Democracy Works, So Government Sucks

Jason Brennan hands you the check:

The quality of the candidates who make it on the ballot depends upon the quality of the electorate. The politicians who make it on the ballot are low quality because they appeal to the median voter. If the median voter has silly views, then smart, well-informed, intellectually honest, forthright politicians don’t stand a chance.

Many people complain that we’re always stuck choosing the lesser of two evils. The Comedy Central show South Park compared the 2004 presidential election to a school mascot election between a Turd Sandwich and a Douche. Why are we often stuck choosing between a Republican Turd Sandwich and Democratic Douche? It’s not because the system is broken or corrupt. It’s because the system works. …

If we want to fix our democracy, then we need to fix ourselves. We need to become smarter, less biased, and more intellectually honest when it comes to politics. We need the median voter to be a virtuous voter.

via Princeton University Press Blog » Blog Archive » Bad Government is Our Fault.

  • webgrrl

    “It comes down to whether you think it’s plausible that civil society makes sense outside of a political settlement…”

    It’s not a question of plausibility, since we now have evolution and primatology. Chimps have culture, recognized families, and a social hierarchy. They even appear to have a basic services economy – since they travel and don’t really settle in one place, commodity or real property doesn’t make sense for them, so they don’t have it.

    Jane Goodall even argues they have a form of “religious awe;” whereas Barbara King argues they simply have precursor behaviors for religion. Either way, what other elements are necessary for a baseline civil society? I can’t think of any. But yet chimps lack formal government. So QED.

    “This is a typical argument, but even here, one would have to show that, say, the majority of what taxes actually go to work to prevent Hobbes’ brutish state of nature.”

    As above, I think modern science has shown that Hobbes’ idea of a state of nature – the atomized individual at war with every other – is not actually the monkey way. Rather, there might be an argument that it’s the external state that atomizes us. Where this goes is I think obvious to all here.

  • Michael

    Dain….If I understand you correctly, then I’d be fine with that. Under certain conditions, confiscation of 95% of pre-tax income would be okay. The tax rate during WWII at the upper income bracket was close to 77%. We can imagine even more dire circumstances where the government would need to confiscate nearly all income. Where Hobbes is wrong is arguing that, once the political settlement is reached, there are no checks or protocols that the sovereign needs answer to in order to set tax rates. There are constraints on how just decisions of the sovereign are made: they must be democratic, public and law-goverened. But it’s these procedures, rather than the outcome of the procedures, that is just or unjust. There is no apriori answer to what is rightfully mine, and what the government can rightfully demand of me.

  • Michael

    webgrrl….clearly chimp societies have culture, tradition, social organization, even rudimentary norms…but none of these are sufficient conditions for civil society as it is usually understood…civil society is based first and foremost on contract, the recognition of which transforms the dictates of self-interest and utility into actual law….to claim that civil society makes sense outside of a political settlement is to claim that there is a plausible notion of contract, civil right, and law outside or prior to a recognized sovereign power able to enforce that law, those rights, and the contracts….again, unless you think that some God plays this role, it’s hard to make sense of civil society outside of the political settlement establishing the sovereign….after all, even with their culture, tradition and hierarchy, if monkey X mates with monkey Y’s mate, all monkeys Y can do is fight it or accept it….furthermore, there’s probably a reason why human chimpanzees developed far beyond their near conspecifics, and this is that we established forms of government that allowed a truly civil society to develop, however crude the initial formations might have been….

    • Micha Ghertner


      There is in fact a rich body of academic literature that documents the existence of civil society and customary/private/polycentric law prior to and independent of any state sovereign. See, for example, Tom Bell or the Cato Unbound issue from August 2007. Here is the takeaway from Peter Leeson’s lead essay:

      Empirical evidence, past and present, sheds light on how individuals under anarchy develop private institutional solutions to address the problems that statelessness presents. The guiding force behind these solutions is none other than Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Importantly, Smith’s principle applies not only to individuals’ activities in the context of well-functioning institutions, but also to their activities in the development of institutions themselves.

      • Greg N.

        Yeah, Michael. One would think you’ve never heard of the “Not So Wild Wild West.” Come on!

  • webgrrl

    “civil society is based first and foremost on contract”

    Or so says you. Doesn’t this effectively assume the very point under discussion? Indeed, Hegel’s argument in Philosophy of Right is that civil society exists before the external state, just as the family exists before the state. He is not alone in this claim of course, which I quoted at too much length here. You are free to rebut it, if you have an actual argument. :) Just airly asserting your point is working with this skirt, sorry.

