Arnold Kling  

Tyler Cowen Cheers Democracy

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He writes,


unlike one of my esteemed colleagues, I believe that we should revere democracy as one of the modern world's greatest achievements...

Democracy is pretty good at pushing scoundrels out of office, or checking them once they are in office. Democracy is also good at making sure enough interest groups are bought off so that social order may continue and that a broad if sometimes inane social consensus can be manufactured and maintained...

But democracy is very bad at fine-tuning the details of economic policy. Democracy is very bad at bringing about political solutions which are not congruent with the other sources of economic and social influence in a country. The solution is not to be less democratic, but rather to appreciate democracy for what it is good for. And the excesses of democracy should be fought with ideas, albeit with the realization that not everyone will be convinced. Those are the breaks, as democracy needs all the friends it can get.


My views on this subject are here.

Democracy does not lead to particularly good choices. Most successful institutions in society are not democratic.

...For me, the value of democracy is that it provides a check on government officials. The fact that leaders can be tossed out by popular vote helps to limit their abuse of power. Democracy gives the people the power to toss out the bums.


I view modern elections as marketing blitzes by power-hungry politicians. Just as the Super Bowl is ultimately about marketing corporate products, what CNN calls the "ballot bowl" is ultimately about marketing government power.

Those of us who want to restrain government do not have the mass-media circus of the election system to work with. But we do have blogs.

UPDATE: A commenter points to Mencius Moldbug, eloquent as always.


How does Google just skate along without any suffrage at all, whereas Georgia needs elections? And which trust would you guess is more effectively exercised?

Moldbug argues that faith in democracy today is analogous to faith in God 250 years ago. I'll be curious to see how he dispenses with Churchill's "All the others are tied" argument. Because government is not Google.

Incidentally, I am very much in sympathy with another commenter, who argues that it the ability to pick up and move that gives citizens an effective check on government. That is what makes world government such a dystopian concept.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
KipEsquire writes:

I prefer to cheer the Arrow Impossibility Theorem, which proves mathematically why no one should ever cheer unbridled democracy.

Floccina writes:

Democracy is pretty good at pushing scoundrels out of office, or checking them once they are in office.

IMO it is not only the scoundrels that we should worry about. I think that FDR (not a scoundrel) almost became the American Juan Perone. FDR was not a scoundrel but helped extend the great depression to over ten years! He threatened to pack the courts and rather than follow Washington’s lead he held on to the presidency for 4 terms! He grabbed all kinds of power. We are luck that we did not follow the path of Argentina. On the other hand the scoundrels Warren G. Harding and Bill Clinton by most objective measures governed pretty damn well.

When running Clinton proposed a lot of bad policies but it turns out that he was just lying.

Dennis Mangan writes:

Floccina: After writing about FDR that way, you think that he wasn't a scoundrel?

Troy Camplin writes:

It would help if we used out terms properly. Neither of you are actually talking about democracy, but are talking about republican government. And there are different ways of structuring a republican government: with or without constitutions, national or federalist governments, divisions or unities of power, etc. We talk about "democracy" as though it were a monolithic thing, and if fact nobody is actually ever talking about democracy in the first place.

Floccina writes:

Dennis Mangan as far as I know he was well meaning.

Buzzcut writes:

I understand the points that both Arnold and Tyler make about democracy being a check on power, but is it really?

I see a system where incumbants win 98% of the races. I see one where, beyond high profile positions like presidents, governors, and mayors, people don't even know who their representatives are.

If you are, say, the incumbant assessor, or the incumbant treasurer of a town, you can do pretty much anything you want and get away with it. People don't have the inclination to keep track of your performance.

The real check on power is federalism and the ability to MOVE. That is what ensures competance in office! We Americans move so frequenctly, if we don't like how a place is governed, we can simply move to a place that is more to our liking.

BGC writes:

My current view on democracy is that it works, on average, in choosing the better of two presented-options but only in extreme cases.

Most elections are not extreme cases. For example the current US presidential election is not an extreme case - there is no national crisis, there is not compelling need for a change of administration.

The same applies in the UK where I live.

Intellectuals are more likely to see a crisis than the public in general, but maybe intellectuals are more often wrong than right - maybe intellectuals are prome to hysteria. Looks like it.

So - I would guess that when there is a big crisi, elections will usually choose the better candidate or party. More often than not.

