Tag Archives: democracy

Allegiance to the Flag

Nationalism is on the march, and not only in America.  Britain wants to leave the EU, and Scotland wants to leave Britain.  Across Europe, nation states are erecting barriers as they come to disagree with immigrations policy made in Brussels.

It’s nice to see the nationalists have their day, if only because the globalists have been on top since the Clinton administration.  To be honest, nationalism has a poor record.  It is associated with ugly tendencies like xenophobia and war.  On the other hand, globalism is the enemy of democracy.

The larger any government’s span of control, the less responsive it is … and the sums available for graft are larger.

You can see undemocratic processes at work today in Brussels and Washington.  Now imagine if the whole world were ruled out of Davos.  The policies go by different names, but globalism is a coherent movement with its own leaders and institutions.  The Council on Foreign Relations thinks that Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. should be a single administrative unit.  That’s no secret.  They published a white paper, and then we got NAFTA.

It is important to understand the tension between globalism and nationalism.  President Obama is on the record as a globalist.  This is why he recently visited London and advocated for Britain to stay in the European Union.  It is also why The Economist always, always labels nationalist parties in Europe as “racist,” “neo-Nazi,” or at least “far right extreme.”

Jeremiah, as you know, eschews labels and generalizations.  There is a balance to be achieved between national sovereignty and global institutions.  Free trade, for example, has lifted millions out of poverty.  Even as Americans have lost jobs and earning power, we have gained access to cheap foreign goods.  The right balance is one struck by negotiation among self-interested leaders of sovereign states.

Democracy works better at smaller scales.  British voters can be reasonably confident of influencing policy in London.  In Brussels, not so much.  Not only immigrations policy, but monetary policy, environmental and trade regulation, and foreign policy are made there, “one size fits all,” for Europe.

The larger any government’s span of control, the less responsive it is.  Leaders are physically more distant, and the sums available for graft are larger.  The right solution is smaller units of government, delegating strictly limited responsibilities to a federal system – kind of like our Constitution.  Does anybody still read that?


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Zhiguo Pingtianxia

Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singapore, was cremated on Sunday. What Americans know of Mr. Lee from the news is that he took a small Asian country from kampong to skyscrapers in one generation – with an asterisk for being a dictator.

Mr. Lee was a master of so-called “Asian values,” in which the good of society takes precedence over the rights of the individual and citizens cede some autonomy in return for paternalistic rule.

Jeremiah, who has been to Singapore, was amused by the sour grapes subtext. Singapore’s GDP per capita is higher than ours, the streets are totally safe, and their subway stations are cleaner than our hospitals. In this post, however, we’ll try to be objective. We do this using two archived articles from Foreign Affairs, one for and one against Lee’s ideas.


The ever quotable Mr. Lee makes his case in this interview, despite skeptical framing from the interviewer. If you want to know where America went wrong, this is a good place to start. Here is Lee’s description of Asian values:

We were fortunate we had this cultural backdrop, the belief in thrift, hard work, filial piety and loyalty in the extended family, and, most of all, the respect for scholarship and learning.

The rebuttal from Kim Dae Jung argues that democracy, not culture, is a more reliable source of good government. Alas, the intervening twenty years have not been kind to Western democracy. We have seen our economy looted by various special interests, each having captured the agency that was supposed to be its supervisor, from the SEC to the FDA.

Kim writes that “Asian values” are self-serving, a smokescreen for authoritarianism. Today, the con job seems to be on other side. We hear about how exceptional our freedoms are, while the NSA reads our email and the IRS persecutes political opponents.

We no longer have the moral authority – as Kim did, writing in 1994 – to hold other governments up to our standard of democracy. We should be pondering how to remove the mote from our own eye, as Jeremiah does here. Therefore, we were intrigued by Lee’s idea that “one man, one vote,” might not be the answer.

We would have a better system if we gave every man over the age of 40 who has a family two votes because he’s likely to be more careful, voting also for his children.

This is a perfect example of Lee’s pragmatism – his willingness to consider how an idea will work in practice, whether or not it’s defensible in theory. Half a million people visited Lee’s coffin, waiting up to ten hours in line. That’s about ten percent of the population. He must have done something right.

