Gridlock and Democracy

(cc photo by kevindooley)

Mark Kleiman writes about a friend who’s a great admirer of East Asia’s successful autocracies and observes that disdain for democracy is “not a viewpoint often seen in print; I wonder how widespread it is?”

My sense is that in a sublimated way, anti-democratic sentiments are very common among the American elite. This is one reason why there’s such tenacious support for counter-majoritarian elements of the legislative process. If major legislative change requires agreement between the leadership of both major political parties, then elections have very little efficacy in terms of determining policy outcomes. To my way of looking at it, that’s a bad thing because it undermines democratic accountability. But if you don’t believe in democratic accountability, it’s a good thing because essentially the same relatively small group of senatorial pivot points determine the outcome at all times. Of course this also generates a massive status quo bias that the elite often dislikes in one respect or another. But instead of proposing to alleviate the status quo bias by making the institutions less bound to the status quo, the conventional wisdom is that we need more bipartisan commissions to further ensure that decision-making is divorced from electoral accountability.

I think all that’s nuts. I’m not much of a populist, and it’s not that I think the masses have all the answers (if you look at polls it’s clear that public opinion is confused about a great many things) but I really do think that democratic accountability is very important. People who win elections should govern, and if the results of their governance are bad they should lose power. That’s an incentive-compatible mode of governance. Something like “procedure nobody understands determines outcomes, and the party that doesn’t hold the White House benefits from bad results no matter who was responsible for them” is not.