Elections Are Not a Ruler’s Toy Nor a Sacred Panacea

Some Republican leaders have, at last, started to blame Mr. Trump for burning the bridges behind him after being fired by the electorate or, perhaps more exactly (nothing is grandiose in that presidency), for breaking what he thinks are his toys after he felt scolded. (Will he also scratch graffiti on the oval office desk?) This is more or less what the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper that tried to like Trump, argues, although more prudently, in two pieces: “A Bogus Dispute Is Doing Real Damage,” November 19, by columnist Peggy Noonan; and Lindsay Wise, “Some Republicans Call for Trump to Back Up Claims of Fraud,” November 20, 2020.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported on weekend tweets of Mr. Trump attacking the Republicans who have asked him to stop trying to subvert the election results (Catherine Lucey and Ted Mann, “Trump Continues to Challenge Election Results as Legal Options Dwindle,” November 22). Against the (Republican) governor of Maryland Larry Hogan, who had said that “We’re beginning to look like we’re a banana republic,” Trump tweeted that “Hogan is just as bad as the flawed tests he paid big money for!” Interestingly, this jab refers to a story revealed last week by the Washington Post, one of the newspapers that Mr. Trump used to blame as “enemies of the people.”

At the exact opposite end of endangering American democracy to serve one’s political self-interest, lies the danger of sacralizing it. In the piece linked to above, journalist Lindsay Wise reports about Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyoming):

Ms. Cheney, the top ranking Republican woman in the House, said that if Mr. Trump can’t stand up his fraud claims and show they would tip the election in his favor, he should “fulfill his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States by respecting the sanctity of our electoral process.”

In a classical-liberal perspective, nothing is sacred about ballots. They just need to be cast by eligible voters and be counted correctly. Perhaps this is what Rep. Cheney wanted to emphasize by speaking about the sanctity of the process.

In the mind of populists (as I and other analysts define them), elections are supposed to reveal the will of the people, and they blame the electoral process if it doesn’t achieve that. In reality, the electoral process cannot reveal the will of the people, which is unknowable because it does not exist. It suffices for liberal democracy that the process deliver a good count of the votes cast by a majority or a plurality of the electorate. The populists have it exactly backward: they idolize democracy for what it cannot deliver and undermine its useful process.

We can understand that moral rules develop to support voting because it is an institution that often fosters prosperity and offers some protection against tyranny. Contemporary economists who have formalized this theory of morals include Friedrich Hayek and, in game-theoretic terms, Robert Sugden. But this does not mean that democratic voting is a sacred panacea.

(0 COMMENTS)

Read More

Elections Are Neither a Ruler’s Toy Nor a Sacred Panacea

Some Republican leaders have, at last, started to blame Trump for burning the bridges behind him after being fired by the electorate or, perhaps more exactly (nothing is grandiose in that presidency), for breaking what he thinks are his toys after he felt scolded. (Will he also scratch graffiti on the oval office desk?) This is more or less what the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper that tried to love Trump, argues, although more prudently, in two pieces: “A Bogus Dispute Is Doing Real Damage,” November 19, by columnist Peggy Noonan; and Lindsay Wise, “Some Republicans Call for Trump to Back Up Claims of Fraud,” November 20, 2020.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported on weekend tweets of Mr. Trump attacking the Republicans who have called him to stop trying to subvert the election results (Catherine Lucey and Ted Mann, “Trump Continues to Challenge Election Results as Legal Options Dwindle,” November 22). Against the (Republican) governor of Maryland Larry Hogan, who had said that “We’re beginning to look like we’re a banana republic,” Trump tweeted that “Hogan is just as bad as the flawed tests he paid big money for!” Interestingly, this jab refers to a story revealed last week by the Washington Post, one of the newspapers that Mr. Trump used to blame as “enemies of the people.”

At the exact opposite end of endangering American democracy to serve one’s political self-interest, lies the danger of sacralizing it. In the piece linked to above, journalist Lindsay Wise reports about Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyoming):

Ms. Cheney, the top ranking Republican woman in the House, said that if Mr. Trump can’t stand up his fraud claims and show they would tip the election in his favor, he should “fulfill his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States by respecting the sanctity of our electoral process.”

In a classical-liberal perspective, nothing is sacred about ballots. They just need to be cast by eligible voters and be counted correctly. Perhaps this is what Rep. Cheney wanted to emphasize by speaking about the sanctity of the process.

In the mind of populists (as I and other analysts define them), elections are supposed to reveal the will of the people, and they blame the electoral process if it doesn’t achieve that. In reality, the electoral process cannot reveal the will of the people, which is unknowable because it does not exist. It suffices for liberal democracy that the process deliver a good count of the votes cast by a majority or a plurality of the electorate. The populists have it exactly backward: they idolize democracy for what it cannot deliver and undermine its useful process.

