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The 90 Percent Solution to Democracy?

Now is a fortuitous time to release a book titled 10% Less Democracy. Released soon before the coronavirus threw the world into turmoil, the current pandemic and recession provide the perfect natural experiment to test Garrett Jones’ thesis: that by carefully ceding some of our electoral power to the experts, we can get better results without losing the blessings of liberty. Recent events appear to have both vindicated the arguments of this brief but insightful book, and exposed their limitations.

Jones, an economist at George Mason University, comes neither to praise democracy nor to bury it, at least not unqualifiedly. Like other libertarian critiques, such as Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter and Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy, the book ditches the flowery paeans to look at “actually existing democracy,” warts and all. Too often, “democracy” gets a free pass, with partisans of any and every position invoking it to justify their cause. Jones, in contrast, sees it as only a partial good: democracy doesn’t deserve the chopping block, but it does need a tighter leash.

For Jones, democracy is all about trade-offs between voter participation and policy outcomes. Modifying Arthur Laffer’s famous graph putatively showing how tax rates affect government revenue, Jones imagines a “Laffer curve for democracy,” depicting the relationship between the level of democracy and the quality of its public policies. A little democracy goes a long way: even minimal doses insure a nation against disasters like famines and domestic massacres. But once we pass the “sweet spot,” more democracy rapidly leads to worse outcomes. Jones’ goal is to show how prudently curtailing democracy—decimating it only in the precise meaning of the term—could bring us closer to that sweet spot.

To that end, Jones provides a number of case studies on democracy’s effects on governance and policy. He starts with the relationship between the frequency of elections and politicians’ behavior. Voters have short memories, basing their opinions on only the recent past. Senators have caught on, increasing home-state spending in the last two years of their terms. By backloading the pork-barrel spending, they ensure that voters heading to the polls remember who brought home the bacon. As elections approach, politicians also tend to move further from the consensus among economists and toward the misguided views of the public. Jones concludes that with longer terms, we’d have braver politicians, less beholden to constituents and more committed to good economics.

The following chapters consider a variety of policy issues with a consistent method: summarize the research illustrating the follies of the great unwashed and the wisdom of the professionals, propose reforms to transfer power from the former to the latter, and stress that such reforms would hardly bother us. For such a short book, 10% Less Democracy covers a lot of wonky ground: central bank independence, the European Union, judicial appointments, and even voting eligibility, to name a few. Jones has a conversational style, making the book an enjoyable read even when he is explaining the intricacies of sovereign bondholders or telecom regulation.

What Democracy Already Lost

Amid all these topics, a surprising absence is the administrative state, about which Jones would surely have provocative thoughts. Elected officials delegating authority to agencies staffed by unelected bureaucrats seems like a textbook case of scaling back democracy; indeed, the administrative state’s metastasis over the last century suggests that we have already cut back democracy by a few percentage points. But the evidence in this case hardly comes out in Jones’ favor. Research from the Mercatus Center, where Jones is a senior research fellow, has estimated that federal regulations have slowed economic growth by an average of .8 percent annually since 1980, and that U.S. GDP in 2012 would have been roughly 25 percent larger had regulations plateaued in 1980. Similar work on federal regulations going back to 1949 has found an even greater economic drag. It would have been enlightening to see Jones consider this counterexample, where transferring power to unaccountable agents has been no economic success story.

In any case, the many subjects Jones does cover reveal a rather narrow conception of democracy. It is simply a decision-making procedure to settle questions of public policy—rather than, say, a form of intrinsically valuable self-expression, or a public recognition of every person’s dignity. Jones takes an admirably clear-sighted and empirical approach to democracy: where it works, leave it; where it doesn’t, hand the reins over to the experts. Such a truncated approach, however, has its weaknesses as well as its strengths, most notably a rather crude utilitarianism. Jones appears to think that technical questions of economic policy are the only matters that governments face. Noting William F. Buckley’s famous preference to be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard, he quips that he would take MIT’s engineering faculty over either.

