The Cynical Case for Democracy

The latest New Yorker contains a review-essay of Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy, Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance, and Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter. This essay is described by  of the Marginal Revolution as “fair, knowledgeable, and informative”.

I agree with Tabarrok; the review provides an excellent outline of the avenues one can use to criticize our cherished form of government. Many of these criticism predate the American government, were explored in depth in classical political thought, and loomed large in the minds of America’s founders. Political thought since then has elaborated criticisms. There are many policy domains where democracy at least seems uniquely bad.

For example, take foreign policy. This piece, by T. Greer, is good enough that I will quote it at length.

Strategists and analysts often wish American policies were grounded in a sophisticated strategic vision implemented by a cadre of disinterested statesmen who have a nuanced understanding of the world and its doings. This is a fantasy. America is a democracy. Its statesmen must justify their actions to the masses on a set electoral time table. Top level bureaucrats are mostly chosen for partisan reasons. Important foreign policy decisions usually have more to do with value signalling on the domestic stage than a sober assessment of American interests on the international one. Leaders in both the executive and the legislative branches surround themselves with aids and hanger-ons with no special expertise or experience in foreign affairs. For basic economic reasons (which I have explained before), few Americans learn foreign languages. The American media do not care very much about foreign affairs, and the issues they do care about are given attention disproportionate to their import. These journalists, like almost all Americans, are appallingly ignorant of the history, religious traditions, and cultural quirks of foreign peoples. Policy must be filtered through layers of unresponsive bureaucracy, and the various agencies that implement these policies are poorly coordinated. To top if off, senior policy officials do not read books.

To these enduring elements of American politics we must add the distinctive features of the present moment: a divided, hyper-partisan federal government so severely gridlocked that long term planning is not possible; falling budgets that sharply constrain American activity abroad; and a wild upsurge in populist fervor that focuses political attention inward and demands simplicity from all candidates who wish to win over the masses.

We may lament these realities, but they are realities. They will not change in the short-term. Some may never change at all. Any successful strategy for America must be a strategy that can be created, sustained, and implemented in this system.

Note that this was written in October of 2015, many months before it would be vindicated tenfold by a particular orange man with a platform of “build the wall”, “take the oil”, and “bomb them into the stone age”.

I don’t think anybody can deny that democracy has really profound weaknesses, so I won’t to argue the point.

Rather, I wanted to briefly offer a minimal justification for democracy. It is cynical, but then, most “minimal” justifications are. Simply, I think democracy is the only form of government where the people who could conceivably lead a popular uprising, with all of the violence and pain these things entail, do not have an incentive to do so.

The logic is roughly this: winning an election and leading a popular uprising require a similar skill sets- charisma, resources, political talent. The difference is that it’s a lot easier to convince people to check your name in a box on election day than it is to convince them to take up arms, march into battle, and risk death and dishonor to overthrow the government on your behalf.

There may have been figures in American politics who had the wherewithal to accomplish the latter. But they had no incentive to try, because their skill, charisma, and resources- the very things that would give them a credible shot at overthrowing the government- would also make it incredibly easy for them to achieve power through electoral politics. Put another way, if a figure with presidential aspirations couldn’t handily win a somewhat fair election, it would not bode well for their ability to lead a popular revolt.

All of this hinges on the fact that self-interested, ambitious, power-craving plotters in the United States look at the world and decide that their best interests are served by playing the game by the rules that are set up- and all this requires is that our institutions aren’t obviously rigging elections, and that spoils of elections are real enough to be coveted.

Democracy gives the ambitious and the powerful a battlefield where blood is spilled very rarely, and in small quantities. It may also give us other things, but this alone is enough reason to defend it. To bring it back to the review in the New Yorker,

Maybe voting is neither commons nor market. Perhaps, instead, it’s combat. Relatively gentle, of course. Rather than rifles and bayonets, essentially there’s just a show of hands. But the nature of the duty may be similar, because what Brennan’s model omits is that sometimes, in an election, democracy itself is in danger.


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