Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Trouble with Democracy

Daniel Hannan worries that democracy is going out of fashion. Now that the voters of Great Britain have chosen to exit the European Union, elites are denouncing the ignorant masses for their inability to exercise rational judgment… that is, to think like the elites.

Thus, major Brexit supporter Hannan cheers for democracy, because sometimes the common people, the ones who pay the price for whatever the elites have concocted, have reason on their side. Just because you are smarter does not mean that you are right.

And yet, there are times when we fetishize democracy. Recall the freedom agenda promoted by the Bush administration. Recall the thrill everyone felt when Iraqis cast ballots in a free election. But, recall the chagrin when the Egyptian people voted for a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and when the inhabitants of Gaza voted for Hamas.

And lest we forget, our great American Republic was not founded as a democracy. In the early days of the Republic precious few people were allowed to vote. In the first contested presidential election, in 1796 fewer than 5% of the population cast votes.

The founding fathers were worried about factionalism and they were worried about the tyranny of mobs. Besides, casting a vote is a one-off action. In a functioning democratic nation people live by the rule of law and respect the verdict of the ballot box. They treat each other with respect, courtesy and decorum. They do so every day. It takes more than a purple finger to create a functioning democracy.

One does well here to distinguish between the freedom to cast ballots and the freedom to function in the marketplace. They might seem to be the same, but they are not.

As agents working and consuming in a free market, individuals make free decisions all the time. Thereby they allow capital to be allocated more efficiently and more effectively than any central planner has ever been able to do. But, that is the rub. Free enterprise is the ultimate rebuke to central planners, but free enterprise and democracy are not necessarily the same thing. And they do not necessarily coexist.

Why would the majority of the population not vote itself an income? Why would they not vote to redistribute the wealth? It surely beats working.

In truth, it’s all about China. One notes with Hannan that the happiest countries are democratic. Among them are Norway, Australia and Switzerland. They are also relatively homogeneous. They are not brimming with diversity, as the saying goes.

And yet, China is today’s rising global superpower. Surely, it has become a model of free enterprise, but it has not allowed people very many democratic freedoms and human rights. When developing nations look around the world do they want to become more like China or more like America?

I do not know how well Chinese people rate on a happiness scale, but they have certainly, over the past 35 years, gained more confidence and more swagger. You might believe that they are miserable for having been deprived of their right to vote. Yet, many of them recall the Maoist past where millions of people starved to death and the rest lived in extreme poverty. And yet, the rulers of China turned it around without allowing anyone to vote.

When it comes to debates over democracy, China is the problem. Of course, China does not have a democratic tradition that goes back two millennia. It has no real notion of human rights. And yet, it allows the free market to function in a relatively unfettered fashion and has moved fromf extreme poverty to ascending world power.

But, China is run by an elite. It is run by leaders of what is still called a Communist party. Before it was run by a group that Mao called capitalist roaders, it was also run by an elite, by Mao and his henchmen. Today’s elite has allowed the people to make relatively free decisions as actors in the marketplace. Mao never imagined such a thing. When Deng Xiaoping and his band took over China in 1976 the first thing they did was to privatize agriculture, to roll back the central planners’ communized agricultural policy. They did not hand out ballots. They freed people to function in the market.

Even today, democracy does not have very much of an appeal in China. One recalls in 1989 that student radicals occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing and demanded democracy and freedom. You know how that worked out.

Strangely, most Western observers did not understand what was going on. At the least they did not understand what it all looked like to those who were in power. To us it looked like Woodstock. It looked like a legitimate demand for increased political freedom.

The people who were then running China, Deng and his cohorts, had had some experience of dealing with radicalized students. They were the survivors of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. They had seen their friends and colleagues murdered and humiliated by radicalized students. We saw Woodstock, Deng Xiaoping saw the Red Guards. It’s not the same thing.

When the Chinese authorities crushed the protest movement in Tiananmen Square our wiser commentators were saying that the human yearning for basic freedoms was so strong that the people would soon rise up and overthrow their Communist oppressors. Recently, some of them have had the humility to admit that they were wrong.

They were wrong because Deng and Co. were granting unprecedented economic freedom. People liked economic freedom. They enjoyed prosperity. It beat starvation and being oppressed by the Red Guards. 

Moreover, when the Chinese look to America and the West, they do not just see the glory of democracy. They see the madness that democracy can unleash. Do they really want to spend their time debating transgender restrooms? Do they really want to spend their time trying to integrate women into the combat infantry? Do they really want their people to be rioting in the streets, shooting the police and burning down their neighborhoods in the name of free expression? 

And that's just America. What do they see when they look to democratic Europe. Do the Chinese want, out of an excessive concern for equal rights and for democratic freedoms, allow their nation to be overrun by refugees who will molest women and to rob, pillage and murder? How is democracy working out in Europe these days?

When members of its own Muslim population decided to try their hand at terrorism, the Chinese authorities cracked down on them, even to the point of suppressing their ability to practice their religion.  Those who were deemed responsible for terrorism were not represented by an army of law professors. They were not sent to prison while their cases awaited appeal. They were put on trial, convicted and taken out and shot. China does not have a very significant terrorism problem these days.

Democracy is like a product in a market. Either you can sell it or you cannot. Either you can show that it produces domestic peace and social harmony or you cannot.

