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Why Democracy Is Not Sacred

Tuesday, November 8, 2016 9:09
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We live in the era of democratic triumphalism. Democracy is a sacred value, voting a civic sacrament. To paraphrase Auberon Herbert, we no longer see kings as majestic, but we imbue every voter with a share of kingly majesty. Most Americans regard universal, equal suffrage as necessary to express the idea that all people have equal worth. They regard democracy as an end in itself. We may criticize democracy, but to suggest we experiment with an alternative is sacrilege.

Here’s a different take. Democracy has the kind of value a hammer has, nothing more. It’s a pretty good hammer, too. Empirically, democracies do a better job protecting civil and economic liberty and promoting general prosperity than other existing forms of government. Still, if democracy is nothing more than a hammer, we should feel free to use a better tool, if we can find one. No one insists on using a hammer when a wrench works better.

The central problem with democracy is that it “works.” Politicians and bureaucrats have significant power to do as they please, but they also answer to the people. To win elections, politicians push agendas that appeal to voters. But 65 years of research finds that voters are systematically misinformed about both the basic facts (crime and unemployment rates, who controls Congress and what they did in power, etc.) and about the social scientific knowledge needed to make sense of those facts. Voters advocate policies they would not advocate if they were better informed. They wield their power incompetently, and we all suffer the consequences: more war, overly punitive criminal sentencing, trade barriers, counterproductive welfare policies, and the like.

Voters aren’t stupid; they just don’t care. Since individual votes make no difference, voters have no incentive to correct mistaken beliefs, and every incentive to indulge their worst biases and delusions. Imagine a professor in a 210 million-person class told her students she’ll average their final exam grades together and give them all the same grade. Students wouldn’t bother to study; the average grade would be an F. That’s how democracy works.

My middle school civics teacher told me democracy rests on the consent of the governed. She was wrong. Even in democracy, our relationship to the government is not consensual. In a consensual relationship, yes means yes, no means no. For government, your no means yes. Try telling a cop arresting you for marijuana possession that you voted against the law. Regardless of whether you vote or how you vote, the same laws apply to you anyway. We can’t even say that we tacitly consent to the law by choosing to live in our country. Most of us lack the right to move elsewhere.

Some philosophers claim that democracies give citizens autonomous control over their government. That’s misleading. It’s true that the collective majority has significant power, but no individual within that majority (or the minority) has any significant power. Democracy empowers groups, not individuals. For each of us, had we stayed home or voted the other way, the same outcome would have occurred. Stripping you of the right to vote doesn’t reduce your autonomy; giving you the right to vote doesn’t increase it.

Many philosophers extol the symbolic value of democracy. The great left-liberal philosopher John Rawls claimed that justice requires democracy because non-democratic systems communicate that some people are better than others. This hurts people’s self-esteem and social standing. It’s a strange claim, but Rawls is on to something. The Nazis made Jews wear Stars of David as a public badge signaling their inferiority. In Western liberal democracies, we use the right to vote to express the opposite message, that we consider certain people full and equal members of society.

Sure, we treat the right to vote this way. But it’s not written into the fabric of the universe that the right to vote has that meaning. It’s easy to imagine a society made of people, well, like me. Imagine a society where politics had no special status, and where lacking the right to vote carried no further stigma than lacking a plumbing license carries in our world. We can debate whether plumbing licenses are a good idea on economic grounds, but no one thinks that plumbing licenses separate society into superior and inferior classes. Lacking a plumbing license doesn’t lessen my social standing. We could think the same way about voting rights; we just don’t. The “expressive meaning” of the right to vote is merely a contingent social construct.

Social constructs can, and sometimes should, be changed. Suppose we discovered that sound vibrations caused by saying “Go to hell!” somehow cured cancer. We would change the meaning of the words. We would make “Go to hell!” an informal greeting. We wouldn’t insist that saying “Go to hell!” must express contempt.

What if we also discovered certain alternatives to democracy (such as polycentric legal orders, lotteries, betting markets, or systems that allocate voting rights according to knowledge) produced better, more efficient and just, laws? We could insist that these systems are evil because they inherently express contempt for some citizens. Or we could instead say that this system is morally superior to democracy, and that there’s no reason to treat the right to vote as anything more significant than a plumbing license. We could, and should, change the meaning attached to the right to vote. Politics is not a poem.

Now, whether any such systems would work better is an empirical question. Still, most political scientists and economists refuse to even consider them, because they too are entranced by the symbolic value of democracy.

The right to vote is not like other liberal rights. The right of free speech gives individuals power over themselves. Voting rights give the majority power over everyone. The only thing that could justify democracy is if no other system does a better job protecting our rights and promoting prosperity. Democracy is a hammer, nothing more. It has built-in defects. It’s time to start considering alternatives.


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