10% Less Democracy
Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less
Published by: Stanford University Press
248 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm
- ISBN: 9781503603578
- Published: February 2020
During the 2016 presidential election, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders argued that elites were hurting the economy. But, drawing together evidence and theory from across economics, political science, and even finance, Garett Jones says otherwise. In 10% Less Democracy, he makes the case that the richest, most democratic nations would be better off if they slightly reduced accountability to the voting public, turning up the dial on elite influence.
To do this, Jones builds on three foundational lines of evidence in areas where he has personal experience. First, as a former staffer in the U.S. Senate, he saw how senators voted differently as elections grew closer. Second, as a macroeconomist, Jones knows the merits of "independent" central banks, which sit apart from the political process and are controlled by powerful insiders. The consensus of the field is that this detached, technocratic approach has worked far better than more political and democratic banking systems. Third, his previous research on the effects of cognitive skills on political, social, and economic systems revealed many ways in which well-informed voters improve government.
Discerning repeated patterns, Jones draws out practical suggestions for fine-tuning, focusing on the length of political terms, the independence of government agencies, the weight that voting systems give to the more-educated, and the value of listening more closely to a group of farsighted stakeholders with real skin in the game—a nation's sovereign bondholders. Accessible to political news junkies while firmly rooted and rigorous, 10% Less Democracy will fuel the national conversation about what optimal government looks like.
The author's public lecture on the possible merits of slightly less democratic accountability led to a wave of social media outrage. That wave of outrage was one piece of evidence that potential readers would be drawn to a book on the topic. The author brings three areas of personal expertise to the book. In the U.S. Senate, he saw that when elections draw close, politicians become less brave and more attentive to voters back home. As a monetary economist, the author learned the academic consensus that politically independent central banks, kept far from the influence of voters and elected politicians, achieve better economic results. And in an earlier book on human intelligence, he documented the value of informed voters for improving governance. The early chapters of the book follow the path of those three lines of inquiry.
Some degree of democracy appears to be extremely valuable. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen showed, democracies never have famines; other empirical research argues that democracies are less likely to go to war (especially with each other) and are less likely to kill their own citizens. However, in the case of government-organized killing of citizens, it appears that only a moderate degree of democracy is needed to achieve these excellent results. Beyond that "dose," there is perhaps little or no payoff to extra levels of democracy, for either peace or prosperity. In the area of taxation, the Laffer curve is the concept that there's a bliss point, a happy medium, an optimal tax rate somewhere between 0% and 100%. The same concept probably applies to the level of democracy as well. This metaphor of balancing benefits of democracy against costs sets the stage for the rest of 10% Less Democracy.
When legislators have long terms, they tend to behave differently toward the end of those terms as they prepare for election. Evidence from around the world is offered to show that these effects are real and that they shape economic policy. In the areas of international trade, labor market regulation, and exchange rate devaluations, politicians appear to be reluctant to implement policies supported by economic experts when an election is around the corner. Since elections appear to encourage worse policy choices, this is an argument for fewer elections—for longer terms in office, and hence less immediate electoral accountability. Scholars of democracy argue that frequent elections are central to democracy, so a shift toward longer terms is a slight shift away from pure democracy.
Monetary economists have studied which institutions, which rules of the game, are best for creating low, stable inflation; low unemployment rates; and high stable economic growth. The evidence is reasonably strong that central banks that are independent of the political process are effective at lowering inflation and appear to have no adverse effects on unemployment or economic growth. Politically independent central banks are a free lunch, a benefit you don't have to pay for. Keeping democratically elected politicians far away from the banking system is at least somewhat undemocratic, and that distance is good for national economic performance.
The entire judicial system in many democracies is kept quite undemocratic. This is often called "judicial independence": judges with long terms who can't easily be fired are quite unaccountable to voters. Evidence suggests that appointed judges with long terms are good for national economic policy, and judges appointed by merit commissions in particular appear to be quite productive by conventional legal measures. Electricity and telecom regulators who are appointed rather than elected also are arguably more effective, though here the evidence is more mixed; in any case, there's no clear, strong case for elected regulators. There may be little gained or lost if more regulators are appointed, so the overall risks of less democracy in the regulatory sphere appear to be modest. Professor Alan Blinder's proposal for an independent Federal Tax Board, akin to an independent central bank but for writing tax law, is discussed.
A vast empirical literature spanning political science and economics demonstrates both widespread voter ignorance and the fact that voters with more education tend to know more about government. This chapter takes that standard literature largely for granted and offers a variety of potential voting reforms to give more weight to better-informed voters, while simultaneously maintaining a high level of democracy, and a high level of voter involvement across demographic groups. The title of the chapter is a reminder that keeping some distance from difficult reform questions is a path to more objective thinking—and that any voting reform proposals should accord with the moral standards of the citizens of the nation that adopts them.
