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‘10% Less Democracy’—A Review

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.

Term lengths

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.

Independent institutions

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.

Case studies

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.

Conclusion

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)

Comments

  1. 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.

    Arguing that people just like you should have more or all the power in a country is a proud and ancient tradition, going back to Plato’s Republic. The problem is that it’s a load of old bollocks.

    Singapore is an example of a successful society with a curtailed democracy.

    Materially successful. There’s more to life than material success. The phrase “a gilded cage” exists for a reason.

    One [suggested reform] 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.

    Jones is, evidently, an elitist prick.

  2. The two case studies seem weak. The EU could disappear tomorrow and the states it oversees could function as normal, whether the well-run ones like Germany or the PIGS. They don’t even manage European defense–that’s NATO. So what difference does it make if its electorate is more or less educated?

    The Singapore example is even weaker. Singapore functions well because it is a city with strong institutions. Hong Kong (another city) is brought up, but not South Korea and Taiwan. These are actual nation states that transitioned to liberal democracies while maintaining functional governments and improving standards of living. Even with COVID-19, they were as effective in their response as Singapore. There is no proof that if Singapore moved towards actual democracy that things would suddenly fall apart, even if the shady PAP wants you to believe that.

  3. I reckon that we should have less democracy. But the only change I would make is that all academics and public servants should be deprived of any vote whatsoever.

  4. The entire elite consensus got Covid wrong, and Jones can’t even admit it.

    So let’s get something straight. Rule by an elite is great when they are perfect philosopher kings (or at least LKY) and bad when they aren’t. But you can’t control which your elite is going to be, and the elite in the west definitely isn’t up to LKY standards. And even good elites have bad successors.

    That independent courts and central banks have been good has been known for fifty years. The rest of the book is rather speculative, and in many cases poorly speculative.

  5. So is Jones suggesting education level or IQ as the basis on which to administer democratic privilege? If he is in fact proposing education, we should ask why in light of this paper he wrote in which the national > individual productivity effect is always attributed to average IQ differences and education is a control.

    Why not simply issue an iq test to all citizens and award voting rights accordingly? Even better would be to simply use the IQ scores as weights. This would achieve what he wants far more simply, fairly, transparently and cheaply than removing voting rights from those who have been incarcerated for possibly a victimless crime in the country with the highest rates of incarceration in the world, would appear to be punishing males 9:1 and would be magnifying any institutional racism embedded in the system?

    I can’t imagine what a convincing response might look like and I’m not expecting to get one but I won’t rule it out entirely as one would have to question how anything so ludicrously lame could be suggested by someone with so much education as Jones so perhaps I’m just missing something really obvious. The mind boggles.

  6. The philosopher Richard Rorty wrote this in 1994:

    "But there is a problem with this left: it is unpatriotic. In the name of ‘the politics of difference,’ it refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride. This repudiation is the difference between traditional American pluralism and the new movement called multiculturalism. There is no incompatibility between respect for cultural differences and American patriotism …

    Like every other country, ours has a lot to be proud of and a lot to be ashamed of. But a nation cannot reform itself unless it takes pride in itself – unless it has an identity, rejoices in it, reflects upon it and tries to live up to it. Such pride sometimes takes the form of arrogant, bellicose nationalism. But it often takes the form of a yearning to live up to the nation’s professed ideals …

    If in the interests of ideological purity, or out of the need to stay as angry as possible, the academic left insists on a ‘politics of difference,’ it will become increasingly isolated and ineffective. An unpatriotic left has never achieved anything. A left that refuses to take pride in its country will have no impact on that country’s politics, and will eventually become an object of contempt."

    I think he was absolutely right. It’s deeply unfortunate that people on the left didn’t take heed of this prescient warning.

    https://www.nytimes.com/1994/02/13/opinion/the-unpatriotic-academy.html

    More recently, Mark Lilla made a similar (and equally persuasive) argument in The Once and Future Liberal. Predictably, he was pilloried for doing so.

  7. I am all-in for democracy. The USA was founded as a “Constitutional Republic” but we have evolved into a much more democratic country. At the time of its founding the USA was ahead of the curve. If you say “USA is a democracy” some on the right will attack you, as if this were a bad thing. The quotes pulled from James Madison about ‘pure democracies’ and their failures are constantly cited on the right, and this is not to their credit. Was he looking at ancient Greece? What was his data set? The USA is now a democracy and however much we make it more pure, I don’t think the policy outcomes would be significantly different. One side will always claim “if only our democracy were more pure, then X would be the policy in place”, while the opposing side will claim “if only our democracy were more pure, then Y would be the policy in place”, with X and Y being opposite policies. There is no way around this. Striving for “pure” democracy is usually just code for seeking a short term partisan advantage, nothing more.

