Joseph Heath has written an interesting and thoughtful comment on my review of his excellent book Enlightenment 2.0 (fyi, we have never communicated but it turns out that Heath is a long time reader of MR.). Samuel Hammond concisely summarized on twitter part of Heath’s response:
In reply to @ATabarrok, Joseph Heath shares the dire Straussian reading of his own book: The US is Rome burning
Quite accurate but I want to focus on a different point.
Finally, Tabarrok suggests that I am “too sanguine about the role of politics.” I thought I was being fairly pessimistic about politics. I think the nub of the disagreement between Tabarrok and myself on this point – and certainly the basis of our major differences of political ideology – is that I am much more sanguine about the role of the state than he is. This is not the same as being sanguine about democratic politics. For example, he points out that:
In a large electorate, no individual’s vote is likely to change the outcome of an election. As a result, it doesn’t pay to be informed about politics nor to think about politics in objective and rational terms. Consider an individual who spends time and effort to be informed about politics. What does this individual receive in return for their investment? The same thing as the uninformed individual. Since better information doesn’t lead to better consequences, it doesn’t pay an individual to be informed.
I couldn’t agree more….Indeed, the sort of considerations that motivate Tabarrok’s enthusiasm for making decisions through betting markets are, I would guess, quite similar to the ones that motivate my own enthusiasm for cost-benefit analysis. The key difference is that Tabarrok (and Bryan Caplan) tend to assume that democracy gives “the people” much greater control over the behaviour of the state than it actually does. In the background there is, I suspect, a somewhat public-choicy picture of legislation as a complex process of preference-aggregation. By contrast, I follow Ian Shapiro in thinking that we need to get past these sorts of “general will” theories of democracy.
There is one point in the last chapter where I say what I really think, but again, it might easily be overlooked. So let me just say, for the record, that I was also dead serious when I wrote the following paragraph (and that it comes closest to summarizing my considered view):
It is important to recognize that modern democratic political systems involve a delicate compromise between, on the one hand, the desire for public control of decision-making and, on the other hand, the need for rational, coherent policy. Democracies need to be democratic, but they also need to work, in the sense that they need to produce a state that effectively discharges its responsibilities. Thus they have a variety of institutional features that allow them to function even when the democratic public sphere is completely degraded. They do so largely by shifting power and control away from elected representatives toward experts. Even in the United States, where this is difficult to do, one can find examples all over. The most obvious example is the enormous role that the Supreme Court has played in making decisions that, in most other democracies, would be left to the legislature. But one can see it in other areas as well, such as the amount of autonomy that government agencies have or the increased use of cost-benefit analysis in public decision-making (338).
So if you want to know what I really think, it’s that we are not going to be able to fix the problem of increased irrationalism in politics — at best we will be able to limit its most toxic effects. As a consequence, the legislature will increasingly become a sideshow, with the two other branches of the state assuming more and more of the responsibility for actually governing.
Heath has hit on an important similarity and difference in our views. We are both skeptical about democracy as a way of making rational, coherent policy. But in response to the defects of democracy I want to devolve more decisions to the individual and the market while Heath wants to centralize more decisions to the state and expert bureaucracies.
One of the reasons that I oppose the extension of democratic politics into every aspect of modern life is precisely that in trying to do too much, democracy delivers incoherence, gridlock and frustration, forces that eventually undermine its own legitimacy. I worry about democratic legitimacy because I see democracy as a check and balance on Leviathan (while Heath sees it as a check on government by experts).
The legislature has become a sideshow. But I worry, because the more Congress is held in contempt the greater the support for a bold executive that takes charge, makes decisions and gets things done. Under these pressures, executive power has grown not just in the United States but also in Canada and Great Britain (on this theme see F.H. Buckley’s The Once and Future King.) But for all its faults, the legislature and the rule of law are more conducive to liberty than the executive and the administrative state. Legislators are satisfied with reelection and a bit of pork but executives hunger for greatness and in so doing they promote the real dangers, idolatry, the centralization of power and war.
In short, I worry that the pathologies of democracy drive the demand not for rational, technocratic government but for Caesarism.