Being unsatisfied with democracy

Martin Leet, The Brisbane Institute

Bryan Caplan The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007 (276 pp). ISBN 9-78069112-942-6 (hard cover) RRP $49.95.

Stein Ringen What Democracy is For: On Freedom and Moral Government, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007 (319 pp). ISBN 9-78069112-984-6 (hard cover) RRP $66.00.

Just about everyone seems to be a democrat nowadays. It is rare to come across people who espouse the advantages of authoritarianism. Implicitly or explicitly, our judgements about the political process are guided by principles such as the sharing of power and the openness of decision-making processes. But it has taken a very long time to reverse the age-old prejudices against popular rule. The great majority of political philosophers have disregarded democracy as a desirable system of government, generally providing footnotes to Plato’s thesis that democracy removes the cultural limits on human desire and unleashes an anarchical destructiveness: ‘you find that the minds of the citizens become so sensitive that the least vestige of restraint is resented as intolerable, till finally, as you know, in their determination to have no master they disregard all laws, written or unwritten’ (Plato 1955, p. 322). Even when democracy was first being given theoretical endorsement, by modern liberal philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, it was of a very limited kind. Mill (1989, p. 66) believed that most people should be allowed to vote but that since ‘mediocrity [is] the ascendant power among mankind’, an enlightened moral elite of intellectuals, artists and professionals should have many more votes than the others.

Theoretically and practically, democrats have had an exhausting fight against fear and disgust of ‘the mob’. But while it has been a long time coming, it now appears that democracy, at least in its liberal incarnation, is the only genuine form of lasting legitimate political organisation. The major alternatives, both to the left and to the right, were tested and abandoned in the 20th century. And while non-democratic regimes are still very numerous, their authority is being persistently eroded by the demands for inclusion from their own populations, as well as by the ‘missionary democrats’ of the West.

But do the ‘actually existing democracies’ represent a satisfactory political condition? Should the West be congratulating itself so much on its ‘advanced’ state of political development? Ought we be content with the workings of our democracies and the results that they produce? Has the fight been worth it? Two recent books suggest not, although for very different reasons and with contrasting conclusions.

In many ways, Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies articulates, in the modern language of economics, the archaic intolerance of democracy. Caplan argues that the mass of citizens is ignorant and votes on the basis of emotional attachment to beliefs rather than rational insight into the truth. Voters, in his view, ‘are like religious devotees’ (p. 19) while politicians cater to what is popular rather than to what is right. It is little wonder, then, that ‘bad policies’ are the result and that political performance, particularly in its economic dimensions, lags far behind what is possible and optimal. But what exactly are ‘bad policies’?

Caplan argues that the mass of citizens is ignorant.

In Caplan’s view, any attempt to impose price controls, regulate the labour market, or develop protectionism—indeed, to limit the market mechanism in any way, shape or form—is ‘bad’. His book will make little sense, then, to anyone not absorbed in the system of neoclassical economics and its closely associated tradition of rational choice theory. His major assumptions will be painfully cacophonous to the ears of a reader prepared to consider that there might be other ways of seeing and interpreting the world. How else could one share Caplan’s horror that ‘[m]ost voters never take a single course in economics’ (p. 13)? He laments that even those who have finished whole economics degrees succumb to a ‘distressing rate of recidivism’ (p. 10).

Caplan’s book will probably sell well since there seems to be an army of economists and policy advisors trying to understand why electorates keep finding it hard to digest the latest round of sensible market reform. Why won’t they vote for what is really in their best interest? Why can’t they be more rational? Caplan believes that his main intellectual intervention, one that ‘cuts against the grain of modern social science’ (p. 207), is that voters are simply not rational and never will be. Rational choice models of politics assume rationality and they then seek to explain the disparity of actual policy results from their predictions by relaxing one or two assumptions. Caplan argues that fiddling at the edges is far from enough; it is necessary to put foolishness and irrationality at the very centre of modelling. How else could we understand why developing countries are finding it so hard to catch up with the West?

