Bryan Caplan  

Democracy: What We Want Is What We Get

Financial Regulation Links... Linkfest...
Today I got a wonderful coincidental birthday present: I met Patri Friedman.  I also got to enjoy his Cato Unbound essay on "Folk Activism."  It's highly recommended, but here's a passage I've got to criticize:
In the modern world, however, bad policies are the result of human action, not human design.
On the contrary, I'd say that if anything is the result of conscious human design, it is government policies.  Americans want to exclude foreigners from the U.S. - and U.S. immigration law gives them what they want.  The French want a 35-hour work week - and French labor law gives them what they want.

I admit, of course, they people often have false beliefs about the effects of policies.  But democracy is quite good at satisfying widely-shared proximate desires.  If most people want the government to try method X, method X is what we use.  The problem with democracy isn't that a massive change of heart wouldn't lead to radical change.  The problem, rather, is that it's awfully difficult to inspire a massive change of heart.

P.S. If you read the rest of Patri's essay, he basically seems to agree with what I'm saying here.  My point is just that his Adam Ferguson allusion is a red herring.

Comments and Sharing

TRACKBACKS (2 to date)
TrackBack URL:
The author at Remaking Modern Society in a related article titled Giving People What They Want writes:
    My suspicions about North Korea turned out to be correct--Kim Jong Il did it for the national fame: A visibly grayer and thinner Kim Jong Il proved Thursday he remains in charge of communist North Korea, presiding over parliament in a triumphant return t [Tracked on April 9, 2009 2:37 PM]
The author at The Distributed Republic in a related article titled Responses to my Cato Unbound essay writes:
    The trackback system on Cato Unbound seems to be imperfect, so here is a roundup of the blog reactions to my essay, for some light reading for y'all over the weekend :). I'll be making detailed replies on the Cato Unbound site starting on Tuesday. Offic [Tracked on April 10, 2009 12:56 PM]
COMMENTS (18 to date)
Zdeno writes:

"Americans want to exclude foreigners from the U.S. - and U.S. immigration law gives them what they want."

You must not get out much, Bryan.

I understand your point that American immigration laws have the potential to be much more liberal, but it is naive at best to describe your government's current policy as one that "excludes foreigners."

Also, I'm fairly certain American public opinion is very much in favour of tighter immigration laws - Obama (or McCain - the counterfactual could be written with an MS Word search-and-replace) is pursuing amnesty against the will of the American people.

Anyways.. I don't want to get bogged down in Sailer-baiting. We've all had this conversation before, and either he is a racist, puppy-eating demon or a speaker of unspeakable truths - either way, no one is changing their mind today.

I'd rather take issue with your claim that it's difficult to inspire massive changes of heart in the electorate. if such changes are difficult, what the hell happened over the past 50 years? Or the past 100? 200? How did the United States (d)evolve from what it was 200 years ago to what it is today? It is true that your government generally tracks the will of the electorate. But that "will" has been trending leftward for... umm, two centuries now. Perhaps YOU are having trouble inspiring CHANGE, but apparently someone else out there isn't...

The problem with democracy is that it is much too EASY to inspire changes in public opinion. I mean, it's harder than riding a bike. But it is certainly possible, and the result is that those who pursue power and control do so my seeking to manipulate public opinion. Conservatives and Libertarians spent the second half of the 20th century with each other's thumbs up their asses while the left took control of the Universities and print media.


Robert Speirs writes:

The left and right have merged, as Rothbard laid out in 1965 in "Left and Right: the Prospects for Liberty". The change toward increased statism and less personal freedom has been continuous since 1900. The "left" doesn't have control of anything. It's the collectivist conservatives, whether you call them Fascists or Communists, who are pushing for complete control by monopolizing the media. Luckily, things like YouTube offer hope for individual freedom to survive. I feel like today is the deepest trough of a great darkness. But there will be dawn.

William writes:

If you watched Bob Higgs' appearance on CNN last Sunday, you heard him quote H.L. Mencken on this point:

"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard."

Wm Tanksley writes:

No, Friedman is right. I'll grant that there are counterexamples of policies which were put in place by deliberate design, most of them things like executive orders; but in many cases those policies are by themselves decent ideas, and the problem comes when they are not changed in time due to politics, or are not noticed due to overwhelming complexity.

Meanwhile, the majority of policies, and the ones that affect most of us, are put in place by a vote and logrolling, not by decisionmaking or analysis.

Cyberike writes:

I am not sure I agree with the "conscious human design" statement, but it is clear that we have what we have becuase it's what we want. We can use immigration as an example.

The laws regarding immigration are quite tough, because there is a very vocal demand for tough immigration. However, our economic actions demand the cheap labor that Americans themselves refuse to provide. There is no argument here: basically everyone shops on price and buys the cheapest, and this is particularly true for labor.

Health care is another great example: it has been reported on these very pages that the majority of health care spending goes to those in the last year of life. Why is this? Clearly, it is because WE refuse to let mom and dad go. We demand extrordinary measures, and whether because of guilt or love the result is the same: out of control spending.

Government: we demand social security be left alone (with its massive spending burden), we demand health care (through Medicare and Medicaid), we could go on and on. We also demand lower taxes. We get both, resulting in massive debt (which we DON'T seem to care about).

