Arnold Kling  

The Enchantment of the Democratic Process

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Mark Thoma writes,


the real question is why so many people have stopped believing that the state has the authority to be the arbiter of last resort in a pluralistic society.

Read the whole thing, which starts out as an extended excerpt from Daniel Little. Much of the riff reflects what I call an enchanted view of something called "the democratic process." This is a magical process that would allow us to live in peace with one another, if we only we would accept it.

To me, this concept of a democratic process is vague and undefined. That leaves open the possibility that two sides can disagree over what the democratic process dictates. For example, on gay marriage, does the democratic process dictate against gay marriage, because voters consistently vote against it? Or does it dictate in favor of gay marriage, because courts have ruled in favor of gay marriage, and courts are the true embodiment of the democratic process?

Adolf Hitler held a number of plebiscites. Were those the democratic process?

The teachers' union controls elections in Montgomery County, Maryland, and they are looting the county. Is that the democratic process?

At times in history, pollsters have found that a majority of Americans oppose each article in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. Can the enforcement of those rights be reconciled with the democratic process?

Does the democratic process mean the same thing in Denmark (population less than 5.5 million) as the United States (population over 300 million)?

One may think of a contrast between the morality of an outcome or the morality of a procedure. The concept of democratic fairness suggests that we privilege the morality of some procedure, regardless of the outcome. If we are going to do that, I would suggest that we privilege the outcome of voluntary decisions. Even if the use of coercion is governed by a democratic process, then coercion is wrong.

Libertarians would agree with Thoma-Little-Rawls that disputes must be settled peacefully. However, we would not agree that every issue must be settled democratically. In fact, we would suggest that the fewer issues that are settled by any political process, the better.

I like the democratic process only insofar as it can be used to limit political power. To the extent that the democratic process fails to limit the power of too few to decide for too many, it loses its enchantment.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (13 to date)
Randy writes:

"...the fewer issues that are settled by any political process, the better."

Amen to that!

Mike Rulle writes:

We live in a constitutional republic, not a democracy----although States are permitted to have plebiscites. Democratic process, as you state, is not close to a well defined term. Our Constitution was designed for the possibility of an infinite number of do-overs on all issues----even if also designed to make significant change difficult to achieve. But it permits even trying to change the bill of rights. Presumably, knowing their is always the possibility to have changed what you don't like, provides some level of release and hope---without magical thinking required to postulate an enchanted process.

We did have Civil War.

Alex J. writes:

Too many deciding for too few can be bad as well. Consider Rwanda.

David writes:

It seems that the answer lies in federalism and a central government of limited, specific and enumerated powers. Daniel Little's example of fetal stem cell research rests on the assumption that democratic elections can be used to divide political spoils even where closely held personal moral beliefs are involved. Under an older Constitutional interpretation, the federal government would not be engaging in funding of such a controversial program that did not enhance the general welfare, but individual states could do so. Those who object to the democratic decision whether or not to fund fetal stem research at the state level are free to weigh their moral objections to the state's use of their tax $$ against the right to exit. In California, we floated several $Billions in bonds to do just that. A less romantic view of that state wide process reveals the California Stem Cell effort to be just the kind of patronage system and welfare program for the privileged (university professors) that leads to the argument for limited power for the central gov't. in the first place.

dWj writes:
This is a magical process that would allow us to live in peace with one another, if we only we would accept it.

This, actually, is the most charitable spin that can be put on it.

The idea that a majority vote changes the morality of a decision is simply untenable. The idea that a majority will usually make the "right" decision is just infinitessimally more likely. The single best argument for any democratic process is as a modus vivendi -- it's a practical improvement over killing each other over disagreements, and is likely even a practical improvement, when applied to bona fide conflicts over rights (does my tenancy of this land entitle me to quiet, or does your tenancy of the adjacent land entitle you to make noise?), over almost any other likely dispute-resolving mechanism. Language like "the state has the authority to be the arbiter" strikes me as much more fanciful than your translation.

Nic Smith writes:
"At times in history, pollsters have found that a majority of Americans oppose each article in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution."

Even the third amendment? At what point in US history has modern polling been conducted AND the quartering of troops in people's homes been a hot-button issue?

Pandaemoni writes:

There obviously must be something enchanting about our system beyond its ability to limit political power. If the limitation of political power were the one goal, then clearly clearly the lower limit is to grant no one any political power. In effect, anarchy is the system we should have established (at the local, state and federal levels).

Unless this is the favored system (and it is for many), then one must desire to see some other goal pursued hand in hand with the limitation of power.

Arthur_500 writes:

The democratic process does not need to do something to be successful.

If I decide I want a car and have not the means to pay for it, operate it and insure it you would say I should not get a car. So, being a good elected legislator i accuse you of not working across the aisle, negotiating and compromise. In the spirit of compromise I suggest you select the color of the car I want.

We do not live in a Democracy because people do not have the time to participate in our government. Democrocay is also no different than mob rule. We have a Republic that our Founding Fathers decided was a better means of governing.

Regretfully we have legislators who now vote perks for themselves and do not have fiduciary responsibility for their actions.

I would suggest the prudent thing would be to do nothing if there is not agreement on the basic principles. I guess I will never get elected.

Yancey Ward writes:

You can turn Thoma's comment around and be more succinct:

the real question is why so many people have started believing that the state has the authority to be the arbiter of first resort in a pluralistic society.

Yancey Ward writes:

You can turn Thoma's comment around and be more succinct:

the real question is why so many people have started believing that the state has the authority to be the arbiter of first resort in a pluralistic society.

Foobarista writes:

If you're a fan of extensive government action, you have to believe fanatically in democratic legitimacy. If you don't, you're just an advocate for one form of tyranny or another.

This is why lefties really hate discussions about public choice, or indeed any discussion that the government or groups in it are separate things with their own agendas separate from "the people".

Hyena writes:

"Democratic process" is simply a byword for the customs and preconceptions of people in a given country where government is, to a large and visible extent, subordinate to the people.

Frank writes:

I assume that the principal basis for your political opinions is beliefs about what produces good consequences, but you sometimes at least flirt with the idea that some things are inherently better because they are "voluntary". I have tended to regard these suggestions as rhetorical flourishes, but if you are serious about them could you refer us to good analyses of "freedom", "voluntary", "coercion" and "power", and why they are respectively good and bad? As you know, these are contested concepts, and some people think that what you refer to as "freedom" is in effect dictatorship by property holders.

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