Thursday, June 28, 2007

Surfeit of Democracy

[posted by Callimachus]

Bryan Caplan is someone I wholly agree with -- half way. We both have great skepticism about unfettered democracy. That, far from being sacred, it is dangerous. Here's his version:

In our society, we are used to the idea that we should do whatever the majority wants. In fact, people often treat the majority opinion as the standard of both truth and value - how often have you heard a pundit say, "The American people want X" as if that were a sufficient reason to do it? I emphasize that popular policies can be very bad - and when they are, I don't see why we should give the American people what it wants.

However, he is an economist, and his alternative looks not toward the balancing power of the aristocracy or the states (the old American system), nor even toward any modern equivalent in the elite and educated. This economist wants to balance democracy with -- economists. Really, the problem is that, as an economist, he tends to see the national challenges as mostly economics ones.

Economists can often figure out ways to make markets work better, but the democratic process tends to adopt policies that makes markets work worse.

Well, my impression is that economists don't always agree and don't always get it right. I don't suppose putting them in charge of the economy would be any wiser than putting sociologists in charge of public education.

The consequences of the gradual democratization of America's original "mixed-government" system go a lot further than economics. A few posts back I pulled up a story from Dean Acheson's biography, about the difficult process of America supporting Tito in his break with Stalin in 1948, without appearing too cozy with the dictator, or making the dictator look like a lackey of the capitalists.

There's a coda to that story. Moving arms and aid to the communist dictator of Yugoslavia, to fend off an invasion, was a delicate process, since Congress had set so many hurdles up to ensure aid only went to free governments and capitalist economies. One of the key allies of the State Department in accomplishing this contortionist act was a South Carolina Democratic senator who headed a key committee.

But in the next electoral cycle, a primary challenger sprang up, drawing unfavorable comparisons between the amount of money the incumbent had helped move to Yugoslavia and the amount of pork he had managed to bring to the home district in the same period. And furthermore, the challenger demanded to know, who was this fellow Tito, and exactly what kind of government did he run.

The incumbent, whose seat had been cast-iron safe, barely survived the primary. After that he was much more hesitant to help the State Department implement policy.

When the Senate was given a large hand in foreign policy and treaty-making, in 1787, it was not to be a popularly elected Senate. Not necessarily, at any rate: The decision was up to the states, but it clearly was anticipated that senators would be appointed and answerable to the state capitols, not the whims of the voters, and this was how it generally happened. The Founders, in the debates over ratification of the Constitution, specifically defended this arrangement. It's why the Senate, not the House, was chosen to have this power.