Why Does Democracy Work So Well?


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Karl Smith is fascinated “by the fact that Democracy seems to be a highly effective form of government despite an almost necessary implication that policy will be determined, or at least largely influenced, by the least knowledgeable and indeed least policy interested people in society – swing voters.”

I think the answer to this is probably that “policy” as such isn’t quite as all-important as people sometimes seem to think. If you read Michael Lewis on Greece you’re swiftly reminded that there’s no law on the books saying “everyone evade taxes all the time and think of non-corrupt civil servants as suckers.” You’re looking at a set of complicated interlocking social and cultural norms, that both influence policy and are influenced by it, but that aren’t reducible to a policy decision.

If you look around, it turns out that the Anglophone countries, the Nordics, Switzerland, and Netherlands are the oldest established permanent floating constitutional democracies in the world. And they’re also generally the least-corrupt countries. And generally the most-prosperous. I think this is generally a question of joint causation and mutually re-enforcing trends rather than democratic governance leading to the adoption of “good policies.” All these countries are actually full of stupid policies—in Sweden a privately owned store can’t sell Tylenol and the United States invaded Iraq to eliminate a nonexistent nuclear weapons program—but we succeed nonetheless. By contrast I’m not sure having Joseph Kabila call up a bunch of smart policy wonks would do a ton of good. And in general, we’ve had a lot more success having people from badly-governed countries move to better-governed ones than in having people from well-governed countries show up in badly-governed ones and tell them how to do things.

It’s not that the problems of poorly governed countries are unsolvable or that policy is irrelevant. Obviously North Korea is doing a lot worse than South Korea from starting in similar places. But countries are doing well or poorly usually for reasons that are deeper and more complicated than good or bad policy, and I think democracies do well largely because the norms it takes to keep a democracy going are generally beneficial rather than because democracy leads to smart policies.


I’m told the incumbent Swedish center-right government actually changed the Tylenol thing since I was there in October 2009. Also in Europe, Tylenol is “paracetamol.”

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