Sunday, December 05, 2004

Democracy is Overrated, IV

It [is impossible] to separate the democratic idea from the theory that there is a mystical merit, an esoteric and ineradicable rectitude, in the man at the bottom of the scale—that inferiority, by some strange magic, becomes superiority—nay, the superiority of superiorities. What baffles statesmen is to be solved by the people, instantly and by a sort of seraphic intuition. This notion . . . originated in the poetic fancy of gentlemen on the upper levels—sentimentalists who, observing to their distress that the ass was overladen, proposed to reform transportation by putting him in the cart. (H.L. Mencken, from Notes on Democracy, 1926)

What people mean by “democracy” is some combination of good government, protection of individual rights, extremely broad political participation, and widely shared economic prosperity. One might as well throw in an ideal body mass index and a cure for influenza. It’s all good, but meaningless. Democracy has no useful definition. The reason we say we like it is that we refuse to think about what it means.

There is a definition many people pretend to believe, unless they are pressed. It is much narrower, and goes like this: If a group is constituted to decide as one, then any numerical majority of that group can make decisions. These decisions can be binding on all (majority rules the totality), or binding just on some class or group specified in decision itself (majority rules the minority). While I have already said that all definitions are not really useful, this version seems to be the one that many people hold.

The problem with the narrower definition I stated is that no one could really believe it, at least not in isolation from lots of other assumptions. One is left to wonder whether democracy, in the sense of rule by the people, is a conceit or a fraud. As a conceit, it may be harmless enough. It may even be useful, because it celebrates the wisdom and good will of the common person. This sort of mythology has a calming, leveling effect on public discourse.

If a fraud, however, then we are in darker and more forbidding terrain. The pretense that we found rectitude in the multitude is dangerous. The public invocation of the public wisdom simply holds citizens down whilst we steal their purses, or send their children off to war.

There are two linked ideas about democracy, and it is important to keep them separate. The first is the existence of a good, of a right (best) thing for the society to do. This is a question that has both normative and positive elements. It may seem strange to question the existence of “the good” in politics, but in fact it is simply not obvious that a society can discover transcendent principles of the good through voting.

The second aspect of the democratic idea is the problem of choosing rules or institutions most likely to lead to the discovery of the good (assuming it exists). There are two very different approaches to the problem. The positive, ends-based approach emphasizes the properties of the voting or preference revelation techniques as if they were estimators. One can then apply quasi-statistical techniques, much as if an estimator were being subjected to Monte Carlo testing. That is, given a configuration of preferences in which some “good” alternative is embedded by construction, what are the relative frequencies with which different techniques discover it?

The other approach, normative and process-based, focuses on the fairness or legitimacy of rules themselves, as means. There is an obvious assumption in this approach, one that has led two generations of public choice scholars (see, for example, Riker, 1982, Liberalism Against Populism) to question it, but it persists nonetheless. That assumption is that “fair” processes necessarily lead to “good” outcomes.

Republican elections in the nineteenth century were seen as a means of exerting control over elected officials, and little more. We have to balance this against the expansive modern faith in, and practice of, democratic governance. The rules, procedures, and the basic “machinery” of democratic choice have not kept up with the faith people seem to have in the wisdom of the majority. To some extent, this is the fault of officials in the states, who have failed to give enough thought to problems involved in implementing new paperless voting technologies. (Sure, some of these folks are crackpots, and Keith Olbermann is a nutjob, but Caesar's wife has to be above reproach) (More accurately, Plutarch has Caesar say, "I wished my wife to be not so much as suspected.")

But the other problem, at least as important, is that the academic establishment in the U.S. has done a poor job making students understand the limitations and dangers of unlimited democratic choice. For both reasons, the mismatch between what we demand of democratic institutions and what they can reasonably deliver endangers the stability of our system of government.

While this danger may be most significant in the U.S., there are also dangers when we foster the secular trend toward reliance on “democracy” as a means of reconciling disagreement in other nations. What social choice theory teaches us is that we cannot expect institutions to produce consensus in the face of disagreement, unless (a) certain arguments or positions are outlawed, or (b) choice is left up to a single individual, or dictator.

