Arnold Kling  

The Wonders of Democracy

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Some random thoughts.

1. In my county, and in many locations in the U.S., we have had one-party government for longer than the Communists had control of Eastern Europe.

2. In spite of the fact that Congressional approval ratings are down near single-digit levels, all of the current committee chairmen will be restored to power, and in fact they will be strengthened.

3. As long as a majority of people in Massachusetts vote to keep the income tax, everyone in Massachusetts will have to continue to pay the tax.

4. After the election, the new President will be viewed as having a "mandate" to enact policies (including policies that were never proposed during the campaign). Meanwhile, the vast majority of voters are expressing their identity, not their policy preferences.

5. The mainstream narrative is that democracy expresses the collective will of the people. Leaders take this collective will and translate it into policy. That narrative supposedly legitimates the process. The collective will always turns out to be against what I believe.

6. Under democracy, politicians get to control hundreds of billions of dollars of our money and enact intrusive regulations on our businesses and our lives. We get to go out every four years and vote.

7. How valuable is the right to vote? I would trade the right to vote for any number of economic rights, such as the right to exit the Social Security system or the right to send my tax dollars to the charity of my choice rather than the charity of Henry Paulson's choice. Heck, I would trade the right to vote for a right to teach in any school without getting a teaching degree.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (21 to date)
pj writes:

If 90% of people in Massachusetts vote to get rid of the income tax, everyone will still have to pay it. The legislator ignored a previous initiative mandating a cut in the income tax from 5.3% to 5.0% which passed by 55% or so. They will ignore this one. That's why it will pass. If Massachusetts Democrats thought the initiative would actually become law, they wouldn't vote for it.

dm writes:

This is exactly how I feel. Based on these types of observations, I often think that one of the most neglected discussion in political thought is about how we can escape our governments. Without a "free market" in governments where individuals can vote with their feet and their resources, government power will continue to grow unabated. And a vote once every for years is little consolation.

Francis writes:

I used to state point 6 the following way to my fellow countrymen:

a) Half of your money you spend it yourself, making choices carefully, painstakingly, dollar by dollar, but still you get fleeced from time to time.

b) The other half, you "control" how it is spent by mixing a couple of votes every four years with millions of others.

How do you expect the money in (b) to be well spent? If this is not a sucker's deal, I wonder what it is.

Ed writes:

I will vote in this election as I have in every election since I turned 18. However, I am for the first time considering giving up voting from here on out. I am now beginning to see that voting can never change anything, and I am tired of lending legitimacy to the illusion.

Timothy writes:

I voted...for Cthulhu. And for the Libertarians in the Texas judicial elections, but other than that I didn't bother. Team Red and Team Blue should just merge, call themselves The Proletariat and be done with it.

Isaac K. writes:

Tim, but that would get rid of all the fun and humorous vitriol and name-bashing! Then what do politicians have to do all day?
Do we really WANT politicians with no party affiliations who don't have to bash "republican" or "democrat" parties anymore for a living and instead focus on making laws?

DCLawyer writes:

I hear you, but it's one of those things that doesn't work if everyone did it. Democracy is frustrating, but its better than the other systems that have been tried to paraphrase Churchill. Like you, my vote is symbolic in that I am largely out of step with my neighbors, but I won't take it for granted, if only because of what are forebears did to get us where we are today.

Marcus writes:

Concerning #6: I've often contrasted the ability to vote once every other year for a complete stranger you've probably never met to go to some far off city to supposedly represent your best interests to your ability in the market to vote directly for your best interest every single day multiple times a day.

#7: Why is it OK for politicians to sell their votes (like we saw with Republicans and the bailout) but it's not OK for the rest of us?

Francis writes:

"Democracy is frustrating, but its better than the other systems that have been tried".

This oft-repeated quotation is actually very debatable. For one, democracy as we know it now is very different from the 'limited government system' that was in the US and England in the 18th and 19th century.

Second, a system that has been tried but forgotten is anarchy. Iceland has tried it for 270 years (longer than any present-day living democracy) in the middle-ages (see David Friedman's papers on that on So did Ireland and it seems that Pennsylvania tried it in colonial times. There are probably other forgotten episodes as well.

In my opinion, those experiments were better than the system we have now.