Citizens of poor countries are often eager to emigrate to rich countries. But they rarely vote for parties that pledge to copy the policies of the rich countries. If an Indian desperately wants to move to the United States but is unable to get a visa, voting to make India more like the United States seems like the next best thing. But there is a crucial difference between the two actions. A migrant who leaves his homeland gives up psychological benefits, such as the belief that his nation is the best in the world, in exchange for a big jump in his material well-being. A voter who turns his back on his nation’s political tradition gives up psychological benefits but—since policy is beyond his control—is not a penny richer (pp. 206–207).

Caplan does not entertain the possibility that ‘copying’ the policies of the rich countries might be completely inappropriate—economically, politically, socially, culturally—to the particular conditions of a less developed nation.

As soon as you move away from one absolute dictator, difference arises.

Caplan is right to detect a stubborn irrationality in ordinary voters and he correctly points out to his rational choice colleagues that their models are hopelessly unrealistic. There is, after all, a long history of resistance to the market mechanism, well documented in any number of texts, such as Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (1944). And such resistance predates the arrival of democracy, which is his target of criticism in this book.

Caplan does not actually suggest that we replace democracy with an intellectual elite of economists, but this is the implicit standard guiding his book: policies determined by an elite would be far superior to the outcomes produced by the workings of democracy. Yet even within economics departments there can be considerable differences of opinion. A few glances further afield in academe and one finds there is a rich variety of perspectives accompanied by a diversity of policy prescriptions. A technocracy is not even theoretically possible given the irrepressible multiplicity of perceptions of the world.

It is this incontrovertible fact of difference to which much of the philosophy of democracy is designed to respond. As soon as you move away from one absolute dictator, difference arises. Even a single dictator could be divided within him or herself, although Caplan appears remarkably devoid of ambiguity or doubt. He assumes that being ‘rational’ involves choosing the best means to achieve an end, where the ends are already decided by a particular kind of economic theory. It is with dismay, then, that he surveys the economic landscape of the democracies and sees them littered with ‘protectionism, price controls and other foolish policies’ (p. 14).

To be fair, Caplan is far from being alone in implying that a technocracy would deliver better results than the democratic model of government and decision-making. A logical implication of the belief in, and practise of, expertise in modernity is that those with the most knowledge should also be the decision-makers. Whatever one’s position on the political spectrum, it is tempting to lose faith in democracy when it delivers results that one finds objectionable. If there is a problem with water management, for example, why not leave it to the experts to sort out the best way to address the issues? Wouldn’t we have long had in place large scale water recycling by now if governments didn’t have to convince voters that it’s alright to drink sewage? And yet, as already mentioned, expertise has not resolved intellectual or practical controversies. The experts argue with one another just as much in physics and engineering as they do in economics and politics. As imperfect as it may be, democracy is able to settle the differences without obliterating difference altogether.

For Ringen, freedom is not about doing as you please.

From Caplan’s point of view, the democratic alternative to a technocracy could be a population extremely well trained in economics. This is, indeed, the sort of alternative favoured by more ambitious democrats, albeit with different standards of value and rationality. Stein Ringen can be counted as one with such higher hopes, hopes he expresses in his What Democracy Is For: On Freedom and Moral Government. Ringen finds that the reality of contemporary democracies falls far short of the ideal. Just as democracy has become ‘victorious’, he observes, citizens are turning away from it, disappointed and disaffected: ‘Where the matter has been investigated, from Costa Rica to Norway, it has been found that citizens are as interested as ever in political and social issues but that they are losing confidence in “politics”’ (p. 220).

