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Democracy does not mean will of the people
At best, it provides for peaceful transfer of power
Because of transaction costs, the vast majority of citizens will not and cannot meaningfully participate in designing social policy. Policy negotiations and design will necessarily take place among a small group of elites, who face low transaction costs in crafting deals due to being part of a small, well-connected group. Because of this, public policy will not be formed either as a result of citizens compromising with each other, but neither will it come about as a result of elites taking input from citizens
He is writing a review and summary of Randall Holcombe’s Following Their Leaders, which I have not read. Corcoran goes on to say,
the traditional story of democracy gets things backwards. Voters do not bring their preferences to the polls, leading elites to form policies as the voters direct. Elites form bundles of policies as a result of negotiation and planning with other elites, and voters are given a choice of bundles reflecting the preferences of the elite. Because voters act expressively rather than instrumentally, and because most voter preferences are derivative, voters will express a preference for entire bundles of policies they had no voice in forming. Elites, not voters, are in the driver’s seat in a democracy.
“The people” are never going to rule. Instead, elites are gonna elite.
In a concluding essay on Holcombe’s book, Corcoran writes,
A key point Holcombe makes throughout the book is that, to a huge degree, people do not adopt parties based on policy, but instead adopt policy based on parties. Democracy is treated as sacrosanct, and its justness is taken for granted. I suspect that most people don’t come to support democracy because they are persuaded that democratic governments are accountable to the people – instead, they accept uncritically the idea that democratic governments are accountable to the people because it supports their pre-existing belief in the justness of democracy. Refuting the idea that democratic governments are accountable to the people will therefore have little effect.
Perhaps the idea that democratic governments are accountable to the people is a Noble Lie. If people did not believe it, they would be inclined to be rebellious and disobedient, and this could get out of hand, meaning anarchy and violence. On the other hand, the Noble Lie seems to have gotten out of hand, in that government seems to me to be too powerful.
For me, the virtue of democracy is that it allows for peaceful transfers of power. In an ideal country, the stakes in elections would be low, because of constitutional limits on government. Elites would be able to negotiate and settle differences, unperturbed by engaged, polarized masses who use primaries to punish compromisers. The public will have modest demands and expectations for government, but they will vote out of power a party that governs poorly. Their voting will be fluid, based on satisfaction or dissatisfaction with those in power; not fixed, based on strong party allegiance.
This essay is part of a series on human interdependence.