Robert Dahl is the great theorist of democracy. Late in his career he wrote about the intellectual challenges to democracy. Among these critiques, the most significant was what he described as Guardianship. Plato’s Republic gave the leadership of the state to a group who was chosen through their innate talent for an education designed to set them apart as rulers. It is effectively an elitist argument which assumes some people are simply better than others. Sometimes the assumption is people are better due to their innate qualities like intelligence. Others believe education and experience set people apart. Plato combined the two. He believed some people were better from birth so it becomes society’s obligation to prepare them for a higher calling.
Garett Jones offers a weak form of elitism which in his words will produce “10% Less Democracy.” He offers specific solutions to dilute democratic mechanisms with an aim to produce better governance. But its core assumption is elitist. He believes democracy allows the wrong people to make significant decisions. The right people would make better decisions. From a philosophical perspective it places a teleological emphasis on the outcome of policy rather than a deontological emphasis on the process used to get there. So, while Garett Jones offers suggestions to improve the political process his actual focus is to produce policy outcomes that he believes are obvious to those who know better.
Jones is an economist from the neoliberal tradition. He teaches at George Mason University which has been a hub for neoliberal thought. It has a strong tradition in economics but has also been the home to giants of political science such as Francis Fukuyama and Seymour Martin Lipset. Jones comes from an institution where many neoliberal ideas and policies are part and parcel of everyday conversation. He says as much multiple times in the book about common neoliberal policies like free trade. But there is a bit of group think which occurs when too many similar perspectives are concentrated within the same institution. This is the core problem in elitist conceptions of politics, and it is a common problem in this book.
It’s important to recognize Jones continues to claim he only wants 10% less democracy, but it never feels entirely genuine. And in his final chapter he concludes with a depiction of Singapore where he openly praises a government which he believes permits 50% less democracy. I do not want to water down my criticism with a reliance on a slippery slope which eventually devolves into autocracy. But I do want to recognize many of Jones’ arguments can be taken to their logical conclusion because he encourages the reader to take this logical leap.
The irony which underlies elitist theories is they often fail to fully develop their ideas. They rely on assumptions which they feel based on past experiences rather than ideas which are well researched and entirely thought out. There is a special naiveté which elitist writers cannot shake off based on their limited experience. Typically, elitists are sheltered due to wealth, privilege or education. Their failure is a resistance to recognize how experience offers perspective, knowledge and information necessary for governance.
Academics generally struggle to understand organizations and institutions because of their lack of experience with them. It is true that some economists have experience within government and business. And the university itself is a complex organization. Indeed, it is an institution. But they generally occupy a technical role. Few are asked to build an organization or develop a team. Fewer still are given the responsibility to hire and fire the people they are tasked with leading. It’s impossible to really, truly understand politics without a grasp of institutions and organizations.
Jones believes governance does not simply require the highest intelligence but a specific type of intelligence. Embedded within his argument about the need to restrict the vote to those with a high school diploma, he offers a very revealing section. He gives an account where the conservative intellectual, William F. Buckley, said “he’d rather be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book than by the two thousand members of the faculty of Harvard University.” Jones retorts he would “far rather be governed by the engineering faculty of MIT.” Jones believes governance requires the analytical thought typically associated with the left-hand side of the brain. Later in the book he refers to an idea in the science fiction of Robert Heinlein where a person was required to solve a quadratic equation before they could vote. Jones loves the concept, but he never explains how knowledge of the quadratic equation relates back to actual governance.
Voter selection has been a problem for theorists of democracy for a long time. Schumpeter gave the electorate the right to determine its own composition in his minimalist conception of democracy. The earliest forms of representative government required significant property qualifications for enfranchisement. But over time people have recognized it is better to err on the side of allowing too many to vote than too few. Dahl uses the principle of political equality to justify an expansive right to vote. But there are also practical problems with establishing limitations on the right to vote. Jones makes a mistake common to managers who make their first hire. He does not have a firm grasp of the qualifications necessary for the role.
