This week in democracy

I came across a variety of thoughts on democracy this week. Here are some excerpts.

Bryan Caplan wins the Ms. Conry Award (she was my 4th grade Social Studies teacher) for democratic naiveté for these thoughts:

Every few years we’ll have a free election. Anyone who wants power can run for office, every adult gets a vote, and whoever gets the most votes runs the government until the next election.

For something more . . . grown-up, try some Nydwracu, who describes our democracy as:

A one-party state that decisively crushed the last traces of opposition forty years ago, with an impotent, Reaganite right and a thoroughly liberal left concerned not with class or caste but with atomistic individual identity

Or, visit Studiolo:

Individuals also make public policy. Susan Rice and Lootie live in a democracy, but only the former is a policymaker. There is no contradiction. Universal-suffrage elections do not define our democracy. Rather, one is free to express political information to the extent one proves its merits. Democracy is guaranteed by a free press, free speech, social mobility, universal education and abolition of hereditary offices.

Elections are but a “basic income guarantee” for political involvement, and a powerful filter—necessarily so, since the lower classes are often misguided. Elections are a minor driver of change, if not an impediment, and irrelevant to technocratic governance. They remain a potent symbol. Especial policymakers have to ascend a complex ladder of academe and status, through which they prove the merits of their political information.

There’s also Felix Salmon by way of Moldbug:

Dare I suggest that Fido understands 21st-century democracy perfectly? “The population of the entire country, as represented by the government.” And hence, transitively, by J.P. Morgan. I would love to have made it up. Crap, Orwell would love to have made it up.

If you need more, here’s a picture and some comments from Nick Land.


25 Responses to This week in democracy

  1. nydwracu says:

    I don’t even know what democracy is anymore.

    This meticulous destruction of democracy and its values – whose starting point was the landslide election of Fidesz in 2010 – has taken place over months and months, under everybody’s eyes.

    This meticulous destruction of democracy and its values – whose starting point was democracy… what is democracy if not the people getting what they want, and getting it good and hard?

    And apparently amending a constitution through legal can violate the rule of law. These are strange times.

    The EU should take resolute action in response to the latest constitutional changes adopted in the Hungarian parliament.

    The changes adopted on March 11, 2013 respond directly to a series of critical rulings in 2012 by Hungary’s Constitutional Court, which struck down problematic laws introduced by the government. Instead of respecting those rulings, the government has reintroduced the same laws through amendments to the constitution itself and ended the court’s power to review substantive changes to the constitution.

    “These latest changes leave no doubt about the Hungarian government’s contempt for the rule of law,” said Lydia Gall, Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s willingness to bypass the constitutional court and subvert the constitution for its own political ends underscores the need for a concerted EU response.”

    • survivingbabel says:

      There’s your first problem: there’s no such thing as the “rule of law”. Laws do not propose, enact, or enforce themselves. This is why I prefer concepts like “sovereignty”. I suppose we shall soon learn who has sovereignty in Hungary: the Hungarian government, or the EU. There can only be one answer.

    • James says:

      Note that “rule of law” properly means: laws apply to everyone. Under rule of law, one doesn’t make laws that say, “Nydwracu must not feign ignorance of democracy” or “Survivingbabel must not contradict anyone”.

      Above, “rule of law” has been used to denote non-arbitrary, or constitutional governance. So Ms. Gall really means to say “contempt for constitutionalism”—which is debatable, especially given our modern triumph of unchecked bureaucracy, masquerading as “democracy”, over countervailing power.

      “Sovereignty” is another problematic concept—an unduly prominent form of jurisdiction.

    • James says:

      Survivingbabel, you are objecting to the notion of “rule of laws and not of men”, which I agree is rather inadequate. The best phrase I have encountered to sum up the constitutional idea, courtesy of Nick Szabo, is “political property rights”.

      Of course! Power can be split into threads and spread around, to be guarded by social Schelling points just like any other property right.

      • survivingbabel says:


        I get that “the rule of law” means different things in several contexts, I am simply stating it does not, and cannot exist. It is a concept which wholly denies human nature, so cannot be applied to human governments. Once you introduce men who must enforce the law, you will no longer have “law” rule. You may choose to hold it out as an ideal, but I believe that holding unworkable ideals usually leads to undesirable solutions. (You must also understand that a “nation of laws” is of necessity ruled by lawyers, those most adept at logic and word games. I believe this has been a great failure of statecraft.)

