Who Wants Thick Democracy?

Last night I heard the author talk on this book: The Business of America is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate. The audience was mostly DC policy wonks and related academics. The talk and responses to it made me realize that most policy folks, and most ordinary people as well, don’t actually like democracy that much. Let me explain.

In a democracy, candidates run for office, and the ones with the most votes win. Winners set new policies and oversee government agencies that set more policies. Prior to the vote, a limited number of issues come to the attention of voters, including candidate positions on future acts and incumbent past acts and related outcomes.

A basic fact about modern governance is that the number of issues that can gain salience in elections is only a tiny fraction of the number of policy decisions governments make. So a key question about democracy is whether and how voters can influence that vast dark matter of unseen policy decisions. How can voters, who see only a few dashboard knobs, effectively control the vast complex machinery that is a modern government?

In a “thin democracy” the answer to this question is “They can’t.” Instead, many government officials have a lot of what Bryan Caplan calls “slack.” Such officials make choices according to personal preferences, constrained mainly by physics, budgets and the choices of other officials. Here it is the set of people willing and able to take government jobs that control most of the dark matter of government policy. Government is good or bad depending these people, their cultures, and the institutions they use to organize themselves.

In contrast, in a “thick democracy” many voters collect themselves into complex organizations to monitor and lobby government actions. Such “interest groups” collect detailed preferences from members, study government acts and plans in detail, advise officials in person on preferred act details, and advise voters on candidates to reward or punish in elections. Such organizations let voters escape personal limits on how much detail they can manage.

Because thick democracy requires voters to join complex organizations managing detailed info, this scenario is subject to big agency failures. Many things can go wrong between voter input and pushing particular policies to particular officials, and agents in the mess in the middle tend to make things go wrong in their favor. Some organizations will thrive and others collapse due to basically random factors.

More importantly, we have little reason to expect that different kinds of people with different kinds of issues would have remotely similar influence through this process. In a thick democracy, influence depends greatly the complexity of your issue, the ease of monitoring relevant actions and outcomes, the trustworthiness of your agents, the quality of your members, the incentives that members can impose on each other, and the availability of preexisting organizations to build on.

Today the strongest best organized kinds of groups in our society are firms. They can impose strong incentives on members, they are already arranged to minimize agency failures, and the issues they care about are especially simple and easy to monitor. So thick democracies give firms big advantages over other interest groups. In fact:

Corporations and their trade associations now spend about $2.6 billion a year in reported [US] lobbying. … That … is about 34 times the total lobbying spending for all labor unions and groups representing public and consumer interests. (more)

Maybe one could find ways to greatly suppress this firm advantage. But that would hardly give everyone else equal influence. Because influence in a thick democracy depends on complex management of incentives and info, it gives big advantages to those who happen to be better organized.

One might hope for a third approach of “compressed democracy”. In this scenario, we would find ways to compress most of what we care about in the high-dimensional variation of government policy into a small number of summary statistics. These few summaries might then fit into the small set of issues that voters can notice in an election, letting voters control government without complex interest group organizations.

This might work via “retrospective voting”, if voters would just focus on reelecting incumbents only when their personal lives had gone better than expected, and if incumbents cared about little else besides reelection. This approach might also work via agreeing on and measuring a “national welfare” number, such as I proposed in futarchy. But so far voters have shown little interest in such approaches.

At the meeting last night, it seemed to me that most policy wonks and related academics preferred the thin democracy status quo wherein people like them and the students they train have most of the power over the dark matter of hidden policy. And I’d guess that most voters mostly agree with them. Yes, a few “activists” are eager for a thick democracy fight, seeing themselves as especially well organized for such fights, at least without “unfair” corporate competition.

But most people can’t be bothered, and aren’t particularly optimistic about what a thicker democracy would produce. Voters already get lots of status via appearing to be in control. Thicker democracy might create an orgy of rent-seeking activity, and for what? Not that voters would fight it if it were the status quo. But they see the current mostly-thin democracy status quo as reasonable. Just as we accept priests deciding most detail in religion, docs deciding most details in medicine, soldiers deciding more details in war, and teachers deciding most details in schools, we accept government officials deciding most details in government. If the rest of us get bothered enough about something, we can demand to have it done our way. But for everything else, we let someone else figure it out.

I’m not saying that this status quo is in fact the best form of government. I’m just saying I can understand why we see little inclination to change it.

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