John Edwards and the virtues and limits of democracy

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.


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