John Edwards and the virtues and limits of democracy

by on January 31, 2008 at 6:57 am in Political Science | Permalink

Mark Thoma writes: "I’m getting pretty tired of Democrats caving in on important issues rather than standing up and fighting for their core principles…"  The lesson is that politicians’ core principle is reelection and pandering, not promoting the ideas of Mark Thoma or Paul Krugman or for that matter Milton Friedman or Tyler Cowen. 

I find the (former) support for John Edwards to be one of the most striking features of the primary season.  Although Edwards ran an explicitly progressive campaign, a great deal of his (meager) support came from Democrats in lower socioeconomic strata.  They were voting their demographic, or perhaps their feelings of victimization, rather than their ideology.  (Here is Chris Hayes on John Edwards, worth reading.)  There is no large-scale progressive movement coalescing around stagnant median wages and the inequities of skill-based technical change.  Instead we have Hillary Clinton insulting Barack Obama, and maybe it is working. 

The lesson is this: democracy is a very blunt instrument.  Especially as it is found in the United States, democracy just isn’t that smart or that finely honed or that closely geared toward truth or "progressive" values.  (NB: Democracy in smaller, better educated, ethnically homogeneous nations is, sometimes, another story.)

But unlike one of my esteemed colleagues, I believe that we should revere democracy as one of the modern world’s greatest achievements.  We should step off a British Airways flight with a tear in our eye, in appreciation for all that country has done to promote democratic government (sorry, former colonies, but perhaps you are democratic today).  This is no exaggeration or blog tease: I want to see you crying at Heathrow.  The future is far more likely to have "too little democracy" than "too much democracy."  I do believe in checks and balances, but within a broadly democratic framework, such as we have in the United States.

That all said, we should not demand from democracy what democracy cannot provide.  Democracy is pretty good at pushing scoundrels out of office, or checking them once they are in office.  Democracy is also good at making sure enough interest groups are bought off so that social order may continue and that a broad if sometimes inane social consensus can be manufactured and maintained.  We should expect all those things of democracy and indeed democracy can, for the most part, deliver them.

But democracy is very bad at fine-tuning the details of economic policy.  Democracy is very bad at bringing about political solutions which are not congruent with the other sources of economic and social influence in a country.  The solution is not to be less democratic, but rather to appreciate democracy for what it is good for.  And the excesses of democracy should be fought with ideas, albeit with the realization that not everyone will be convinced.  Those are the breaks, as democracy needs all the friends it can get.

Just as I love democracy, so do I love Chiles in Nogada.  But I do not ask that Chiles in Nogada can solve most of the world’s problems or for that matter get me to work in the morning.  Social democrats and progressives often view democracy as a potential instrument of control, and as a way of giving us "the best policies."  I do not, and that includes for my own economic views as well.

Here is Matt Yglesias on libertarianism and democracy.  Here is a Hilton Root review of the new Michael Mandelbaum book praising democracy.

1 nordsieck January 31, 2008 at 7:40 am

And here I thought the primary benefit of democracy was friction, not representation.

2 Tristan Mills January 31, 2008 at 7:56 am

If you see people crying at Heathrow its probably because its a horrendous, over crowded airport which is enough to drive even seasoned travelers to tears.

Yet still, my local council and most politicians oppose trying to make it a better airport.

3 GreatZamfir January 31, 2008 at 8:13 am

Tyler, your criticisms of democracy in economic affairs might be correct, but I can’t really see what you are arguing for instead. I assume you are not arguing that unelected experts should make the economic choices of the government.

Making the government smaller and more restricted is very much a political decision in itself, and definitely not a ‘neutral’ path.

4 Andrew January 31, 2008 at 8:38 am

Democracy is the ability to change government with ballots instead of bullets. No more, no less.

But I agree, that in itself is a miracle. The miracle being that with roughly the same stock as anywhere else, it’s not a whole lot worse, like it is in most places.

5 Ben January 31, 2008 at 8:57 am

Laudable post, but… the US isn’t actually a democracy… it’s a constitutional republic… and that’s an important fact to note because it changes some of the dynamics. See and for more information (and no academic gagging over the use of Wikipedia as a citation).

6 Ali Choudhury January 31, 2008 at 9:35 am

McCain’s consistently called for tightening spending. He’s also said he’d push to make the Bush cuts permanent. So despite whatever his personal aptitude for econ is, there’s not much political daylight between him and Romney. Maybe GOP fiscal conservatism is making a comeback and McCain is placed well to benefit from this.

7 Finance Monk January 31, 2008 at 9:44 am

I was really expecting the oft-cited Winston Churchill quote!

I find it a little amusing when people choose candidates based on ‘issues’ and feel they’re being noble in doing so. “Issues” are almost always little more than buzz-words; I’d wager 1 in 1000 people can accurately contrast the major points of Clinton and Obama’s health care plans, yet many people put ‘health-care’ as their main issue.

I view voting at a federal level as a way of choosing an intelligent, competent-enough person that more or less shares your worldview, and then crossing your fingers and hoping they’ll rise to the challenge. Everything else is rather delusional.

8 DK January 31, 2008 at 9:57 am

“Democracy” has nothing to do with the liberty vs. security issues mentioned above. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of Americans are willing to vote for politicians who favor security theater over liberty, and they don’t even mind that much when police with assault weapons break into innocent people’s houses that happen to be next door to or confused with the house of a minor drug dealer.

I love democracy, but I would sacrifice some democracy for more individual liberty.

9 Kent Guida January 31, 2008 at 10:01 am

Democracy is an answer to the question, “Who should rule?” It is not an answer to the question, “What ideas should rule?”