Ringen’s book is the outcome of a project on ‘good government’ that began about twenty years ago. He compiles an impressive range of data designed to evaluate various dimensions of the political, economic and social life of a number of contemporary democracies. In the end, he finds that only a handful of states in Scandinavia perform well on his measures of democratic quality. Britain and the United States, the two countries most eager to export democracy to the rest of the world, score very poorly. These two countries have well established democratic procedures and a capacity for decision-making, but they fail to go beyond the ‘procedural’ and provide their citizens with a more substantive ‘security of freedom’. To measure ‘democratic quality’, then, he finds data on protection against the political use of economic power, efforts to eradicate poverty, the collective provision of health care, and subjective indicators of confidence and trust in government. Australia is about average in its performance. Interestingly, Ringen demonstrates that the policies Caplan would describe as ‘foolish’ do not necessarily harm economic performance.

For Ringen, ‘security of freedom’ is ultimately what democracy is about. He argues that freedom is not about doing as you please, but about living with purpose, living a ‘good life’. In his words, it ‘is no small step from having liberty to living freely’ (p. 217). Liberal democracies establish a sphere of freedom for their citizens, a sphere in which they can ‘rationally’ pursue their individual plans and ambitions. In the end, though, freedom in this sense amounts to little more than wanting more of everything. Freedom becomes

insatiable … and destructive to the individual who pursues it. It is also a dangerous idea in society. Before we know it, we are, in the name of freedom, parading an ideology of greed and selfishness to a world of mass poverty, environmental depletion, and cultural antagonisms’ (p. 6).

In Ringen’s view, democracy includes the provision of both freedom and security. Democracy should not remain ‘political’ but be extended to the economic realm.

It is easy to be unsatisfied with democracy.

Beyond these socioeconomic conditions, democracy also includes an inner dimension within the life of the individual. There is an explicitly moral component to Ringen’s account of democracy, in which citizens work hard on themselves in order to live with meaning and self-restraint. Chapter Six, ‘Where Does Freedom Come From?’, begins with a passage from Saint Paul: ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me’ (p. 184). Ringen emphasizes the view that liberty comes with important responsibilities, since it is ‘trivial unless combined with reason’ (p. 184). For those of us who share this sentiment and feel somewhat estranged from the ‘affluenza’ inflicting the modern world, it is tempting to hope that the contemporary inhabitants of democracy could be inspired by a new moral vision. But is it any more realistic or less partial than Caplan’s desire for an economically ‘enlightened’ population?

It is easy to be unsatisfied with democracy. Richard Rorty, the American philosopher who passed away recently, suggested we should be more grateful, reminding us that liberal democracy is an often unappreciated historical achievement. In the early modern period, liberal democracy established a certain kind of space for freedom and tolerance by bracketing out of politics the unearthly ideals of religion. The wars of religion taught that the pursuit of grandiose objectives in politics is a recipe for violence. But the religious impulse has a way of living on, even in post-religious times. Rorty perceived much secular social and political thought to be just as extravagant as religion in its search for universal and absolute foundations of a better democratic politics.

In the same way that it was necessary to bracket out theological issues so as to establish a threshold of political freedom centuries ago, he suggested a similar vigilance is necessary to prevent democracy being subverted by overblown secular aspirations. Rorty believed that ‘even if the typical character types of liberal democracies are bland, calculating, petty, and unheroic, the prevalence of such people may be a reasonable price to pay for political freedom’ (1991, p. 190). In their different ways, both Caplan and Ringen are deeply unsatisfied with the state of contemporary democracy and wish to go beyond it. Caplan argues that the masses are irrational, suppressing the insights of an economic elite; while Ringen implies that the masses are immoral, although he blames the elite for their backward condition. In both cases, actually existing democracy falls far short of what it could be, if only things were otherwise. Rorty might have said that things could be otherwise, but that they could also be a lot worse if the improvers of humankind gain too much political influence.


Mill, J.S. 1989, On Liberty, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Polanyi, K. 1944, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Boston, Beacon Press.

Plato 1955, The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.

Rorty, R. 1991, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Martin Leet works at The Brisbane Institute having studied political theory and political economy at the University of Queensland. He published Aftereffects of Knowledge in Modernity: Politics, Aesthetics and Individuality with SUNY Press in 2004.