        You are also wrong about (political) power. Power *cannot* be split into threads. Power is “authority + responsibility”. If you split those two up, all is lost, as decision-making will become increasingly schizophrenic. It you atomize it (as in “popular sovereignty”), you simply create situations where bloc of power coalesce and interact, and you are essentially back where you started. The only other realistic way to split power is delegation, which still stems from a theoretically “top of the hierarchy”. This is essentially a restatement of the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

      • James says:

        Survivingbabel, read this..

  2. James says:

    Bryan Caplan’s argument is inadvertently correct. It is implausible that the social elite would uniformly surrender power on a dime, or that the entire structure of coercion could transform every four years, or that the entire public is fit to elect competent rulers. Just as implausible as anarcho-capitalism.

    As I said at Anomaly UK’s site, in brief anarcho-capitalism supposes an elite devotion to pluralism, and a level of public vigilance and intelligence, which if they were credible need never be invoked for the sake of anarcho-capitalism—because we and most other humans would already live in an arbitrary but superlatively constitutional polity, libertarian, full of distributed political property rights, and designed to permit experiment, voice and exit. Anarcho-capitalism is also too rational-constructivist, and lacks an incremental path from here to there.

    • Alrenous says:

      Steelmanned ancap only has issues with army-level security. And even that mainly because even if you set up the incentives right, people can be stupid. (“I can totally take that guy.” “Hmm, I have an agreement that says if they do that, we all gang up on them, but I’m going to…not do that. I’m sure they won’t come for me next.” “Well, I got the nukes. Ah, fuck it. *Beep*”)

      My ancap would end up looking a lot like what stuff looks like now. A big reason for saying this is humility in estimating how much of daily life is due to institutional design compared to how much the institutions are shaped by those who must daily implement them.
      For example, there’s all this victimhood stuff institutionalized – but it would be a lot worse if the voters were taking it honestly and seriously and not constantly trying to do end-runs around it. Or you could say that the poor understanding of the voters limits the damage it can do.
      An ancap emperor may want to tear down cop shops and stuff, but they serve a function, and will have to be replaced with something that can serve the same function, and the replacement is going to end up looking mighty familiar, because the role and the people are the same. Just, if you can fire your police station, their service won’t suck.

      Getting there is easy. To get ancap, stop preventing ancap, it happens mostly by itself. Almost all the elements are historically documented – just never all in one place. Just don’t try to force it, chaos = delta(power).

      Getting the bureaucrats to do this is no more unlikely than to do any other serious change.

      • James says:

        Anarcho-capitalists must also confront this problem.

      • Alrenous says:

        I agree that the Coase theorem fails in the presence of coercion. It must, by definition of coercion.

        Every regime has a legitimacy problem.

        In my opinion, every regime has a problem with legitimizing coercion, except anarcho-capitalism. If the situation is indeed a reasonable approximation of ordered anarchy, then nobody will have coercive rights.

        The problem of implementing anarchy is mainly the problem of changing the political formula to ‘coercion is bad.’ (Currently, ‘coercion is fine if more than half your neighbours say so.’)

  3. Handle says:

    Is it just me, or does anybody else think that EconLog has been getting worse and worse with time, especially since the departure of Kling? It seems to be becoming the Caplan-Unchained show.

    One interesting thing about this trend is the increasingly moralistic tone and subject matter of the posts. Maybe it’s because all the illegal immigration stuff is in the “news” (Is anything about it “new”?) and that brings out the sermonizer “It is wrong to obey immoral laws!” in Caplan. I’m certainly not impressed by Huemer and his so-called “common sense morality” or the adulation he’s received there.

    It turns me off – probably the same way traditional religious speech turns off the secularists.

    • James says:

      Kling was the best EconLog author. Bryan Caplan doesn’t deserve his renown; nothing about him is original, unique or sincere.

      Consider open borders. I am amenable to unusual ideas about immigration, but the subject requires care. Mass immigration can scarcely be undone; the situation is different to any in history; and there is an inherent conflict between exit rights from ethnically diverse states, counties or townships, and the ability to create the ethnically homogeneous societies that many would find hedonic, or well-governed. This is obviously dangerous territory, but might become important if America and the West are swamped by a billion Helots.

      I expect an influential person—no mere internet maverick, but a professor—who advocates such a dangerous idea as 21st century open borders, which affects billions of people and the entire Western system of government, to take pains and be humble. Instead, Caplan hurls accusations of “crimes against humanity”, and indulges in moral realism.

      There is little use lamenting increased mass immigration should it happen. I am interested in David Friedman’s city-based visas, or any idea that reconciles immigration with sound governance and disposal of state-owned land in a way that preserves choice of community and ability to exclude. I expect Bryan Caplan to yield no such fruit.

