Arnold Kling  

Ways in Which the U.S. has Become Less Democratic

Paul Gregory on Communism... Technocracy...

My claim is that a number of factors have reduced the impact of the "voice" (voting or other forms of political participation) of ordinary citizens. You can argue that other factors have increased the impact of ordinary citizens. You can certainly argue that prior to 1972, 18-20 year-olds had less voice than they have today, and you can certainly argue that prior to 1965, African Americans living in the south had less voice than they have today. I would not challenge those assertions, nor would I claim that the issues that I am going to raise override them. I am just going to raise these issues, and invite people to react to them as they stand on their own.

1. More decisions being made by unelected "experts." This could be measured by the growth in the number of pages in the Federal Register. It could be measured by the proliferation of agencies, as in the current Washington Post stories on the national security complex. If somebody has an indicator that they think shows movement in the direction of less autonomy for unelected experts, I would like to see it.

Instead, I think most progressives would be more inclined to argue that having decisions made by unelected experts is a good thing. I love unelected experts, but I have a problem giving them the power of the state. Anyway, that is a whole separate debate. In fact, it is the most important debate to have. Just not on this post (commenters should know that there will be plenty of opportunities to have this debate on other posts).

2. The average elected official allocates much more money than in the past. The number of dollars spent per constituent has gone up, and the number of constituents per elected official has gone up. I call these "scope creep" and "scale creep," respectively. It means that power has become highly concentrated. It inevitably serves to increase the arrogance of politicians. Being a politician is like being the richest man in town--everyone wants to get close to you in order to ask for favors.

3. Because the number of constituents per elected official has gone up, the influence of an individual constituent has gone down. Numerically, your individual vote is less likely to matter. The letter you write is less likely to be considered, the campaign contribution you make is less likely to matter, etc.

4. Many Congressional districts are non-competitive by design.

5. Public sector unions have become political juggernauts in many cities, counties, and states. Even the Washington Post editorial writers have noticed how difficult it has become for a politician to stand up to the teachers' union in Maryland.

6. The state and large corporations have become mutually dependent. They intersect on K Street, where influence-peddling is the fastest-growing sector of the economy. Large corporations enjoy bailouts, access to legislators and regulators, and numerous restrictions that stifle competition. Politicians in turn count on large corporations to comply with shakedowns for campaign funds and to voice support for political agendas.

7. Politics has become more professionalized. "Retail politics" is relatively unimportant compared with advertising and image management. The professional consultants are there to manipulate voters, not to respect them.

Having said all that, I do not aim for a solution that gives ordinary people more voice. Instead, I would like to see ordinary people have more opportunity for exit. That is what the third chapter of Unchecked and Unbalanced proposes.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Various writes:

I agree with all that you say. I'd like to make one contribution (albeit minor) and that is what you describe as a mutual dependence between gov't and business is really a mutual dependence between gov't and public companies. I believe that public companies are risk adverse (or really that the managers of public companies are risk adverse) in so far as their dealings with gov't and regulators. They may be less risk adverse and sometimes risk seeking in other areas. As such, they make good coconspirators with gov't. Private companies, and small businesses in particular, tend to be more at odds with gov't. Part of the problem (again albeit probably a small part) is the growing corporate "market share" of publicly traded companies

Lori writes:

Instead, I think most progressives would be more inclined to argue that having decisions made by unelected experts is a good thing.

What progressives? Would you name some names?

MernaMoose writes:

Having said all that, I do not aim for a solution that gives ordinary people more voice. Instead, I would like to see ordinary people have more opportunity for exit.

I'd rather see things rearranged so that those who pay the bulk of the government bill, are the ones who get to decide how much government we get and for what purposes.

As in, your vote this year is weighted in proportion to how much (in actual dollars) you paid last year.

If the poorer segments of the US population believed that they could no longer vote themselves free hand outs (at the expense of the rich), the Democratic Party would implode over night. Remember that Obama has ridden on the "we need to spread the wealth around" magic carpet from the beginning.

Your vote, and the amplitude of your voice, should be proportional to how much you contribute to the collective budget.

And get rid of this democracy "experiment". I submit the current state of the US government as proof of failure. Rather than elections (which we know bias politicians in favor of winning votes, no matter what's good for the country), congress and other currently elected positions should be filled by drawing straws. Or a lottery. Or something like a jury duty system.

And of course, you must pay some minimum amount of money in taxes, to be eligible to be appointed to a seat in congress. To be clear, the principle is simple:

Free riders DO NOT get to make the decisions on how much money gets spent on what. The tune is called by those who pay the piper.

Upon which, the government will (we hope) no longer be in the business of shackling "the rich" in order to forcibly transfer some arbitrary fraction of their wealth to "the poor".

Upon which, the need for the exit that Arnold asks for should be greatly reduced.

Of course I could be wrong. But I can't believe that a system such as I'm proposing here wouldn't work at least as well, and probably much better, than the High Definition Surround Sound train wreck we currently have in progress.