It’s one of many good lines throughout the book, but such a Comtean view of society can be as dangerous as it is mistaken. Seeing every challenge as merely a great economic puzzle, in need of an economist-king to solve for the societal equilibrium, has been the first step towards much worse than the erosion of democracy over the last two centuries. The most insightful economist on the dangers of intellectuals, Friedrich Hayek, warned that “nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist.” Contra Jones, nobody can be a great politician, either, who is only an economist.

Jones might say in response that this is all perfectly true, and irrelevant. After all, he only wants 10 percent less democracy, and perhaps all the democratic trimming belongs in the economics department. But this would be difficult to square with his own arguments for restricting voting rights, as elections and referenda concern far more than economic policy. The limits of economics’ importance for democracy is particularly clear in one of Jones’ own cases, that of the EU. Jones may be correct that joining the EU largely helps a country’s economy, but it seems unlikely that Brexit could have been prevented had people only recognized their economic interests. Resentment against the EU is in many cases not about economics at all, but is rather a matter of precisely the kind of diminished sense of self-government that Jones advocates. A blunt economic utilitarianism simply doesn’t have the explanatory power Jones asks of it.

Staying in Our Lane

Nevertheless, as an exercise in thinking on the margin, Jones’ approach remains largely sound. Asking how to make things a little better is the stuff progress is made of. And as long we have bureaucrats—and let’s hope we always have at least some—we should want good ones with the authority to perform their jobs well. Together, Jones’ arguments make a compelling case: “[W]hen it’s crucial to get the technical details right and when the policy debate is less about values and more about facts and competent execution, that’s likely a good opportunity to delegate power to unelected bureaucrats.”

This sentiment seems even more reasonable at the moment, given the extraordinary complexity of a dual pandemic and recession. An early, decisive effort to nip the coronavirus in the bud, led by accomplished public health experts, might have prevented much of the misery and chaos of recent months. Indeed, Jones argued in March for a panel of experts, rather than politicians, making all the major decisions regarding the shutdown. In light of the mixed bag that has been our policy response, it’s difficult not to appreciate the importance of experts who stay in their lane.

Maximizing democracy, equality, or anything else, at the expense of everything else, will take a nation to the dangerous tails of the political Laffer Curve. The ideal regime, in contrast, will contain elements of both democracy and oligarchy.

The problem, however, is that experts often do not stay in their lane. Intellectuals have a tendency to convince themselves that mastery of one subject entails mastery of all. This can lead them to contaminate discussions on matters outside their specialty, or to use their expertise as a cover for their own priorities. To make matters worse, the harm often only becomes apparent long after they have left the scene of the crime. As Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society illustrates, “experts” can get a matter completely wrong and never have to pay for it.

Nothing more perfectly illustrates the danger of experts on the loose than many elites’ endorsement of recent mass protests. In June, the New York City Council’s Health Committee Chair tweeted, “Let’s be clear about something: if there is a spike in coronavirus cases in the next two weeks, don’t blame the protesters. Blame racism.” Is this a case of the aloof expert clarifying causal relationships, or of someone abusing his authority to push an agenda? When public health experts turn a blind eye to, or even openly endorse, mass protests, while insisting on only the smallest of funerals and religious services, it is clear we’re not dealing with the sober technocrats Jones rightly admires. He concedes the risk of “experts as window dressing,” but such a great danger deserves proportionate attention.

A second concern is that even the most honest expert must bring to his subject an understanding of what goal to pursue. A brilliant crew can bring the ship of state to its destination, but someone must decide where to sail. It cannot be technique all the way down; we need prudence, too.

For example, consider Jones’ proposal for an Independent Tax Board, which would design a more rational tax system, free from the pernicious, or just misguided, interference of politicians and voters. As a technical field, where so much of the challenge is simply getting the facts straight, tax policy surely fits Jones’ criteria as well as anything could for a subject deserving expert control. And many of our tax code’s flaws are clearly the result of legislators and constituents prioritizing short-term, private gains over public, long-term costs. How could it not benefit from being run by the experts? Yet even here, countless “values” considerations arise: how to balance growth and redistribution, whether to make future generations pay for our present consumption, whether a product deserves a sin tax, and so on. These are properly political questions, and even the most proficient calculators could not escape them. Jones provides many insights into how governments can pursue their values but is largely silent on how a political system both determines and reflects those values.

