May 22 2014
The Authoritarian Temptation
Rachel DiCarlo Currie
Whatever your views on the IRS scandal, the NSA surveillance program, Senate Democrats’ use of the “nuclear option” to eliminate certain filibusters, the Obama administration’s unilateral changes to U.S. deportation policy, its frequent rewriting of the Affordable Care Act, and its barrage of controversial regulations, this would seem an odd moment to argue that Washington has become excessively democratic.
Yet David Brooks wants us to believe that the main problem with our federal government is, not too little democracy, but too much democracy. What we really need, he writes in his latest New York Times column, is for America “to become less democratic at the national level in order to become more democratic at the local level.”
If you’re scratching your head at that one, the ensuing paragraphs only deepen the confusion: Brooks declares that we should essentially give up on the normal political process and instead “use elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions to push populist reforms.” As he explains:
The process of change would be unapologetically elitist. Gather small groups of the great and the good together to hammer out bipartisan reforms -- on immigration, entitlement reform, a social mobility agenda, etc. -- and then rally establishment opinion to browbeat the plans through. But the substance would be anything but elitist. Democracy’s great advantage over autocratic states is that information and change flow more freely from the bottom up. Those with local knowledge have more responsibility.
If the Guardian State’s big advantage is speed at the top, democracy’s is speed at the bottom. So, obviously, the elite commissions should push proposals that magnify that advantage: which push control over poverty programs to local charities; which push educational diversity through charter schools; which introduce more market mechanisms into public provision of, say, health care, to spread power to consumers.
Leave aside the fact that the Bowles-Simpson plan went nowhere. The underlying assumption here is that America’s inability to achieve large-scale immigration and entitlement reforms represents a failure of democracy. Yet one could just as easily argue that it represents the system working as it should. Indeed, our democracy was explicitly designed to make it difficult for temporary majorities to pass transformative legislation without strong popular support. When such legislation is passed in the face of massive opposition, the result is heightened political acrimony, heightened distrust of government, and heightened obstacles to future reforms. (Exhibit A: ObamaCare.)
In a multi-ethnic, increasingly multicultural nation of 314 million people, a nation with major socioeconomic disparities, a growing retiree population, and an obsession with identity politics, reaching consensus on issues such as immigration and entitlements is always going to be a tough slog. The solution is, not to become less democratic, but rather to continue doing the hard, unglamorous work of meeting with our fellow Americans, explaining our positions, and trying to win elections, while simultaneously promoting an atmosphere of greater social and cultural cohesion.
Now, Brooks certainly has a point when he says that democracies often struggle with “long-range planning,” and I’m confident that I agree with him on many aspects of entitlement reform. But he loses credibility -- and veers dangerously close to Tom Friedman territory (i.e., authoritarian envy) -- when he praises the relative efficiency, innovative capacity, and “long-range thinking” of the government in China (one of “Asia’s modernizing autocracies”). As Matt O’Brien writes at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog:
These paeans to government of, by and for the elite ignore China as it actually exists. Their air is unbreathable. Their high-speed railways are unsafe and shoddily made. And their government’s credit-driven stimulus might have inflated a monster housing bubble that’s now popping. Not exactly examples of superior long-range planning.
The truth, as boring as it may be, is that Winston Churchill was right: Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Daron Acemoglu, Suresh Naidu, James Robinson and Pascual Restrepo have a new paper that finds that countries that switch to democracy have about 20 percent higher GDP per capita 30 years later. That seems to be because greater civil liberties lead to governments that reform more economically and invest more in education and health care -- in short, that are more responsive to the people.