MernaMoose writes:

6. The state and large corporations have become mutually dependent.

This deserves to be a whole separate topic in its own right. Philosophy, economics, and legal aspects et al.

You've heard the phrase "death by committee". Corporations are run by committees of very well paid people who have, in today's world, little of no personal stake in the long term consequences of their decisions. They can make one stupid decision after another and they'll still walk away with substantial wealth.

One quick example: I see zero push-back from corporation against affirmative action laws today. I have no problem giving people of whatever race etc a fair shot at moving up the ladder but -- you cannot lower the bar on performance standards!

Today, as a consequence of affirmative action, we have utterly incompetent people being promoted into technical positions where things that people's lives depend on get designed. Cars, airplanes, etc.

Corporations today have VPs in charge of imposing affirmative action on their companies. Because the government wants them to and hey, who's going to argue with what the government wants? Not the people who run the corporations.

You can get a corporate board to go along with almost anything these days.

Neal writes:

I agree with most of your points. But is this one simplistic?:

4. Many Congressional districts are non-competitive by design.

If a seat is safe for one party, surely that makes the nomination battle tougher - competition is shifted earlier in the electoral process. I admit ignorance, but given the weaker party system in the US (than the UK) and the primary system, there could still be significant competition for power and ideas in a safe seat?

I'm not saying this is a perfect solution, but I think 1st order analyses of politics can miss important compensatory mechanisms?

stephen writes:

Arnold, you should read this blog post (its short). Good piece on how the bureaucracy runs the federal government, not the people elected. Anyway, I think it compliments your observations of democratic decline.

Ryan writes:


I'm a regular reader of the blog. With regard to the general election, your observations are correct. However, I would argue that some of the points, particularly points 3 and 4 are mitigated a bit by the primary process.

The GOP could have nominated a cow as the AG candidate in 2009, and still won the office in the general election simply because of the environment. However, Cuccinelli was nominated at a convention comprised of 8,000 delegates (of which I was one for full disclosure). The candidates campaigned hard for votes among those 8,000 delegates. You can easily make an argument that the AG's race was largely decided at that convention, and not in the general. And look at the implications now, how many other potential AG's would be zealously fighting Federal Gov't over reach on healthcare and Carbon restrictitions (just to give two examples). 8,000 people, out of a population of greater than 7 million, picked Cuccinelli. The Primary system magnifies the voices of those who are engaged at that level. VA's 11th district for this election cycle is also a good example that primaries are very important.

Many of us who are engaged in the grass roots are trying to fight and get people nominated who want to help change some of the things you mentioned. It's an uphill battle, but one that needs to be fought and is indeed one worth fighting.


B.B. writes:

I would add another dimension.

The number of Senate seats is two per state. As state populations rise, that means that each voters is less important and powerful relative to each senator.

As for the "popular" chamber, the number of seats in the House is not fixed by the Constitution but by law. The number of House seats has not changed in century (aside from adding new states). The number of citizens in each House district has increased enormously over the past century, reducing the relevance and power of each citizen-voter.

I propose we double or triple the number of House seats. "Gerrymandering" will be less relevant as the number of districts increases.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

That exit which people need: it is, and yet in a real sense it is not. We already have too many people exiting the whole process who need ways to come back to society. Ultimately, anyone who is alive is responsible to themselves and their communities. When they do not have ways to be responsible, all too often money is spent dealing with the destruction they leave.

The only way people can gain back responsibility, is for others to validate the skill sets they have, but have not money to back up. The link back to others and to government, is to use one's skills in voluntary ways. How so? Think of the promises that government made in the 20th century that are about to be broken for good. (social security and medicare). If the unemployed are allowed to help with the vast numbers of services government will not be able to provide, there is a good chance we do not have to lose the society that we have. Through such means, the unemployed can be responsible to others again, and more importantly, themselves.

If people are willing to give one another the chance to meet needs voluntarily, direct democracies would be the result. What we have now is not even close to democracy.

Lori writes:

BB: Gerrymandering pertains to the shape, not the size of legislative districts. The solution to gerrymandering is mathematical. There is definitely a well-defined solution to the problem of what partitioning of small geographic regions such as census tracts or zip codes, into larger ones such as congressional districts, minimizes variance of district population. If additional objectives are stated, such as minimizing perimiter-to-area ratio for districts (so as not to have long skinny salamander-shaped ones), there is still a well-defined nondominated set.

Also, you might find this website interesting:

Rebecca: Replacing the civil service with 'volunteerism' sounds very Reaganistic. You seem to be contending that the opportunity to contribute to society is at least as good a hedge against 'exit from society' as the opportunity to get paid. I'm inclined to agree, IF we're talking about a basically post-scarcity society that distributes some kind of social dividend. Under conditions of 'austerity,' however, it simply will not do. Since you're taking it as a given Social Security and Medicare are to be permanently discontinued, I assume you're expecting such a 'buy-in without money' under austerity. Dream on. A civilization in which not everyone is valued, as well as needed, is a civilization that deserves to fall, and hard.

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