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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.

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