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Controlling Democracy

May 17, 2018

Governance is the task of organizing violence. Capacity for violence, properly channeled, can be a force for good: crime prevention, public goods, property rights, coordination points, defense against outsiders, resolution of grievances, etc., however it is a dangerous tool.

People don’t generally resort to violence unless they don’t have another option. In a democracy, if people people get what they want, and a public vote lets everyone know what everyone else wants, people in the minority know that they won’t be able to get their way through other means either. Popularity is a proxy for a measure of violence capacity and legitimacy.

Depending on how steep the hierarchy is, you wind up in very different looking societies. At one extreme, you have a flat anarchistic government, and at the other a dictatorship with very few people in the “selectorate“. Large selectorates tend to spend more money on public goods and less on private benefits for their members. The logic is that when the governing class (“the winning coalition”) is tiny, it is better to buy them palaces and fancy cars, but when it is most of the population, you need to get stuff like roads and quality governance to stay in power.

“There’s a big dilemma in the design of political institutions. Should we be ruled by the few or the many? What this amounts to is the choice between being ruled by the smart but selfish or dumb but nice. When only a small number of people hold power, they tend to use this power for their own ends at the expense of everyone else. If a king holds all the power, his decisions matter. He will likely use that power in a smart way, but smart for himself, rather than smart for everybody. Suppose instead we give everyone power. In doing so, we largely remove the incentive and ability for people to use power in self-serving ways at the expense of everyone else. But, at the same time, we remove the incentive for people to use power wisely. Since individual votes count for so little, individual voters have no incentive to become well-informed or to process information with any degree of care. Democracy incentivizes voters to be dumb.”
– Jason Brennan

It sounds like a choice, but it’s not really. There are many tasks required of governments that are simply impossible to vote on. You need experts. The more complex a society is, the more the experts are unaccountable because the voters simply don’t know enough to evaluate whether or not their interests are being served. It’s the Hayekian problem of local knowledge. The populist option is not really there, in the sense of letting the common man actually govern. They have neither the time, the knowledge, nor the inclination.

People might not know the mechanism by which they’ve been screwed, but they know when they’ve been screwed. People know a recession when they see one, they know when jobs evaporate, they know hyperinflation, they know injustice. They can also see the reactions of politicians, and maybe not the exact effectiveness, but at least the tone. The Clinton/Bush ruling class in America has been pretty lackadaisical about the economy and it’s really started to cause rifts in America’s social fabric.

People might not have any control over the kitchen, but if they don’t like the pie, or the size of the slice they get, they can always throw the pie out the window. America’s political stability is remarkably high. Democracy provides legitimacy, removes bad leaders with a minimum of fuss, helps avoid extremely bad policies, promotes more popular cultural policies, and the large selectorate means more public goods compared to transfers of private goods to cronies.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 29, 2018 10:20 am

    I disagree, it is a choice. You seem to believe you can mix these two somehow and you cannot

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