The problem here, though, is that the public’s preferences might be systematically irrational; contrary to the optimism of wisdom of crowds thinking, their errors might not cancel out.
There are at least three different reasons for this:
1. We adapt our preferences to our circumstances; part of our psychological mechanism for coping with hard times is to reduce our expectations. The upshot of this, as Amartya Sen and John Roemer have pointed out, is that democracy - in the sense of giving the public what they want - gives too little to those who, in Henry’s words, “know their place.” The broken-spirited poor get too little whilst the rich, with their over-inflated sense of entitlement, get too much.
2. A basic cognitive bias - the availability heuristic - can lead to us under-estimating the value of freedom. This is because the gain from any restriction of freedom always seems clear, whilst the losses are more obscure. Hayek expressed this thus:
This raises the question: why should leftists and/or libertarians respect democratic outcomes when these are founded upon preferences that might be irrational? As Will Kymlicka said:
Now, if you’re with me so far, the question arises: how to respond to this tension between democracy and substantive outcomes?
One possibility is the retreat into Guido-style cynicism. Another is a vanguardist Leninist reaction - which I fear is a version of New Labour's position. But there is a third - to recognise that what’s valuable about democracy is not the aggregation of preferences - Kymlicka’s “vote-centrism” - but rather the opportunities we have to influence each other’s preferences. It’s the processes of deliberation that matter, not the cross in the ballot box.