Toward Better Democracy

The Greek people voted, fair and square, to receive more bailout money from Germany. If Chancellor Merkel does not accede, that means she lacks respect for “democratic values.” Obviously, the Germans don’t see it that way.

Buttonwood wrote a nice article on the limitations of democracy. You cannot vote to have manna fall from the sky (or Germany). Many economic factors lie outside a nation’s control. The best we can do is elect leaders who are competent to play the hand we are dealt, and honest enough to tell us where we stand (see President Superhero).

Jeremiah happened to be passing through Hong Kong at the time of the protests, and heard many cynical things said about democracy. One that stands out is the idea that people would begin voting for government handouts, and mighty Hong Kong would become a welfare state. No kidding – it was exactly like the famous (and apocryphal) quote from Professor Tytler.

The majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy.

Additional cynicism about democracy can be found in the Chinese press, or Chinese comments on Western news sites. We found this gem, below, among the comments on FT. Danny Quah quips that not all American elections are swayed by money – only 94% are.

Democracy is about giving the dictatorship mandate to the winner of a money backed popularity contest.

Those of us who would defend democracy, and especially those who would advocate democracy in other countries, need to be a little more discriminating in our arguments. We are used to thinking of democracy, freedom, and prosperity as a package deal. Jeremiah believes that there is synergy among the three, but the causal relationships are not clear cut.

Policy

Plenty of people would be willing to accept a dictatorship, as long as it delivered consistent improvements in their quality of life. This is basically the deal the Chinese Communist Party has. Many Americans are oblivious to the problems in our republic, for the same reason. They will sit up and take notice only as each one, individually, starts to feel the pinch.

The fatal problem with democracy is the fiscal one – people voting themselves largesse from the public purse – but we may dispossess our fellows in other ways, too. The majority may vote to rob from “the rich,” and rob from future generations. We may also vote to abridge the civil rights of any group that is a minority, from gays to atheists. This makes democracy the tyranny of the majority.

Democracy is also open to tampering. There is the obvious influence of money, and the fiendishly clever marketing it can buy. Domestic money is bad enough, plus we have illicit foreign money. We have incumbency bias, and gerrymandering. We have voter fraud. The mere ceremony of voting does not even deserve to be called “democracy,” witness the sham elections held by dictators around the world.

Accountability is all we ask of political leadership. Everything else is just narrative.

What we really want is freedom, and the rule of law. We accept democracy as a reasonably effective way to change leadership without the trouble of a revolution, which is what Danny Quah means when he says that “every government, every ruler, must be daily insecure.” He makes an intriguing argument that Western democracies are less accountable than the CCP.

So, in the spirit of removing the mote from our own eye, here are some ideas to make democracy safe for the world:

  • Representative democracy – As everyone knows, direct democracy is unworkable. That’s why we vote to elect legislators, who in turn vote to make laws.
  • Picked candidates – Hong Kong will have free elections, among four or five candidates picked by the CCP. Of course, no one elected the CCP. On the other hand, come 2016, we will have only two choices for president, and – who picked them?
  • Weaker executive – We should not be electing a dictator. America has only two parties because of the Manichean struggle to control the White House. Our executive branch has far more power than befits a “democracy.”
  • Restrict voting on fiscal matters – This would address the Tytler problem directly, and you can read it implicitly in Art. I, Sec. 2 of our Constitution. States that pay less tax, have fewer votes. For individuals, this could mean that if you are not paying taxes, you don’t get to vote on how taxes are spent.
  • Restrict advertising – Jeremiah would like to see political advertising banned from television. That would eliminate a big cost factor behind money politics. Even if people see the same stuff on YouTube, they would at least be more actively engaged.
  • Smaller scales – Chinese democrats, take note. Democracy doesn’t scale! People seem to have forgotten this since 1787. Nothing in our Constitution contemplates a national government. The States were intended to be sovereign. Most of our fiscal (and social) problems come from federal overreach.
  • Fewer elections – Limiting elected officials to a single term in office would prevent them trying to make a career of it, and avoid having to raise funds for reelection. Congressional terms might need to be increased, say, to six years.

The charm of democracy is the idea that each individual, making his mark in the voting booth, has some say in how we are governed. Rather than cling to the trappings and the rhetoric, we should start working on the reality.

See also: The People’s Ice Cream

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