Keep in mind, social harmony is primarily important for Chinese culture. The Chinese have known the horrors of civil strife and will do whatever it takes to keep it at bay. One reason why the authorities cracked down so hard on the Tiananmen protestors is that the country was beginning to unravel. In particular, the soldiers stationed around Beijing had been refusing to follow orders, thus had been in a state of mutiny.

If democratic rights contribute to prosperity and social harmony, other peoples in other parts of the world might find them worth emulating. If they seem to be leading great nations to doom, other peoples will not.


Anonymous said...

Almost all the problems with America and Europe you list are not the result of democratic process but rather imposition by the elites, usually against the wishes of the majority.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Excellent post.

I'd like to echo what Anonymous says above. In America's case, problems are caused not by the tyranny of the majority as a result of democratic outcomes, but by elites using constitutional protections to impose their narrow agenda through the Supreme Court and executive branch, at the expense of Congress.

The Supreme Court, in particular, ought to be more deferential to the will of the people. Instead, judicial review today is the means to overturn citizen sensibilities found to be anathema to the cognitive elite. These include direct democracy state ballot issues invalidated by federal courts. If the Constitution is to be interpreted, humility begs that justices consider not imposing their personal views, but to consider the impact on the country and the citizen's relationship to government.

And then we have President Obama, who sees fit to act in his own with policies he favors because Congress won't go along with him. Elites don't see this as a republic, they increasingly see it as a systematic oligarchy, with converging viewpoints among the people in charge.

Citizens are quickly learning that their opinions do not matter. This is bad for our Constitutional system. If people don't feel they can effectuate the political process, they will begin to resist the legitimacy of government over them. They will question the rule of law as an instrument of arbitrary power rather than a fair arbiter.

As for China, George Soros likes the way they do business... he has seen the future. China may have free enterprise for low rungs on the ladder, but make no mistake: there is no "free market" in China. It's an efficiency play: it is inefficient to try to control all trade of goods. The communist Chinese still control the commanding heights of the economy and direct foreign investment. Their system is rife with corruption at all levels, and this graft is increasingly disruptive as Chinese entrepreneurs hit the ceiling of socio-economic mobility. This is where traditional American exceptionalism can be a helpful guide, but our president and the cognitive elite doesn't believe in our exceptionalism anymore. They believe they alone are exceptional. It's why they look at the arc of history as a validation of their viewpoints. They are the anointed.

The cognitive elite loves the Chinese model because they fantasize about how great everything will be when they have total control: a centralized political system run by "experts." The end game for these people is not freedom of the individual, but technocratic tinkering to create an idealized real life. Kind of like "The Truman Show." Their future vision of American democracy is more like a Wilsonian Frankenstein. I prefer our Franers' constitutionally-limited Federal republic, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of democracy - Drudge today shows Google is joining the Dems. Anyone surprised? I got a chuckle when Fox News was all agog about Google and Twitter being involved in the GOP debates. It was Silicon Valley opposition research. Collecting names. I'd say the GOP was a bunch of fools, as if we didn't already know. They've blowing this whole thing, and it started before Trump said a word, or even announced.

Sam L. said...

Isn't it NYT's Thomas Friedman who thinks China's is the way we should go?

Anonymous said...

"Who Are We?", Prof. Sam Huntington's last book (almost a cri' d' cour - sp) was about these problems.

Unrestricted immigration. Transnational Elites. Loss of common culture. Loss of confidence. Fraying social bonds. Ignorance of History. Waning patriotism of our Leaders in all sectors.

Our sturdy middle & working classes are literally Dying. And Drugging. And not forming stable families - with children. The men losing confidence, self respect - their women's respect too.

Must read the new book by author of "The Bell Curve" on the subject.

I'm worried. There's no guarantee America will Long Endure. Only "if we can keep it" as Ben Franklin said.

I wrote speeches about that. Nobody would give them. -- Rich Lara

Trigger Warning said...

Universal suffrage -> keys to the treasury -> tragedy of the commons

Anonymous said...


Here is an article from Le Figaro that you might find interesting. It shows where some precincts of French opinion are headed.


It is a war on two interrelated fronts - the djihadis who kill and the Islamic supremacists infiltrating the culture, institutions, laws and ways of life.

Ares Olympus said...

If democracy only means majority rule, its easy to despair due to the ignorance of the masses, and just as bad enabled by self interested parties who would prefer to sabotage the system than cooperate as permanent second fiddles.

Market freedom seems superior, and majority rule is bad there, where monopolies can tilt the field in their favor. And Tom Perkins actually joked seriously that 1$ 1-vote, ought to be a good system like by taxes paid. Let the successful decide is a good system where success is from skill and hard work.

I incidentally minneapoilia just voted in a first Somali state rep nominee, a hard game in a district with a minority somali, but primaries are vast minority rule elections and she still has to appeal to the majority in November.

Europe's party list votes allow easier minority representation but then winners only represent their subset voters, not a!l.

I don't know if china will gain in voters rights and it seems as likely that our system can regress if the supreme court can fins rationalizations consistent with the constitution that limit voters rights.

And perhaps we've now proved at least that party primaries for president are profoundly unequal and leads to an ugly mob rule and animosity than good sense.

Myself I might support president by lot - among candidates who make some electoral college thresholds. No mandate and the winner knows he won by providence not his mudslinging skils or his sidestepping dancing.