City Hall towers over surrounding buildings as the Casco Bay Lines ferry Wabanaki travels out of the harbor, Wednesday morning, June 1, 2022, in Portland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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One of the beautiful things about getting older, for me, has also been something rather humbling: the realization that I don’t really know all that much.

I admit, that sounds like a somewhat depressing realization, not a source of pride. After all, as time passes and you realize how little you actually know, does it not fill you with a sense of inadequacy and even failure?

Perhaps. But for many of us, it is also a unique gift. The recognition that we did not, it turns out, actually know it all is fairly liberating. By realizing our shortcomings and identifying things that we would genuinely like to learn provides a useful pathway toward self-improvement.

There is a famous psychological phenomenon that describes some of the interesting interplay between knowledge and ability, and self-regard. The Dunning–Kruger effect, as it is known, is a certain kind of cognitive bias expressed in humans, whereby those who have little ability or experience in a certain task or subject often greatly overvalue the quality of what they know. Those who have great expertise, in contrast, tend to think far less of themselves than they deserve.

Put another way, many people of low skill or knowledge end up learning just enough to feel like they know what they are talking about on a subject, yet their knowledge is superficial. Those who spend time learning with great depth begin to recognize the unending complexities of a subject, and it inspires in them a recognition of their own limitations.

This is all fairly harmless when we are talking about people learning carpentry or studying history. These odd psychological trends have unfortunate consequences, though, when we start talking about how we make decisions on important issues in our society, and how pretentious we may get about our capacity for understanding complex issues of great importance.

Take, for instance, the upcoming election this November, and what will appear on the ballot in the city of Portland.

Citizens of Maine’s largest city are going to be asked to make a decision on a massive number of referendum questions this fall — 14 in total — which will collectively represent hundreds of pages of city ordinance and charter changes. The subjects that people will be asked to weigh in on range from changes to governmental structure, to labor, housing, and the gig economy.

To make rational decisions about these issues, a person should have a firm grasp of macroeconomics, microeconomics, emerging technology, comparative politics, sociology, business development and law. Many of those behind the proposals have very little knowledge of these things, but yet great Dunning-Kruger style confidence in themselves.

Our country was founded to specifically resist these ways of decision making, and with good reason. Rather than making decisions by conducting surveys of mass popular opinion, we instead have people that represent us in decision-making bodies. It is those people, not society at large, that are asked to learn and know more than the mass of society could, or should ever be expected to. It isn’t that they are smarter or better than the people they represent. Instead it is simply a recognition that everyone can’t be expected to devote the time and effort necessary to try to understand everything they need to understand to make a decision, so we will appoint a small number of people to do that so we don’t have to.

By subjecting those people, in turn, to our collective judgment, we can apply democratic pressures to those who represent us. If they are not being responsive to our values, we can replace them.

Increasingly, though, we are choosing to abandon this system, and it is being driven by special interest groups that are seeking to leverage referendums to pass complex ideas. Resistance to such games being played with government should be universal among all voters.

It isn’t that Portland voters — or any others — are incapable of making complex decisions. This isn’t an intelligence issue. People are, as a general rule, certainly capable of educating themselves and casting an informed, thoughtful vote.

Rather, consider whether a busy, distracted, overwhelmed voter should ever be put in the position of being expected to make themselves subject-matter experts in multiple academic fields, or being forced to review hundreds of pages of legalese, just in order to cast an informed vote.

That is unfair, and frankly unrealistic. And with the grave consequences associated with the decisions they are asked to make, this is not a minor problem. There is a reason we chose a republic, and Portland voters should loudly declare that they do not want to be governed this way.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...