It thus comes as a surprise when, in the final pages, Jones moves beyond technocratic management to political theory. He sees his arguments as continuing the distinguished lineage of defenses of the mixed regime, or as he puts it, “government-by-casserole.” Whereas much of modern political theory seeks to identify the single just form of political order, figures such as Aristotle, Polybius, and Machiavelli understood that every type of regime involves trade-offs. Maximizing democracy, equality, or anything else, at the expense of everything else, will take a nation to the dangerous tails of the political Laffer Curve. The ideal regime, in contrast, will contain elements of both democracy and oligarchy.

It appears, then, that despite the preeminence Jones gives to technocrats, we need statesmen, too, to balance conflicting political goods and to keep both aristoi and hoi polloi in their proper place. In this light, Jones’ philosophy, if not all of his specific proposals, attains a new sophistication and sobriety. “By combining good theory and modern empirical methods,” we can achieve “one giant leap for good institutional reform.” At its best, 10% Less Democracy uses modern social science to vindicate ancient wisdom.

Reader Discussion

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on August 13, 2020 at 10:06:55 am

"“[W]hen it’s crucial to get the technical details right and when the policy debate is less about values and more about facts and competent execution, that’s likely a good opportunity to delegate power to unelected bureaucrats.”

This sentiment seems even more reasonable at the moment, given the extraordinary complexity of a dual pandemic and recession. An early, decisive effort to nip the coronavirus in the bud, led by accomplished public health experts, might have prevented much of the misery and chaos of recent months. Indeed, Jones argued in March for a panel of experts, rather than politicians, making all the major decisions regarding the shutdown. In light of the mixed bag that has been our policy response, it’s difficult not to appreciate the importance of experts who stay in their lane."
1) I am reminded of the the response of a pol to the suggestion that he "Stay in his Lane." he readily agreed but indicated that HIS lane had no lines. Evidence would suggest that the "experts" herein praised by both the essayist and the author subscribe to this definition of "lane."
2) It is abundantly clear that the "experts" do no, will not and can not, at this time, agree on what the epidemiological AND empirical facts / reality of the ChiComm Flu actually are / indicate.
3) Why would one suppose that those same "experts" who have labored in relative, if not near absolute anonymity for decades would not now enjoy the spotlight and make all manner of unfounded / speculative and dire predictions about outcomes and all carefully constructed to emphasize the experts very special "expertise." A case may be made that this is precisely what we have observed with the photo-op seeking Dr Fauci. One could be forgiven for suspecting that the illustrious, loquacious and lugubrious Fauci may also have taken politics into consioderation. Again, Fauci and the other "experts", including State Level Health officials and Governors appear unable to recognize the "lines" defining their lanes.
4) It becomes obvious with the ChiComm Flu that the "10% Less Democracy" envisioned by the author soon devolves into an almost complete loss of liberty as evidenced by the policy recommendations proposed and put into practice by these same "experts." Schools, Churches, businesses, sports and other elements of a functioning society have been denied to the citizenry by these same "experts."
Would our essayist really consider this to be 10% less democracy?

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gabe
on August 13, 2020 at 11:35:24 am

The real problem is being ignored. It is the administrative state which has no constitutional authority and yet actively determines the course of almost all economic and social activity. It is at its core anti-democratic, although it has been constructed and bolstered by people and factions claiming to desire the advance of democracy.

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RWIsrael
on August 14, 2020 at 10:21:53 am

Not sure there is "no constitutional authority" for what the agencies do, but clearly there is also a clear violation with delegation of legislating to the executive branch. Sometime past I read a suggestion that much (half or more?) of the executive agency staffs should in fact be staffed to the Congress rather than the executive branch. Then their expertise could be incorporated into the laws directly and also provide for better accountability via congressional elections. Staffers moving around to different assignments would also broaden their knowledge and perspective, presumably to the benefit of their legislative suggestions.