  8. A useful shibboleth. Utter the phrase “it’s okay to be white” while in conversation and if your companion bristles, you may reasonably suspect they are not a centrist.

  9. Absolutely. It was also no small thing for the Soviet Union to turn a manual agricultural society into an industrial one, and put the first man in space. But still, there were the gulags. Obviously Singapore is no a Stalinist state, but the difference is of degree, not kind.

    Some leaders like to present the restriction of freedoms as a necessary part of growth - or security, for that matter. I believe this is self-serving. There are prosperous authoritarian countries, and miserable authoritarian countries; there are prosperous democracies, and miserable democracies. But all in all, authoritarian countries are more likely to be miserable, and democracies more likely to be prosperous.

    As The Dictator’s Handbook expressed so well, the difference is simply the number of people the leader has to please to stay in power. This is the resource curse of developing countries: because they get their revenue from a resource, they can leave their people in poverty and still have plenty of cash to splash around and buy support to keep themselves in power, whereas if they have little or no resources, they can only get their revenue from income or consumption taxes, and thus have an incentive to increase the prosperity of their people.

    And this is why Singapore has improved the material conditions of their people despite being an autocracy: they have no resources - except their port being in a useful position next to a large chunk of the world’s seaborne trade. If they’d struck oil in 1960 they’d still be poor.

  10. I found the arguments largely unconvincing and borderline dangerous. First, the claim that people with less education are somehow less capable of making good decisions. I don’t see where exactly he gets this data from and I find it largely unconvincing that the problem would exist to an extent that justifies removing the vote from someone (e.g. as this is proposed with felons). There are plenty of people in universities, even in positions such as professor, that I shudder when I imagine they get more power to make decisions.

    For me, not lack of education is the problem, but lack of willingness to see and accept someone else’s point of view and make compromises. This has little to do with intelligence or education.

    Second, I am from Europe. The idea of declaring the EU a success feels a bit like a joke if you look at the last 15 years. It wanders from one crisis to the next, without any ability to fundamentally change or give answers. It has largely been ineffectual and in solving its existential crises has relied on individual leaders willingness to work together. Hardly a model for a successful institution. If Germany or France has a Donald Trump like person as its leaders, this would completely fall apart.

  11. The problem with this policy prescription is that there is a sneering condescension amongst the top 10%, for what the bottom 50% of society both wants and needs. For those living paycheck to paycheck, job security, a culturally cohesive community based upon National and local Identity, and the protection of both cultural and economic interests are vital priorities. By all means, add to a country’s prosperity by inviting in those most likely to create new jobs and businesses, but don’t make the same mistake when it comes to inviting in people at the lower end of the income spectrum.

    A country thrives best when it provides economic opportunities for it’s own citizens first- any other form of migration is storing up problems for the long term, and inviting your own citizens to play a Malthusian game of Musical Chairs with more and more participants vying for a limited number of chairs. An endless labour supply might well great for a Country’s economic interest, and great for it’s GDP, but it’s not necessarily great for the people living in said country and living on it’s economic margins.

    The liberal psychology of both the Conservative and Leadership groups, with most Conservative leadership drawn from the Reagan school of ‘Reformed’ liberal, has largely failed because they don’t understand, and can barely conceive of, what the bottom 50% of society so desperately need. Strong communities, strong families and more secure employment should all rate as high priorities. With families, fights over financial stresses and being too tired to enjoy each other, both rate as significant causes of divorce and family break-ups…

  12. I’m sympathetic to the concept Jones has in mind, in that I’m a bit of an elitist myself, and who could seriously argue that a society should not, in fact, be led by its best and its brightest? The army doesn’t let privates tell generals what to do, and likewise, the janitor does not tell the CEO how to do his job. This is as it should be.

    On the other hand, I submit that one must also remember the example of Alger Hiss. For those unfamiliar, Hiss was the epitome of a cognitive elite: Johns Hopkins dean’s list, Harvard Law Review, clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes, and by the 40’s was the #2 man in the State Department…buuuut he also became a communist at some point in the late 1920’s, leaked classified information to the Soviets for years in the 1930’s and 1940’s, then lied about it for decades, even after he’d been convicted of perjury.

