04 July 2007

Views of Democracy

What do I think of democracy? I've been contradicting myself like mad recently, so I need to take stock.

The Mencius Moldbug theory, which I referred to this morning, is that democracy is something which the ruling caste wastefully pretend to be governed by. It has no substantive effect on policy, but carrying out the rituals helps to prevent the masses from rising against the permanent government.

I don't buy that. I don't really think that democracy is the "rule of the people", but I do think its effects can be underestimated. What in many cases produces the underestimate is the observation that elections rarely change anything significant. However, that would be the case even if democracy were working perfectly. Politicians in the modern age know pretty well what will get them elected and what won't, and therefore take the positions that will get them elected. The election, provided the politicians are acting sensibly, is a non-event. Looked at that way, it is a sign of the imperfection of the democratic system that elections have any effect at all.

So, we have some democracy. Good thing or bad thing?

I am going to be boringly conventional and say it is better than the alternatives I have come across. Mencius has not really explained his alternative: Abu Dhabi, Singapore and other port city-states are not necessarily replicable across real countries, and while I get that the enlightened self-interested despot would produce an open, free, high-economic-growth society that he could extract the maximum tax revenue from, I don't see how he would prevent his subjects using their freedom to try to grab his loot. I don't think today's AR-15 vs armour comparison really covers the difficulty of holding onto power without a highly militarised police state. I stand by what I wrote here last year: The biggest cost (in the widest sense) of any political system is that which it expends in preventing its overthrow.

So if democracy is a necessary expense for a society free enough to have a really good economy, what about the story today that repressed societies are growing faster? Well, I agree with Tyler Cowen that they are not yet at the level of productivity that would be inconsistent with their lack of freedom. That is, I am claiming that repression limits productivity more than does freedom, not growth.

It still remains to decide whether - given that democracy is just part of the overhead cost of freedom - we should have lots of democracy, or just a minimum. This morning I was arguing for a minimum, but in the past I have asked for more than we actually have currently in the UK. Bryan Caplan claims that the US government follows better economic policy than it would if it actually obeyed public opinion.

I'm not sure. I suppose that despite the undemocratic features in the UK that I've complained about, the actual policies I object to are not ones that are opposed by the large mass of public opinion, and so more democracy would not actually help.

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