Democracy Symposium: Going Marginal
Shorter Me: There are various ways in which we could de-democratise which do not involve us getting rid of democracy completely at one shot and which are likely to produce more just social orders.
Jason Brennan, below, argues that of all our freedoms, the freedom to make a choice which has negligible impact on who ends up taking power is relatively unimportant.
As Brennan argues, when people talk about the desirability of constitutional democracy or liberal democracy, the ‘constitutional’ or ‘liberal’ part of the term is doing most if not all of the work. To prove the point Brennan says that constitutions enshrine a set of rights and liberties which are deemed to be so important that nobody is allowed to vote on them. The right to do what you want with your own money consistent with respecting the other freedoms in the constitution is an important component of securing one’s freedom to pursue one’s own conception of the good. Having the vote on the other hand, does very little for me. With or without my vote, the result of the election is unlikely to change one bit. Taking away my right to vote therefore has a negligible effect on whether I am able to pursue my conception of the good consistent with others similarly pursuing theirs. Therefore, the right to own private property in productive assets as well as the freedom to be free from onerous regulation in the use of said property is more important than the right to vote. And if economic freedom results in increased inequality which increases the political voice of the rich disproportionately, this is not a bad enough thing to count against economic freedom. After all, it was not like political voice was doing you any good anyway.
But it’s not just in the area of fundamental liberties which we find it better to restrict people’s right to vote. Just as we find the thought of a federal reserve which is beholden to partisan politics distasteful and want a more independent fed, there are other policy areas which would benefit from independence from democratic control. For example, fellow gentleman Burt argues rather convincingly that Greece is a probable, if not inevitable outcome of democratic politics. The people will tend very greatly to vote for more benefits and lower taxes with which to pay for those benefits. Removing taxing and budgeting power from democratic control and giving said control to an independent fed or similar body*. Similarly, as I have argued on this site, on a wide range of issues, since experts are more likely to arrive at correct answers than lay persons and since public discourse is particularly prone to error, technocratic bodies are likely to be better at producing policy than democratic bodies. As I’ve said before:
Public deliberation is less likely than academic deliberation (especially in the sciences and probably to a large degree in the social sciences as well) to reach the truth about a matter. More than that, in situations where the true theory is counter-intuitive for the discussed reasons, public deliberation is more likely than not to lead to the wrong conclusion
For wide range of policy areas, whatever a supermajority of experts can agree to is likely to be better than whatever a majority or even a supermajority of lay persons will agree to. In what areas is policy likely to improve when we separate it from democratic decision-making? Economic policy, design and implementation of social safety nets, foreign trade and healthcare are just some of the areas that come to mind. Maybe foreign policy is an exception, but just because democracies have not invaded other democracies doesn’t mean that democracies are not war like**. And I stand by my criticisms of American Foreign policy.
As I’ve written before:
If we want better policy, we should either limit public deliberation, limit the effect public deliberation has on policy or find a way to internalise the benefits of coming to the right decision.
I’m definitely not a fan of limiting public deliberation because I think freedom of speech is very important and should be protected even if it results in people believing in stupid things. Limiting the effect of deliberation on public policy is one way to go. And we need not proceed in an all or nothing way. We can carve out various areas of public policy making and delegate them either to independent technocratic bodies or enshrine the relevant rights in the constitution. We can thus, at the margins, pare down the set of policies which democratic bodies have control over without necessarily completely getting rid of democracy. Internalising the benefits of coming to the right decision is another option, but seems the hardest to do. Futuarchy seems like a good place to start with this, but I am a bit sceptical of the ability to significantly internalise such benefits and costs of the policy we prefer.
Let us suppose we successfully separate from democratic bodies, the decision-making powers that said bodies are poor at making. Over time, we successfully enshrine all the relevant rights and liberties in the constitution. We develop, over time, independent decision-making bodies that are either composed of experts, or make use of prediction markets to arrive at good policy in that domain. What domains of public policy are left after we have done all of this? Is there any other role at all for democratically elected bodies? And is what is left so terribly important that delegating it to some other independent technocratic body or constitution or for that matter, the market would be a mistake? Can such a form of government where so little is left for democratic bodies to handle rightfully be called democratic?
Honestly, I really don’t know how far we can go in terms of such technocratisation and constitutionalisation. But it is certainly the case that we can afford to delegate some of the existing powers to either a technocratic body or to limit them via a constitution. To borrow Jaybird’s paradigm, de-democratisation as a vector or maybe marginal anti-democracy. There may very well be a sweet spot with just the right amount of democracy, but we have not reached it yet, and we in all probability have far too much of it. And maybe, as we de-democratise, we discover better ways to do things, or maybe even over time evolve the social institutions that would allow us to finally do away with democracy altogether. But, and this is a major concession on my part, we should just start gradually and not radically revamp the system.
*I’m deliberately being agnostic on whether it is better or worse for the body which has control over monetary policy to also have control over fiscal policy. I’m inclined to think that it is better, but I am open to arguments as to why we should separate fiscal and monetary powers.
**Arguing that the fact that global conversion to democracy would likely put a halt to war is a good reason to go democratic is kind of like arguing that global conversion to Catholicism would put a halt to inter-religious strife is a good reason to become a Catholic. I mean, they came up with the bloody Spanish Inquisition didn’t they? Yet there really wasn’t much in the way of systematic violence by Catholics against other Catholics. Even the Inquisition was ostensibly aimed at those who were insufficiently Catholic and not at the “Real Catholics”.***
***I’m not wedded to this argument. I just wanted an excuse to play the Monty Python video and say: No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!