      In fact, I no longer visit EconLog. Caplan’s sprinkled imprecations—’by the way, borders are like the Holocaust’—are disconcerting, like being linked to Goatse.

      Huemer is another moral realist. Of course, the minimum point of coercion cannot be located by uncalibrated hostility towards existing political authority. History, such as of the French and Russian revolutions, makes this quite clear.

  4. anonymous says:

    I’m not sure why you self-styled “reactionaries” take any given political system’s claim to be a democracy at face value. The fact is that there is no democracy to oppose. All political systems, with the exception of absolute dictatorships, are oligarchical and aristocratic in nature, including so-called “democracies”. You would already have what you want, if only the current oligarchy advocated what you deem the correct ideology.

    • Handle says:

      Heh – this is the last place anyone takes anything at face value, especially the left’s claims about what constitutes “Democracy” — and that’s the point of the joke.

      There’s a running thread in the Reactosphere about the Orwellian abuse of language (“Diversity”, “Vibrant”, Aggression”) and “Democracy” is certainly among the most hilarious and important examples.

      Alain de Benoist wrote an entire (small) book about this intellectual evolution, and the various incoherent ways and the ahistorical manner in which the term is now used, “The Problem of Democracy”.

      The “inside joke” is that when the progressives say “Democracy” they don’t mean “The participation and/or representation of interests of all the people equally in political decisions and acts within a political community”. They mean the system of gaining increasing power whereby “The things we want become mandatory and the things we don’t want become prohibited – whatever it is that we happen to want at the time.”

      They have to pretend to mean “what most of the people want”, but they certainly don’t mean that! And they usually mean the precise opposite, which is, I think you have to admit, hilarious. It’s be “ballsy” too, but after a few generations, most of the people who abuse the term this way have been marinated-from-birth in true-belief and have therefore nearly completely lost their appreciation of the ruse. Religious history probably follows a similar course.

      And sometimes the mask slips. Hence, in Hungary, when a majority of people want something the Progressives don’t, well, that’s not “Democracy”. Hence, in public interviews, when one asks Justice Breyer about jurisprudence, interpretation, construction, etc. he says that his method of Hermeneutics is based upon his trite maxim “The Constitution is about ‘Democracy’.” He even wrote a hideous book about this in 2005, “Active Liberty, Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution” – an attempted defense of the “living constitution” sham, and cheeky enough to own the insult of “Activist (‘results-oriented’) Judge”. The irony is that what Breyer means by “Democracy” is that the majority of people only get what they want only when at least 5 of the 9 of the Justices currently happen to agree with them, which, except for having to pretend to be following a certain magical and sacred document, isn’t much different from how it works in this diverse, vibrant group.

      Some people get confused on the rationale and logic behind the “power for power’s sake” nature of this. Sailer gives an example here. Sailer’s partially right, in that part of it is purely human-animal Machtgelüst / Libido Dominandi

      But remember from the markets that options have value in themselves and wholly apart from the worth of possessing the underlying asset. Power has option value. What we observe the left as being willing to do and destroy to achieve stable, long-term one-party rule is kind of a Black-Scholes valuation of how to value this option.

    • Foseti says:

      In addition to Handle’s valuable comments, I’d note a couple additional problems with your statements.

      1) We don’t currently have an oligarchy, which technically means rule by “few.” We’re ruled by a rather large amalgam of permanent bureaucrats, members of the media and high-level academics.

      2) What we want is a clear understanding of who has power and how they use it. The present system is incredibly effective at concealing who it is that really wields power. We want the precise opposite of this structure. Thus, replacing today’s wielders of power with reactionary ones would not help at all. In general, I think you’ll find that many of us are less concerned with who specifically wields power than with the structure in which such a person is operating.

    • James says:

      I’m not sure why you self-styled “reactionaries” take any given political system’s claim to be a democracy at face value. The fact is that there is no democracy to oppose. All political systems, with the exception of absolute dictatorships, are oligarchical and aristocratic in nature, including so-called “democracies”. You would already have what you want, if only the current oligarchy advocated what you deem the correct ideology.

      In the quote from Studiolo, I attempted to steel-man the progressive notion of democracy—what they really have in mind when their brains model our system of government. Evidently, Scott Alexander knows that there is more to it than universal-suffrage elections. At least his subconscious recognises the existence of unelected “policymakers”; he should reflect on this Orwellian word.

      Speaking for myself, I think that “democracy” (like “racism”) is a misleading word which should always be tabooed at the first opportunity.

