10% Less Democracy

My GMU econ colleague Garett Jones has a book coming out in February: 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less. I just read it, and found it so engaging that I’ll respond now, even though Jones’ publisher surely prefers book publicity nearer its publication date.

Regarding to the vast space of possible governments, it seems to me that Jones uses “more democratic” to describe situations closer to a 100% democracy ideal, wherein all citizens have an equal say and can vote directly on all government choices, with government able to control all other choices. In this framing, anything that makes it harder for voters to simply and directly choose the options they understand and prefer makes a system less democratic.

That includes electing representatives instead of directly voting on policy, and also logrolling, divided government, and other complexities that make it harder for citizens to tell what is going on and to assign responsibility. It includes any limits on who can vote, and any ties to outsiders that limit internal discretion, like treaties with other nations or selling debt to bondholders. And it includes longer terms for the elected, and more indirection, such as when politicians appoint other officials instead of directly electing those other officials.

By these standards, our current system obviously deviates greatly from a fully democratic ideal, and Jones approves of most of these deviations, especially ones that result in longer term views and in more informed voters and officials. And he’d like to move modestly further in such less-democracy directions, though not too far, as he accepts that strong autocrats tend much more to kill their citizens, allow famines, and create more economic growth volatility (though similar average levels of war and growth). Jones musters a lot of data in support of his modestly-cut-democracy view.

I did a few surveys yesterday which suggest that overall my Twitter followers find the existing degree of democracy pretty close to their ideal, though a majority would also prefer a reduction. So, for them, Jones’ position doesn’t seem at all controversial:

In the past I’ve tended to think about all this in terms of principal-agent problems. It doesn’t always make sense to make all decisions yourself, if you can instead consult an agent who does or could know more than you. But you must be careful to keep such agents under sufficient control. So if they are careful, voters may reasonably gain by delegating to experts. However, the reason I found Jones’ book so engaging is that I found a lot of the data Jones presented to be challenging to understand from this principal-agent view. (And also, it was a pleasure to engage such fundamental issues.)

For example, politicians with longer terms but without safe districts act at the end of their term more like politicians who have shorter terms. They pass fewer bills, make more pork projects, more trade protection, more labor market regulation, more environmental reforms, have optimistic budget forecasts, and support fewer currency devaluations. Apparently, voters don’t remember much of what politicians do beyond the last years or so.

Cities with appointed (vs elected) city treasurers pay 0.7% lower interest rates. Central bankers who are more independent produce lower inflation and fewer financial crises, at no overall cost to unemployment or real growth rates. Elected judges give more awards to in-state folks at the expense of out of state folks, and their legal opinions are less often cited as precedent. Nations with more independent judges have stronger property rights, less red tape to start a business, fewer employment regulations, and less government ownership of banks.

In general, elected regulators allow utilities to pass fewer costs on to customers, resulting in both lower prices but also in less investment and worse service. Electric utilities regulated by elected officials have lower consumer prices, pay higher interest rates, and more blackouts. Elected telecom regulators oversee lower capacity services, and independent telecom regulators gave in less to demands by government telecom organizations.

Jones is inspired by these examples to support Alan Blinder’s proposal to create an independent central-bank-like expert body to set tax policy, with Congress deciding only broad parameters like total take, progressively, and corporate fraction.

Some of these patterns can be understood in terms of commitment problems. When there is a temptation for politicians to renege on prior commitments, it can help to let them commit via choosing appointees who are out of their control at the crucial moments of temptation. Commitment problems seem especially important for city treasurers, central bankers, and utility regulators. And law court decisions are a classic commitment problem.

These results can also be somewhat understood in terms of the advantages of retrospective relative to prospective voting, and of aggregation in retrospective voting. That is, if voters are impatient and can better judge how their life has gone in the past than they can judge the effects of policies on the future, then voters can be better off when politicians are judged more on their past accomplishments, which happens more with longer terms. And if voters find it hard to attribute responsibility to specific officials, it can be better if they they focus on electing fewer bigger politicians (like mayors) who appoint more other officials.

However, I’m not sure that commitment problems and retrospective voting actually account for most of these patterns. Jones’ book subtitle talks instead about trusting elites, and do note that there is a much more widespread pattern of governments authorizing high status experts in each area to decide key results in their area, including who are to be considered the next generation of experts.

Consider how much we defer to military experts on defense, police on crime, medical experts on health, academics on research, lawyers on law, etc. Yes, in principle we could punish them if past outcomes in their area were bad, but we rarely do this. And professional licensing is a more general policy by which government authorizes control by the high status people in each area. These policies seem less like clever indirect ways to commit or to enable retrospective voting, and more like a simple status effect, wherein voters and politicians want to be seen as respecting and not opposing those high in status.

While all these examples that Jones didn’t include seem to be examples of less democracy, they seem to me to less clearly support his position that this kind of less democracy is good. Excess professional licensing does a lot of harm. The military seems to overemphasize things that high status leaders like more, like fighter planes and aircraft carriers. Medicine seems to overemphasize high status doctors over other medical professionals. Education and research seems to overemphasize the topics by which academics gain the highest status. Law seems overly complex and to overemphasize the need for expensive lawyers. And so on.

Compared to arguing over specific policies, I very much appreciate Jones calling our attention to larger more general issues regarding the design of our political system. But I prefer to generalize even further, via something like futarchy. I can support futarchy without needing opinions on whether tax policy should be run by a panel of independent experts, nor even whether it is in general better or worse to let high status experts in each area control those areas. As long as we use some reasonable (broad retrospective) national welfare measure, with futarchy I could instead trust a general mechanism to make good choices about such things.

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