Voter Irrationality in Animal Farm
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?