10 johnleemk January 31, 2008 at 10:42 am

Finance Monk:

Seconded. I was expecting this Friedrich Hayek quote (or else another one of its ilk) to make an appearance somewhere though: “Whenever it is necessary that one of several conflicting opinions should prevail and when one would have to be made to prevail by force if need be, it is less wasteful to determine which has the stronger support by counting numbers than by fighting. Democracy is the only method of peaceful change that man has yet been discovered.”

11 foxmarks January 31, 2008 at 12:08 pm

Yeah, blah blah democracy, as if making all communal choice via popularity contest is the optimum path to maximizing human potential.

Isn’t it a foundational precept of libertarian, conservative and classical-liberal thought that individual humans in free cooperation are the proven optimum path to maximizing human potential? The matter isn’t so much about deciding how to control the power structure, but about limiting the scope of any coercive power structure.

The king from

12 Rich Berger January 31, 2008 at 12:12 pm


Shouldn’t you have put “progressive” in quotes or at least appended a (sic)? The use of that term for statist policies is just a tired marketing scheme.

I cannot understand why Edwards was ever taken seriously.

13 Michael Martin January 31, 2008 at 12:16 pm

Nice post.

So do you also believe that private institutions should pick up the slack where public democratic institutions are at a comparative disadvantage? Or should less democratic government agencies (such as the executive branch agencies) be relied upon to fill in?

Seems like where democracy is incapable, it’s better for gov’t to just make a level playing field and let private institutions fill-in rather than giving a few politically connected technocrats the best info and letting them have at it with relatively little transparency into what they’re doing.

14 Steve January 31, 2008 at 1:19 pm

Anyone imagining that the “power” to spend 10 minutes casting a vote every 4 years is at all comparable to the power to daily lobby the elect(ed) is merely a sad pawn of the tall tales told of one over-hyped idol named “Democracy”. Those who regularly walk the halls of government with bags of money smile at the thought of the masses feeling oh-so-proud of getting off their asses a walloping 10 minutes every 4 years to be “part of the process”, “we the people”, blah, blah.

Be sure to wave your flag all 10 of those minutes every 4 years, big fella/fellette! LOL! 😉

15 Pippin January 31, 2008 at 1:31 pm

As has been noted over and over again, the United States is not a democracy but a republic.

Mrs. Powell: “Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
Benjamin Franklin: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Few understand how our governments (state and federal) were constituted. It is little wonder this nation’s constitutional jurisprudence is so screwed up.

16 guy in the veal calf office January 31, 2008 at 2:36 pm

I should add that I completely recognize that I hold the minority view and that most people do not actually care about those things in talking about, proposing, and enacting various policies. Its a shame, though.

17 Yancey Ward January 31, 2008 at 4:03 pm

Tyler alluded to it, but Ben was the first to explicitly point it out- The United States is a republic, not a democracy. Indeed, Enrique’s comment is not correct, in my opinion- too much and too little democracy both lead to totalitarianism, but for different reasons. The republic system of government, with strong constitutional limits on majorities protects from these extremes. Presently, the US system of government is slowly eroding to a state of too much democracy and majoritarian rule.

18 Anonymous January 31, 2008 at 5:40 pm

It might be a less loaded term to describe the Edwards campaign as populist rather than “progressive”.

19 R. Richard Schweitzer January 31, 2008 at 5:48 pm

Do the “lovers of ‘Democracy'” love plebiscitic ‘Democracy?’

Have they lost all taste for that distillation of judgements which representation provides for a Republic, even in the selection of candidacies.

20 Joshua Holmes January 31, 2008 at 7:56 pm

America is both a republic and a democracy. Democracy does not mean “voting on everything”, any more than Republic means “liberty”.

21 TGGP January 31, 2008 at 9:29 pm

Democracy in smaller, better educated, ethnically homogeneous nations is, sometimes, another story.
Do you think the franchise should have stayed restricted in Rhodesia or South Africa?

Mencius Moldbug is having a go again at democracy today.

22 elbita February 1, 2008 at 7:34 am

i thought victimization was the ideology of many of the poor. on social and economic issues, “What’s in it for me?” sums up the voting calculus of most Americans. certainly not outdated questions like, “Should the government even be involved in this?”

if you listen to the leading democrats, victimization is the theme for everyone who isn’t as rich as the candidates. if there’s a problem in your life, it’s probably the fault of a) bush, b)a successful company, c) rich people, or d) all of the above. and the candidates, of course, are the answer to all of our problems.

23 Sharper February 1, 2008 at 1:23 pm

I just happened to read a post from someone explaining his reasons for no longer believing in Democracy. ( It’s quite a counter-post to this one and I’d be interested in seeing Tyler’s response to it.

24 James Hanley February 2, 2008 at 1:01 am

Tyler’s right about everything here, except Edwards getting his support from the lower socio-economic strata. Analysis showed that he didn’t have a solid base of support in any identifiable demographic, just think support across several.

In other words, the working poor weren’t buying his progressive schtick. Maybe because they like shopping for cheap Chinese stuff at Wal-Mart after all.

25 baom February 8, 2008 at 11:57 pm


26 Bill April 14, 2008 at 6:50 pm

Not only is the US explicitly not a democracy but a Republic, it is the only Republic with true freedom.

We should thank the British, for without their oppression we would not be a Republic. The rest of the so-called free world has much more to thank American than the British and they forget that at their peril.

27 二宮沙樹 July 28, 2008 at 7:16 am

Very nice article! Thanks for this!

28 cabal gold January 1, 2009 at 8:47 pm

And the more cheap cabal gold is very good for you.

29 jim May 13, 2009 at 3:58 am

Nobody knows when the politician man is talking truth, when is talking nonsense

30 jar mobile February 9, 2010 at 2:28 pm

tahnk you very much for this fabouls article

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