The Weak Case for Democracy
Peaceful transfer of power
We are told that democracy works because it provides checks and balances, allows for the peaceful transfer of power, and the correction of mistakes. It takes account of public opinion and gives citizens a say in how they are governed, thus creating some level of social peace.
This is pretty close to what I call the weak case for democracy. This is as opposed to the strong case for democracy, which is that it ensures that government reflects “the will of the people.” Relative to what Hanania is calling the “normie” account, I would place less emphasis on “takes account of public opinion” and much more emphasis on “allows for the peaceful transfer of power.”
Government’s primary job is to try to ensure that all disputes are resolved peacefully. Disputes about property rights, for example, should be resolved without the use of force or threats to use force. I think that democracy is the form of government most likely to do this job.
The worst states are those like China or Iran, where issues that would be resolved peacefully elsewhere are settled by violent repression on the part of the government. In states that are less repressive but are autocratic, civil war is an ever-present threat, particularly when a leader dies.
In theory, any form of government can resolve disputes among citizens peacefully. But before the United States was founded, the death of a leader always created the potential for a violent dispute over succession. The best thing that I can say about democracy is that it provides for peaceful succession of leaders. That is what I am calling the weak case for democracy.
By refusing to accept the outcome of the elections in which they were defeated, Al Gore and Donald Trump undermined the peaceful transfer of power. I do not care whether you think the result was fair. Hand over the keys to the White House. If you do not like the way that the election was conducted or the votes were counted, lead a movement to reform the process for next time.
I reject the romantic view of democracy, which is that it gives expression to the popular will. If I think that your policy idea is wrong, telling me that it reflects the popular will does not alter my opinion one bit. But when it comes to throwing a leader out of office, the popular will as expressed through an election is much better than a coup or civil war.
We can have a functioning democracy that does not reflect the popular will. When the United States was founded, the popular will was muffled. Most people were not eligible to vote. Senators were chosen by state legislatures, not by popular vote.
Up until 1960, nominees for office were chosen by party elites, with primaries playing little or no role. As recently as 15 or 20 years ago, a candidate for President had to win support from elements of the party elites in order to have a chance for the nomination. As it turned out, primaries probably have made Congress worse and produced inferior nominees for the Presidency.
But I am not saying that we should go back to 1960, or to 1787. I am just trying to point out that you can satisfy the goal of having peaceful transfers of power without meeting today’s standards for reflecting popular opinion.
Notwithstanding primaries and other “democratic” reforms, I would argue that in contemporary America, the popular will is more suppressed than ever. The minions of the administrative state are insulated from voters, and they exercise power far beyond what anyone could have imagined in 1787.
But my complaint about the administrative state is not that it is undemocratic, as fair as that complaint may be. My complaint is that it is too incompetent and the central government in Washington is far too intrusive. To treat the incompetence, and to try to introduce some checks and balances, I have proposed the COO/CA model.
But reducing the intrusiveness is an even more important challenge. That requires changing the dynamics that create incentives for national political leaders to expand the scope of the Federal government. It is a topic for another essay.
Compare Blaise Pascal on succession:
"The most unreasonable things in the world become most reasonable, because of the unruliness of men. What is less reasonable than to choose the eldest son of a queen to rule a State? We do not choose as captain of a ship the passenger who is of the best family.
This law would be absurd and unjust; but because men are so [absurd and unjust] themselves, and always will be so, it becomes reasonable and just. For whom will men choose, as the most virtuous and able? We at once come to blows, as each claims to be the most virtuous and able. Let us then attach this quality to something indisputable. This is the king's eldest son. That is clear, and there is no dispute. Reason can do no better, for civil war is the greatest of evils." (Pensée no. 320)
Perhaps Thomas C. Schelling, in the spirit of Pascal, would say that a focal point or psychological salience helps to create an equilibrium solution to the succession problem. Monarchy is no longer a focal point solution. Instead, people have come to trust periodic elections as the focal point, largely because most people have come to believe that democracy expresses "the will of the people". A focal point defined by an illusion?
Can any reasonable person honestly argue that a system of governance that produces a choice between Trump and Biden is working well? Working at all?