10% Less Democracy
By Bryan Caplan
I’m a great admirer of my colleague (and former EconLog blogger) Garett Jones‘ Hive Mind. His new 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less is a worthy successor.
Though less revolutionary, 10% Less Democracy presents a mighty and succinct case that “populism doesn’t work.” Democracy is only tolerable because elites usually don’t slavishly do what’s popular. In functional polities, economically and cognitively successful voters punch above their weight, and politicians and bureaucrats use their slack to make policy as good as possible without enraging the common man. Like Hive Mind, 10% Less Democracy is enviably written. Indeed, Garett has confirmed my suspicion that his style is the most beautiful in all of GMU econ. Music to my ears:
Perhaps the time you’ve spent reading the first half of the chapter was wasted. Most people in the rich, relatively low-corruption democracies take the undemocratic nature of the judiciary for granted. They see it as naturally a strength of “democracy” that our judges aren’t… what’s the word? Oh yes: “political.” But for me, it was important to think about just why undemocratic judges are a great idea – the long time horizons, the productive, heavily recycled form of decision making we call “judicial precedent”; the apparent effects on economic freedom – because those reasons for having undemocratic judges are probably going to turn out to be a good reason to make other government agencies and other government offices at least a little less democratic.
Whether I persuade you of the value of each reform, I think you’ll be surprised by the joys you discover along the way – the joys of embracing, if only for a moment, in the privacy of your mind, the wisdom of slightly less democracy.
10% Less Democracy elegantly organizes a domino chain of topics. He starts with the clear evils of dictatorship – but explains that you only need a low dose of democracy to neutralize most of these evils. He then goes on to the benefits of longer terms in office, central bank independence (independence from what? oh yes, democracy!), judicial independence, epistocracy, and “regulation” by financial markets of government (not the other way around). He also explores the “hard case” of the EU, and the moderately extreme case of Singapore. Garett’s chain of dominoes falls… like dominoes.
Now for a few critical reflections.
1. Garett admits that macroeconomic studies of the democracy-growth relation find a “muddle.” He uses this as an argument for focusing on “precise mechanisms.” I sympathize, but it does suggest that the total value getting to 10% less democracy is modest. Maybe that’s just because all the low-hanging institutional reform fruit has already been picked. But has it?
2. I wish Garett had searched harder for cases where long terms in office allowed bad policies to last a long time. Compelling examples must exist, no?
3. In hindsight, what would Garett say about the poor coronavirus crisis performance of the FDA and CDC? I know he’s been advocating “Public Health Independence,” but why don’t the FDA and CDC already count as such? In a functional polity, it seems like the heads of these agencies would have been fired months ago – and replaced with someone eager to change rules to save lives. But the independence these agencies already have seems to shield them from this vital feedback. (Or is the problem simply that Trump doesn’t care enough about results to demand their resignations?)
4. Riffing off Buckley’s famous quip, Garett muses, “[R]ather than be governed by the masses of Boston or by the professors of Harvard, I’d far rather be governed by the engineering faculty of MIT.” I’m not so sure. Not only do elite STEM faculty lean very left; they’re also notorious for their disdain for social science in general, and economics in particular. I can readily see them maintaining the lockdown for a year or spending a trillion dollars a year on solar energy. Garett may have anticipated this worry by singling out the “E” in “STEM.” But the engineers I’ve met are only reliably numerate in their areas of specialty.
5. Garett’s proposal to give bondholders explicit voice in government is delightfully contrarian and credible, but perhaps even more utopian than open borders.
6. The claim that “democracy needs corruption to succeed” is the weakest part of the book. All of the major legislative reforms of the last two decades have been aggressively “transactional” – and they all look like piles of legislative junk – and action bias – to me. The CARES Act, with its appalling work disincentives, is typical. The puritanical norm of, “Never rip off your country during a crisis” would be a big improvement over the status quo.
7. Garett’s chapter on the EU greatly surprised me. Given his vocal skepticism about low-skill immigration in general and refugees in particular, I expected him to concede that the EU needs at least 10% more democracy. Instead, he argues that the EU is underrated. The European Central Bank works well, and “while the EU may get press for making it illegal to put little unmarked bottles of olive oil on your restaurant table, it’s reasonable to believe that joining the EU helps your nation’s economy overall.” The EU, in Garett’s phrase, is a “pro-market club.” While he concedes that fear of immigration partially motivated Brexit, the untold story is that the UK didn’t benefit much from the EU because the UK is one of the most pro-market members of the club.
8. Coronavirus clouds all predictions, but I’d be very surprised if the UK doesn’t use Brexit to become more anti-market – on trade policy as well as migration. Key point: The UK has long had countless opportunities to move in a pro-market direction, but has done little along those lines since Thatcher. Most obviously, they could have deregulated the construction industry in London. Since they were apathetic about the pro-market opportunities they had, I doubt they’ll take advantage of new pro-market opportunities they’ve gained. Instead, they’ll do more of the anti-market things they couldn’t do in the EU.
9. Garett describes Singapore as “50% less democracy.” I say this exposes serious flaws in major measures of “democracy.”
10. How does 10% Less Democracy relate to my own Myth of the Rational Voter? They’re complements, naturally. Garett spends much more time discussing specific ways to give the public better policies than it wants, but public irrationality is never far from the surface. The main difference: Garett is far less quixotic than me. He musters sincere appreciation for bad political systems by reflecting that others are even worse. I’m willing to grant the point, but I can’t forget that even the better politicians are power-hungry and evil.