Why democracy is a bad idea
The following is an excerpt from David Harsanyi’s latest book, The People Have Spoken, and They Are Wrong, A Case Against Democracy (Regnery, 2014).
It’s difficult for democracy to function properly under the most favorable circumstances, but it has no chance at all when millions of voters are divorced from objective reality and incapable of understanding what is going on in Washington. It is certainly a personal fault and detrimental for any representative government not to understand the most basic working of the country you live in. But there’s nothing particularly appalling about failing to comprehend the massively complicated legislation that makes its way through Congress.
Who has the time or attention span? The electorate will never be more interested in tax reform than it is in Dancing with the Stars or Call of Duty. I don’t think that voters should be fixated on public policy. In a healthy republic, they wouldn’t have to worry every waking hour about what their government is doing.
The more localized and tightly focused a law is, the more likely Americans are to understand it. But the problems that the federal government tries to deal with are now terribly complex, as are the resulting large-scale collective measures that try to coerce the entire nation into participation (and that no one understands, not even the congressmen who voted for them). Trying to deal with the anxieties and problems of over 300 million citizens rather than one municipality or state, these laws are often intrusive yet ineffectual.
On average, Washington adds 286 pages every work- day. In one randomly selected week in 2013, agencies published eighty-four new final rules and added 1,412 new pages. Newton was able to distill the rules of physics within the 974 pages of his Principia mathematica, and God himself confined his rather detailed code of life to the two hundred pages of the Torah. But the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, has produced over eleven thousand pages of regulations. And we’re only getting started.
In a highly centralized and hyper-regulatory government like ours, no one really knows what is going on. The electorate can’t possibly make informed choices, and even their elected representatives don’t have the time to understand more than the basics of most legislation. In the midst of all this ignorance, voters become perilously susceptible to fearmongering, misinformation, and blind partisan- ship. This isn’t exactly a new state of affairs, but the problem has become acute.
Few things trigger fear and misconception more than economic tribulation, and nothing prompts elected officials to react with more simplistic populism. The financial crisis of 2007–2008 terrified Americans, and politicians, riding that wave of fear, crammed through all kinds of pet legislation, much of it terribly wrongheaded. How many of us are aware that those “derivatives” politicians railed against allow investors and companies to hedge bets and take insurance on risk? The Mars candy company, for example, likes to dip into the derivatives market to insulate itself from fluctuations in the price of sugar and chocolate. But politicians would lead you to believe that Beelzebub himself had invented these financial tools. With voters in a froth, Congress produced the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, one of the most complicated pieces of legislation in history. This gargantuan financial regulatory act affects everyone in the marketplace and forever changes the dynamics of the financial sector. Dodd-Frank immediately generated 13,789 pages of new rules. How many Americans could intelligently discuss any aspect of this law?
Voters were satisfied that something had been done about the Wall Street shenanigans that nearly sent all of us to the poor house. But how many are aware that Dodd-Frank includes a payback to unions in the form of a “proxy access” that allows them to manipulate corporate boards? How many are aware that the bill may give the Treasury Department the right to seize private property and businesses without meaningful judicial review? How many know about the so-called “consumer protection board” that slathers more need- less regulations on a wide range of businesses? How many voters know that the law inhibits “angel investors”—wealthy individuals who invest in startups with few regulatory guidelines? From Google to Facebook, it was angel investors who undertook the initial risk. What is appropriate risk? Should the democratic process decide? It does. Democracy has snatched this judgment call from investors and entrepreneurs and handed it over to politicians and bureaucrats, who have every incentive to avoid risk.
It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that democracy will improve the function of policy. Lots of people, reasonably dismayed by the last several years of Federal Reserve policy, want more democratic oversight. I once believed in that myself on the grounds that monetary policy should be “transparent.” The problem is that many people, including me, tend to confuse transparency with politicizing—that is to say, democratizing. Imagine hundreds of politicians, egged on by 50 million people who have no idea what “quantitative easing” means, running the Fed instead of a board that is largely immune from the forces of populist management. “In God we trust,” we proclaim on the back of every dollar bill. But until God decides to communicate his preferred policy with the clarity he demonstrated on Mount Sinai, we might do best to trust the experts, even with their undeniable flaws.
David Harsanyi is a senior editor at The Federalist and the author of the forthcoming book “The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy.” Follow him on Twitter @davidharsanyi.