What is Democracy Good For?
TLDR Summary: “Is liberal democracy viable? Yes, for now.”
Since I am, in all likelihood, the second biggest democracy sceptic in the League (I can’t see myself beating out Murali for first place), my attitude to the topic of our symposium is more ambivalent than most people in the League and certainly more ambivalent than the majority of people in what is perversely called “The West” (FYI, when your definition of West includes some of the eastern most parts of the world, it’s time to find a new word). We are brought up to think of democracy as one of the fundamental pillars of civilisation and goodness. That our societies are directed by We the People instead of a narrow clique or the will of some tin pot dictator. This goes beyond mere practical concerns to be a foundational moral value of Western (there I go again) society. It’s not merely that democracy produces better results, but consent of the governed is widely held to be the fundamental legitimate basis for sustaining a government. One of the foundational beliefs of our culture is that a system of government is legitimate iff it is democratic. This bleeds out into our political language via the Halo Effect – at some point anything good gets referred to as democratic and every bad gets called undemocratic.
But I’m not a big fan of moral reasoning at the best of times, I’m too much of an instrumentalist. For me institutions like democracy are technology – machines made of thought rather than metal or semiconductors. I really don’t see why it is moral for 50% +1 of a group of people to impose their will on 50% -1. Last I checked argumentum ad populum was still a logical fallacy. For me, democracy’s value comes from what it can do for a society. Does it promote human well being? Does it improve people’s opportunities and promote human happiness and prosperity? If democracy can be said to have value it is because it contributes to these goals. If not, then it would deserve to be consigned to the scrap heap of history, as so many governmental systems have been.
Let me get my contrarianism out first – democracy is a terrible decision-making algorithm. Bryan Caplan’s book The Myth of the Rational Voter outlines much of problem in detail, but the simple version is that democracy seeks the median viewpoint rather than the most informed viewpoint. Most people realise this, even if they don’t realise that they realise it. If you feel sick, you don’t poll a bunch of randoms to figure out what is wrong with you, you go and see a doctor; outside of the political sphere we more often use “defer to expert” or “defer to friendly quasi-expert” as our algorithm on factual questions, not democracy. This isn’t limited to factual questions either. If two people walked up to you and suggested that the three of you should vote on how to distribute the contents of your wallet you would feel it morally permissible to object. Democracy is a special case rule, not a general one. It is used when the superior alternatives we normally employ won’t work.
The limits of democracy were recognised by the American Founding Fathers, Madison in particular. He realised that simply letting the majority speak would result in nothing more legitimate than mob rule, tyranny of the majority may mean fewer people being tyrannised than tyranny of the minority, but it is tyranny all the same. This is why the Federalists were so insistent on limiting the power of the Federal government. And the 14th amendment took it one step further and recognised that tyranny of the majority shouldn’t reign unfettered at the state level either (though we shouldn’t ignore the state constitutions here either). I firmly believe that constitutionally limited government is A) a huge advance from a moral standpoint and B) fundamentally anti-democratic. While the common refrain “America is a republic, not a democracy” is not quite right (by any reasonable standard the US is both), the phrase captures an important fact about the US – popular will is not sovereign in US law, what the public wants is only relevant if that desire falls within the limits of the Constitution. It is law, not majoritarianism that rules supreme in the US. This is why I get exasperated at people complaining about “activist judges” subverting the will of the people. Of course they’re subverting the will of the people, that’s their job. Without judicial review the rights of the minority are at the mercy of the majority and that’s not a position you want to be in, if history is any guide.
Democracy also tends to promote stupid government. A democratic state will only be as smart as its electorate, and in a democracy no one voter has enough influence to make it worthwhile to actually be properly informed about the implications of party or candidate policy platforms. This leads to a great deal of irrational policy, and I believe that political institutions tend to be far less rational than other forms of organisation for this exact reason (also governments rarely “fail” in the way most organisations will if they screw up badly enough).
So given all that, should we declare the democratic experiment of he past 200-odd years a failure? Well, not so fast. I think probably the point Murali and I most disagree on is whether democracy is on balance the best alternative available. Democracy has some good points, and it should be evaluated against the available alternatives rather than some theoretical ideal.
The best feature of democracy is its aggregation of preferences. Many of the questions facing government are partially or entirely subjective. When there are a wide range of reasonable responses to a policy question, it’s hard to beat majority rule as a preference aggregator. Now there are problems with aggregating preferences no matter how you do it (Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem shows that there is no way to coherently aggregate preferences outside of a handful of special cases), but that’s a problem for all political systems that aren’t absolute autocracies.
The other big plus of democracy is that it has a high probability of peaceful power transitions. That’s not unique to democracy, but it’s still a point in it’s favour over most historical systems.
Finally, democracy (especially when patched with constitutional limits) has done a better job of protecting individual rights than any other system. Not a good job, just a better one than its competition. If we’re thinking about alternatives to democracy we should be aware that things could be much worse. As of right now, I think democracy is the best system we have, despite its flaws.
So why spend half of a post beating on democracy if I end up supporting it anyway? Well there are three reasons. First, it’s important to bear in mind the bad points of things you like, and the good points of things you dislike. Few policies are all good or all bad, but it’s all too easy to act as if they are, which makes finding common ground with others much harder than it should be.
Second, I want to change how democracy is perceived. Democracy is not some overarching universal good, but rather a tool and a limited one at that. People often speak of making things more democratic as if that were a desirable end in itself, and use “undemocratic” like a swear word. But most things are undemocratic, and that’s the way it should be.
Finally, while democracy may be the best system we have right now, political systems did not spring fully-formed from the head of Zeus. Like all machines they were invented by people. There was a period of time when modern democracy hadn’t been invented, and then there was a period where it existed but was considered inferior, even crazy. I don’t believe in an End of History, I think at some point someone will come up with a better system, and while it will attract derision initially, it will prove itself. It may even have been invented already, I think futuarchy has real potential, and would like to see it trialled at a limited scale. In any event, at some point a real challenger to democracy will emerge, and to make sure we’re ready for that day, we need to have a realistic appreciation of what democracy can and can’t do, and what it should and shouldn’t be used for.