Arnold Kling  

An Elected Dictator?

Majority Fools... Elite Fools...

Although I agree with much of what Bryan Caplan has to say in his new book, there are a couple of points that give me problems. One, which has come up before in this blog, is his dismissal of the idea of checks and balances or diffuse political power.

Basically, for Caplan, democracy consists of electing a dictator. The only difference between George Bush and Kim Jong Il is that Bush was voted into office and can be voted out of office. The fact that Bush can be voted out may give him some different incentives, but otherwise he has just as much dictatorial power. Caplan does not come out and state this, but the elected dictator model is implicit in his book.

Caplan says that dictators, elected or otherwise, must deal with the "principal-agent problem" of delegated authority. That is, when they delegate responsibility to subordinates, leaders have to take steps to insure that subordinates carry out their wishes. Otherwise, Caplan acknowledges no checks on Presidential power.

I think that in the United States, power does not flow in such a simple top-down fashion. Once a Supreme Court justice is appointed, that justice no longer is answerable to the President. In fact, the majority of justices serving on the court at any time typically were appointed during previous Administrations.

Congress is not answerable to the President. State and local governments are not answerable to the President. Many government officials enjoy tenure that is not revocable by the President.

I think that separation of powers and political pluralism need to be taken seriously. If we had the sort of elected dictator that is implicit in Caplan's thinking, then I think that government would be much more dangerous than it is.

We are not ruled by the foolish majority, in large part because of the wisdom of our founders. They did not want the President to be an elected dictator, and I think that they were fairly successful in achieving their objectives.

In Caplan's model, to obtain better outcomes economists need to educate people on the value of markets, so that they vote for a better dictator. I think that even more important, people need to be educated about the wisdom of separation of powers, federalism, individual rights, and limited government, so that we resist the notion of an elected dictator altogether.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

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The author at Muck and Mystery in a related article titled Rationally Ignorant writes:
    I read these Arnold Kling posts 1,2,3 about Bryan Caplan's work and forthcoming book. So here's my offer: If I use the title you suggest, I'll take you to lunch at Morton's (Tyson's Corner or Reston, your pick). I meant to develop and apply the ideas ... [Tracked on January 29, 2006 1:02 PM]
COMMENTS (3 to date)
John P. writes:

Or, to put it differently, institutions may not be the complete answer, but they do make a difference.

Andrew writes:

The ideas of better educating the people on the values of markets and electing a better dictator condradict one another, since markets function best without government regulation. It seems to me if people were better educated on the values of markets, that would intrinsically lead to better education on the ideas of individual rights, property rights, checks and balances, etc. Of course, judging from the Wal-Mart hysteria, there's still a long way to go.

Patrick writes:

I generally agree with Arnold that Congress does not answer to the President. Of course that must be true, in a narrow sense. However, in today's political environment "the Party" is almost more important than the voters - at least for most of Congress. [thanks to dominance of campaign cash and gerrymandered House districts] To the extent that the Party is headed up by the Prez, then he can certainly exert a degree of control over members of Congress in his Party. I think we've seen some evidence of that behavior during the current Administration.

This did not appear to be as true during the decades prior - possibly for any Administration post-Lyndon Johnson. Thus, I don't hold quite the same view of Prez power as Bryan. But I'm also not as idealistic as Arnold.

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