A review of 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less by Garrett Jones, Stanford University Press (February 2020) 248 pages
In ‘Federalist Paper #10‘, James Madison mused on the problem of political factionalism. Factionalism was inevitable in a free society, he wrote, as it stems from human nature itself, but it presents a real barrier to good government. His proposed solution was a constitutional republic which could restrain extremes and promote compromise. Pure democracies, he argued, “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” However, a constitutional republic would “…refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
The problem which Madison discussed in the paper is as relevant now as it was in 1787—to what extent should the institutions of government seek to “refine and enlarge” the public views? In today’s world, the answer frequently has been “not much.” The idea of government by experts filtering the public will is distrusted, and not without reason. The intellectual patriarch of the modern American conservative movement, William F. Buckley Jr., was well-known for claiming that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University. Around the globe, politicians such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Doug Ford, Viktor Orbán, Jeremy Corbyn, and Bernie Sanders have run on populist platforms critical of the influence of elites over society and politics.
In 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less, Garrett Jones, a professor of economics at George Mason University, makes the opposite argument. He thinks that Western democracies have mostly got the balance right, but they would be improved by shifting away from democracy just a little. In other words, a bit more Madison, a bit less Buckley. He acknowledges the proven benefits of democracy, but suggests as with all medicine there’s an ideal dose—not too little, not too much. He looks at a series of specific measures—length of terms in office, the independence of central banks, appointed judiciaries, limiting suffrage, the control of bondholders over political decisions, and the strength of political machines. He finishes the work with a discussion of two case studies—the European Union and Singapore.
The first topic Jones deals with is fairly straightforward—term lengths. He acknowledges that a democracy must have frequent elections, but warns that short electoral terms promote short-term thinking and discourage hard or unpopular decisions. He cites studies from France, Argentina, and the United States in support of this view. He is certainly thinking of his native United States, which is unusual for having legislative bodies with two-year terms. Notably the federal House of Representatives, but also many state houses. Combined with the lengthy American electoral cycle of primary and general elections, this puts these legislators in a state of almost-constant campaigning. A handful of legislative bodies have three-year terms (among them the lower houses of federal legislatures in Australia and Mexico, and New Zealand’s unicameral parliament). Four- and five-year terms are by far the most common. Six-year terms are also fairly common for upper houses (Australia, France, India, Japan, and the United States provide examples). There are appointed legislators with longer terms, such as Canadian senators and life peers in the UK’s House of Lords, but it’s rare to have longer elected terms. Jones suggests that pushing out American electoral terms to four or six years would be advantageous in the long run.
In the next two chapters, Jones discusses two critical institutions—central banks and the judiciary. He argues that both should be appointed, and as much as possible, independent of the influence of the elected government.
Central banks create a nation’s currency and determine interest rates by setting the rates at which they will borrow from and lend to commercial banks. The US Federal Reserve is an example. Beginning with the West German Bank Deutscher Länder in 1951, there has been an international trend towards independence. As Jones defines it, independence is the central bank’s ability to refuse the government’s request for cheap loans. Economists almost always favour independent central banks as a means to control inflation (except some libertarians, who would like to do away with them altogether). Jones provides evidence of an inverse relationship between central bank independence and long-term inflation, and the specific case study of New Zealand. After the Reserve Bank of New Zealand moved from an unusually high level of government control to a high level of independence in 1989, inflation in the country went from an average of 10 percent a year through the 1970s and ’80s to one percent per year in the 1990s.
Jones moves on to the judiciary, and argues there’s sound evidence that judges should be appointed rather than elected. As with the two-year electoral terms, elected judges are a peculiarly American phenomenon. In the United States, 39 states have an elected judiciary; hardly any non-American jurisdictions do. Jones is an economist, so he begins his case against judicial election with an economic argument—elected judges are tougher on out-of-state plaintiffs. He cites studies in support of this, and also quotes Richard Neely of the West Virginia Court of Appeal: “As long as I am allowed to redistribute wealth from out-of-state companies to in-state plaintiffs, I shall continue to do so. Not only is my sleep enhanced when I give someone else’s money away, but so is my job security, because the in-state plaintiffs, their families and their friends will re-elect me.”
Outside of civil litigation, there is evidence that judges impose harsher criminal sentences the closer they get to re-election, and that partisan judicial elections are a significant factor behind the United States’ very high rates of incarceration. Jones argues that the evidence favours an appointed judiciary—a measure which is less democratic but with a better outcome.
Participation in government
Jones then moves on to the idea of restricting suffrage. He covers similar arguments in this chapter to Jason Brennan in Against Democracy, and as I address them in my review of that book I won’t go into them in detail here. Like Brennan, Jones does not see voting as a right but as a means to get a better government. But unlike Brennan, who explores options to achieve this in more detail, he seems fairly satisfied that giving more political power to those with more education would lead to better government overall. As political scientist Scott Althaus has discussed in reference to Brennan’s book, this is far from guaranteed.
