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Democratic Persuasion and the Weakness of Social Democracy

Let me stipulate that Russia tried to interfere with our election. It did so by playing up crude conspiracy theories and disseminating false facts. It is not as clear that it changed a very large number of votes. The kind of people who might be persuaded by such interventions may well be looking for confirmation rather than enlightenment.

But insofar as voters were persuaded by these not so sophisticated lies, the Russian intervention raises questions about the nature of democracy and what it can be expected to accomplish. It is not as if stamping out Russian interference will get rid of false claims and conspiracy theories. Much more plausible falsehoods and conspiracy accusations have been a staple of campaigns since the beginning of the republic. The idea that media gatekeepers ever kept them out is fanciful. And beyond actually false statements, many elections turned on issues that any reasonable person would consider irrelevant with the perspective of a decade or two. Defending two small islands off Taiwan featured prominently in the 1960s campaign, but few could locate them on a map a decade later.

That democratic persuasion consists in no small part of falsehoods, half truths, and irrelevancies suggests that we should entertain only modest expectations for what democracy can deliver. To be sure, democracy can function in what political scientists call a protective role, like like it has played for much of American history. Under this conception, democracy is simply a mechanism that assures that government interventions will not be used to advantage a distinctive class of rulers. Democracy diffuses some power of governance throughout society so that politics will not interfere with sources of real happiness — exchanges within the market and the family. The genius of the United States Constitution was to create additional protections beyond democracy through individual rights and limitations of the power of the national government. State and local democracy then could undertake ambitions beyond that of protective democracy, but if their schemes backfired, people could exit to other places in the large republic.

But the frailties of democratic persuasion raise more serious questions for a more modern conception of democracy, so-called social democracy, particularly when conducted at the national level. Social democracy posits that democracy should be the forum in which we engage in central planning for a better society. But few have the time and many lack the ability to evaluate the complexities of social democratic proposals.

The modern administrative state promises one possible solution to this problem by giving bureaucrats, not the representatives of the voters, responsibility for all but the broadest outlines of social planning. But delegation does not eliminate the problem of democratic evaluation. Any society has a budget line and voters must decide what priorities to pursue in reforming society — itself a complex decision.

And even if the administrative state tempers the problem of democratic evaluation it creates other difficulties, not the least the empowering of class of bureaucrats who have very different views and preferences from the people at large. That empowerment undermines the protective role of democracy, because, unlike representatives, bureaucrats cannot be fired at election time. And the alienation of the people from the bureaucratic class and their enablers also endangers democracy by leading to periodic populist revolts that make democracy even a less reliable barometer of sound policy calculus. Social democracy thus is not only vulnerable to the malevolence of foreign enemies, but the intrinsic limitations of democratic persuasion.

Reader Discussion

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on March 22, 2018 at 07:42:37 am

I share McGinnis's view that democracy--that is, government by amateurs--is curiously vulnerable to propaganda campaigns. That said:

[E]ven if the administrative state tempers the problem of democratic evaluation it creates other difficulties, not the least the empowering of class of bureaucrats who have very different views and preferences from the people at large. That empowerment undermines the protective role of democracy, because, unlike representatives, bureaucrats cannot be fired at election time. And the alienation of the people from the bureaucratic class and their enablers also endangers democracy by leading to periodic populist revolts that make democracy even a less reliable barometer of sound policy calculus.

1. Do "the people at large" have a unified set of views and preferences that differ from the views and preferences of bureaucrats? Or is it fairer to say that people differ in their views and preferences, with or without bureaucrats?

2. Has anyone done a comparison of the rate of turnover among Congressmen and Senators vs. rate of turnover among federal bureaucrats?

3. Has anyone done a comparison in the rate of populist revolts relative to the number of bureaucrats? A populist revolt brought Andrew Jackson to power; it's unclear to me the the number of bureaucrats or size of bureaucracy had much to do with it.

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nobody.really
on March 22, 2018 at 10:40:44 am

Pretty good!

1a) - Nope - one doubts that any unified view is possible; yet, it would not be unfair to say that there is a general distrust of bureaucrats predicated both upon interaction with the bureaucratic breed and ideologically.
1b) Yep, why would we expect uniformity of views and preferences under any circumstances with or without the modern clerisy.

2) Interesting. If one excludes "political appointees" unable or unwilling to convert to permanent FAS status, we may find that the turnover rate is as low as that of our elected representatives. And of course your implied question is: "Is the Legislative also unaccountable and unrepresentative notwithstanding McGinnis' claim that elections provide some (minimal) level of accountability.

3) Yeah - BREXIT and THE TRUMPSTER's election, for what it is worth!

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gabe
on March 22, 2018 at 21:14:47 pm

Professor McGinnis suggests that the expertise of the administrative state MAY "temper the problem of democratic evaluation" but WILL undermine "the protective role of democracy." His argument rests on a batch of unproven assumptions: 1) that bureaucrats may better decide than the public acting through its legislators what is in the public interest or implement the wishes of the people at large, 2) that "bureaucrats... have very different views and preferences from the people at large," 3) that bureaucrats in making decisions of governance will represent neither the public's interest (Plato) or the wishes of the democratic majority (Jefferson,) 4) that this assumed unrepresentativeness/unresponsiveness of bureaucrats will, in turn, (he assumes) incite populist revolts, which 5) are also assumed to be undesirable.