    There was a lot of speculation after his conviction that communism appealed to people like Hiss because the endless series of Five Year Plans and Ministry of [YouNameIts] provided great demand for people with Hiss’ skill set. I would call this the elephant in the brain problem, with a nod to Robin Hanson, where elites are ultimately untrustworthy, because even when they’re not engaged in blatantly self-serving behavior, because they still tend to want to push public policies in directions that benefit themselves personally, either directly or indirectly, but it’s all cloaked in elaborate faux-intellectual justifications for why “what’s best for me is really best for everyone, believe it or not!” Hiss’ communist allegiances are merely a particularly stark example of this kind of thing, coming a guy who apparently was to intellectually arrogant and unself-aware to know any better.

    So I guess my position ultimately is that I don’t trust the masses to be able to formulate decent public policy or find anybody half-decent to implement it anyway, but at the same time, I don’t trust the elites, either. Looks like a nice healthy plate of small government libertarianism is on the menu for me, folks. Thanks for the dinner invite, GJ.

  13. Among those who populate the cultural elite there is a popular self-serving fantasy. Being of superior intelligence (?), they imagine themselves to be more open-minded than those of us who inhabit the lower classes. Therefore, they should be allowed to rule. In fact, the opposite is true. Following the pioneering work of Henry and Napier, multiple studies have confirmed that those with higher educational attainment have greater ideological prejudice

    As it turns out, the more educated one is the greater amount of knowledge he or she can draw upon to justify their ideology. Therefore, they become, less not more open-minded and consciously avoid intellectual humility.

    Seen in that context, Jones POV, from his perspective, makes perfect sense. Academia is IMO, a horrible way to make a living and I am glad I left very early in my career. Things have gotten much worse since I left many years ago. But it is a high-status job. You are surrounded by people (students) who are not as far along in their intellectual advancement as you are. You are the biggest fish in a very small, very isolated pond. For example, when I taught, I was the best sedimentologist/stratigrapher within 100 miles. I was also the only sedimentologist/stratigrapher within 100 miles. It becomes very easy to imagine yourself as a superior form of life. When people like Jones clamor for less democracy, they imagine themselves as the Philosopher Kings because they truly believe that that is the position they should occupy. Jones is likely not a bad guy.He just honestly and truly believes that he knows what is best for you. You don’t know what is best for you because you are not as intellectually enlightened as he is. When you have never seen the ocean, the pond becomes your world. Many (not all) academics simply don’t know what they don’t know and they never endeavor to find out.

    If you want to know what"10% less Democracy looks like, read the student handbook for any major college or university. Democracy never enters into the picture.

  14. Before you argue that my critical thinking is inferior to yours, you ought to actually read the reference that I supplied. P.J. Henry sent me a reprint and I am sure he will do the same for you. We are not talking about specific issues. We are not talking about your “ideology” or mine. We are talking about prejudice. We can agree to disagree about specific issues, but the question is, how to you feel about me personally? Because I am a conservative, am I evil? Not wrong! Not misinformed! But evil!

    Research, not ideology shows that those with a greater education have greater intolerance for those that disagree with them politically. Jon Haidt also observed in his book “The Righteous Mind” that conservatives are more likely to think that progressives are good people with bad ideas In contrast, progressives in greater numbers think that conservatives are bad people.

    I have many friends whose political views are well to the left of my own. Neither my brother nor my closest cousin will ever vote Republican and I love them both. I also have friends that sincerely believe that the universe was created in six days. I disagree with them but that does not affect our friendship. But, I also know that there are people that hate me not because of who I am, but because of what I believe. The greater the educational level the more likely the greater the ideological prejudice and therefore the more likely someone is to hate me for my political views. If you want to argue that you are a superior critical thinker than I, you should start by reading the research that I have presented. Then we can actually discuss the validity of the scientific data that I have presented, not simply dismiss it because you assume that I presented to justify my ideology. Dispassionate analysis of data is the very foundation of critical thinking. Your apriori rejection of it sure seems ideological to me.

    Read the paper and then get back to me. You also ought to read Jon Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” as well. Finally, you should stop by the Heterodox Academy website and read some of the articles that are posted there. The move from presentation of all viewpoints regarding specific issues towards monocultural indoctrination at many universities something should concern everyone. Demonization of those with opposing views should concern everyone. Critical thinking can only occur when all sides of an issue are presented and dispassionately explored.

    “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.” John Stuart Mill.

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