On this basis, Jones proposes two small-scale reforms. One is refusing to restore voting rights to felons on the basis that felons have, on average, a much lower education level than the broader population. The other is gerrymandering electoral districts to place fewer voters in areas with a higher average education. The former is not a new suggestion, as many states in the US have laws which disenfranchise those convicted of some or all felonies. However, Jones’s proposal is to permanently remove voting from all felons based on average education level, which is a new argument and would be a much harder one to sell. For one thing, it would give an educated felon the right to complain that they had lost the right to vote when an uneducated non-felon still retained it. Gerrymandering for education would be even harder. Jones, like Brennan, rejects the idea of a right to vote in preference to viewing voting as an instrument of government. But it seems impossible that these measures would be justifiable in practice.
Jones then makes the interesting case that government bondholders should be a separate and equal branch of government. In other words, lending money to a government should give you a say in how it’s run. This is obviously not an outlandish idea, as we have seen this happen over the past decade with Greece and its creditors. However, it’s not clear what the bondholders’ branch of government would look like in practice.
Another chapter deals with political machines. With a provocative subtitle “democracy needs corruption to succeed” Jones argues in favour of strong and opaque political machines like the infamous Tammany Hall, which controlled Democratic politics in New York for a century and a half. He quotes with approval Jonathan Rauch in Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy (2015). In Rauch’s view, and Jones’s, back-room deals and party discipline are necessary to make hard decisions. For example, restraining legislators from voting for every spending increase or tax cut which benefits their constituents while making a courageous stand against every proposed spending cut or tax hike. This is an interesting idea, and it’s certainly true that party discipline is weaker in the United States than in many other Western democracies—primary elections and individual fundraising give candidates independence. In Ottawa and Westminster, party whips have more sting, while in Canberra, the Australian Labor Party compels its legislators to make a pledge to vote as directed by the party leadership and will expel them if they break it. Jones could have buttressed his point here with more comparative analysis and concrete proposals, but the chapter remains more conjectural.
I found this part of the book less persuasive than the earlier chapters. When talking about term lengths, central banks, and judicial appointments, Jones was able to cite compelling comparative studies between countries and jurisdictions. He does not have the same evidence for restricting suffrage, and while there are some examples of governments restrained by bondholders the area is far more speculative. He doesn’t present specific proposals for increasing the power of bondholders and party machines. It is likely that he is correct on many of the individual points he makes, but the field is fertile for more study.
Jones finishes his analysis with two case studies—the “hard case” of the European Union (EU), and Singapore, flourishing with 50 percent less democracy. The EU has many of the features he approves of—long terms of office, an independent central bank, an appointed judiciary, bondholder power, and a more educated electorate (albeit a self-selecting one, as only a small number of voters vote in European Parliament elections). He argues that EU institutions are generally popular, EU membership seems to lead to economic benefits, and the many public problems with the EU are due to “democracy and diversity.” It’s a broad argument—maybe even too broad—but not being an expert on the institutions of the EU I will leave it to others to evaluate.
Singapore is an example of a successful society with a curtailed democracy. It has educated citizens, an independent judiciary, relatively long parliamentary terms (four to five years on paper, longer in practice as electoral defeat is rare), and a highly effective political machine in the People’s Action Party (PAP). Singapore certainly shows that a country doesn’t need to be particularly democratic to be successful. Hong Kong, another of the Asian Tigers, provides an even better example. British Hong Kong did not have legislative elections until 1985 and a fully-elected legislature until 1995. Both show that democracy is not the main reason why a developing nation can become rich—markets, the rule of law, constitutional government, limitations on corruption, and political stability are the constants. But it’s not clear how relevant the example of Singapore is to modern Western democracies. These broad case studies don’t make Jones’s point as well as the limited comparisons around term lengths, central banks, and the judiciary he refers to earlier in the book.
Jones’s argument is sophisticated, although it is stronger when he is more specific and weaker when he is more general. He is at his best using comparative analysis to make clear findings about institutions (as with central banks), less concrete but still thought-provoking on some other topics (like political machines), but much more nebulous on others (like suffrage). In the end, I’m not sure if the book is a case for 10 percent less democracy in general as it is a case for removing certain institutions and decisions from the partisan political process.
This leads to some intriguing questions. For example, Jones notes that we accept today that monetary policy should be set by an independent central bank, but tax policy must still be in the hands of the elected legislature. Should there be an independent body to set tax rates based on what level of spending the government proposes? This could force governments to live within their means and discourage legislators from promising voters a Mercedes at Corolla prices. There would be costs and benefits to such a system—I’ll leave it to others to discuss them.
10% Less Democracy is an important book, and I hope others pick up the loose threads and continue to follow them. It’s not clear what James Madison would make of his country now, with factionalism in the form of two major parties across elected offices at all levels of government. But he concludes ‘Federalist Paper #10’ with an appeal to seek a “Republican remedy for the diseases most incident to Republican Government,” and this is still good advice. Books like 10% Less Democracy help us consider what republican solutions might look like today.
Adam Wakeling is an Australian lawyer and writer whose work has explored Australian political, social, and military history. His most recent book, Stern Justice: The Forgotten Story of Australia, Japan and the Pacific War Crimes Trials, was published by Penguin in 2018.
Featured image: James Madison (wikicommons)