See also: Asian Values

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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.


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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Safe for Democracy

As you may know, demonstrations are planned to demand free elections in Hong Kong. This seems to have popular support, and may be permissible under the Basic Law. Coverage in FT is mainly about tactics – should protesters blockade the Central financial district, or no?

Pro-democracy activists fear that even with open voting, the list of candidates will be dictated by Beijing.

Comments on the topic have tended toward a referendum on democracy itself, and the assorted evils of the West. Here are some highlights:

  • Democracy is a scam whereby the West can remove inconvenient leaders and replace them with stooges.
  • Elected leaders in the West are idiots.
  • The latest survey shows Chinese respondents have a high level of trust in their government, versus a sharp decline for America.
  • The West got rich through exploitation, not democracy.

Jeremiah is not the best spokesman for American foreign policy, but he would like to assure his Chinese readers that we are sincerely pretty cultish about democracy. Our leaders are idiots, as the comment says, and we elect them regularly. President Obama has said, “go win an election,” on several occasions, as if that were the wellspring of legitimacy. If democracy is a poison, we imbibe it ourselves.

Brain surgeons are not elected but they rise through their merits. So why should the stupid but popular … have the legitimacy to lead a nation?

Our enthusiasm for democracy goes all the way back to the Roman Republic – and Greece, the cradle of our civilization. We believe that democracies are less likely to wage war, at least among themselves, and history reinforces this. Of course, Rome degraded into a dictatorship, and Egypt elected Mohamed Morsi – but our faith in democracy is undimmed.

Jeremiah insists that the people must have a right to choose their leaders, although he sometimes wishes this right came with an IQ test. Also, the more a government is constrained by laws, rights, courts, activism, and the media – the better it can withstand the occasional idiot. This brings us to the central paradox of democracy or, as we say, “you get the government you deserve.”

The Hong Kong activists are energized, and likely to vote responsibly. When people must fight to vote, they take it seriously. We Americans, who vote in low numbers and for stupid reasons, are badly suited to a democracy.

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The Bottom Rung

FreedomThe Supreme Court is finally going to hear a challenge to California’s Proposition Eight, which explicitly forbids gay marriage.  Anti-gay activists say their law should stand, because it was duly enacted by majority vote.  Here is a civics lesson for both left and right.

Majority vote, or “democracy,” as they like to call it, is not the guardian of freedom.  In fact, the majority will always vote to deprive a minority of their rights.  This is precisely why we have the Supreme Court.

It is important for both sides to recognize this defect in democracy, and not trust it to resolve their disputes.  In this case, the right has an anti-gay majority.  We can just as easily see a majority vote to take away property rights, gun rights, abortion rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.  You can go straight down the Bill of Rights, and find a majority to vote against each one.

California is ungovernable because they have “direct democracy.”  Voters make law directly by referendum.  So, one day they vote never to raise taxes, and the next day they vote never to cut spending.  The solution is representative democracy, wherein the majority selects reliable people from each district to go to Sacramento and make laws on their behalf.

We like to think that an emerging country is “free” once they hold an election.  This belief does nothing but promote election fraud.  Does anybody really think Russia is free?  Egypt?  Freedom means civil rights, property rights, and the rule of law.  Democracy is a rung on the ladder of freedom, but it’s the bottom one.

See also:  2013 Index of Freedom

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Bashing Democracy in Maine

Tuesday’s vote against gay marriage was a setback for democracy.  The Wall Street Journal’s boast that gay marriage “has yet to win a popular vote” is especially dangerous.  Anyone with high-school civics knows that America is a representative democracy for a reason.

Popular vote is basically mob rule, and means that any minority can be disenfranchised.  So-called “direct democracy” has made California ungovernable.

Culture warriors on both sides are guilty of venue shopping.  This issue must be settled by the states, using the legislative process according to each state’s constitution.  The “patchwork” of state laws is not a reason for federal intercession.

America should expect to endure a period of pro- and anti-gay laws at the state level, until experience at that level settles into consensus.  In the meantime, state legislators must stand up and be counted.

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