In the U.S., a large if perhaps shrinking share of the population wants to elect as president a reality-television star with no apparent interest in learning anything about governing or the world around him. In Britain, a majority of voters chose to exit the European Union despite experts’ warnings of financial chaos and economic damage that so far are being borne out. In these and other democracies, voters are becoming increasingly enamored of protest candidates and populist parties that have no ability or perhaps even intention to live up to their promises.
Even if you believe that political elites in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere have made a mess of things in recent years (and I do), it’s still hard not to entertain the suspicion that maybe voters are a big part of the problem, too. As one political theorist recently wrote, “The basic problem is not that most voters seek to maximize their self-interest, but rather that most voters lack the knowledge necessary to make informed political judgments.” Or, “The uncomfortable truth is that the best (perhaps only) way to reduce the political influence of ignorant voters is to deprive them of the vote.”
Those provocative quotes are from Daniel A. Bell’s “The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy,” which came out last year and which I have been reading while traveling in China for the past two weeks. Bell is a Canadian who teaches at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and the main thesis of his book is that China should strive to evolve into a political meritocracy that makes room for dissent and rule of law but stops well short of “one person, one vote.”
Before he gets to those arguments, though, Bell treats the reader to a wonderfully bracing review of the flaws of Western-style democracy. It was this aspect of the book that came in for the most praise in the reviews I’ve read. In light of Donald Trump and of “Brexit,” it seems worth reviewing the basic arguments.
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Elective democracy is pretty good at two (related) functions, Bell allows: throwing out failed leaders and conferring legitimacy upon a government. It’s not perfect at either, but it definitely holds advantages over nonelective systems. Where it often falls short is in the policy results it delivers. Bell catalogs four “tyrannies” of electoral democracy:
The Tyranny of the Majority. The danger of a political majority oppressing the rest of society is widely acknowledged, and the U.S. system includes lots of protections against it. That still leaves lots of room for ill-informed, incompetent, irrational voters to shape policy, though.
The Tyranny of the Minority. This is a flaw perhaps most pronounced in the U.S., where small groups with large economic resources — major polluters, financial institutions, gun manufacturers, the very wealthy — are often able to impose their interests on the majority.
The Tyranny of the Voting Community. Even when they succeed in correctly identifying their own interests and the policies that would advance them, voters tend to give short shrift to the interests of other communities such as children, foreigners and future generations.
The Tyranny of Competitive Individualists. By emphasizing competition and individual achievement, liberal democracies often shortchange societal harmony.
Jeez, these democracies sound awful, don’t they? Of course, autocracies have delivered even more terrible results over the years — although it is worth remembering that some of the worst of them (including the regime now driving Venezuela to apparent ruin) rose to power by democratic means. Meanwhile, in East Asia, not-exactly-democratic regimes have over the past half century achieved some pretty spectacular results for the people they govern. Singapore is the most obvious example, and Bell devotes a lot of ink to it in his book, but there’s also Hong Kong, pre-democracy Taiwan and South Korea, and — since its big economic-policy turn in the late 1970s — the People’s Republic of China.
Bell never makes the argument that multi-party democracies such as the U.S. should switch to being one-party states. He does make a strong case, though, for bringing back some strands of Western political philosophy that have gotten short shrift. Important thinkers from Plato to Machiavelli to the U.S.’s Founding Fathers to John Stuart Mill have all proposed limits on democracy, and most modern democracies include institutions (central banks and courts, for example) that aren’t directly subject to voter approval. Bell also summarizes some fascinating — and yeah, in some cases, kinda nutty — recent scholarly critiques of democracy and proposals for improvement.
In popular discourse, though, it’s generally beyond the pale to question the merits of “one person, one vote.” Said Bell when I talked to him in Beijing last week: “It’s a bit odd that since World World II and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seems to have become a kind of sacred value that you can’t question in Western society.”
I’m torn about this. I think there’s value in “one person, one vote” beyond its efficacy. That is, there is something at least a little bit sacred about it. But the failure to question how we make our political decisions and to consider ways to improve a process that clearly hasn’t been working well lately does seem like it could in itself become a threat to democracy.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist writing about business.