Economists generally believe the great challenge in business is strategy. They are wrong. A young college graduate sent Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, an email looking for a job. Rather than write about her qualifications the graduate boldly claimed she was ready to solve Sandberg’s hardest challenge. Sandberg said finding the right people was her biggest challenge and offered her a job in human resources. Business leaders are not chosen for their ability to solve technical challenges. They emerge because they demonstrate an ability to develop organizations. Sandberg is second to Mark Zuckerberg at a technology company, yet she isn’t a computer programmer nor is she an engineer. Rather she has mastered the delicate challenge of placing the right people in the right roles and delivering them the resources necessary to succeed.
It is bizarre to expect a voter to solve a quadratic equation to take part in the development of the institutions for governance. It makes more sense to test for emotional intelligence rather than mathematical knowledge. Indeed, this might make the engineering faculty at MIT less qualified to vote than the general public. But the qualifications necessary to lead a nation are not the same as the qualifications necessary to contribute to its governance. The right to vote is expansive because any limitation removes a perspective from the policy making process. Jones does not believe the experiences of anyone who lacks a high school diploma or have been convicted of a felony matter. He thinks smarter people will make smarter decisions. But it is more likely they will simply make decisions advantageous to them and ignore the needs of those without votes. There are already wide discrepancies in the distribution of educational resources. Wealthy communities have better schools which contribute to better graduation rates. Imagine the policy implications if graduation rates had political consequences. Wealthy communities would have an incentive to starve educational resources from communities who posed a political threat.
A common criticism of social programs from neoliberalism has been what they describe as the law of unintended consequences. Too often intellectuals imagine utopic possibilities which bring about better outcomes without considering the side effects of their proposals. Garett Jones routinely falls into the same trap. Many of his ideas are simply not well thought out. For example, he believes the solution to fiscal policy is to offer greater political authority to government bond holders. He imagines an upper house which has a stake in the financial stability of the government will lead to sound fiscal policy. But it is an idea which is simply not well thought out. He fails to consider the multiple interests and incentives within a dynamic political environment. Bondholders of a company typically have a single financial relationship with the company in question. But their incentives change when they also have an equity stake or work for the company. An employee may care more about their own salary and employment than the interest rate or payment terms of a bond. The incentives of government bondholders are also mixed. For example, they are taxpayers who may look to reduce taxation which may exacerbate the problems with fiscal policy. Moreover, it will offer a path for political power. Bondholders may accept the government’s inability to repay its debt as a price for a seat in the upper house. The old Ancien Régime gave the political aristocracy the ability to limit its own taxation. Ultimately, it led to bankruptcy, rebellion and revolution in both England and France.
The book establishes an awkward juxtaposition where the author wants people to know more in order to participate within democracy, but he fails to do the necessary preparation and research for his own book about democracy. The bibliography is slim and shows a lack of thought and reflection. He put pen to paper based on his professional biases without taking the time to consider the implications of his own ideas. It is not clear he has a firm sense of democracy itself. For example, he interprets central bank independence as an example where limitations on democracy work. Yet central bank independence is never entirely independent. It is more of a delegation. The public retains the right, through their representatives, to remove central bankers who abuse their power. Business executives often give significant independence to their employees, yet the leader is ultimately accountable for the results. It’s not necessarily “undemocratic” to delegate independence so long as the administrator is ultimately accountable to the public.
I will admit it is difficult for me to reconcile my aversion to academic elitism with my own interest in intellectual ideas. Over the past two years I have become obsessed with an idea I call the democracy paradox. I read 1-2 books a week. Almost every day, I read a journal article or report from a think tank. I look over the footnotes to find articles or books I have not read. But I am not what has typically been defined as an intellectual. I have a regular job with a regular degree. Rather than a PhD, I went to night school to get an MBA. But I feel my experience gives me a perspective which has been ignored in the literature. Perhaps it is time for me to embrace my lack of intellectual credentials and refer to my own approach as pseudo-intellectual. So, it should come as no surprise that I found 10% Less Democracy a disappointment because I expect an elitist argument to overwhelm me with research and insight, but Garett Jones did neither.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com
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