    Also I think you are not considering carefully enough where any argument that puts government before civil society is going to take you. Do you really want to go there? Be wary! Engels is lying there with a trap.

    And your account of “out of order” mating shows little knowledge of chimp society I’m afraid. Primate society can be quite ugly, unfortunately. But we could say the same of people: if X commits adultery with Y’s wife, Y can do little except accept it (stay with her) or fight it (divorce her). So forgive me but that strand of your thought lacks force.

  • Andrew

    You — and your readers — waste a lot of time using logic to invalidate opinion. You’ll never be able to prove it immoral to tax income than you’ll be able to prove red a better color than yellow.

    Yes, you can invalidate whatever reasons a person offers for taking a certain position. You may even change the minds of a few people who used a line of reasoning to form a stance on something.

    But most people don’t do that. They form opinions and then try to articulate reasons — much as I might decide I like a TV show and then try to tell my wife why.

    If my wife points out that my stated reason is factually incorrect, it doesn’t mean that I don’t actually like the show. It just means that I couldn’t accurately say why.

    In most cases, the only complete reason for holding any opinion is “because I do” which is why most people think taxes are (or aren’t) fair.

  • Will Wilkinson

    Sure Andrew, And some people (suckers!) sincerely care to some extent about the logical and evidential status of their beliefs, and one of the very best ways to manipulate those people into agreeing with you is to reason them into it. It makes me feel dirty but I do it anyway.

  • Michael

    webgrrl……look, if you’re gonna go all Hegel on the matter, Hegel undercuts the entire terms of the discussion….libertarian arguments only make sense within a social contract framework, and Hegel is no social-contract theorist…..the libertarian position, at least as I am understanding it, is committed to the following claim: I have a pre-settlement right to my entire income earned in the free market, and if the government subsequently set up is going to demand a portion of that income, it has to do so according to principles that I (ideally) can accept. Anything more is confiscatory and unjust. Most libertarians further argue that basically, the only principles I’ll accept as just are those that are required to maintain and secure a truly free market (I won’t accept principles based on public goods like equality). But if you’re gonna go all Hegel on this, this distinction between ‘free market’ (read: civil society) and government is bunk. The State is the realization of the ethical Idea of civil society, according to Hegel, and so could hardly be set in opposition to it. Also, I’m not all that afraid of the Engles charge. Nothing I’ve said would justify authoritarianism.

    About monkeys: most chimps are really promiscuous, gibbons are pretty monogamous, and orangutans are basically monogamous but occassionally adulterous, like humans. But the difference is that in human societies, unlike in any ape or monkey society, we don’t have to just fight or accept: we can sue. If you don’t see a difference between fighting and adjudication, then maybe I ask you to be wary of Foucaldianism!

    MIcha: I would only say that if anarchic societies worked, there’d be a lot more of them. At a certain point, any society with sufficient population density establishes something like a sovereign power. I don’t argue that complex systems of exchange and social organization exist and have existed absent a governing sovereign power. The point is that until such establishment, there is nothing like civil society in the relevant sense because there is no security in transaction. Now I WOULD argue that, once the political settlement is reached, the point of that settlement both as a theoretical and empirical matter is not restricted in any way towards maintaining the pre-settlement state of affairs.

    • Micha Ghertner

      I’m not sure I follow. Complex systems of exchange and social organization exist and have existed absent a governing sovereign power. You seemed to deny this in your previous comment. I can’t tell if you are denying this or confirming this in your subsequent comment. Or are you claiming that it is irrelevant to your argument?

      It is a legitimate question to ask why there aren’t more anarchic societies alive today, but that is separate from your prior question of whether or not “there is a plausible notion of contract, civil right, and law outside or prior to a recognized sovereign power able to enforce that law.”

      • stuart

        ‘Complex systems of exchange and social organization exist and have existed absent a governing sovereign power’

        This doesnt negate his point. These systems can only exist due to the social insitutions that govern the exchange of goods and services. If one person in society doesnt go by these rules than the conditions for exchange unravel, so although there isnt govenrment involvement it is still in a sense ‘governed’. Contract laws are just the official formulation of such arrangments

