Friday, May 28, 2004

The Death Knell of Democracy?

One of the arguments made at the time of the Federalist Papers was that democracy was an appropriate system of government because, even if the majority held the wrong opinion at a given time, eventually the minority who were in the right would be able to persuade enough of the majority to change their minds so as to change the policy of the country.

There are now several warning signs that such a sanguine view of democracy is breaking down. For many classes of voters, modern society is providing neither the experiences nor the incentives which would allow them to decide issues in such a way as to benefit society as a whole. Considered from the Federalist viewpoint, these voters are unpersuadable.

Recently, for example, Arnold Kling posted a compelling argument to the effect that some of the dysfunction we observe among our academic elites can be traced to the cultural segregation which exists between academicians and those actually engaged in trying to affect the world in business or government. He argues that greater exposure on the part of academics to "real world" problems of business, perhaps by working in business for a while, would lead to immensely greater understanding among theoreticians.

This reminded me of a recent post by Wretchard at the Belmont Club. He makes the point that a far tinier fraction of the population is now engaged in war compared to previous wars. This means that only a very tiny minority of the population has any idea whatsoever, from personal experience, just what a war means or how it needs to be fought. This makes the population as a whole very incompetent to make a judgement on whether a given war is going well or poorly. Historical knowledge can help somewhat to fill this lacuna but we all know how little of that there is among the citizenry these days. In a country which has civilian control of the military this leads to problems. The people who make the ultimate decisions on our wars have no rational basis on which to make them.

Both of these pundits are making the point that our policy-making abilities are being distorted because of the backgrounds of the people who are making the decisions. These people simply do not have appropriate experience. But the problem is worse.

It has been pointed out recently that Italian pensioners form an ever-larger block of voters within the Italian electorate. They are more active in politics than the general population and more likely to vote. Their agenda is to increase their own pensions at a time when the government needs for fiscal reasons to take the exact opposite tack. The trajectory for the Italian government then is to continue to bow to the pressure from these pensioners, adding to their pensions repeatedly, until the entire system goes over the cliff.

Again, we have a situation where a large block of voters is simply incapable of forming the appropriate opinion to guide the democracy in the proper direction. The failure in this case is not one of the lack of appropriate experience, but rather that the self-interest of this block of very active voters is diametrically opposed to the self-interest of the common polity.

As a final example, consider the "new class" we're developing right here in wealthy suburban American. We now have a growing class of "trust funders"--people whose sole source of income is their generous trust fund--who have never been obligated to demean themselves with any sort of work, whether it be in business, the military, government, or academia. The entire life experience of this growing class of voters is based on some assumptions which differ radically from the traditional Horatio Alger pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps American paradigm. These people know absolutely nothing about the difficulties of drawing together a disparate set of people to accomplish a task, which every businessman knows well, let alone the difficulties of trying to fight against deadly assailants hiding behind mosques and innocent women and children for their very lives, which a soldier in Falluja knows well. The life experience of the new class of trust funders consists of collecting a check each month from a source of money conveniently distant from any decision they will ever make, having lots of time on their hands, and feeling a certain amount of guilt over their position, living as they do in what is still for the most part a Protestant-work-ethic society. While one might naively believe that this new class would be extremely concerned with the welfare of those anonymous large corporations upon whose well being their very existence depends, in fact the particular combination of circumstances of their lives has led them in many cases to become extremely vocal critics of our current capitalist system. Lacking much to do on a day to day basis, most of them have learned to meet their religious needs by active involvement in Environmentalist, animal rights, and other similar movements. The uncomfortable fact that the success of many of their causes might bankrupt the very corporations on which they depend for those monthly checks does not seem to bother them, if it even occurs to them: many of them might even welcome such a development as it would force them to get a job and help them to feel better about their lives.

Can modern democracy withstand the onslaught of these multiplying blocks of voters who have no idea how to provide any of the things on which they depend? The jury is still out, but the problem does seem to be worsening.


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