We have allowed democracy to give us the leaders who promise us the most.

Yes, we get what we want. Right now what we want is someone else to blame.

Jesse Rouse writes:

I have been reading some of Patri's work and I am leaning more and more to the idea that the only place to find liberty is on the frontier. I'll explain why I think this by setting up a simple game.

There is a government that taxes from group B (which makes everyone worse off on average) and redistributes to a group, A. While lower taxes (smaller gov't) are better for the average person than higher taxes (larger gov't), at any level of taxation it is better to be part of group A. Or one would rather receive a transfer than pay a tax.

Say you have three choices at the polls, more liberty, status quo, or to rent seek. Voting for liberty moves you to group B, voting for status quo does not change your group, and voting to rent seek moves you to group B. If liberty wins the plurality then the size of gov't decreases, status quo wins it stays the same, rent seek wins the size of gov't increases. So the NE is to rent seek, because no one will unilaterally deviate to liberty (or status quo for that matter.)

This is all assuming that everyone realizes that less gov't is a good thing and increases the size of the pie. Unfortunately most people don't think this so decreasing the size of gov't is even harder. So assume a majority of people want more freedom and because of this are generally individualistic. For a society to break from the road to serfdom there must be a large collective action (which seems very difficult since everyone is individualistic.) It might be easier to break from society and go to the frontier. It simpler to organize a group of a couple dozen to start seasteading then it is to organize the hundreds of millions to do anything.

If anything didn't make any since let me no, I'm no the best with words. I also hope I'm not being too much of downer, I'll always believe in the determination of the individual to be free.

Realist writes:

The problem with democracy is that ends up becoming utilitarianism, keeping the masses at bay with bread and circus, while a few elite leaders exploit their servants. Plato documented this and described how democracy progresses into tyranny, always. And lo and behold..

hacs writes:

"In the modern world, however, bad policies are the result of human action, not human design."

For me that is self-evident and denotes the obvious contradiction between intentionality (as a teleological standpoint and its extrinsic finalities) and consequentialness (as the most important moral standpoint).

Bob writes:


I wouldn't quote Plato too much, considering how his view of an ideal state was one with stratified social classes and communal ownership of property (including women and children) amongst the upper class (the warriors and philosopher-kings), as well as the use of outright lies, (including a fabricated myth of creation) to encourage the population to accept this state of things.

Having had to read the 'Republic' a couple years ago, I can tell you his writings are that of a true statist, with an incredibly over-inflated ego.

David S. writes:

I would be very careful about assuming that anything Socrates says in any Platonic dialogue is 'Plato's Opinion'. Plato, like any good teacher, clearly gives Socrates many provocative things to say in order to spark thought in the reader.

I would agree that Plato was far from an uncritical supporter of democracy, or a good libertarian. But it's quite simplistic to take everything in the Republic as an actual plan of government.

RL writes:

Bryan, don't you think it's fair to interpret Patri's "bad policies are the result of human action, not human design" as meaning "the actual [and to non-economists, unanticipated] effects of bad policies are the result of human action, not human design."?

Jayson Virissimo writes:

Happy Birthday

Zac writes:

RL, that is my interpretation. It is also more consistent with the rest of his expressed views.

David Friedman writes:

I provided a birthday present for you and you didn't even send me a thank you card. Ingrate.

For my response to Patri's essay, see my blog:

Bob writes:

@ David S.

In the 'Republic', unlike other works by Plato, there is no other thesis, no other position taken by any character (except in the first book, out of 10), and most of the 'dialogue' in that work is limited to Socrates proposing something, and the others agree, either immediately, or after having heard the longer, more in-depth explanation.
His other writings usually contain a character who believes in a specific philosophy or belief, usually a popular, widely-held one, and Socrates pokes holes in it. But that's not the structure adopted in the 'Republic'.
Since the initial intent of the dialogue is to find what is a proper way for humans to behave, and the idea of an ideal government is studied because the same guiding ideas that provide for an ideal state should provide for an ideal behavior, you could argue that the entire discussion of an ideal government is not the point, and should not be taken as too important. I'll merely answer that an author does not spend three-quarters of his book explaining and defending a theory, without actually thinking it to be true.

Snark writes:

I’m afraid Dr. Caplan is quite right. Popular opinion ultimately determines social outcomes. The problem, you see, is that the masses are usually duped into voting for what they think they want by some modern-day Clark Stanley. Government policy is simply popular opinion that has survived.

The Myth of the Rational Voter is a bitter pill, indeed.

Crawdad writes:

Tocqueville - Volume II of Democracy in America, Vintage Books Edition 1990. Chapter VI. What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear. Reads as if he wrote it yesterday. I'll give a taste for the uninitiated.

"Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood . . ."

And this:

"Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once."

Read it all. Genius.

Tyler L writes:

Yeah, I think Im gonna have to agree with Zdeno on this one. Last time I checked a majority of our manual labor has been generously distributed to "foreigners" which is hurting Americans. Also, as far as immigration goes, there are immigrants in the United States who are receiving benefits. But, lowerclass Americans are struggling to make "ends-meat". Sure its all good and fine being the "hospitiable big uncle" or whatever it is were doing but we need to take care of American citizens first, and then foreigners.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top