>Christmas cheer for democracy?


Despite an email from a student on Boxing Day asking about the critical case study method (I was sufficiently impressed by such dedication to answer at some length) and some very riotous kids fighting over a Peppa Pig playset, I had enough time over Christmas to catch up books I was supposed to be reviewing. Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) has been widely reviewed outside academic journals and gained media airtime on intellectual slots like Laurie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed on Radio 4. Leif Lewin’s Democratic Accountability: Why Choice in Politics is Both Possible and Necessary (Harvard University Press, 2007) was pitched at the same kind of level at academic/intelligent general reader crossover market, but seemed to attach less attention, perhaps because of its more standard concerns with rescuing and re-inventing democracy, rather than saying there was too much of it because more voters are economically illiterate and incorrigibly populist as Caplan (backed by survey data) does.

Lewin’s books seeks to challenge a range of intellectual motifs in political science, which hethinks undermine the notion of politics as purposive rational activity and hence suggest that politicians cannot meaningfully be held accountable for their actions. He develops this analysis in thematic chapters, each discussing the intellectual origins and political science manifestations of one such argument then knocking it down it through an empirical counter-example.

Politicians are, he says, firstly are not prisoners of historical forces, whether structural or ideological. Some strategic choices, such as the US policy-makers’ decision to implement the Marshall Plan, not only radically affect historical outcomes big time, but are contingent and contested instances of Churchill’s ‘hinge of history’ Nor are policy-makers deprived of choice by some supposed inherent tendencies towards conflict in the international system or the recent globalization of the world economy. The formation of the EEC in 1956, Lewin argues, shows political actors can opt for deep, long-term co-operation. Tentative international agreements on climate change – very tentative, as he admits – suggest that the global market is (potentially) subject to political regulation. Neither can we discount politicians’ accountability because of trade-offs and compromises involved in consensus-building and coalition formation. Inclusive power sharing arrangements can simply generate corrupt, collusive political systems like that of the Italian party system – although unfortunately, its post-1994 to adversarial politics of alternating blocs of left and right as he admits hardly seems to have rectified this.

Lewin also doubts whether accountability is always diminished because politicians’ strategies are distorted by self-interested bureaucrats or because social complexity and the longue durée inevitably produce unintended consequences. Margaret Thatcher’s reforms of 1980s show how even a long established, independently minded civil service can be made to implement policies it dislikes, while successful Social Democratic strategies for Sweden’s unemployment insurance system of 1920s aimed at promoting unionisation suggest that long-term consequences can be intended. He concludes with an appeal for a democratic politics centring on choice and competition and a more informed, open and reflexive political class willing and able to face up to issues of democratic accountability.

Overall, Lewin’s hypothesis that political science agendas inadvertently combine to deny democratic accountability is a striking one. However, for me the quality of his book’s argumentation largely fails cut the mustard. Authors and cases selected as counter-examples are seem idiosyncratic and unconvincing. Italy, for example, is an odd test for Lijphart’s consensus democracy model – Holland, Austria or Sweden might be more convincing choices. And Lenin and Hobbes are not perhaps the best representatives of neo-realist views in modern politics, which I suspect do not say that war is inevitably, merely than conflict of some kind based on self-interests is. Despite a nod towards Mill’s comparative method, the book’s broadbrush essayistic studies also offer no compelling argument that cases are critical cases rather than exceptions proving the rule. Democratic Accountability is thus perhaps best an interesting, if undemanding, essay in democratic theory – the intellectual equivalent of a well dunked biscuit over a tepid cup of tea (or several)

Caplan, by contrast, is a much tougher cookie. Backed by survey evidence, he argues that the failures of democratic governance stem less from the rational ignorance of voters, as traditional Public Choice models suggest, than their irrational anti-liberal economic prejudices. Compared both to professional economists and a minority of well informed voters, most Americans he finds suffer from marked irrational biases when assessing the working of the economy and economic policy: an anti-market bias stigmatizing profit-seeking and unequal remuneration as greed; an anti-foreign bias favouring protectionism and autarchic measures costly to most consumers; a ‘make-work’ bias which wrongly sees employment as a something to be husbanded and protected, rather a resource whose input should be minimized; and a pessimistic bias, which wrongly assesses the economic situation and most aspects of economic policy as negative and deteriorating. Adapting the classic ‘rational ignorance’ perspective, Caplan suggests that such biases, in fact, represent ‘rational irrationality’: citizens cling to populist beliefs that bolster psychological well-being and identity when (as in politics) the marginal costs of doing so are low, but behave rationally in consumer markets when confronted with narrower, more immediate cost-benefit decisions

Such systematic biases, he claims, void conventional Public Choice arguments for the essential rationality of voters – to prop up the key analogy between political and economic markets – such as cognitive short-cut, cues from friends and family, retrospective voting on how the government didor the ‘miracle of aggregation’. Rational politicians thus demagogically play to majority economic prejudices, but then ignore campaign promises knowing that the electorate will punish them if the economy deteriorates because of its populist nostrums. This explains why democracies make policy with some degree of efficiency. Contrary to the prevailing ‘democratic fundamentalism’, we are, Caplan concludes, already bumping up against the desirable limits of democracy. We should therefore introduce economic literacy tests for voters and abandon efforts to boost turnout likely to mobilize less educated, less economically rational voters.

Although refreshingly iconoclastic, Caplan is not wholly convincing. The case for systemic voter ignorance seems made, but empirical evidence for ‘rational irrationality’ appears patchy. Even given its US focus, the book’s dismissal of self-interested (class-based) voting is sweeping. Politics is often a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers, not (just) an exercise in generating a single, rational socially optimum outcome. Caplan’s ‘democratic pessimism’ also seems to point as much to technocratic elitism as the greater marketization he clearly favours. Nor, as he is happy, is his argument very new. Indeed the books comes with self-consciously liberal (no pun intended) helping of quotations from classical liberal economists of the C18th/C19th (Smith, Bastiat, Spencer) and early 20th century elitist and democratic sceptics like Le Bon and Mosca – both intellectual influences on fascism, as I recall, but I guess that might be just historical contingency. The difference is that whereas then the uneducated nature of masses could in the views of someone like J.S. Mill (perhaps rather oddly not referenced by Caplan) justify civic literacy tests and an unequal if universal franchise (extra voters for graduates) as a form of quality control before their full admittance to democratic citizenship, now we have education galore. But rising levels of education, as Caplan is happy to point out, have not brought rising levels of knowledge about politics.

Caplan’s reputation-making brickbat thus adds to a growing contemporary literature identifying the success of liberal democratic societies with liberalism rather than their democracy, and placing the onus for democracy’s failures on citizen incompetence, rather than flawed institutions. The Future of Freedom and Stealth Democracy immediately come to mind. And, of course, as mentioned in the previous post there are sharp resonances in CEE, where the liberal intelligentsia have longer suspected the populace of being too collectivistic and too stupid to be trusted with extensive democracy, hence the current vogue for ‘counter-majoritarian institutions’. The herd of docile sheep on the cover of Caplan’s book – presumably intended to represent the mass of dozy citizen-consumers – is an analogy used not only by J.S. Mill in On Liberty, but also in my hearing by a leading liberal Slovak politician. No wonder they vote for Robert Fico, a man seemingly more cut for democratic politics as outlined by Caplan as he seems to half-believe in the populist solutions he offers.

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