We can understand that moral rules develop to support voting because it is an institution that often fosters prosperity and offers some protection against tyranny. Contemporary economists who have formalized this theory of morals include Friedrich Hayek and, in game-theoretic terms, Robert Sugden. But this does not mean that democratic voting is a sacred panacea.

(0 COMMENTS)

Read More

From Democracy to Populist Rallies

In his 1945 book On Power, Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote:

Democracy, then, in the centralizing, pattern-making, absolutist shape which we have given to it is, it is clear, the time of tyranny’s incubation.

Sometimes, democracy in America looks a bit like the South American version.

In general, democracy as we know it works differently than what Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels call its “folk theory” version. In their book Democracy for Realists, they describe the folk conception of democracy:

In the conventional view, democracy begins with the voters. Ordinary people have references about what their government should do. They choose leaders who will do those things, or they enact their preferences directly in referendums. In either case, what the majority wants becomes government policy. … Democracy makes the people the rulers, and legitimacy derives from their consent.

That nothing like this happens in the real world should be obvious by observing the current electoral campaign in America, reading the political advertisements, and listening to the presidential candidates of the two main political parties. Public choice theory explains many failures of folk democracy.

There is much to disagree with in the alternative proposed by Achen and Bartels, which is an elitist democracy based on group identities. But the populist solution does not produce better democracy. It is more an extreme form of “folk theory” democracy that worsens democratic failures.

What is said and done in President Trump’s rallies is more entertainment than information on a political program. These rallies are liturgical spectacles of fusion between the great leader and “the people.” Extreme illustrations were given when the president danced as the crowd was chanting “YMCA” (videos are available on YouTube).

This sort of show is not new in contemporary populism. In his book Populisms: A Quick Immersion (which I review in the forthcoming issue of Regulation), Carlos de la Torre, a professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky, observes that “[p]opulism blurs the line between politics and entertainment.” Of Rafael Correa, the populist president of Ecuador from 2007 to 2017, Torre writes:

Rafael Correa’s campaign strategy in 2006 was also based on mass rallies, where common people were in close proximity to the candidate and sang along with him to revolutionary music of the 1960s and 1970s. Even though this music was retro, Correa’s political rhetoric was innovative. Unlike the long and boring speeches of his rivals, Correa blended music and dance with speech-making. He spoke briefly, presenting a simple idea, music was played, and Correa and the crowd sang along the campaign tunes and dance.

(0 COMMENTS)

Read More

What Is Populism? The People V. the People

“Populism” has received many definitions and historical interpretations. Some analysts take it simply as a more active form or stretch of democracy, but this may underplay the existence of very different theories and practices of democracy. One analytically useful definition of populism was given by political scientist William Riker in his 1982 book Liberalism Against Democracy. He defines the essence of populism as a political ideal in which the will of the people ought to be public policy: “what the people, as a corporate entity, want ought to be social policy.”

“The people” and “the will of the people” have long been invoked by populists of the right and populists of the left. Carlos de la Torre (University of Florida) summarizes the history of populism in Latin America (see his article of the Oxford Handbook of Populism, 2017):

I understand populism as a Manichaean discourse that divides politics and society as the struggle between two irreconcilable and antagonistic camps: the people and the oligarchy or the power block. Under populism a leader claims to embody the unitary will of the people in their struggle for liberation.

The idea of the will of the people being incarnated in a popular leader was strongly expressed by Hugo Chávez, whom de la Torre quotes as saying:

This is not about Hugo Chávez, this about a people. … I am not an individual, I am the people.

Closer to us, both Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren have invoked the will of the people, in a less flamboyant manner:

Elizabeth Warren (quoted by David Frum in The Atlantic, December 2019):
“We have to … have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”

 

Donald Trump at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, on September 25, 2019:
“A permanent political class is openly disdainful, dismissive, and defiant of the will of the people.”

Jack Holmes, politics editor at Esquire, who believed that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primaries platform was reasonable, wrote (“The President’s War on Democracy Is a War on the American People,” August 14, 2020), speaking of president Donald Trump:

Since democracy is our mechanism for communicating the will of the people into the laws and policies that govern our lives, this does not merely make the president an enemy of democracy. It makes him an enemy of the people. He ought to recognize the phrase.

Populists of the left and populists of the right invoke the same will of the people against each other. Populism is the people against the people.