People seem to believe in the value of consensus, but they do not appear believe in either domain restrictions or dictatorship. Policy makers must face the fact that the failure of voting institutions to produce consensus is really two separate problems:

  • Our technology of democracy is too old, and prone to abuse or at least distrust. We must bring voting technology into the 21st century, because we accept much less than is possible.
  • Our ideology is utopian science fiction. So, we must also take voting ideology back to the 19th century, because we have come to expect much more than is possible.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations! You get a Post. Recently the level of intensity seems to have fallen from passionate to luke-warm, probably because people are too lazy to read long posts. However I've been studying for your exam since 230 this afternoon, and it's now 4:30. am. I tried reading other responses to see how I should structure this, but they all were simply either a nitpick of the diction or a straight up misinterpretation. The better ones built an argument upon those things.

I would argue against your statement about the US school system though. Teachers are teaching kids ideas and facts based largely functaionality, ie you don't learn about why parts of evolution theory suck in Biology class. Should kids be taught in a more argumentative and objective way? God forbid I say "no" to that one. So you win a point there. But are they going to have time in most public schools? (lookin out for the majority, sorry), there's no way. Functionally at this time it really can't be done.

In addition, think about this first when asking for more arguments (haha). If you went to my public school back home and asked everyone "who ran for US president this year", the percentage of correct answers would be well below 50. Now if you take the "above average" kids, and asked them "who would you have voted for", you'd get a 99% BUSH!!! But then take it one more step, and ask them to name A, note the singular article, single domestic issue. Just name it man. Your answer would be any one of several different blank faces or "uhhhhhhhh's". So once again in the name of all that is functional, slow down. There are larger problems afoot here. Not so much in universities, but public highschools do exist. (a lot of my fellow students refuse to belive this). (btw i wrote that example a few minutes ago to use in essay #2, and i like it, so maybe you'll see it again).

Okay but i actually do have a real argument. The education system's lack of argumentative teaching may be hurting the stability of our system of government, but the alternative would be >>Teaching kids to question our system of government<< , which yes will produce some kids who try to fix it, but sometimes when people try to "fix" governments, a lot of people die. Which brings me to my last point, i think you should end all your posts like this one with "Viva la revolution" just to mess with people.

Well it's 5 now. And, yeah, i didn't really have anything to say. Back to work.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the problems with the 'positive' view is that methods of analysis (quasi-statistical?)are 1) not very well understood and 2)not always developed enough to definitively recommend alternatives.

Problem 1 is not something I can say much about other than that what you are advocating requires a level of political education and thought not often (ever?) acheived -- even in introductory undergraduate politics courses. Even if teachers emphasized this point more I'm not sure a lot of people would ever get to the level where they would wrap their heads around it.

Problem 2: Several public policies that have come about from the 'positive' point of view (like the Federal Reserve Board setting interest rates) have been very successful.

But other problems are so much more squishy. And 'optimizing' the system to maximize the probability of good outcomes is unlikely. Or at least there are a lot of tough policy arenas where there is no broad consensus that installing this or that institution will be best.

Personally I'm holding out for someone to develop a complete theory of pschohistory ( But I guess that would take all the fun out of it.

Anonymous said...

This starts off poorly and gets worse. No wonder the relationship between grad. students and faculty is as piss-poor as it is; we have a chair who doesn't believe in the "mystical merit" that people most affected by policy decisions should have some say in the matter.

I agree with good ol' Tom Paine for the most part, but he gave up the goat when he said that the main issue was to 'ingraft democratic participation' onto the larger body politic. Since then, democracy has devolved into the definition you offer: "what people mean by democracy" (not even a slightly more modest, 'what some people mean...'). Our best bet now is to see democracy as a momentary phenomenon that flashes onto the scene as a desire for popular input and control (the Ukraine, perchance). The rest is just the effluence from the adminstrative state, and to call it democracy (and in the process dismissing democracy) seems pretty near-sighted. Democracy can work on a small scale (hey, like a university department!) but becomes something else in a nation of 300 million. The latter phenomenon can be plotted and graphed and you can get fancy equations that say little. The former is messy, unpredictable, and important.

Anonymous said...

Damn straight. I can't stand people glorifying democracy like it were some kind of godlike system. It's a system, and it happens to have a higher percentage of effectiveness than the others. That's it.