Monday, December 19, 2016

In Defense of Democracy

Ever since Trump was elected, I have heard quite a few comments upon the shortcomings of democracy1. Not that it is anything new -- well, except that criticism is coming from both sides of the aisle -- whenever a new president is elected, the opposite side tends to portray the election as a "failure of democracy" or a sign of "the low level of public intelligence" and such. Oddly, even such staunch defenders of the electoral college and popular vote as the ardent conservative wing tends to come down on the anti-democracy side, at least in terms of rhetoric, when the public elects some very liberal candidate.

Then again, I suppose there is some unique elements to the recent comments, since the Trump election is not just criticized because it shows the public is foolishly committed to "the wrong side", but rather, both conservatives2 and liberals are taking the election to show that the people are prone to electing stupid representative, or perhaps that name recognition and fame matter more than competence. And on this basis, it seems even more people than usual are disillusioned with popular government. Not that they are suggesting we eliminate elections3, rather they seem to be at their wits' end, as they still believe democratic systems to be the best possible, but the outcomes are forcing them to question that belief.

I would argue that the Trump election, much as it disappoints me, is a sign the system works, as are the wins of all the past presidents. While I was not happy about Trump, nor about Obama, both definitely represent the will of a large voting block, a voting block which could have created considerable turmoil if it felt itself permanently disenfranchised. And that is the purpose, the sole purpose, of popular government. It is not guaranteed to select the best, despite claims to the contrary. (Cf "Misunderstanding Democracy") Even over time it can produce progressively worse results, there is no promise things will move from bad to better. All popular government does is promise those who live under that government that their voice will be heard, and if enough agree with a given position, at some point they may come into power. Thus, if there is a popular vote in favor of someone we think stupid, that simply means those who would riot in favor of a stupid ruler without popular government are now content, as their man has been placed in office.

There are three other simple facts we need to understand. First, democracy is imperfect. But that is not as important as some think, mainly because of the second fact, that being that there are no perfect systems, all possible forms of government are imperfect.  Which leads to the third fact, that, among the imperfect forms of government, popular election is probably the best possibility. I will grant, popular election is severely flawed, and limited. Most problems arise from the simple fact that the results depend on the public. if the public is strongly in favor of limited government, and understands the principles of economics and government, then results will be generally good. On the other hand, a foolish or impulsive public, ignorant of proper economics or following a number of misguided beliefs will produce disastrous results. On the other hand, other systems can produce bad outcomes every bit as poor, depending on who rules, and does not allow for the stability of democracy, or give the possibility of replacing a bad ruler with such ease. Thus, popular government, weak as it is, is still the best of all the flawed possibilities.

Which brings me to my final point. For all the talk of the flaws of popular government, the tendency to  elect bad rulers periodically, the tendency for ideology to swing like a pendulum from side to side over time, and so on, it is not the system itself which is to blame, but rather the people4. We do not need a new system, we do not need to "fix" or "adjust" popular government, manipulating the electoral college is not necessary, term limits are no benefit5, my suggestions to achieve federalism are not necessary (Cf "Minimal Reforms"), even my own proposal to modify the primaries -- though I think it might even out some of the worst excesses -- is not needed either (cf "Fixing the Primaries"). What we need to do is to educate citizens, to teach them the value of small government, of predictability, of limited power and the true principle of economics and politics. Until we do so, no system will save us, and once we do, the system will not matter very much. Our problem, in short, is not that we have a flawed system -- every system is flawed to some degree -- but that our fellow citizens are not aware of many important principles. That is where we should direct our efforts.


1. I am aware many argue "the US is not a Democracy", arguing we are a republic, not a democracy. However, even the founders often used "democracy" to describe our state, distinguishing between "pure democracy" (what modern political science would call "direct democracy") and "democracy" in general, as a term for all popular government, including direct "pure" democracy, as well as indirect democratic systems, such as our republic. Thus, it is not incorrect to call our government a democracy, if used in the sense of "one of many forms of government where representatives are selected by popular vote." (Cf "No More!".)

2. Just to be clear for those who have not read my posts before, Trump is NOT a conservative. He is a populist, with some conservative and (usually more) liberal ideas, but he has no controlling principles, no theoretic understanding of government, nor even consistent principles, apparently driven by nothing but populist dedication to popular whim, combined with his belief that his ever whim or musing is utterly brilliant insight to be followed immediately. This does not make a conservative, but rather a position somewhere between populist demagogue and despot. (See "The Trump Plan", "The Problem With the Big Tent", "What Does Not Kill You...", "Not Sour Grapes, Rather a Matter of Principle","A Trump Analogy","Look Out It's the End Times!", "Misunderstanding Conservatives", "The Trouble With Tough Talk", "Odds and Ends Concerning Trump", "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" and "Trump, Obama, Cults and Authoritarianism".)

3. As usual, many, especially on the left, are critical of the electoral college, calling it -- as they seem to do every presidential election -- an "anachronism", and suggesting it be replaced with the popular vote. (See "Does Your Vote Count?".)

4. See "The Single Greatest Weakness", "Don't Blame the Politicians", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship", "I Am Going to Say Something that Doesn't Make Sense", "Follow Up to "The Single Greatest Weakness"", "Antibiotics, Automobiles and the Free Market", "The Futility of Blame", "Misguided, Deceptive or Evil?", "Tyranny Without Tyrants", "Three Versions of Evil and the Confusion They Cause" and "Impractical Pragmatists".

5. See  "Why Term Limits Will Fail (And Should)", "The Double Edged Sword of Term Limits", "The Problem of Professional Politicians, or, The Impossibility of a True "Ousider" Candidate", "Critique of a Congressional Reform", "The Presumption of Dishonesty" and "Vote Them Out".

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