Vot­ers are mak­ing a mess of the world’s democ­ra­cies

The Myanmar Times - - News / Views - JUSTIN FOX news­room@mm­times.com

IN the US, a large if per­haps shrink­ing share of the pop­u­la­tion wants to elect as pres­i­dent a re­al­ity-tele­vi­sion star with no ap­par­ent in­ter­est in learn­ing any­thing about gov­ern­ing or the world around him. In Bri­tain, a ma­jor­ity of vot­ers chose to exit the Euro­pean Union de­spite ex­perts’ warn­ings of fi­nan­cial chaos and eco­nomic dam­age that so far are be­ing borne out. In these and other democ­ra­cies, vot­ers are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly en­am­ored of protest can­di­dates and pop­ulist par­ties that have no abil­ity or per­haps even in­ten­tion to live up to their prom­ises.

Even if you be­lieve that po­lit­i­cal elites in the US, Bri­tain and else­where have made a mess of things in re­cent years (and I do), it’s still hard not to en­ter­tain the sus­pi­cion that maybe vot­ers are a big part of the prob­lem, too. As one po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist re­cently wrote, “The ba­sic prob­lem is not that most vot­ers seek to max­i­mize their self-in­ter­est, but rather that most vot­ers lack the knowl­edge nec­es­sary to make in­formed po­lit­i­cal judg­ments.” Or, “The un­com­fort­able truth is that the best [per­haps only] way to re­duce the po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence of ig­no­rant vot­ers is to de­prive them of the vote.”

Those provoca­tive quotes are from Daniel A Bell’s The China Model: Po­lit­i­cal Mer­i­toc­racy and the Lim­its of Democ­racy, which came out last year and which I have been read­ing while trav­el­ling in China for the past two weeks. Bell is a Cana­dian who teaches at Ts­inghua Univer­sity in Bei­jing and the main the­sis of his book is that China should strive to evolve into a po­lit­i­cal mer­i­toc­racy that makes room for dis­sent and rule of law but stops well short of “one per­son, one vote”.

Be­fore he gets to those ar­gu­ments, though, Bell treats the reader to a won­der­fully brac­ing re­view of the flaws of West­ern-style democ­racy. It was this as­pect of the book that came in for the most praise in the re­views I’ve read. In light of Don­ald Trump and of “Brexit”, it seems worth re­view­ing the ba­sic ar­gu­ments.

Elec­tive democ­racy is pretty good at two (re­lated) func­tions, Bell al­lows: throw­ing out failed lead­ers and con­fer­ring le­git­i­macy upon a gov­ern­ment. It’s not per­fect at ei­ther, but it def­i­nitely holds ad­van­tages over non­elec­tive sys­tems. Where it of­ten falls short is in the pol­icy re­sults it de­liv­ers. Bell cat­a­logs four “tyran­nies” of elec­toral democ­racy:

1) “The Tyranny of the Ma­jor­ity.” The dan­ger of a po­lit­i­cal ma­jor­ity op­press­ing the rest of so­ci­ety is widely ac­knowl­edged, and the US sys­tem in­cludes lots of pro­tec­tions against it. That still leaves lots of room for ill-in­formed, in­com­pe­tent, ir­ra­tional vot­ers to shape pol­icy, though.

2) “The Tyranny of the Mi­nor­ity.” This is a flaw per­haps most pro­nounced in the US, where small groups with large eco­nomic re­sources – ma­jor polluters, fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions, gun man­u­fac­tur­ers, the very wealthy – are of­ten able to im­pose their in­ter­ests on the ma­jor­ity.

3) “The Tyranny of the Vot­ing Com­mu­nity.” Even when they suc­ceed in cor­rectly iden­ti­fy­ing their own in­ter­ests and the poli­cies that would ad­vance them, vot­ers tend to give short shrift to the in­ter­ests of other com­mu­ni­ties such as chil­dren, for­eign­ers and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

4) “The Tyranny of Com­pet­i­tive In­di­vid­u­al­ists.” By em­pha­sis­ing com­pe­ti­tion and in­di­vid­ual achieve­ment, lib­eral democ­ra­cies of­ten short­change so­ci­etal har­mony.

Jeez, these democ­ra­cies sound aw­ful, don’t they? Of course, au­toc­ra­cies have de­liv­ered even more ter­ri­ble re­sults over the years – although it is worth re­mem­ber­ing that some of the worst of them (in­clud­ing the regime now driv­ing Venezuela to ap­par­ent ruin) rose to power by demo­cratic means. Mean­while, in East Asia, no­tex­actly-demo­cratic regimes have over the past half-cen­tury achieved some pretty spec­tac­u­lar re­sults for the peo­ple they govern. Sin­ga­pore is the most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple, and Bell de­votes a lot of ink to it in his book, but there’s also Hong Kong, pre-democ­racy Tai­wan and South Korea, and – since its big eco­nomic-pol­icy turn in the late 1970s – the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China.

Bell never makes the ar­gu­ment that multi-party democ­ra­cies such as the US should switch to be­ing oneparty states. He does make a strong case, though, for bring­ing back some strands of West­ern po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy that have got­ten short shrift in re­cent decades. Im­por­tant thinkers from Plato to Machi­avelli to the US’s found­ing fa­thers to John Stu­art Mill all pro­posed lim­its on democ­racy, and most mod­ern democ­ra­cies in­clude in­sti­tu­tions (cen­tral banks and courts, for ex­am­ple) that aren’t di­rectly sub­ject to voter ap­proval. Bell also sum­marises some fas­ci­nat­ing – and yeah, in some cases, kinda nutty – re­cent schol­arly cri­tiques of democ­racy and pro­pos­als for im­prove­ment.

In pop­u­lar dis­course, though, it’s gen­er­ally beyond the pale to ques­tion the mer­its of “one per­son, one vote”. Said Bell when I talked to him in Bei­jing last week, “It’s a bit odd that since World World II and es­pe­cially since the col­lapse of the So­viet Union, it seems to have be­come a kind of sa­cred value that you can’t ques­tion in West­ern so­ci­ety.” I’m torn about this. I think there’s value in “one per­son, one vote” beyond its ef­fi­cacy. That is, there is some­thing at least a lit­tle bit sa­cred about it. But the fail­ure to ques­tion how we make our po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions and to con­sider ways to im­prove a process that clearly hasn’t been work­ing well lately does seem like it could in it­self be­come a threat to democ­racy. – Bloomberg Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View colum­nist writ­ing about busi­ness.

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