More or Less Democratic


Garett Jones of George Mason University has written an engaging book: 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites A Little More and the Masses a Little Less. After a year where plenty of elites were dead-wrong and plenty of masses were right, that’s a doubtful suggestion by Professor Jones. 

In nine easy-to-read chapters with entertaining and personal prose, Jones provides us with plenty of reason for thinking that slightly less voter influence yields better outcomes. He suggests more positions like appointed judiciary; longer term lengths for politicians; expanding the formula of independent central banks to more areas; and staggered elections such that not the entire parliament is replaced at once. In addition, he discusses some more “wild” ideas like giving government bondholders a small number of seats in parliament, since they already have an implicit long-term stake in government, and giving more votes or seats to those with college degrees. 

If all of this sounds preposterous to you, Jones’ book is probably worth a read ‒ and your priors ought to be, at least challenged if not updated. 

The book begins, like does many such books on democracy, with the overwhelming evidence for voter incompetence and ignorance. Most voters ‒ and even worse for those who don’t vote ‒ know less than nothing about political governance. They struggle to name their representatives, they often can’t tell which major party is in control of which chamber of Congress, and they most certainly don’t know the policy preferences of Presidential candidates, representatives, or senators. 

In short, this is a catastrophic start for a voter-guided political machinery. As Bryan Caplan, Jones’ colleague at GMU, asks in the beginning of his 2008 Myth of the Rational Voter, “How could hopelessly uninformed voters be expected to elect politicians who follow through?” Chapter 2 describes this lay of the land: voters are completely clueless, and often believe things contrary to established knowledge. Like most economists, Jones’ go-to example is protectionism: most voters think tariffs make Americans richer; the overwhelming majority of economists (90%+) say no. And voters are fairly short-sighted too, considering the immediate past and future, and very easily forget events beyond a year or so. 

Most of the time, there is enough slack in the political system where elites and elected representatives can shield the public from itself by delivering less protectionism than the public desires. It’s not like the uninformed voters will find out anyway, or understand that information if they did. What Jones observes, with empirical data and anecdotes from his time as a staffer in the Senate, is that politicians “in cycle” (i.e. with reelection looming) behave, vote, and cater much more towards what voters want. That is, for the two years of a Senator’s six-year terms, the lawmaker becomes much more protectionist in his or her dealings. 

Jones’ solution? Extend the terms. If we had, say, eight-year terms instead, then the Senator would only reflect the public’s erroneous beliefs one-quarter of the time instead of one-third. Taken in the aggregate, the Senate would make better laws; a little less democracy, for a little bit better outcomes.

This is the key argument running through 10% Less Democracy: “A change that pulls a small amount of power away from voters but still gives citizens an important voice in government.” Used instrumentally, Jones argues that where moving direct voter influence a little bit away from the electorate produces better outcomes, we should do it. Appointed judges make better law than elected judges; appointed city treasurers are awarded lower market interest rates on their town’s municipal debt compared to elected treasurers; independent central banks produce better target outcomes than politically dependent ones. 

Better educated voters are slightly less likely to hold mistaken ideas about how government works, or what the consequence of various policies would be. As such, Jones suggests that we move towards what another democracy theorist Jason Brennan popularized as epistocracy ‒ rule by the knowledgeable ‒ in his Against Democracy. Some jurisdictions already employ versions of this. In Ireland’s upper house, six of its 60 seats are elected solely by the undergraduates and graduates of Trinity College and National University of Ireland. This is the kind of minor move that Jones favors: democracy as we know it (with free elections and universal suffrage), tilted a little bit away from uninformed voters. 

This well-cited 188-page book is filled with conclusions we expect from economists: uncovering the useful purpose of things that most of us intuitively detest. Logrolling, the congressional practice of reciprocal favors, is a good and efficient way of governing; gerrymandering can be prosperously used to move elected power a little more toward informed voters; paying off a minority negatively affected by a change lets the majority have better policies. 

The book doesn’t spend nearly enough time on justifying the comparatively small limits for less democracy. In sketching a number of workable ideas for 5% or even 10% less democracy, Jones never really gives us good reason for not moving further. Why not 20% less democracy? Or 50%, or 90%? Beyond vague and unproven statements that democratic rule correlates with other indicators we care about (health, life expectancy, prosperity, freedom of speech), and, per Amartya Sen, democracy seems to be an insurance against civil war and government tyranny over its own citizens, Jones gives us nothing. 

What’s both illuminating and frustrating about the European Union chapter is that many of Jones’ suggestions are present on the supranational level in Europe (longer terms, more independent judiciaries and monetary authorities, slow negotiations, payoffs and one-country vetoes). Do European institutions work better than similar non-European institutions? Than American, Canadian, Australian or Singaporean? I don’t know, and Jones provides no indication one way or the other. 

Perhaps not all graphs are linear ‒ at some point a reduction in effective voter rule could be harmful for the things we care about ‒ but Jones hasn’t convincingly showed that democracy follows an inverted U-shape, the “democratic Laffer Curve.” But he still sees too great a risk to recommend any rich countries moving the way of Singapore.  

But there’s a third obvious alternative, a grand elephant in Jones’ otherwise nicely decorated living room ‒ one that Caplan observed over a decade ago and with which Jones is doubtlessly familiar: markets. The alternative to democracy is not, as democrats and politically-minded writers seem to think, dictatorship, but individual liberty and markets. When governments do a little bit less, civil and commercial society do a little bit more. That’s the alternative Jones isn’t considering; not the autocracies of Singapore, Russia, or Saudi Arabia. 

Large-scale elections work very poorly in most ways we can think of ‒ how could they not, dominated by fickle, incompetent and uninformed voters as they are? After the last few months (really decades) of American political drama, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the political machinery works less than flawlessly and that voters can end up supporting truly dismal candidates ‒ as well as thinking that every election is of cataclysmic importance. 

Instead, outsourcing policy-making to competent experts achieves goals that the electorate seems to want, in ways the voters couldn’t have understood, suggested, or supported. If we are on the wrong side of the optimum point on the Laffer Curve, we should definitely scale back voter influence a little. But why not a lot? And why not reduce the scope and size of government altogether? 

The power over government that Jones wishes to send to bureaucrats or tilt toward more informed voters could also be pushed back to the level and areas where voters are much less irrational and incompetent. Where they pay almost 100% of the price for their votes rather than the minuscule individual impact they have over politics: their own lives. 

Jones’ discussions are interesting and many of his proposals should definitely be introduced, but they don’t go far enough. Instead, we could do with much less democracy and much more individual liberty. 



* This article was originally published here
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