      There is always a highly unequal distribution of power in civilisation, at the very least because humans differ in intelligence and motivation. However,

      *What kinds of people constitute the ruling class?
      *How big is the ruling class?
      *What are the conditions for entry into the ruling class?
      *How are different kinds of power distributed amongst them?
      *What are their incentives?
      *By what Schelling points are they constrained; who recognises the Schelling points?
      *Do they have vetoes over one another?
      *How are their beliefs formed?
      *What are their time horizons?
      *How efficiently may they communicate or conspire?

      You can’t brush these questions aside!

      Consider Roosevelt’s court-packing plan.

      The Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937 (frequently called the “court-packing plan”) was a legislative initiative proposed by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to add more justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. Roosevelt’s purpose was to obtain favorable rulings regarding New Deal legislation that had been previously ruled unconstitutional. The central and most controversial provision of the bill would have granted the President power to appoint an additional Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, up to a maximum of six, for every sitting member over the age of 70 years and 6 months. […]

      After the proposed legislation was announced, public reaction was split. Since the Supreme Court was generally conflated with the U.S. Constitution itself, the assault against the Court brushed up against this wider public reverence. Roosevelt’s personal involvement in selling the plan managed to mitigate this hostility. In a speech at the Democratic Victory Dinner on March 4, Roosevelt called for party loyalists to support his plan. […]

      Concerted letter-writing campaigns to Congress against the bill were launched, with opinion tallying against the bill nine-to-one. Bar associations nationwide followed suit as well, lining up in opposition to the bill. Roosevelt’s own Vice President John Nance Garner expressed disapproval of the bill, holding his nose and giving a thumbs down from the rear of the Senate chamber. The editorialist William Allen White characterized Roosevelt’s actions in a column on February 6 as an “… elaborate stage play to flatter the people by a simulation of frankness while denying Americans their democratic rights and discussions by suave avoidance – these are not the traits of a democratic leader.

      The Supreme Court didn’t thwart the New Deal, but it damped its excesses. Without such countervailing power, America might have ended up with a command economy. Contrastingly, Hitler was able to stamp his personal character on Germany precisely because its prior checks and balances, under “democracy”, were insufficiently robust. These differences are crucial.

    • James says:

      The “inside joke” is that when the progressives say “Democracy” they don’t mean “The participation and/or representation of interests of all the people equally in political decisions and acts within a political community”

      Handle, another perspective is democracy-as-ritual and cult of power. Progressives really care about universal participation in this national, if not global rite—particularly when the winning candidate is their sacred alpha male.

      That’s why they were so outraged when Bush defeated Al Gore. Not for any petty “governmental” reason, but because Bush is Baal.

      A delightful example is now on show at Liverpool’s estimable Walker Art Gallery. I was fascinated to stumble upon it; in fact I had to return and see it again.

      In glass cases: figurines, magazines, clippings, worshipful diary notes, fascistic posters…artists are the most fanatical progressives, and they grok how tangential Obama is to law-making and all such minutiae.

      Nicola’s sons, like Obama, are mixed race. She wanted to understand how they would be seen, how they would be treated, what their options were and who their role models might be. The spark of inspiration that carried her across the Atlantic to zigzag the continent leaving bemused press secretaries in her wake began with a mother’s love. Twining Obama’s name with Hope is a banal cliché today – but when you look at his strength and confidence at the heart of this piece, you’re seeing him through the eyes of a hopeful mother willing the world to remake what’s conceivable so she can tell her boys they can do anything without feeling the lie in her heart.

      Isn’t this progressivism in one picture?

      • James says:

        I can’t resist sharing two pics that the curator allowed me to take of the exhibition.

        I’m sure In Seven Days…—which I sincerely enjoyed—will be of interest to cultural anthropologists in years to come.

    • I take the exact opposite position from “anonymous” regarding how seriously reactionaries’ tend to take “democracy”. I think they tend to understate the voters’ degree of moral agency. It’s like “asdf” said after Foseti’s post about the three branches of government: Washington is not the dark heart of a pure nation. It is the dark heart of a rotting nation. That’s why the Dark Enlightenment is so dark.

  5. “thoroughly liberal left concerned not with class or caste but with atomistic individual identity”

    Can’t be much more wrong than this. A cursory look at, say, employment law, shows castes by skin color, sex, and more. And there are more laws defining each caste and social mores that define them more strictly, delineating and ranking who has freedom on speech, religion on what topics.

  6. […] links to some heretical thoughts on democracy. Some good comments too, especially those by […]

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