Alex J. writes:

Regarding number 1, and by implication all of the others, it's much easier for you to leave your county than it was for Eastern Europeans to escape Communist rule. One implication, is that most of the welfare-takers will stay in a high-welfare state and most of the tax-payers will leave it. Every time some policy (like health care or drug prohibition) gets moved from the state level to the federal level, this escape valve goes away. Assortive residence means that people live with others who agree with them politically, hence one party rule.

I wish the Free State project would get off the ground, but I don't want to move to Wyoming either.

I used to live in Carrboro, North Carolina, next to, and similar to, Chapel Hill. It was an appealing place to live, but most everyone there opposed "growth", meaning the kind of suburbs in north Raleigh and Cary. The towns constricted the housing supply which lead to high real-estate prices. They also restricted road development, which lead to congestion. The high price of real estate meant that working class people, such as the local police and firemen, couldn't afford to own a house in a middle class neighborhood. They could afford to rent an apartment next to students, or buy a condo, but no matter. The poor could afford to own small homes, because even in Chapel Hill, nothing drives down real estate prices like being near poor people. There are even a couple trailer parks that had gotten grandfathered in from who knows when.

Rather than allow prices to come down by allowing supply to rise, the local politicians enacted a variety of policies to, shall we say, express solidarity with the working class, while still keeping the poor in their little bantustans. (eg lots of Spanish speakers in a few Carrboro apartment complexes) They made developers include a few houses in their developments that they could sell for a maximum price, or to a lucky few low-income earners. Inevitably, these get enlarged and resold by their purchasers.

I should point out here, that your typical UNC-Chapel Hill student has a low income, access to down payment money, and is more likely to have the connections needed to get in on one of those low-price deals. (Digression: there was even a news story about how members of the wrestling team qualified for housing vouchers and food stamps because they had no almost income whatsoever, as required by NCAA regulations.)

From Wikipedia:

In the latter part of the 20th century, the town grew considerably and became wealthier, with affordable housing and combating urban sprawl emerging as major local issues [ie restricted supply ergo increased price - Alex]. By the late 20th century, higher proportions of the local population worked at jobs unrelated to the university; town surveys indicated that a majority of people working in the town were no longer able to afford in-town housing, and so many people working for the university itself were not able to afford to live in Chapel Hill, or even Carrboro, that charter bus lines were doing a brisk business in almost nothing but bringing in from nearby counties a workforce of secretaries and others on which the university depended.

Chapel Hill sits in the Southeast corner of Orange County. But those secretaries are bused in (on those congested roads) from the East (Durham) and South (Chatham Co.) Orange County is dominated, population-wise and hence politically, by Chapel Hill, and so development is restricted there too. The secretaries, police officers and firemen can work in Orange County, but they can't vote there, because they can't afford to live there.

Since the working class are the mascots of the liberals, the long commute plight of the masses causes guilt among Orange County voters. Actually allowing growth would cause pain among the voters, since they are opposed to that too, as they want to keep the college town atmosphere of having local workers bused in from the next county (I kid). And so, local politicians, as entrepreneurs in their peculiar market, seek to assuage the voters cognitive dissonance by proposing policies to allegedly help the working class while not actually inconveniencing the voters in any way. Inconveniencing workers is ok, since public transportation is good for the soul. Inconveniencing greedy sinful developers, or just extorting cash from them (search for Wachovia) is fine too.

R. Pointer writes:


I think you might enjoy this paper, though I think others (Rothbard) were there first.

Charles Tilly -

Warmaking and Statemaking. The state is one heck of an invention. It almost seems to live on by itself. The state, like ideas, is a tool or weapon that arrogates users to itself. The sucessful ones are the ones that do this best.

I'm almost with you on the last one. There is nothing more absurd than the fact that, with my Ph.D., I cannot teach at the high school level without a teaching degree or certificate.

I too am against Democracy, but I love democratic republics held in check by constitutions -- I just happen to think we need to shore up some of the restriction in our Constitution, to clarify a few things for future supreme courts and Congresses.

Kurbla writes:

6. Under democracy, politicians get to control hundreds of billions of dollars of our money and enact intrusive regulations on our businesses and our lives. We get to go out every four years and vote.

The "control" has pretty wide meaning. It is not the same thing whether you can spent billions of dollars on whatever you want, or you can only chose between two very similar things.

One challenge for those who think politicians are "in control:" how do you explain that 10 000 top US politicians, judges, generals etc - taken together earn less than single top capitalist per year? Is it that they do not want more money or what?

