Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on July 25, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies, Politics, Reality Is Not Optional

… is from pages 1-2 of Christopher Achen’s and Larry Bartels’s important 2016 Princeton University Press book, Democracy for Realists (footnote deleted):

In Abraham Lincoln’s stirring words from the Gettysburg Address, democratic government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” That way of thinking about democracy has passed into everyday wisdom, not just in the United States but in a great many other countries around the globe. It constitutes a kind of “folk theory” of democracy, a set of accessible, appealing ideas assuring people that they live under an ethically defensible form of government that has their interests at heart.

Unfortunately, while the folk theory of democracy has flourished as an ideal, its credibility has been severely undercut by a growing body of scientific evidence presenting a different and considerably darker view of democratic politics.  That evidence demonstrates that the great majority of citizens pay little attention to politics.  At election time, they are swayed by how they feel about “the nature of the times,” especially the current state of the economy, and by political loyalties acquired early in childhood.  Those loyalties, not the facts of political life and government policy, are the primary drivers of political behavior.  Election outcomes turn out to be largely random events from the viewpoint of contemporary democratic theory.  That is, elections are well determined by political forces, but those forces are not the ones that current theories of democracy believe should determine how elections come out.

DBx: Achen and Bartels (much like the pages of my colleague Bryan Caplan’s 2007 volume) report on a vast ocean of scientific studies the results of which are impossible to square with the popular belief that the winning majority of voters in any election are thoughtful about what they do as voters.  Not only are most voters in any country prone to support policies that are not in the best general interest of the people of that country, most voters are often prone to support policies that aren’t even in these voters’ own best interests (especially if those interests are reckoned over the long-run).

Critics of public choice such as Nancy MacLean – apparently unable to digest research of the sort that is reported in Achen’s and Bartels’s book – cling, like unimaginative schoolchildren who excel at memorizing passages from grade-school textbooks, to the popular notion of vox populi, vox dei.  And when such critics encounter sober theory and research that cast doubt on popular accounts of the workings of majoritarian democracy, they accuse those researchers of being enemies of the People and stooges of oligarchs.  ‘If you say that majoritarian democracy is flawed – if you seek to cause me to doubt what I learned in fourth grade about the splendors and perfections of democracy – then you are a bad, bad, bad person!’ – that seems to be the intellectual reaction to the work of public-choice scholars and others who examine collective decision-making realistically rather than romantically.

An irony today is that of all the famous scholars who have toiled to examine collective decision-making realistically rather than romantically, James Buchanan is among those who clung to as much romance about democracy as any realistic person possibly could.  Buchanan struggled (I think with little success, but nevertheless brilliantly) to describe feasible political institutions that gave to as many people as possible as much voice as possible in political affairs.  If you rank, from most optimistic to least optimistic, all of the serious scholars who have worked in public choice, broadly conceived, according to their expressed beliefs that democratic decision-making is a foundational value of western civilization and one that can be made to work well if we get the right kinds of constitutional rules, Buchanan would be among the most optimistic.

I myself believe that Buchanan was too optimistic about the possibility of devising actual, real-world constitutional rules to make democracy work well.  I believe that Buchanan’s cherished social-contract theory is deeply flawed.  I believe that Buchanan had too much confidence in even the best possible real-world government.  Yet I believe – I know in my marrow – that Buchanan was among history’s greatest economists and social philosophers.  He thought deeply and creatively about political arrangements and social institutions.  He hated the fact that, in reality, some people “play god” (as he often put it) with the lives of other people.  And he hated this reality regardless of the identities and wealth of those who are playing god and those who are played with by those who are playing god.

So not only has Nancy MacLean revealed herself to be shockingly uninformed about the current state of scholarship and research into democratic decision-making, she has, in her book Democracy in Chains, utterly misunderstood – and, hence, falsely portrayed in a narrative with all the sophistication of a Saturday-morning cartoon – one of the most illustrious political economists of all time.  She should be ashamed of herself.  And so, too, should any who fall for her cartoon-tale be ashamed.


Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email

Previous post:

Next post: