From the days of Aristotle … thinkers have believed that stable democracy rests on a broad middle class and that societies with extremes of wealth and poverty are susceptible either to
- oligarchic domination or
- populist revolution.
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859):
Democracy, carried to its furthest limits, is … prejudicial to the art of government; and for this reason it is better adapted to a people already versed in the conduct of administration than to a nation which is uninitiated in public affairs.
(Democracy in America, 1835, Bantam, 2011, p 256)
Those countries in which democracy preceded modern state building have had much greater problems achieving high-quality governance than those that inherited modern states from absolutist times.
The United States is trapped in a bad equilibrium.
Because Americans historically distrust government, they typically aren't willing to delegate to the government authority to make decisions in the manner of other democratic societies.
Instead, Congress mandates complex rules that reduce the government's autonomy and make decisions slow and expensive.
The government then doesn't perform well, which confirms people's original distrust.
Under these circumstances, they are reluctant to pay higher taxes, which they feel the government will waste.
But while resources are not the only, or even the main, source of government inefficiency, without them the government won't function properly.
Hence distrust of government becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
[W]hile democracy does provide an important check on elite power, it frequently fails to perform as advertised.
Elite insiders typically have superior access to resources and information, which they use to protect themselves.
Ordinary voters will not get angry at them for stealing their money if they don't know that this is happening in the first place.
Cognitive rigidities may also prevent social groups from mobilizing in their own self-interest.
In the United States, many working-class voters support candidates promising to lower taxes on the wealth, despite the fact that this hurts their own economic situations.
They do so in the belief that such policies will spur economic growth that will eventually trickle down to them, or else make government deficits self-financing.
The theory has proved remarkably tenacious in the face of considerable evidence that it is not true.
There is … a long-standing tension between rule of law and democratic accountability.
For rule of law to exist, it must be binding on all citizens, including democratic majorities.
In many democracies, major parties are content to violate the rights of individuals and minorities, and find legal rules to be inconvenient obstacles to their goals. …
Moreover, laws are administered by the human beings who operate the judicial branches of government.
These individuals have their own beliefs and opinions that may not correspond to the desires of the broader public.
Judicial activism can be as much of a danger as weak or politically compliant judiciaries. …
Finally … efforts to increase levels of democratic participation and transparency can actually decrease the democratic representativeness of the system as a whole.
The great mass of individuals living in democracy are not able by background or temperament to make complex public policy decisions, and when they are asked to do so repeatedly the process is often taken over by well organized interest groups that can manipulate the process to serve their narrow purposes.
Excessive transparency can undermine deliberation.
If there has been a single problem facing contemporary democracies [it is] their failure to provide … what people want from government:
- personal security
- shared economic growth, and
- [the] quality basic public services like education, health, and infrastructure that are needed to achieve individual opportunity.
(Political Order and Political Decay, 2014)
It is hard to imagine a more disastrous presidency than that of George W Bush.
It was bad enough that he launched an unnecessary war and undermined the standing of the United States throughout the world in his first term.
But in the waning days of his administration, he is presiding over a collapse of the American financial system and broader economy that will have consequences for years to come.
(The Right Choice?, The American Conservative, 3 November 2008)
Today leaders of democracies do not lead their countries to war for other than serious national causes, and must hesitate before taking such grave decisions for they know their polities will not permit them to behave recklessly.
When they do … they are severely punished.
(The End of History, 2006)
Political Order and Decay
Project for a New American Century
The End of History