Passing Obamacare and other "laws" that have not actually been read and understood also suggests to me that our legislators should be required to certify that they have actually read the legislation they approve (something our founders probably never thought would be a requirement for the more modest law making they envisioned). I might not require legislators to certify they have read the legislation they vote against, but really the requirement should apply even there, or how do we know they are really doing the job we elected them to do.

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R2L
on August 14, 2020 at 10:04:24 am

" ... illustrious, loquacious and lugubrious" are you in competition with George Will as wordsmith extraordinaire? :-)
But given the nature and content of maybe half of the L&L essays/reviews, perhaps L&L = loquacious and lugubrious after all.

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R2L
on August 14, 2020 at 10:29:39 am

"...are you in competition with George Will as wordsmith extraordinaire? :-)"

OMG, NO!
I could at least "hit the ball out of the infield."

Luvv'd it!

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gabe
on August 13, 2020 at 11:21:28 am

Again, as to experts:

Here is a critique of the ChiComm flu modeling for the State of Colorado. I would add that the model for Minnesota was subject to equally valid and similar critiques. BUT, "The Experts" created these; thus, we must agree to limit our liberties. Apparently, it will be more (and was intended tobe more) than 10%.

"How could Polis have such faith in a model? Well, primarily because it is never wrong — in fact, it’s designed that way. The model predicts outcomes that range from no one needing a hospital bed to everyone needing one. Then, whatever number of hospitalizations occurs, the model spits out a social distancing value that Coloradans must have been practicing to cause such numbers. Since social distancing is hard, if not impossible, to quantify for the entire state, the relationship between social activity and hospitalizations assumed in the model is never questioned, rendering the model de facto infallible.

The Samet model Polisis using is, in essence, a modern-day equivalent of making human sacrifices to gain favor with the gods. If it doesn’t rain, the ancient modelers would simply say there weren’t enough sacrifices. Today’s modelers simply say there wasn’t enough social distancing. Neither system questions the claimed underlying cause-and-effect relationship."
From today's Federalist:
https://thefederalist.com/2020/08/13/insane-model-means-colorados-covid-19-policies-are-essentially-based-on-tarot-cards/

And we are expected, encouraged to accept guidance from such experts, all of whom have been not simply wrong but incalculably wrong.

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gabe
on August 13, 2020 at 15:28:35 pm

So true.

https://www.google.com/search?q=hospital+monitary+loss+due+to+Covid+19&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&hl=en-us&client=safari

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Nancy
on August 14, 2020 at 10:59:39 am

The intent of a top notch liberal arts education was to expose students to examples of critical thinking and demand they develop some felicity in doing such analyses themselves. My view is that would have to include courses in logic and math up to at least a solid introduction to statistics, as well as a decent exposure to science, in addition to the more "mushy" history, political philosophy, or other social sciences. Tough requirements for good writing in all subjects, as well as good thinking, should also be obvious (witness Michelle Obama's Princeton thesis vs. Amy Wax's review essay from a few days ago).

As a scientist/ engineer I used to believe that math and science were the hard subjects (and pat myself on the back for having some ability in that direction). Only as I got older and wiser have I come to realize that they are really the easier subject paths (at least for those so inclined), since the experimental variables are also easier to control, thus improving the certainty and reality of any proposed output. The social sciences were "easy", except actually developing and achieving situations where all applicable human variables (biology, psychology, environment/ nurture, personal history, etc.) have been adequately controlled is extremely difficult. We would probably be better off having fewer larger studies (with 10,000 plus participants?) with better planning and providing the level of execution resources actually needed for reliable conclusions. The current multitude of smaller and lower quality examples clog up the literature and social fields today, without truly advancing our level of knowledge.

For example, the Head Start program sounds like a really good investment for us to have made/make; but why exactly has it failed to achieve its promise? Should it be scrapped or is there an adjustment that can be made to improve results? In contrast, the more technical subject as to just how effective are masks and which mask design is best should have been available to us within two weeks of the start of the Covid pandemic. We already knew what was desirable practice to minimize flu transmission and a similar protocol for Covid was obvious, even if the exact level of relative infectiousness was still being learned.