7. How valuable is the right to vote? I would trade the right to vote for any number of economic rights, such as the right to exit the Social Security system or the right to send my tax dollars to the charity of my choice rather than the charity of Henry Paulson's choice. Heck, I would trade the right to vote for a right to teach in any school without getting a teaching degree."

Arnold: Dear Mr. Visarionovich, according to the rules 1, 2 and 3 from my list or rights, it is clear that I have the right to leave the country.

Mr Visarionovich: Yeah, yeah, we are free country, aren't we? But Lavrentiy told me that you're teenage mutant satanist mass murderer. Don't you think it is in interest of your family to admit that?

You need right to chose people, not rules. Then you use that right to chose people who might follow the rules.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Timothy said "I voted...for Cthulhu"

You might was well have voted for Bob Barr - they both have some weird stuff on their face.

Dr. T writes:

"The collective will always turns out to be against what I believe."

That statement is true for all libertarians, because there are no libertarian societies.

Our Constitution tried to prevent the tyranny of the majority, but those protections wore away over the decades. The majority wants to be rewarded for spending (hence the mortgage and home equity loan tax breaks) and wants to hurt the "rich" (anyone with more money than them) by using the government to rob them. This situation will worsen regardless of who gets elected President next Tuesday.

John Booke writes:

I'm not sure I understand this post. But on number 7 I would pass up voting if I could practice medicine at any hospital without a degree.

Troy Camplin writes:

The difference is that a M.D. guarantees some level of expertise in the field of medicine, while an Ed.D. guarantees you don't have the foggiest idea what you're doing when it comes to education. If it were up to me, Education would be banished form the earth as a major. It's the single most worthless degree offered.

MikeP writes:

#7 brought to mind something I wrote on election day two years ago...

I just heard a listener commentary on the radio. She spoke of voting as her "most important right," and she appreciated the sense of community when voting at the polls with her fellow democracy-exercising Americans.

I, on the other hand, would trade my "right" to vote for a pittance of actually guaranteed rights -- e.g., the right to trade with anyone I want from anywhere in the world.

Nonetheless, I enjoy voting, and doing it at the polling place. Where else do you feel the boot of the government so viscerally? You stand in your little booth, doing your little part by voting against every pro-government proposition and for candidates who will never win. And the whole time you see the people of your community around you. And you recognize that those people believe at the bottom of their hearts that they really do have the right to choose your rulers for you -- that doing so is actually their civic duty.

The combination of amusement, sadness, and dreams of lost possibilities cannot be equaled. It's really quite cathartic.

El Presidente writes:


These are all interesting points from an "atheist in the church of politics". I think they may betray that you are more of an agnostic, but I could be wrong. :)

I have pondered these concerns recently in the context of minimum and maximum efficient scale. Jefferson said a lot about keeping democracy local for precisely these reasons. One must know what their government exists to achieve in order to know what the efficient scale is and what "technology" to employ.

I think that if we look at our governments as tools for increasing wealth within specific jurisdictions, larger may be better. If we look at them as tools for ensuring proportionality and potency of democratic (not "Democratic") influence, smaller may be better. I think this is an important part of one's political philosophy with regard to the balance of powers within and between different levels of government (federal, state, local, special district). It's a difficult balance to strike. Then, you also have to consider what others are doing with their governments and how to remain competitive in whatever goal you establish for government. We political scientists have our hands full.

One factor that I believe has a lot to do with the size of government, and thus the relative power of one's vote, is the cost of and return to public sector capital investment. That is to say that government plays an enormous role in facilitating and guiding the development of infrastructure. Urban efficiency depends upon a place suitable for urban development and economic and political environments conducive to public sector investment (and maintenance of that investment). I think these things set a range of possible expressions of community (any place where people assemble) in terms of both political process and physical form.

Paul W. writes:

In San Francisco, where 30-years of single party rule has ruined our standard of living, the local goverment has begun to repeatedly ignore initiatives that are legal and have received a majority vote of the electorate.

Is this Democracy? No, it is not. It is a great example of how destructive single-party rule is to our society. When single-party rule has a strangle-hold on power, then just like communist Russia, the overbearing State begins to intrude in so many unnecessary and destructive ways.

Here is my plea to all voting Americans: Please do not give all three branches of government to the Democrats (or Republicans). America, please show some common sense and vote in a balanced government.

Max M writes:

I would trade in my "right to vote" for a ham sandwich.

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