In his comment "Nobody" assumes that McGinnis is correct in assuming that bureaucrats "do it better" but defends the democratic/representative quality of bureaucrats by asking (rhetorically?) a) do bureaucrats really differ (that much?) from the public at large and b) is Congressional turnover greater than bureaucratic. Gabe challenges Nobody on his alleged similarity of bureaucrats and legislators.

But no one questions anybody's assumptions. So I'll do that:

WHETHER bureaucrats differ from legislators is a constitutionally-meaningless question. Article One did not designate Civil Service employees to serve as Senators and Congressmen. That bureaucrats may be identical to the people at large in every significant regard is constitutionally immaterial.

WHETHER bureaucrats more than legislators possess the expertise of technocrats, the financial skill of bankers, military decision-making efficiency and the wisdom of philosopher kings is a constitutionally-meaningless question because Article One does not establish expertise, skill, efficiency and wisdom as qualifications for office.

WHETHER bureaucrats are in any way more qualified than legislators to make the laws and decisions appropriate for the country or whether bureaucrats are as reflective of our interests and wishes as legislators are matters not worth discussing because we elect representatives, not bureaucrats, to make the laws and the decisions appropriate to governing the country and we hire bureaucrats to fill in the narrow blanks expressly delegated by Congress, not to act generally on our behalf.

WHETHER disgruntlement with bureaucrats is now or has ever been a cause of an undesirable populist revolt is a highly dubious assumption. (I can think of no such experience.) But that, too, is constitutionally immaterial to the question of whether the existence and continuation of the administrative state is lawful.

WHETHER bureaucrats do some or most things better than legislators or are as representative of the public as legislators have nothing to do with the desirability of bureaucratic centralized vs. elected decentralized governance. The Founders and the Constitution made the decision in favor of decentralized governance.

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timothy
on March 22, 2018 at 21:59:52 pm

Scholars and politicians seem confused with statements like, “[The] Russian intervention raises questions about the nature of democracy. Much more plausible . . . conspiracy accusations have been a staple . . . since the beginning of the republic.” I think the “democracy” connection to “the republic” in Professor McGinnis’ statement is this: direct voting reveals the democratic majority, but the republic involves an electoral college that may elect the minority candidate. Thus, the voting majority may not win the election. However, each citizen has and many neglect human authority.
Europeans and other aliens who don’t understand the American dream don’t understand American elections. The American dream is private liberty with civic morality. That’s an unfulfilled opportunity that originates from American settlers, who sought freedom-from European oppression. Some settlers discovered the liberty-to pursue personal preferences rather than the happiness elite politicians imagined for them.
Quite naturally, Europeans, from whom America won independence do not understand the historical facts. America was a mixture of colonies and territories under the colonization of several European countries and indigenous peoples such as Mexicans. Perceiving enslavement by England, thirteen eastern-seaboard colonies changed their style to states. Under a confederation that was endorsed by only 40% of inhabitants, they waged war for independence from England, some intending to also emancipate the slaves. England agreed that the thirteen states were free and independent. However, the confederation of states did not function. Therefore, twelve of them created the 1787 Constitution, which only 2/3 of delegates signed. It offered governance by civic people in their states. “Civic” designates those who trusted-in and committed-to the preamble.
Therein are further significant departures from unity: 1/3 of 1787 delegates of twelve states were so dissident they did not sign, and the people paid little attention to the agreement they were offered in the preamble. In 1788, 2/3 of representatives of nine states ratified the constitution, leaving four states to join the established USA. One state joined in time for ten states to reinstitute Blackstone but with American factional Protestantism instead of the English Church to “advantage a distinctive class of rulers” despite the signers’ intentions. Americans may move to another state but cannot escape “freedom of religion” when freedom of thought is needed and wanted. Yet the purpose and goals stated in the preamble are in the memes of many 2018 Americans. It is up to 2018 people who want the American dream stated above to collaborate using the preamble to the US constitution instead of the American religion to establish the American republic at last.
Professor McGinnis makes the point that social democracy is foreign to the American republic, but so is Chapter XI Machiavelianism. The signers of the 1787 Constitution are the American fathers and the leaders in the preceding decade and following decade include dissidents such as British loyalists, social democrats, socialists, communists, communitarians and other citizens who oppose private liberty with civic morality.
“The genius of the United States Constitution was to create additional protections beyond democracy through individual rights and limitations of the power of the national government.” What’s missing so far is that most American individuals seek higher power rather than accept their human, individual authority to collaborate for civic justice using the preamble and the-objective-truth.

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Phillip Beaver
on March 25, 2018 at 15:42:50 pm

REPUBLIC, NOT A DEMOCRACY, WE ARE A REPUBLIC !

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Jim Lewis

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.