Insight: Democracy as simplicity, for better or worse

by Alan Cohen

Paul Arora has a very nice comment under my vegetable mandate post, but it touches on another subject, so I thought I’d use it as a starting point for a new post:

“The argument FOR simplicity in the political system is that in a participatory democracy many many very complex issues have to be digested by the electorate and choices made. You could (and many people have) make a doctoral thesis around the economics of corn prices. The average voter will not have the time nor interest to dig into the details of ALL issues so best to present it like a menu of simple choices so everyone can participate (Andrew Potter uses the analogy of corporate branding to simplify political choice: vintage vs. new wave; quality vs thrift). The argument AGAINST simplicity is clear: VERY important issues get lost in the details and each issue can be framed to skew support to one view (government must fund the military vs. government funding for health care will be inefficient). Does this just end with the quip about democracy being the worst political system except all the others?”

I think this hits the nail right on the head. The corporate branding example is new to me, but these sorts of ideas have been on my mind for a while. I’m not sure I can improve much on Paul’s summary, but here are a few additional thoughts:

1) In the end, democracy is not about good government at all. It’s about having a failsafe mechanism to prevent worst-case scenarios: rejection at the polls of any government that is too authoritarian or too inefficient. But, because of the simplifications that inevitably happen, it also rules out best-case scenarios.

2) Most (all?) modern democracies also include a large cadre of government workers who are experts in specific areas of policy such as corn prices, and many of these workers stay in power through changes of government. In sum, these bureaucrats have a lot of power, and this provides a stabilizing counterbalance to the vicissitudes of electoral fortune and the ignorance of the public on the details of specific issues. But many policies (including corn prices, if I’m right) are fixed directly by elected officials. The amount of power held by the bureaucrats varies across countries (I think it’s particularly high in Japan). One could study (and someone probably has) the effectiveness of government as a function of proportion of power held by bureaucrat vs. the electorate.

3) I think in many areas of life, our standards have risen with modernity. 200 years ago, you used to go to the doctor for an amputation, not for a minor skin rash. Many of the protections for the accused in the US constitution were intended to prevent the worst abuses, not to ensure that every trial would be completely fair. And in this context, democracy was a huge improvement. Now, we in developed countries have been so successful at improving so many aspects of life (god forbid that the supermarket should ever run out of carrots!) that the inefficiencies of democracy seem less tolerable. But of course no one has a better idea…

4) Democracy may not be all that important in the developed world. Government almost always rests on some form of popular consent, whether or not it is democratic, and the standards expected by modern populations are high enough that even an autocratic government would be forced to maintain the efficient functioning of the economy and government services or risk overthrow. I think we are starting to see this in China, where the growing middle class is educated and worldly enough to start imposing feedback mechanisms on government accountability without elections. China tries to slow or stifle this with censorship, but I believe it is a losing battle. If the Chinese public is successful, this system gives China a huge advantage on the international stage: the ability to craft coherent policy that is coordinated across fields like energy, agriculture, environment, and foreign policy. And to do so quickly. Still, it is not clear how stable this is, and I’m far from ready to try such an approach!

5) I think our recognition of the limits of democracy is tied into the rise of behavioural economics. Just as we now realize that individual consumers are not fully rational actors, and even in aggregate often behave irrationally, the same can be said of voters. So could behavioural economics theory be used to craft better laws on elections and electioneering? Perhaps, if countries such as the US were not so mired in their worship of preserving the precise political system of 200 years ago…

That’s more than enough for now. Comments please!

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