Friday, June 7, 2019

Does Democracy Still Work?

Writing in the Wall Street Journal yesterday Daniel Henninger elaborated one of my favorite themes. Rather than imagine that the goddess of History is going to guarantee the triumph of liberal democracy, we should be spending our time making our own democracy work. If people around the world look at American and Western European democracies and only see government dysfunction and factional bickering… they are not going to be buying what we are selling.

As we were reminded this week, three decades ago Chinese authorities put the kibosh on hopes for what its proponents believed to be a new democratic era in China. Aside from the fact, ignored by America’s empathetic elites, that, for Chinese leaders, massed student demonstrators looked more like the return of the Red Guards than Woodstock, the truth remains: if American and Western Europe can’t make democracy work, why would anyone anywhere else want it?

Henninger begins by considering the Brexit debacle in Great Britain. Did it show the government, especially the conservative party join together to implement the will of the people… as expressed in a referendum. Not at all:

In truth, there’s nothing funny about the British elites’ hapless efforts to make good on voters’ decision in 2016 to separate the United Kingdom from the European Union. The referendum was a classic expression of democratic will: Brexit won narrowly (with 51.9%), but in a democracy that still counts as a victory. More troubling is the possibility that the great and the good of Britain’s elected political leadership will simply fail to execute the referendum’s mandate, raising the possibility that the very idea of governance is approaching a dead end in one of the world’s oldest democracies.

Of course, the American Congress cannot govern. When it was nominally controlled by Republicans it did very little. Now it does nothing at all:

Meanwhile in the U.S., notwithstanding Mr. Trump’s larger-than-everything presidency, the 535-member Congress sits in gridlock.

Naturally, we all want to be optimistic about it all. We have always found a way, so we will find a way this time too. Henninger casts doubt on this rosy scenario:

The optimistic view is that the democracies will somehow muddle through. But maybe not. Maybe it’s time to figure out why citizens in some of history’s greatest nations, all at the same time, have become fed up with muddling as usual.

Responding to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s faith in America, Henninger adds this:

That’s fine, but how come his own great country, with or without Trumpian nationalism, can’t fashion a functioning immigration or health-care system?

Looking a bit more deeply into the record, Henninger describes the great achievements of Western democracies. We rejoice at the fact that they have kept the peace in Europe… though the current migrant problems do not make the future look very promising… but we must also note that their other great accomplishment, massive welfare states have reached their fiscal limits.

These governments have produced government dependency. And they are now allowing more and more dysfunctional migrants into their countries, the better to bankrupt their countries:

But let us pause to consider what these sanctified nation-states have done with their sovereignty—in Europe and the U.S.

Across the half-century after World War II, governments of left and right compromised their way to building and expanding vast networks of programmed public dependency (and constituencies) that have reached their financial carrying capacity. There aren’t enough young people to fund the promised payments inside these demographic time bombs.

Henninger rejects the notion that capitalism is in a struggle against socialism. The parties of the Western left do want to regulate industry, but their more important raison d'etre is to buy votes by promising free stuff to voters. They promise that they can raise enough money by taxing billionaires, forgetting that asset values are not graven in stone and that once you confiscate all of those billions, what are you going to do next year?

The debate now over socialism versus capitalism conceals the cruder reality that the parties of the left—whether in the U.S., U.K., Germany or the nation-state of California—have come to regard the private sector as an alien tribe whose only function is to finance the public machinery that runs welfare, health and now climate protocols.

So, the great engine of capitalist wealth creation is running out of gas. It is no longer involved with creating wealth, but with caring for people. These are not the same thing.

More importantly, government has ceased to function. Compromise is out of the question. No one knows how to negotiate any more. Some group somewhere, some faction or other is going to object. Each faction pursues its own self-interest and could care less for the national interest:

Something called “transparency” has become a consensus virtue. What it means in practice is that the normal give-and-take of governance isn’t working anymore because factions can leverage social media to strangle any proposal in its crib—whether to rationalize immigration laws or accomplish Brexit. Modern media has transformed politics, making the game itself more addictive than the accomplishments of governance. With their legislative role diminished, many politicians simply provide media commentary on the spectacle.

The future could turn out to be a succession of hard Brexits—simply blowing up the status quo and then seeing whether democratic governments can put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Don’t hold your breath.


Sam L. said...

Democracy can't work if one side just refuses.

sestamibi said...

"They promise that they can raise enough money by taxing billionaires, forgetting that asset values are not graven in stone and that once you confiscate all of those billions, what are you going to do next year?"

Except the purpose is not to raise enough money; it is to pauperize billionaires. Once you confiscate all of those billions, it doesn't matter what happens next year. Mission is accomplished.

Anonymous said...

Is it true that billionaires are taxed such? I only ask because I'm not one so cannot say for certain.

Are certain billionaires selectively targeted based on attributes while others are let alone?

If you were a trillionaire with power invested in government perhaps this competitive behavior would sort make sense?

I certainly don't know, it is well above my net worth. I am like a speck of dust on the ass of an ant compared to the godlike stature of billionaires, the government, and even the 'lowly' millionaires such as Jay-Z, 50-Cent, Lil'Wayne, etc.

Anonymous said...

Did it true Democracy ever work anywhere? It worked for a while in Athens - when only male citizen property-owners voted. Then they tried to make an empire and it collapsed quickly. Rome and the U.S. worked as democratic-republics with similar restrictions on who can vote and strict rules on the scope of government. As soon as suffrage expanded and the rules on government scope were eroded, the breakdown began.