Which brings us back to William Riker, who explained, on the basis of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and social choice theory, that the “will of the people” simply does not exist. It does not exist because there is no “the people” to have a will like an individual has. The “will of the people” is a rhetorical device to exploit a large proportion of the individuals who are the only reality under “the people.” The people’s preferences cannot be aggregated into a sort of social superindividual without being either dictatorial or incoherent, which is the essence of Arrow’s theorem. Those who pretend to represent the will of the people, from the French Revolution until 20th-century populist experiments, can only be authoritarian rulers, with or without the legal forms of democracy. (See also my Econlog post “Missing Something About Populism?“)

The tyrannical strand of the French Revolution—there was also a classical-liberal strand, rapidly overcome—was anchored in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who made “the people” and “the will of the people” the foundation of his political philosophy (see his The Social Contract, 1762; see also Graeme Garrard’s short piece, “The Prophet of National Populism“). Rousseau may be the father of modern populism of the left and of the right.

Perhaps this illustrates what John Maynard Keynes wrote at the end of the General Theory:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

(3 COMMENTS)

Read More

What Is Populism? The People V. the People

“Populism” has received many definitions and historical interpretations. Some analysts take it simply as a more active form or stretch of democracy, but this may underplay the existence of very different theories and practices of democracy. One analytically useful definition of populism was given by political scientist William Riker in his 1982 book Liberalism Against Democracy. He defines the essence of populism as a political ideal in which the will of the people ought to be public policy: “what the people, as a corporate entity, want ought to be social policy.”

“The people” and “the will of the people” have long been invoked by populists of the right and populists of the left. Carlos de la Torre (University of Florida) summarizes the history of populism in Latin America (see his article of the Oxford Handbook of Populism, 2017):

I understand populism as a Manichaean discourse that divides politics and society as the struggle between two irreconcilable and antagonistic camps: the people and the oligarchy or the power block. Under populism a leader claims to embody the unitary will of the people in their struggle for liberation.

The idea of the will of the people being incarnated in a popular leader was strongly expressed by Hugo Chávez, whom de la Torre quotes as saying:

This is not about Hugo Chávez, this about a people. … I am not an individual, I am the people.

Closer to us, both Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren have invoked the will of the people, in a less flamboyant manner:

Elizabeth Warren (quoted by David Frum in The Atlantic, December 2019):
“We have to … have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”

 

Donald Trump at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, on September 25, 2019:
“A permanent political class is openly disdainful, dismissive, and defiant of the will of the people.”

Jack Holmes, politics editor at Esquire, who believed that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primaries platform was reasonable, wrote (“The President’s War on Democracy Is a War on the American People,” August 14, 2020), speaking of president Donald Trump:

Since democracy is our mechanism for communicating the will of the people into the laws and policies that govern our lives, this does not merely make the president an enemy of democracy. It makes him an enemy of the people. He ought to recognize the phrase.

Populists of the left and populists on the right invoke the same will of the people against each other. Populism is the people against the people.

Which brings us back to William Riker, who explained, on the basis of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and social choice theory, that the “will of the people” simply does not exist. It does not exist because there is no “the people” to have a will like an individual has. The “will of the people” is a rhetorical device to exploit a large proportion of the individuals who are the only reality under “the people.” The people’s preferences cannot be aggregated into a sort of social superindividual without being either dictatorial or incoherent, which is the essence of Arrow’s theorem. Those who pretend to represent the will of the people, from the French Revolution until 20th-century populist experiments, can only be authoritarian rulers, with or without the legal forms of democracy. (See also my Econlog post “Missing Something About Populism?“)

The tyrannical strand of the French Revolution—there was also a classical-liberal strand, rapidly overcome—was anchored in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who made “the people” and “the will of the people” the foundation of his political philosophy (see his The Social Contract, 1762; see also Graeme Garrard’s short piece, “The Prophet of National Populism“). Rousseau may be the father of modern populism of the left and of the right.

Perhaps this illustrates what John Maynard Keynes wrote at the end of the General Theory:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

(0 COMMENTS)

Read More

The American Economy Just Before Covid-19

The determination by the National Bureau of Economic Research that the American economy entered into recession in February 2020 was a surprise for many. The recession started before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic and a full month before President Trump declared a state of emergency. But is this early recession really surprising?

In a feature article to appear in the forthcoming (Summer) issue of Regulation, which will hit the newsstands before the end of this month and the web earlier, I tried to see what diagnosis of the “Trump economy” (if such a label can be used) could be made on December 31, 2019.

My article contains 9 figures that give a good idea of the evolution of the American economy during these three years. Some of the data may surprise you. My main question was: To which was the American economy prepared for an economic shock? I don’t want to spoil the suspense, but I think that the subtitle of my article is not badly chosen: “Three Years of Volatile Continuity.” But wait to see the charts.

 

 

(0 COMMENTS)

Read More