      • Michael

        Yea, I should have been clearer: by civil society I mean a system of exchange based upon mutual contract where, when one or another party violates terms of the contract, redress can be legitimately demanded, and under ideal conditions, guaranteed. So in a pre-state society (perhaps like Papua New Guinea today), if someone from a neighboring tribe steals my sheep or my wife, there’s general recognition that that’s a crappy thing to do, and the thief knows that by his action he is possibly risking retribution from myself, or war from my whole tribe on his whole tribe. But if he is much more powerful than I, or if his tribe is more powerful than my tribe, he may well think that there’s no important risk and go ahead and rob me. Because there is no soverign, tribal societies only last as long as they do by invoking taboo magic, strong but IMPLICIT social codes, expectations, etc. But in contemporary America, if Bill gates stole from me, or if Ohio attacked Michigan, there’d a soverign power to come and make things right. So even though pre-state societies can be civil, they are not civil societies. Why not? Because except under a sovereign power, there is no right, only power, and no law, only prudence. So, in a pre-state society, no matter how complex, I might well have a lot of objects and privileges under my control, but until there is a state that recognizes them as rightfully mine, they are not strictly speaking property. In other words: without a state to guarantee contracts, there are no contracts, and without a state to guarantee rights, there are no rights, and without a state to enforce law, there is no law, and without contract, civil rights and law, there is no civil society.

        • Micha Ghertner

          Michael, the “final arbiter guarantee” argument doesn’t work either, for the reasons Roderick Long outlines here.

          I think that a lot of people – one reason that they’re scared of anarchy is they think that under government it’s as though there’s some kind of guarantee that’s taken away under anarchy. That somehow there’s this firm background we can always fall back on that under anarchy is just gone. But the firm background is just the product of people interacting with the incentives that they have. Likewise, when anarchists say people under anarchy would probably have the incentive to do this or that, and people say, “Well, that’s not good enough! I don’t just want it to be likely that they’ll have the incentive to do this. I want the government to absolutely guarantee that they’ll do it!” But the government is just people. And depending on what the constitutional structure of that government is, it’s likely that they’ll do this or that. You can’t design a constitution that will guarantee that the people in the government will behave in any particular way. You can structure it in such a way so that they’re more likely to do this or less likely to do this. And you can see anarchy as just an extension of checks-and-balances to a broader level.

          For example, people say, “What guarantees that the different agencies will resolve things in any particular way?” Well, the U.S. Constitution says nothing about what happens if different branches of the government disagree about how to resolve things. It doesn’t say what happens if the Supreme Court thinks something is unconstitutional but Congress thinks it doesn’t, and wants to go ahead and do it anyway. Famously, it doesn’t say what happens if there’s a dispute between the states and the federal government. The current system where once the Supreme Court declares something unconstitutional, then the Congress and the President don’t try to do it anymore (or at least not quite so much) – that didn’t always exist. Remember when the Court declared what Andrew Jackson was doing unconstitutional, when he was President, he just said, “Well, they’ve made their decision, let them enforce it.” The Constitution doesn’t say whether the way Jackson did it was the right way. The way we do it now is the way that’s emerged through custom. Maybe you’re for it, maybe you’re against it – whatever it is, it was never codified in law.

          In short, there is no guarantee under anarchy just as there is no guarantee under a state. There are only systems of incentives and probabilities that these incentives will work the way we intend.

          Long also addresses the “if Bill gates stole from me” argument. Lobbying magnifies the power of the rich through access to taxpayer dollars. There is good reason to think that the rich can get away with a lot more under a monopoly legal system than they could under a competitive one.

          Finally, you say that “if Ohio attacked Michigan, there’d [be] a soverign power to come and make things right” and this therefore makes both Ohio and Michigan count as civil societies. But what if Canada attacked Mexico? Is there a sovereign power to come and make things right? Does this absence of a world sovereign power mean that neither Canada nor Mexico count as civil societies?

    • webgrrl

      Michael, I am not interested in rehearsing a certain set of dorm-room libertarian arguments or what Hanson calls “the old political argument.” Everyone knows I am not a libertarian in the sense you mean at all. Thank my Gucci heels.

      In fact, Will doesn’t seem to be a libertarian in the sense you describe either, or else I, and a more than a few other lurkers, wouldn’t even be here.

      Do you truly believe I did not begin my argument cannily? When I start with the “impossible” Philosophy of Right, oh I do so for a reason. And it is precisely the reason you articulate to Micha: “any society with sufficient population density establishes something like a sovereign power.”

      Like Will, I am more interested in following a decent way towards Sen. I am not particularly interested in cranky railin’s ‘ginst the goover-mint with the black helicopter folks.

