November 07, 2006

The Virtues of Democracy

Over at the Cato Institute, Bryan Caplan argues that democratic voters may not always vote for the best outcome for themselves. He compiles plenty of data to suggest that he is right about the average voter- but the problem is that being right is not the same as having a political system that works.

What Mr Caplan fails to understand is that democracy is not a system for providing perfect government but for providing legitimacy- what Mr Caplan does is assume that all politics is technocratic- all his issues have an answer so he asks for smarter people to vote smartly over thick people or for councils of advisers to veto uneconomic policies. In many ways what Mr Caplan is doing is similar to the ideas in Europe about the Independence of Central Banks- similarly decisions being taken out of the political realm because they are assumed to be merely decisions about questions that have answers.

But do political questions have answers neccessarily? Take the issue that divides American politics most- abortion- handing that over to doctors would not neccessarily empty it of its power and handing it over to Judges has upset a significant minority of the American population- so significant that it has swept the Republican right to power. Putting it this way, compare that to the decision in Britain made in Parliament which has seemed much more legitimate- therefore in this case the decision in Britain has become pretty firm, in America it has become a major catastrophe in terms of anger and fear expended from both sides upon it.

Why? Partly the reason is that the decision over abortion is not one that has an answer that an expert can establish- it is a moral one over how you conceive of an embryo- is it alive or is it not alive. So many other questions can be submitted to the same problem- these are moral questions not questions resoluble by experts. Maybe there is an answer to Mr Caplan's problems in that sometimes we aren't as voters capable of voting for ways which take us further towards our own hopes and dreams- are soluble but only in the context that democratic elections maintain their control over the ultimate aims of policy.

Mr Caplan should be careful therefore- losing democratic legitimacy is a problem- politics is not a matter of precise judgement by men glasses of curves on graphs, often it involves judgements about morality that no expert is able to take for people, that ultimately as Isaiah Berlin argued many of these conflicts are irreconcilable and can't be discussed in some science of society- they must in the end be ressolved to their satisfaction by electorates if electorates are going to have confidence in the way that they are governed.


quim said...

I thought this post was quite apt, especially with all of the arguments against the establishment of democracies in the middle east that seem to be doing the rpunds at the moment - thoughtful stuff!

Gracchi said...

Thanks. I agree its apt in the context that democracy seems to be under attack by various people at the moment who can't seem to understand the reasons why its better than dictatorship, oligarchy or aristocracy (rule of the best in the Greek). The implications for our foreign policy from that thought aren't very clear though- I don't think I have time to go through them though. But thanks for your support.

edmund said...

"it is a moral one over how you conceive of an embryo- is it alive or is it not alive"

perhpas this point is right- but there is no dispute there, an embryo (or a foetus ect) is alive- or rather the debate is over a living foetus , embryo ect, noe one disputes it's ok to take them out when theyu're dead. It's the very fact they're alive that explians why people wnat to kill them, if they wern't alive then no one would>

I would also add that aboritons are by definiton carried out on those humans post the embryo stage

I wouldn't say such problems can't be resolved by "experts" rathe the answer is not a techocratic one- eg the question on aboriton is is it ok to kill an innocent human being and if so in what circumstances- obviously an answer that can be informed by technical knowledge, but is not techical itself.

I'm not sure abortion is the most divisive issue in Us politics - the war for a start I would say is more at the moment- i'd be intersted in your logic.

I'd also add that while I agree to a certain degree that the Uk compromise has lead to less aggro and more democracy(not very hard since the uS one essentialy has none of the latter) it's democractic quotient should not be exaggerated- since it was done by a free vote in a polity where party votes are the norm the politicians essentialy get to decide it almost unchecked by the popular will- imagine if the minimum wage or foreign aid policy were made in such a way , the effect of "free votes" in the UK system is to end democratic accountabiy unless a truly massive propertion of the electorate has a very strong view- and there are virtualy no issues that is true. The italian/ portugeours / irish model of refrerenda is perhpas a better example.

I agree there is an oddity-there is a much stronger case for having issues of values (of which abortion is you are right an an obvious one) decided democratically than much more technocractice ones- say minimum wage or war , ironicaly western democratcy is increasinly underming the role of democracy in the former cases more-eg the way the EU has abolished democratic rights over the death penalty

Bryan Caplan's article was not a very good one- he had a few good points but fails to appreciate a huge multide of points, not least that despotism over the last 100 years have tended to be less libertarian not more than democracies!

Gracchi said...

Edmund on your points. As to abortion being the most divisive issue in US politics- you are right at the moment Iraq is probably more divisive- but Iraq in many ways is a temporary issue like Vietnam- it will at some point go away and wasn't important say in 2002 whereas Abortion has been central since Roe v Wade and shows no sign of going away as an issue. The otehr thing about abortion is that on one side at least it has promoted violence against the state and against people practising legal acts- something that instantly makes it an important issue. However I don't think its neccesary for it to be the most divisive issue for my argument to still hold.

Free votes- yes there is an element in a free vote which is anti-democratic. However I would refer you to Burke's theory of representation within the British constitution made in his speech at Bristol in the 1780s, that does have some merit especailly as the public doesn't seem willing to divide about abortion- abortion isn't ever a key issue when these things are polled as priorities, I would also suggest that foreign aid is actually quite similar- I can't remember a British election decided on that view. As for the minimum wage I disagree that that is a technical issue- rather it is an issue of whether you prioritise equality of outcome as against wealth of the country- the biggest value divide still in Uk politics.

Yes I agree with you that Kaplan has serious problems, and I think we are in agreement where they lie. Personally I think very few questions in politics are purely technocratic which might be where we slightly disagree.

edmund said...

There are loads of other divisie issues- eg people have had their storee burned down over racial tensions and there have been riots, more arsen has been carried out agianst churches than aborion clics ect- the media attention to the violnce of a handufl of people agianst aborion clincis makes it loom much larger than it

if you want a longeti example what about taxaton- the two parites have consitn divied on that and a lot of people have votedo nit- more in boht cases than aboriton . bussing racial integiaon is a bigger issue than abortion whenether it happens i'm not dneyin it's a big and divise issue- only that i think the most divise issue might be overegging it a bit.

I agree this is not that importnat to your argument! However I thik Burke's theory of represenation iappled when mps were leced by thier elecorate and people did not vote for party machiens more or less regaldss of canddiate. undoubly aborion is not that big an issue in the UK (or actualy that big for most voters in the US) however the same could be said of virtually any issue- and if there were only 10 issues that were debated democraticaly and had democratic accountaliyt i think it'd be fair to say democracy was being undermined.

I kindoff agree and disagree with you on the minium wage. I disagree o the value divide you label. i think most experts would agree that actualy the min8m wage is at best neutal on its effect on the poorest and quite possibly negative ( it prices them out of jobs and even those who get the raise are often not actualy poor but wives or kids of the affluent) however I agree there are still value diffences at play - you can believe in a just price on ethical rather than economic grounds.

I totally agree with you that there are very few isseus that are truly teb ial (or at least that are cleary in one techinal field) my point was that it is even more absurd that this ultra-0 value driven issue is taken out of domeocay-0not to dney that other issues are still heavily value laden.!