Bryan Caplan  

Frankly Fundamentalist

Morning Commentary... Financial Institutions, Again...
One good thing to come out of the bailout: Barney Frank gave me another nice example of what I call "democratic fundamentalism." 

If you don't want politics in this process, you probably shouldn't be handing it over to 535 politicians. That's democracy.
The first sentence, of course, is rhetorical: Don't hand things over to 535 politicians?!  Ridiculous!

The second sentence is where the fundamentalism shines through: So what if we paid $100B in pork/bribes to pass this bailout?  Since we did it democratically, you have no business criticizing us.

Notice: If someone said, "So the economy's tanking.  That's capitalism," everyone would assume the speaker wanted to limit capitalism.  But when someone says, "That's democracy," we assume the speaker wants to end the conversation.  Democracy is truly the sacred cow of the modern world.

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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Alex J. writes:

I don't get why nobody who voted for the first bill voted against the second. The second was just like the first, except with a bunch of bribes tacked on to get a few people to switch sides. How come there wasn't anybody who was a marginal-aye before, and didn't get any of the bribes, not oppose the second bill because of the noxious bribes?

mjh writes:

Is it possible to read it another way? To assume that, in fact, Mr Frank does disdain democracy, and would rather have it replaced with socialism?

James writes:


I personally prefer Belloc and Chesterton's definition. They define democracy as whatever form of government that, through whatever means, results in the laws the general public likes being passed and the laws it dislikes not passing. They identify voting, representative assemblies and all the rest as simply machinery. That machinery might work to facilitate democracy, but it is not democracy itself nor its guarantee. Too many people mistakenly assume its mere existence means that we are a democracy.

Than for your email recently on behavioral economics, by the way.

Rebecca writes:

Democracy does not mean much without accountability. Which seems sorely lacking in this...

Dave writes:

Alex J., that's easy: the marginal "Ayes" did get bribes.

shayne writes:

Wasn't it Jimmy 'Beau James' Walker, former mayor of New York, who publicly announced to New Yorkers when he was forced out of office in disgrace, "You can blame me all you want, but was YOU who elected me." - or words to that effect.

R. Richard Schweitzer writes:


Who is being bribed - and how?

Where does the "bribe money" come from (especially when there is no "cash?")

Perot said: They're bribin' ya with yer own money.

Not quite: They're bribin' ya with yer grand kids' money; actually with the grandkids' future production.

Steve Roth writes:

Bryan, there's no denying the failures of democracy. But I'm sure my daughter and I are not the only ones who come away from your book (and posts) with raised eyebrows, asking, "okay, so what is your response to Churchill?"

Government-mandated economics classes?

Poll tests?

The first is small beer, and second know.

I've said for decades that we should should draft our leaders. Anyone who wants the job shouldn't be trusted with it. I just can't figure out how to make it work. (They used to pretend they didn't want the job--think Lincoln--but c'mon. Maybe Washington actually meant it.)

Maybe government should require every citizen to read The Republic?

Freedom, Soar! writes:

But Lincoln responded that majority rule will never actually "settle" a question that disturbs the moral balance of the universe. "Is it not false statesmanship," asked Lincoln in the last of the [Lincoln-Douglas] debates, "... to build up a system of policy upon the basis of caring nothing about the very thing that every body does care the most about?"

A democracy without a sense of the sacredness of those rights was like a tornado, hollow at the core and purposeless in direction. "[T]he real issue," in the slavery controversy, Lincoln said, was "the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world," and anyone who ignored the "real issue" in the name of secularism and choice was eroding the moral capital on which democracy relies.

Our reverence for what Lincoln achieved keeps us from seeing that it is not his, but Douglas's attitudes that have come to rule modern American politics.

We deify democratic choice, and then try to restrain choice's excesses by rules and guidelines rather than by right and honor.

—from a recent essay, "Lincoln's Lesson for Today's Culture Wars," by Allen C. Guelzo

Steve Roth writes:

Freedom, Soar!: Very nice material.

But if I read you right, as supporting Guelzo's moral stances, you (and Guelzo) are following in the long tradition of the those false "conservatives" (i.e. Douglas) that Lincoln effectively dismembered in his Cooper Union speech.

Lincoln, a true conservative because found his moral basis in the beliefs of our founders, eviscerated Douglas's "conservative" positions with what one contemporary observed described as "sledgehammmer logic."

Which party, today, is the home to the modern-day "states rights" disciples of Douglas the "conservative," and the relativist (and racist) moral principles he championed?

Most modern-day conservatives don't fit that description. But of the ones who do, who do you think they're voting for?

Which candidate(s) have the need to kowtow to them, and are actively and intentionally whipping up the fervor of their Douglas-derived beliefs?

cent21 writes:

I suspect the comment came from the fact that the President essentially yelled "fire" in a crowded theater, and proclaimed he had the only solution, which would require an act of congress and the biggest government program since 1942.

The Bush clan are crony capitalists. How they managed to grab the mantle way from the free market, balance budget crowd, I can't imagine.

Kurbla writes:

Democracy has hundreds of alternatives - hundreds of different dictatorships. Anarchy is not an alternative to democracy - neither capitalist nor commie version. Because, whatever model of anarchy you propose, some people do not like it and they do not think it is anarchy at all. So, we are back on dilemma: vote or fight!

James writes:


You are stacking the deck in favor of democracy by comparing it only to other forms of government. The appropriate comparison is democracy vs. other forms of resource allocation.

If this seems confusing, consider your choice of spouse, car, career, how many kids to have, etc. I'll hazard a guess that none of those choices were based on the outcomes of voting or fighting. I'll also hazard a guess that you'd rather not subject any of those choices to a vote. If so, then you already oppose democracy. You just aren't consistent about it.

Hibiscus Monkey writes:

Churchill's rationalization is clever and true, but logically it is a false dilemma. Before the democratic city-state in Archaic Greece, oligarchy was "the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that [had] been tried from time to time", and democracy's success in Athens did not stop other cultures from modifying and improving it. A less egalitarian form of government is not the only recourse to democracy's present failings.

Kurbla writes:

James, it appears that you think that notion of democracy somehow includes regulation of all human behavior, and that such regulation cannot include delegation of decision on individuals. And that otherwise it is not democracy.

However, democracy has no such obligations whatsoever. It can regulate alot - or very little. It can delegate very few decisions to individuals - or almost everything. It is important only that it is supported by majority of people.

Chuck writes:

"If you don't want politics in this process, you probably shouldn't be handing it over to 535 politicians. That's democracy."

Is he not simply saying, look, if you want a government bailout here, you're going to get politics with it. There is no such thing as government action without politics.

James writes:


We both disagree with the view that you've imagined I hold. So what? I never claimed that "democracy includes regulation of all human behavior?"

Rather, I take the view that a superior alternative to democratic resource allocation is for resource allocation decisions to be made on the basis of allowing only the owners of resources to choose how those resources are allocated.

Next time, instead of imagining a claim to refute, try responding to the claim that the other person actually makes.

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