Feb 27, 2020

Checks Against Voters

In his new book, 10% Less Democracy, Garett Jones makes the case for giving elites in rich democracies more influence
Arnold Kling Senior Affiliated Scholar

Voter involvement in government has not only benefits but costs—costs that are too often ignored.

So writes Garett Jones in his latest book, 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less. At a time of populist ascendance, his theme is bracingly countercultural.

Often, people think of democracy in binary terms: a country is either democratic or it isn’t. If it is democratic, then ordinary citizens can change their leaders by voting them out of office. If it is not democratic, then citizens can only change leaders by the use of force. From that perspective, democracy is clearly preferable.

Jones instead looks at democracy as a matter of the degree to which leadership elites must defer to the preferences of voters. According to Jones, if the elites are mostly insulated from voter preferences, then the country is not democratic enough. If elites are constantly subject to voter influence, then the country is too democratic. Using this paradigm, he argues that most rich countries are too democratic and proposes reforms for the United States in particular that would check the ability of voters to interfere with technocratic decision-making. But while he makes strong arguments for checking the power of voters, in my opinion he holds technocrats in too high regard.

Insulating Government Officials

One way to place a check on voters would be to have longer terms of office. In support of this, Jones writes,

Politicians act differently when the election looms. They . . . are more reluctant to support one policy reform that experts overwhelmingly agree on: freer international trade.

. . . A senator who is in cycle [up for re-election within two years] is just as likely to vote for a trade deal as a member of the more protectionist U.S. House of Representatives, where everyone is always less than two years away from reelection.

Another check on voters that Jones favors is for judges to be appointed rather than elected, as they are in some jurisdictions. He cites research suggesting that judges chosen in partisan elections tend to be biased against out-of-state defendants in lawsuit cases and that elected judges write lower-quality opinions as evaluated by legal experts. Along similar lines, he cites findings that city treasurers are more capable and less corrupt if they are appointed rather than elected.

Concerning the regulation of utilities, such as electricity, Jones points to research showing that elected regulators tend to hold down prices and reduce the incentive of the utility to invest in capacity and reliability. He writes,

If you delegate utility regulation to the trained experts—maybe even to experts who are friendly with industry—you’ll get a higher quantity and quality of service, at a slightly higher price.

Checks against Poorly Educated Voters

Jones argues that poorly educated voters are particularly problematic. Although he stops short of saying that society should require people to have a high school diploma in order to vote, he offers reforms designed to reduce the influence of the less educated, proposing that

[legislative] districts could be made 10% smaller than average when the district has an above-average education level. And similarly, districts could be made 10% larger than average if the district has a below-average education level.

Thus, it would take fewer well-educated voters to elect a representative. This would raise the proportion of representatives elected by well-educated voters relative to the proportion elected by poorly educated voters.

Jones also suggests creating

a Sapientium, to coin a term—a council of the wise. . . . The path to converting a Senate into a Sapientium would come from changing who votes for its members. . . . To vote in the Sapientium election, you’d have to meet some sort of education requirement.

Who Needs to Be Checked?

Responding to William F. Buckley’s famous quip that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone directory than by the two thousand members of the Harvard faculty, Jones writes,

Rather than be governed by the masses of Boston or by the professors of Harvard, I’d far rather be governed by the engineering faculty of MIT.

In my opinion, Jones underestimates the amount of damage that could—and probably would—result from an MIT technocracy. Whatever skills and knowledge that MIT faculty possess would be far outstripped by their hubris and overconfidence. My fear is that engineers would not appreciate the limits of what they know about natural systems and especially social systems. They would not appreciate G. K. Chesterton’s admonition to reformers (known as Chesterton’s fence) to fully understand the reasoning behind something before setting out to change it.

I am not as concerned as Jones with the balance between the masses and the technocrats. What concerns is me is the balance between regulatory processes and market processes. Skilled technocrats as well as ordinary voters are prone to underestimating the robustness of market processes and overestimating the effectiveness of regulatory processes. This makes technocrats as dangerous as ordinary voters, if not more so. The most important challenge for democracy is to provide sufficient checks against both.

Picture Credit: County Election (1854) by John Sartain. Image used courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

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