Against this is that in a crisis intellectuals (who are the main alternative to elections) will usually choose the worse candidate more often than not. I think the capacity for political self-delusion among intellectuals is almost limitless.

Is this really true? I'm not sure. but it could in principle be tested empirically, in retrospect. From my limited knowledge it looks as if elections usually get the right answer in a crisis, and intellectuals usually get the wrong answer.

But the first step is discounting the majority of elections, which are pretty irrelevant. As Tyler says, democracy is a blunt instrument, which means that elections cannot discriminate between candidates as similar as (say) Clinton and McCain in a non-crisis situation.

But in 1979 in the UK democracy managed to select Margaret Thatcher against the Labour government, and re-relect her three times, against the united fury of the intellectual class (incuding myself).

In retrospect, democracy got it right when it really mattered - and decades of UK economic decline was reversed.

Randy writes:

Our state is successful to the extent that it maintains liberal principles and in spite of the fact that it also entertains democratic principles. The inevitable consequence of democratic principles unchecked by liberal principles is tyranny - because "the people" aren't really capable of ruling anything. The problem is that the political class naturally seeks tyranny, and the masses are all too willing to follow in hopes of profiting through the association with power.

BGC writes:

Mencius Moldbug has some timely comments on democracy this week:

http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2008/01/how-i-stopped-believing-in-democracy.html

KipEsquire writes:

"the ability to pick up and move that gives citizens an effective check on government"

Again, I see no reason to cheer the notion that if my rights are being abridged by even a local tyrannical majority, then it is somehow my responsibility to "pick up and move" rather than to simply demand that the tyranny stop.

Infringement of liberty is not inherently "better" at the local level than at the national or global level.

dearieme writes:

Democracy moderated by assassination: didn't someone once advocate that?

spencer writes:

In principle the modern American corporation is a democracy of the owners even if that is honored more in theory then if fact.

Most non-catholic churches function fairly effectively as democracies.

Educational institutions and small and/or private businesses are about the largest set of institution in the US that are not democracies.

What exactly are you including in you calculation to conclude that most successful institutions in the US are not democracies.

Dr. T writes:
Incidentally, I am very much in sympathy with another commenter, who argues that it the ability to pick up and move that gives citizens an effective check on government. That is what makes world government such a dystopian concept.
I agree with this belief, which is why our continual loss of federalism is so disturbing. Unfortunately, in our current representative democracy, the wish of the majority is to move towards nationalism. When that happens, we will have to leave the country if we don't like government policies; moving to another state won't generate significant improvements.
Troy Camplin writes:

Nice to see that everyone is ignoring my point that nobody here is using the word "democracy" accurately. If you don't know how to use a word properly, you shouldn't use it.

Mencius writes:

The basic problem with the democratic perception of non-democracies is that when demotists consider alternatives, their mind for some reason tends to go straight to Hitler. Similarly, a good way to persuade someone to keep being a Christian is to persuade him that the alternative to Christianity is Satanism.

Actually I think the 20th-century dictatorships, both right and left, are best seen as cases of democracy gone horribly awry. As so often it goes. I can't think of a single historical case of a direct transition from monarchy to dictatorship. Democracy in this picture is a sort of precancerous condition, the Barrett's esophagus of government. It may turn out to be nothing. But you definitely want to keep an eye on it.

Forgetting this slanderous, unfair analogy, the only fair historical way to evaluate democracy is to compare it to the system it replaced: the ancien regime of classical Europe.

Was the ancien regime perfect? Heck, no. But if you look at it with your capitalist glasses on, what you see is a big family business, which should probably convert its ownership structure to a joint-stock model, have a proper IPO, and turn its management over to professional executives.

Presumably Messrs. Schmidt, Page and Brin. If you imagine them taking over from Louis XIV and managing France for the next 300 years, I think you have a fairly convincing alternative to democracy. It's certainly more convincing than Hitler.

This is what in the programming trade we call a tree rotation. As a demotist, your taxonomy of government is

government: (autocracy | democracy)
autocracy: (monarchy | dictatorship)
monarchy: Kaiser Bill
dictatorship: Hitler
democracy: Hillary

If you replace this with

government: (stable | unstable)
stable: (monarchy | corponation)
monarchy: Frederick the Great
corponation: Lee Kuan Yew
unstable: (violent | nonviolent)
violent: Hitler
nonviolent: Hillary

I think you have a much clearer picture.

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