Democracy: Trust the system, not the leaders
By Scott Sumner
Like Bryan Caplan, I have a strong distaste for politicians. Especially this year. But I have a more favorable view of democracy than Bryan does.
I see democracy as being superior to all other systems, for standard “wisdom of crowds” reasons. At the same time, democracy often produces flawed outcomes for two reasons:
1. The principal/agent problem leads to special interest politics.
2. Uncertainty about how the world works.
Thus part of the problem is that it’s hard for voters to prevent special interest policies that basically all economists oppose—say subsidies to Big Sugar.
In addition, even experts like Bryan Caplan and Paul Krugman often disagree about optimal policies, because they don’t agree as to how the world works.
In my view, countries with a long history of democracy, such as the US, Switzerland and Britain, tend to produce pretty good outcomes, in a relative sense. Thus imagine a scale of 0 to 100, with zero being the worst possible government, and 100 being the best. My claim is that countries much lower down on the scale, like North Korea, are usually non-democratic. I also believe that the US is in the top 10%. I.e., bad governance could push us much further down in terms of utility, than further improvements in governance could raise us up. Admittedly that only applies to current residents of the US, and Bryan might reply that lots of potential Americans are denied entry. Even if true, that problem is just as likely to occur in non-democratic countries as in democratic countries.
So I believe people should vote for utilitarian reasons—it makes society better. That’s especially true of well-informed people. Yes, my vote won’t make much difference, but that’s also true if I throw a candy wrapper on the ground in a vast national park, like Yellowstone. It doesn’t make much difference. Yet even though my individual action makes little difference, I show solidarity with society by not littering, and by voting. I see not voting as being similar to littering, a tiny anti-social action.
I wonder if Bryan is too sensitive to the 10% of the glass that is still empty, because of the stupidity and corruption of politicians, and not sensitive enough to the miracle of our modern rich and free society, which is a product of the 90% of decisions that they get right and that we never even think about because they are not hot button political issues. Decisions like; “Americans can own their homes.” Or “Americans can read pretty much any book they choose.” Or “Americans can buy cars from Japan.” Etc., etc.
Perhaps a North Korean peasant farmer would have an easier time appreciating the 90% of things we get right.