      The issue with your argument is that you remain vulnerable to the chain of thought that ends up with the individual as a property of the state if you do not take care to carefully separate government from civil society and ensure that civil society comes first. But likewise after that, we need to ensure that elements of civil society – the family, religion – aren’t allowed to enslave the individual either. This is particularly important to me as a skirt.

      This is actually why I want Hegel. I want to be able to say, yes, there will be a civil society, with property rights and a market. Afterwards I want to have a state to draw the human person out of the communal obligation into individuality. But it has to be the right kind of state!

      This is where Sen becomes interesting; however I am not always sure exactly how we keep the Sen “positive” state from becoming the Berlin problem “positive” state. So I want more carve-outs.

      As for the issue of formal justice, or adjudication as you say, I think I actually want some Foucault here. Monkey society – be it gorilla, chimp or what have you – is a power society, where nearly all females are subjugated. I have to admit this fact. If I am not careful, our structures will slide back towards this, as we see in some places today.

      Because civil society includes religion, and almost all large religions have a system of religious law and religious courts, which in human history have often run in parallel with (‘l’ancien regime) or in place of (Iran) state justice. . .

      I want to be able to argue that these courts and legal systems are based solely on power and are oppressive to liberty – I don’t want conservatism, I want secular individual human liberty. As a woman, I need to create for myself some protection from ancient structures of civil society, with its monkey roots, and I need some positive “capabilities” from the state to do this.

      But I need the right kind, again. There’s no doubt the market, that market systems, have been the greatest liberator of women, in so far as capitalism works massive change on traditional civil society. But for that to work for me, again, I need a certain state structure to help me out of religion and the family *first.*

      Or at least that’s how I’m thinking recently. I’m not married to this yet.

  • pedro

    Outside of a government with the necessary institutions, a free market can exist, but it requires armed camps I should think. Governments now exist because people will take what they are strong enough to get away with. So government is a good (unless done badly). But it is a stretch to say there is a political settlement. Hands up everyone that got to sign the settlement contract. The settlement is a fiction and any fiction has limited power to justify coercive redistribution.

  • Micha Ghertner

    Lots of actors contribute to the conditions of civil society; does that fact give each of those actors legitimacy to tax? From Your dog does not own your house:

    One of the beautiful facts about a great society such as ours is that no group of persons, no particular group of specialists, plays a role that alone creates society. Each of many groups of specialists is necessary for society to exist; no single group of specialists — not even that group specializing in protecting people from violence — is sufficient.

    As for improving the lot of society on the whole, have I got a deal for you!

    Yeah, they offer to dust off your jacket AND shine your shoes now, but I still don’t want a shoe-shine, and I still don’t want my jacket dusted. I really don’t want them holding my money till I’m old either. (and I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever see that money again). It don’t really matter though. They voted on it (and they’ve got guns).

  • stuart

    yes lots of actors do contribute, and its the contribution of all society’s individuals and government which legitimates the collection of taxes. Where the rewards of society are going to the few, while all contribute to the conditions that allow for the creastion of those rewards then there is a role for government and redistribution. While a ‘shoe shine’ is probabaly not a legitimate use for tax revenue, I’d argue public health and education expenditure is.

  • pedro

    Stuart, how do the contributions justify redistribution? How does a homeless guy contribute? These argument do not “justify” welfare.
    I suppose if a few are getting the rewards of “society” then that would be a problem. But you can only be talking about genuinely common goods. The fruits of labour and intellect (and thrift) are not the rewards of society unless you posit that one can sell a good because society and therefore the good is in fact owned by society.

  • stuart

    If the rewards are not distributed in such a way that they reflect the contributions of those in society then surely there is a role for redistributionary policy. No one, no matter how smart, thrifty or hard working can engage in a profitable exchange without the contribution of the rest of society in upholding the institutions that allow for that exchange. Thus democratic government, as the representative of society, is justified in taxing some of the profits to undertake actions that are beneficial to society.

  • pedro

    Well first of all, the institutions that allow exchange benefit all and are upheld by all (except criminals and revolutionaries), which means we all equally benefit from the institutions and so I can’t see how any one person needs to make an additional contribution to society.
    In a market economy (and subject to government interventions) rewards are distributed on the basis of market valuations, which means the valuations of us. some people argue that the market valuations are unjust because of the differing rewards received and opportunities enjoyed, but that is an assertion.
    I agree that the government is justified in raising taxes to support the fundamental institutions of society, but that is not a moral justification for redistribution, on the contrary, I believe that argument justifies a poll tax. so, if you want to justify redistribution you need to find another argument.