Bryan Caplan  

Leaving the Church of Democracy: What's It Gonna Take?

Internet and Ideology... Answering Jason Furman...

In yet another extremely fair review of my book, Jason Furman ends with a confession:

Although largely immune to the widespread biases about economic issues that Caplan attributes to the unwashed masses, I find that I suffer from what he calls “Democratic fundamentalism” – an irrational and unshakable faith in broad-based participatory democracy, a faith that was not budged by reading 209 pages of reasonably convincing evidence and theory to the contrary.

So here's my question for Jason (and anyone with a similar reaction): What more would I have to do to shake your faith? Do I need a stronger factual argument? Do I need to go after democratic values, as in Nozick's Tale of the Slave? Do I need to build a new social network to compensate for the one I'm undermining, as Larry Iannaccone might argue?

In short, to use a classic salesman's question: "What would it take to get you to abandon democratic fundamentalism today?" Make me an offer, I'm all ears.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
John writes:

You need to come up with something better. Most people can't allow a vacuum in their political and philosophical matrix.

This reminds me of the old saying - capitalism is the worst system for trading goods and services...except for all the others.

The equivalent:
A government established and maintained by irrational and ignorant voters is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

Hollywood_Freaks writes:

This is a bit off topic, but I always think about it whenever I read reviews of your book.

This is a very good (at least in my mind) argument that the most common voting systems such as plurality do not have the ability to accurately measure a societies preferences.

I realize there's a lot to argue there, but if anyone is interested in the math concerned with voting, I recommend this relatively short

It is absolutely fascinating.

James writes:


Since forms of governments are only a subset of the set of arrangements for making resource allocation decisions, comparing democracy only against other forms of government reads like some kind of deck stacking. The appropriate comparison would be between democracy and all other forms of resource allocation, including those which are not forms of governments, to include private property.

Tim writes:

I am a casual reader of your blog and have not yet read your book, though I would like to. But I believe Churchill said it best, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried from time to time."

I am not sure if your book offers an alternative to democracy, but I haven't yet heard of or seen an alternative to democracy that doesn't lead to despotism.

Scott Wentland writes:

Yes. There is a clear alternative to democracy that Caplan outlines in his book: the market.

I guess it illustrates Caplan's point about anti-market bias when people throw out Churchill's quote and don't even think of the market as an alternative to democratic government.

Here's a good example of Democratic fundamentalism: look at the reality television shows like American Idol, Last Comic Standing, etc.. This is democratic fundamentalism at its best. How do we determine who the most talented person is? Well, we have to bring in experts and then we have some kind of vote. Right? That's democracy. In this case the viewers vote like a direct democracy, and the legitimacy comes from the people.

Throw out the Churchill quote now: this is the worst way to determine the most talented person, except for all the other ways (like appointing one person to decide like a dictatorship). Well, wait. There is a clear alternative. It's called the market. Consumers can just buy the albums of who they like best. And the most talented person will be determined by popular demand, i.e. highest album sales. In this case, less American Idol (democracy) doesn't mean more of some alternative means the market can do a better job than democratically choosing the best Idol. Aiken versus Studdard anyone?

Side note: For kicks people would vote for the least talented person on the show. Why? This amusement was cheap. But, in the market buying the least talented person's album would be much more expensive, and probably wouldn't happen. This roughly illustrates Caplan's point that errors (deliberate or not) in democratic voting are cheap for the individual, which could have considerable aggregate consequences. Since the market makes errors expensive, the results are more reliable. Chalk up another point for the market!

caveat bettor writes:

Doesn't a form of market already exist in our system, in the realm of campaign finance, where groups of people pool their money, and these pools get allocated to different politicians running for office?

I'm not sure more of that helps, Scott. Lobbyists and politicians having secret meetings are probably are even more irrational than the wisdom of the irrational crowd.

But there is one upshot, if we can take all the voting revenues, and offset income taxes.

Edgardo writes:

Bryan, you're asking the wrong question. The relevant question is to what issues majority voting should be restricted. Please ask Jim Buchanan about limited (or constitutional) democracy.

Jason Furman writes:

Not sure what you can do to persuade someone with an irrational and unshakable faith.

I think part of the answer lies in the fact that many people -- including myself -- take a less instrumental conception than your policy recommendations appear to take. Or we're willing to sacrifice some of the better outcomes we might get on economic issues for the principle of one person, one vote.

Part of the answer lies in the messenger. It's an excellent book, you're very persuasive, and you largely take a positivist social scientific stance towards the evidence. But the book very occasionally slips into advocating your own economic ideas which differ from my own, partly tainting the entire exercise.


Unless I am mistaken I have caught you praying in the Church of Democracy. Your very act, of appealing to Jason Furman's capacity of reason, seems to demonstrate your faith in the following idea: The proper mode of activism in my country -- the way that a good citizen proceeds to get what he wants – is to work on convincing anyone who will listen of the benefits of some public policy. But that idea lives only in a democratic setting where there is a common to be governed.

Apart from the question of whether a state is a democracy or not, a review of history suggests to me that states rarely surrender a power once that power has been gained. States seem to grow, continuously accruing more powers, until they are so corrupt and feeble that they collapse (examples: Rome, USSR, …). States grow monotonically, or darn nearly so.

I admit there are examples in which states have seemingly repealed their prior expansions of power, such as the repeal of corn laws in 19th century Britain and the abandonment of alcohol prohibition in the US. But I believe most of these "repeals" were only nominal, in that the states' attempts to rule in these cases were almost useless: widely scorned and an embarrassment.

I offer my paper Anarchy, Order, and Functions Performed by Government as relevant to this topic.

Matt writes:

No man, and by extension government, has a right to take away another man's God given or Natural rights. I'd happily live under a monarch or dictator who trusted the populace with the right to bear arms, and where my neighbors were not allowed to use the ballot box to tell me how to live, or to appropriate my property for "the common good".

Fundamentalist writes:

"What would it take to get you to abandon democratic fundamentalism today?"

I resent the slur on "fundamentalism".

John said it above: show us something better. Of course, anarchists will insist they have a better way, but that's just theory. All Bryan has to do is point to some place in history or another country in the world today that's doing a better job than democracies and we'll consider it.

As for a rule of the elite, that has already been tried in the monarchies of Europe where the nobility ruled, and in NAZI Germany, the USSR and China where elite socialists ruled. The important issue is not whether an elite groups rules or not, but who has the power to determine membership in that group of elites and what restrains them if they go wrong as they certainly have every time a group of elites has ever ruled anywhere.

Bryan doesn't understand democracy. Our republic, which people call a democracy, was designed to limit the damage that the ruling elite can do, not ensure that government is perfect or always achieves an optimal level of efficiency. Democracy is a very conservative approach to government in which people are willing to accept lesser evils in order to prevent much greater ones. Bryan advocates an irrational faith in intellectuals. Hayek wrote in "The Fatal Conceit" that intelligent people place far too much importance on, and faith in, intelligence; they should show more humility and respect the wisdom of generations found in the traditions and institutions that have taken centuries to create.

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