

Given the intellectual disparities between the animals, democracy inevitably becomes oligarchy:

It was always the pigs who put forward the resolutions. The other animals understood how to vote, but could never think of any resolutions of their own.
"Elections" go from bad to worse:
It had come to be accepted that the pigs, who were manifestly cleverer than the other animals, should decide all questions of farm policy, though their decisions had to be ratified by a majority vote.
Since policy issues are way over the heads of the rank-and-file animals, elections are a see-saw between demagoguery and patronage politics.  Snowball and Napoleon, the two leading pigs...
...disagreed at every point where disagreement was possible. If one of them suggested sowing a bigger acreage with barley, the other was certain to demand a bigger acreage of oats, and if one of them said that such and such a field was just right for cabbages, the other would declare that it was useless for anything except roots. Each had his own following, and there were some violent debates. At the Meetings Snowball often won over the majority by his brilliant speeches, but Napoleon was better at canvassing support for himself in between times. He was especially successful with the sheep. Of late the sheep had taken to bleating 'Four legs good, two legs bad' both in and out of season, and they often interrupted the Meeting with this.
By the time that Napoleon stages a violent coup, the animals will believe almost anything - and the pretense of democracy ends not with a bag, but a whimper:
[Napoleon] announced that from now on the Sunday-morning Meetings would come to an end. They were unnecessary, he said, and wasted time. In future all questions relating to the working of the farm would be settled by a special committee of pigs, presided over by himself.
I really wonder what Orwell thought about real world democracy.  Did he think that a country's citizens had to be "ready for democracy" before it could work?  Did he think that democracy could only work with responsible, self-policing, "civilized" elites to guide it?  Or did he just think that democracy was the lesser evil  - its fragility notwithstanding?



COMMENTS (7 to date)
Yancey Ward writes:

Orwell was probably very distrusting of democracy. Based on the historical record, it isn't all that difficult to build a large enough factions to vote in totalitarians, and vote out further elections, and Orwell was well familiar with this.

I doubt there is a solution to this problem, and we are simply doomed to cycles of history. Far too many people are uncomfortable with strict prohibitions against majoritarian decisions in democracies. Take, for example, the prohibitions in The Constitution- it is a never ending battle to simply to keep a majority of a single court of nine from reinterpreting older liberties out of existence based on popular will.

magilson writes:

One of my absolute favorite quotes:

"When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost.

All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." - HL Mencken in the Baltimore Sun (26 July 1920)

Chris Koresko writes:

It strikes me that any democratic system is vulnerable to the depredations of the ambitious, to the extent that the mass of the people are willing to tolerate the abandonment of the processes which make it work.

In America we have our Constitution which is arguably the best design ever implemented. It is the product of special circumstances, the creation of a group of men imbued with the love of liberty inherited from their old homeland and from their Christian faith, knowledgeable of the history of failure in previous republics, with direct and intimate experience with the problems of their own previous attempt (the Articles of Confederation), motivated by the need to deal with imminent threats from both internal and external sources, and united by their recent common struggle for independence. They built in many protections against devolution into tyranny, but they understood that only a good citizenry, moral and religious, would be able to ensure its survival.

Over the last two centuries we've seen attacks against our Constitution from a number of directions, the most effective (I think) being the Supreme Court packing scheme of FDR. The thrust of most of them has been to enable sweeping new powers by finding ways to stretch the interpretation of one clause or another. The success of these attacks can be judged by asking what fraction of the federal government's activities could be justified under the Founders' interpretation of their own words.

Alan Crowe writes:

The standard solution to this problem is presented as a single word: education. Thinking hard splits the solution into two variants.

The first variant proposes that it is the provision of education in itself that provides the cure. Every-one is permitted to vote even if they have failed to take advantage of the education provided. This is universal suffrage.

The second variant proposes that the solution only works to the extent that the voters study history and learn the various ways in which democracies self-destruct. Only electors who pass the examination qualify as voters. We might call this qualified suffrage.

Could qualified suffrage work? Will it ever be tried in good faith? (I realise that there is a precedent of literacy tests, but those were not administered to distinguish the literate from the illiterate. Those who administered the test wished to distinguish between blacks and whites. Thus previous experience argues against the likelihood of qualified suffrage being tried in good faith. We don't seem to have again experience as to whether it would work if tried for its own sake.)

David J. Balan writes:

You seem to believe that reading Animal Farm is valuable, perhaps highly valuable. Most people who read it read it in school, and presumably wouldn't read it if they were apprenticed out to firms early in life. How does that fit in with your views on education?

John writes:

To Orwell, socialism and democracy were almost equivalent ideas, but that idea wasn't about elections - it was about equality - economic equality, if you will, at the least. That's implicit in Animal Farm, and more explicit in his essays.

The word "democracy" might more usefully be taken - from its etymological origins - to mean "people empowerment." I think that's the general sense of the idea that Orwell liked, while at the same time criticizing the narrower meaning we use in the US. I.e., economic democracy vs. electoral democracy, among other things. We tend to want to leave the former to "the market" and to a religious sense of the utility of such ideas as meritocracy. That's not where Orwell was coming from.

Meritocracy, particularly, is not democratic in any sense. But in the US, meritocracy is elevated to a moral and ethical ideal of very high standing - almost unassailable standing, in fact. Orwell was objecting to that, I think, as do I.

I really think a simple analysis of the Marxist Creed (which, as a Christian socialist, I like to refer to as the socialist ethic) is instructive. First, it actually comes from the New Testament - it is, at least from one perspective, a distillation of Christian doctrine. Second, it has two parts: "from each according to ability, to each according to need." I would suggest that a capitalist/meritocratic ethic would be simpler: "to each according to ability."

The New Testament connection is often missed. E.g., many read the so-called Parable of the Talents and conclude that it endorses capitalism, but in fact, its message is "_from_ each according to ability," not "_to_ each according to ability."

Moreover, I think modern criticisms of socialism go so far as to conclude that the former phrase isn't there at all, that it's only "to each according to need," as if to contrast with "to each according to ability," from which they prattle on about incentives and such. But the complete idea is not just the latter phrase - both are equally important not just to the ethics of socialism, but to the Christian doctrine from which it was drawn by Marx.

Civilized societies can't just be concerned with one or the other of the two concepts - ability and need - both must be considered and addressed practically, not just in theory. Socialism seeks to do that; capitalism ignores need entirely, at least in theory if not in practice. Orwell, I think, understood that subtle but fundamental distinction. As, I would suggest, did Marx, and as did Jesus.

The saying comes to mind: in theory, there's no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is.

Hume writes:

The anti-democratic rhetoric is silly, as is any system Caplan could dream up following The Myth. Any libertarian/anarcho capitalist is deluding themselves if you think some utopian aristocratic/oligarchical system would out perform systems based on democratic ideals. I thus share Gerald Gaus' frustrations, as voiced in Cato Unbound, with contemporary libertarian rhetoric.

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