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R2L
on August 13, 2020 at 11:43:45 am

Gabe has nailed it.

We already have "government by experts," and it's been an 80-year-long disaster characterized by systematic error, uncontrollable waste, gross inefficiency, appalling hubris, destructive over-regulation of the economy, dolorous loss of liberty, unstoppable empire-building, and creation of a supra-constitutional, unaccountable, uncontrollable, Frankensteinian fourth branch of government.

We do have too much democracy, the answer to which is not more experts but recognition that we are a constitutional republic, not a bureaucratic democracy. We need more the moral restraint of constitutional republicanism and less the aggrandizement of bureaucratic democracy. We can start by repealing the 17th and 22d Amendments, imposing Congressional term limits, raising the voting age for federal elections to 21, imposing federal voter ID, eliminating the legislative and judicial powers of the Administrative State and sharply reducing the size of the Administrative State (thereby forcing Congress and the courts to perform, not delegate, their constitutional duties,) banning unions for federal workers and making all federal employees subject to removal by the president.

Just for starters!

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paladin
on August 13, 2020 at 17:09:56 pm

Did you mistake the 22nd Amendment for the 23rd?

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Michael Timmer
on August 13, 2020 at 17:44:39 pm

Nope!
Limiting a successful president to two terms prevents needed constitutional republican reform by not allowing the time needed to move Congress and shape the judiciary. A failed president is unlikely to be re-elected a third time. The 22d was a Republican over-reaction to the FDR anomaly. The country would have benefitted from a 3rd term by recent successful presidents, like Eisenhower and Reagan. Had Watergate not stopped Nixon, a 3rd election would have b/c of Vietnam. Recent failed presidents like W Bush and Obama were unlikely to get a third term. Clinton may have, and that would be an exception to my rule.

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paladin
on August 14, 2020 at 09:55:23 am

I like most of your suggestions for alternative or improved approaches to our governance, but if term limits should be removed to keep a good president while still allowing us to remove mediocre ones, why wouldn't the same view apply to Congress? Trying to find a balance between someone serving for 8 to 16 years (enough time to do some good and really learn/know the ropes and the players) vs. someone in office for 24 to 36 years (almost a lifetime appointment and an invitation to corruption), I thought maybe a super-majority requirement might be a solution, as for example:

Representatives: serve up to 4 terms with a 50% majority, then progressively add (say) 4% to the fraction of voters voting for them to win an election (5th term = 54%, 6th term = 58%, etc.). I would also raise the minimum age to 32 or even 35; also a maximum age between 75 and 80, given today's modern medical advances.

Senators: (given their longer terms) serve 2 terms, then add 10% to the voting threshold per election (3rd term at 60%, 4th term at 70%, etc.). Also a minimum age of 40, max of 75-80.

President: 2 terms, then add 5% for 3rd term, 10% for 4th term, and stop there. Increase minimum age to 50 (or even 55) to match the equivalent in life experience and responsibilities in 2020 that someone might have had at age 35 in 1820. Max age also 75-80, but a slightly lower level might be valid given the extreme stresses of the job.

SCOTUS: term limit after 18 to 24 years, due to possible mental decline and changes in overall societal outlook. Minimum age of 50.

This would also encourage qualified challengers to take on a longer time incumbent when the threshold to winning is higher. Devil = details, as always.

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R2L
on August 15, 2020 at 09:05:47 am

Hmmm! I like the concept. But injecting mathematics into Article I term limits may be politically unexplainable, given the fingers and toes mathematical limits of Congress. I like the age limits, although I would enable a president, judge or justice (not a Member of Congress) who can pass a mental acuity test to exceed them. ( I would support a mental acuity test and a C grade in Econ 101 for Congressional eligibility. This would have barred AOC and Pelosi.)
I would make registered Democrats ineligible for public office, for any position in a school or university which receives public funds, and, perhaps, for voting (at least, more than once per election.)

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paladin
on August 13, 2020 at 15:41:37 pm

As to what experts? Why are they still in charge of the data?
https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/event201/about

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Nancy

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.