The “use case” for liberal democracy isn’t that it is better at avoiding mistakes: democracies are no better at steering clear of high-risk financial products, disastrous wars or political extremists than illiberal democracies or full-fat autocracies. Where democracies do better is error correction. They retreat from wars of choice, sharply regulate industries (albeit usually only after they have gone through at least one crisis) and, provided they get the chance, vote extremists out of power.
But democracies’ capacity to error-correct now faces an unlikely threat. Elected politicians are, whether they like it or not, in the business of providing voters with what they want. And what electorates want is for their kids to get educated. As a result, across the democratic world, the number of people attending university continues to rise, while literacy and numeracy, too, are on the up.
This appetite for higher education has proved astonishingly resistant to price signals. In the United States, neither tuition fee debt passing the $1.5tn mark nor the fact that, per a long-running Georgetown study, four students in 10 will not earn more as a result of their degrees has done anything to discourage new applicants. In the United Kingdom, the tripling of tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 has not interrupted or disrupted the flow of people going to university.
Some of that is simple maths. When all the evidence suggests that the majority of students will earn more with a degree than they would without, most young Americans, rightly or wrongly, decide they are better off risking that they will be among the 40 per cent who do not get an economic benefit in order to have a chance of joining the 60 per cent who do.
When you tot up the assorted non-economic benefits of a degree — among other things, you are less likely to have a criminal conviction, more likely to live longer and more likely to have better physical and mental health — getting a degree is a no-brainer for most people.
That means, absent some kind of very tight cap and restriction on entry, that we can expect the number of people going to university to continue to grow.
What does it mean for democracies?
The good news is that getting a degree makes it more likely that you will volunteer in civic institutions and participate in democratic ones: at the 2019 UK general election, 69 per cent of graduates under 35 voted, compared to just 41 per cent of non-graduates under 35, and 72 per cent of over-65 year olds without degrees.
The bad news is that while you can take a graduate to the ballot box, you can’t make them think. All of us, regardless of how many degrees we have, like to seek out information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. And, as a new paper by Michael Hannon at the University of Nottingham finds, one unhappy consequence of a university education is that voters get better at doing this and worse at changing their minds.
When you think about it, it makes sense — indeed, it goes hand-in-hand with increased civic participation. Graduates are more likely to be members of a political party. And while some of my favourite people are members of a political party, party members are pretty irrational a lot of the time.
These are the same individuals who can convince themselves that it is just fine for Joe Biden to talk casually about Russia committing war crimes, but that Donald Trump’s loose lips were a danger to world peace. Or that, while Boris Johnson has relaunched his Downing Street administration twice already, this third reboot will be the moment that he really gets a grip on governing.
The problem is that the more voters you have who are better at convincing themselves that they were right all along, the harder it is for democracies to error-correct. Democracies depend on having enough voters who are willing and able to say they liked the sound of a candidate when he was talking about tax cuts and reshoring jobs, but they are less keen on him now he is suggesting that the election he lost was an act of fraud. Less dramatically, states flourish if enough voters are able to admit to themselves that the charismatic guy they backed last time hasn’t achieved much in office.
Because of the political pressure on elected democracies to educate more of their populace, the rise of voters who are highly educated and skilled at motivated reasoning is unlikely to stop. One useful corrective might be to stop fetishising the individual motivations of swing voters and instead to celebrate the most valuable service they provide in a democracy: a willingness to change their minds.