19 December 2008

What Does Democracy Do?

There are three possible justifications for democracy (including representative democracy):
  1. The people, corporately, make good decisions (which I'll call the "kindergarten thesis");
  2. Election to office lends legitimacy from the sovereign people to our temporary leaders (the "Jeffersonian theis"); or
  3. We need to get our leaders somewhere and voting beats accident of birth or force of arms (the "black box thesis").
(We can also add the Bismark corollary, which says that it doesn't really matter how we choose our leaders because G-d's going to take care of us anyway, but I assume that it's obvious why the less we talk about that, the better.)

There's some truth to all of this, but each thesis has different policy implications. If the kindergarten thesis is right -- given the chance, the American people will do the right thing -- then we care about information flow and informed voters. We want to think about things like poll taxes or literacy tests, and we want to force the candidates to make public their specific plans. We care about campaign promises the same way we care about product warranties and fitness for a particular purpose. Parliamentary systems tend to follow this model.

In the Jeffersonian thesis, we're more interested in the people running for office than in what they plan to do. We want exposure to the candidates personality so that we can judge what kind of people they are, rather than their specific plans for specific problems. This is a pretty good positive description of the current system in which we make the candidates spend two years working long hard hours debating, eating corn dogs, giving speeches, going on Letterman, writing (or putting their name to) articles in Foreign Affairs, etc.

In the black box model, all we need as a decision. We don't have to know or care how that decision was arrived at. Random works fine, so long as all the actors agree to be bound by the decision. the black box thesis doesn't have much to say about the campaign, but it loves the Electoral College in which even a random and ambiguous close vote is translated into a clear win.

I find, as I get older, that I become more attracted to the black box thesis. Given that we need to have a president, for example, and that he needs to be the clear winner, an election is as good a way to choose him as any and better than most. At that point, retrospective sense making and our psychological need to see ourselves in control of our fate will kick in and we'll all agree that he is the legitimate leader, chosen by the Jeffersonian electorate. (And, if push comes to shove, G-d won't let anything too bad happen to us.)


Hey Skipper said...

The fourth justification for democracy is the periodic ability to throw the bums out without having to kill anyone.

Anonymous said...

I consider the best feature of democracy is superior error correction. It's not so much that The People make better decisions, but that when they make wrong decisions, these get changed on a shorter time scale than in alternative governing models. So it's not point 1, and it militates against 3 because the process matters – there isn't any feedback / accountability to drive the error correction in that model.


Harry Eagar said...

That's been my point about not arguing about paper money, slavery etc. amy more.

There is no way (experience suggests) to get a non-democratic government to fix anything.

Democracy also guarantees that the least powerful will have some say in government, which no other form does.

Anonymous said...

You have forgotten Churchill's defence, that democracy sucks, but is so much better than the alternatives.

There has been a lot of switching places politically between the left and right over the past couple of generations, a phenomenon I first noticed in 2003 when the left's opposition to the Iraq war was frequently couched in old fogey rationales one would have once expected from traditionalists(sanctity of international law, preserving traditional culture, not ready for democracy and freedom, etc.). In our grandfathers' day, conservatives tended to be leery of democracy, which they associated with selfish, irrational mobs shaking the plinth of civilization. That's one reason anti-Americanism used to be so common among European "throne and alter" conservatives. Since Reagan, it's become seen much more a conservative force for common sense and a brake on the designs of well-entrenched, unaccountable liberal elites. Think of Bush's re-election, Harper's election and all those Euros putting the brakes on the runaway EU train.

You see a lot of musings on leftist sites today about the ignorance of ordinary folks and a lot of thinly-veiled efforts to intellectually disenfranchise constituencies they used to champion. Is that not what the Palin saga was all about? It's a long road from The Grapes of Wrath to What's the Matter with Kansas?

Brit said...

Harry gets there before me - we mustn't forget JS Mill's point that good democracy is not about doing what the majority want.

It's about giving minorities, dissenters and oddballs a voice.

Anonymous said...

I find it strange that Mr. Eager comments as he does, because those are precisely the reasons for supporting free markets. There is also a strong parallel in the concepts of "The People make correct decisions" and "The market yields perfect results". If he can see the former, why not the latter?

erp said...



Didn't want to admit I couldn't break the code, but HELP. What does that combo of letters and numbers mean?

Anonymous said...

It's an internal database key. It shows up because Six Apart forced me to move from Typekey to Typepad for my OpenID. They claim that the problem isn't at their end, but then how did it work with Typekey? Someday it should get fixed. Maybe.