Sovereign bondholders should be treated more like corporate shareholders. They have a long time horizon and care about the government's future ability to repay its debts, which likely gives them a strong incentive to encourage persistent increases in national productivity. Some organizations, including the Council of Foreign Bondholders and the Paris Club, which have performed similar tasks of conveying views from lenders to sovereign borrowers, are discussed. A variety of proposals are offered to give sovereign bondholders some modest form of a seat at the table, including a small number of seats in the upper house of the national legislature.
The quest for politically pure government has weakened democratic performance. Logrolling and earmarks help politicians with diverse interests to come together and pass legislation. Recent quests to create greater transparency and end perceived corruption make it harder for government to cut win-win deals. In addition, the rise of social media likely increases the noise and reduces the signal value of any single election. This strengthens the case for more small-stakes elections, with perhaps half or one-third of elected officials up for reelection at a time.
The European Union is often considered an example of the failure of elite technocracy. Furthermore, there's an academic literature on the "democratic deficit" in the European Union. So it's taken for granted that the EU is insufficiently democratic and is failing at key goals. But in practice, the EU has been reasonably successful and fits normal definitions of democracy. Some of its key difficulties come instead from the supermajority and unanimity rules that are an unavoidable feature of a democracy that embraces such diverse nations. And as the chapter emphasizes, there's an important theoretical literature in the social sciences, especially work by Knut Wicksell, Nobel laureate James Buchanan, and Gordon Tullock, arguing that the unanimity rule should be the starting point for democratic decision making.
Singapore is an example of a successful economy that is much less democratic than the rich democracies of the world. It's not an example that rich democracies should widely emulate, but it's still an example to learn from. While some academics asked how countries can "Get to Denmark," to a mix of competent government and prosperity, it's worthwhile to spend some time learning to "Get to Singapore." This chapter reviews Singapore's unique path to less democratic prosperity.
Classical political philosophers debated which form of government was best. A number of important thinkers, from Aristotle and Xenophon to James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, have concluded that a blend of multiple forms of government is the best path. With the rise of modern statistical methods and large data sets it's possible to go beyond anecdotes and test theories of which government institutions are likely to work best. Armchair theorizing has its role, but so does formal statistical evidence—and the previous chapters have brought such evidence to bear on the question of the best form of government. The conclusion offers a variety of broadly oligarchical and epistocratic proposals as suggestions for the rich democracies to consider and urges readers to weigh their preexisting ethical attitudes toward democratic governance against the evidence that slightly less democracy in the richest democracies could offer large benefits to the citizens of these nations.
"Invocation of 'democracy' is one of the most ill-defined canards of modern discourse. In this revisionist work, rooted in common sense, Jones shows that effective representative government does not in fact rest on pure democracy, but does rely on well-functioning elites. Definitely recommended." ~Tyler Cower, Holbert L. Harris Chair of Economics at George Mazon University, Author of Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero
"How can we rescue democracy from the slough of despond into which it has fallen? In this lucidly written book, Garett Jones makes the case for a surprising answer: the best way to improve democracy is to have a bit less of it. It's only by handing power to technical experts, lengthening congressional terms, staggering elections, and reducing direct democracy that we can save the invaluable core of democracy from self-destruction." ~Adrian Wooldridge, co-author of Capitalism in America: An Economic History
"If a genie told me that James Madison had been reincarnated as another person and had written an update to the Federalist Papers, I'd say, 'It's Garett Jones and 10% Less Democracy, right?'" ~Tim Groseclose, Professor of Economics, George Mason University
"10% Less Democracy is a joy to read. If you liked Freakonomics or Predictably Irrational, you'll love this book. It deserves to be read widely, widely discussed
— and acted upon. A tour de force combining the best economic insight with real-world, practical applications. Every chapter demonstrates ways in which reducing democratic control over certain decisions reliably results in better outcomes for all. We should jettison our religious attachment to democracy and see it for what it is: a tool good only in moderation." ~Jason Brennan, author of Cracks in the Ivory Tower
"In his cheeky new book, 10% Less Democracy, the economist Garett Jones makes a counter-zeitgeist case for more 'epistocracy,' or rule by the knowledgeable. Recent weeks have rather made the case for him and altered that zeitgeist." ~Janan Ganesh, Financial Times
"Mr Jones musters plenty of convincing evidence that fewer elections and more distance between voters and decisions make for better governance." ~The Economist
"The belief in democracy is strong in most rich, democratic countries, even sacred. Why in the world would anyone propose ten percent less of it? The key is sharpening our thinking on what 'democracy' means. Once we allow a sharper definiteion, decision-making by the vote of all, we demystify 'democracy' and more sensibly assess its pluses and minuses. Jones' argument is persuasive and rests on global data." ~Charlotta Stern, Professor of Sociology, Stockholm University, Deputy Director of the Ratio Institute