[Book Review]: Democracy, Less or More

10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less – by Garett Jones, 248 p.

Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power – by Noam Chomsky, edited by Peter Hutchinson, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott, 192 p.  

Today’s democracy is showing signs of rot. As public support of democracy is increasingly polarized, all have witnessed the rise of populism. 

So, would countries be better off with less democracy? 

Two books – Garett Jones’s 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less and Noam Chomsky’s Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power – make provocative claims on the dichotomy between the proponent and opponent of more democracy.

Should we promote more democracy? 

In 10% Less Democracy, Garett Jones, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, is concerned with the excess of democracy. While acknowledging the benefits, he identifies the challenges in the current American democratic system to articulate a sound policy. His solution is to cut back the power of the masses. 

In contrast, Noam Chomsky, a political philosopher and activist, in his book – Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power – contends that the elites and the powerful prefer the principle of concentration of wealth and power, rather than democracy. His solution is to reduce inequality, not democracy. 

Both authors have different stances on James Madison’s contributions to the Federalist Papers when discussing the origin of American democratic principles. Jones demonstrates the concern of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ caused by democracy in The Federalist No.51. He mentions that Madison emphasized that the U.S. had no plan for ‘pure democracy’, in which the government was formed with some features of oligarchy and monarchy, particularly the appointed senators and judiciary, as well as a powerful president. Therefore, the right balance of democracy, not 100% democracy, is needed to govern a society. Nevertheless, Chomsky argues that Madison’s paper is set up to prevent democracy. If everyone could vote freely, Madison said, “Well, the majority of the poor would get together, and they would organize to take away the property of the rich.”

An elitist perspective articulated by Jones champions a series of measures, including longer terms in office, appointed central bank officials and regulatory agencies, and the enfranchisement with education level. 

Jones advocates for a longer elected term so that senators would be less influenced by the political process, voting cycles and campaigning, and make better policy decisions. 

He blames the short electoral term for causing short-sighted policies. He notes that a U.S. senator is less likely to support a free trade bill right before reelection. Hillary Clinton, for example, voted in favour of four free trade bills in her first two terms as a senator but voted against two bills in her last two years in office. 

Moreover, Jones supports the idea of appointed officials in the central bank and regulatory agencies. A more independent central bank is needed so they can detach from the political process at the election time. He cites research by Alberto Alesina and Lawrence Summers in 1993, showing that countries with independent central banks have lower inflation rates. 

Regarding the regulators, Chomsky provides the example of regulatory capture in the banking sector. In addition, Jones is cautious of the risk of regulatory capture, where individuals end up working for the industries’ interests through bribes or the promises of future jobs. However, “We’re probably better off with the devil of insider influence rather than the devil of democratic influence,” writes Jones. He then provides evidence of the failure of elected regulators in the electricity and telecom sectors. 

It remains doubtful whether the longer office term would make any meaningful change. Chomsky claims that many senators, government officials and advisers leave the government and work in the commercial industry (mainly financial). For example, Robert Rubin, a former U.S. secretary of the treasury, became a director of Citigroup, one of the biggest banks, and then returned back as Obama’s chief adviser. Later, the government bailed out Citigroup. “You are a legislator, and you become a lobbyist, and as a lobbyist, you want to control legislation,” Chomsky reckons. 

Jones notes the successful case of Singapore, which flourishes with 50% less democracy. The country has a high rate of education in the population, an independent judiciary, and relatively long parliamentary terms. Yet, the US is different from Singapore. The candidates in Singapore do not need a large sum of money to run for election, while in the States, millions of dollars are spent all through and during the election period. The funding campaign is a way that corporations buy privileged access after the candidate wins the election, argues Chomsky. 

Should we give more power to the technocrats or the masses? 

As the title suggests – 10% Less Democracy, Jones is suspicious of the decisions of the  uneducated. From an epistocratic perspective, he opts for restricting voting rights as the means to achieve a better government. He adds that countries across the European Union, such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, and many others, have restricted voting based on cognitive skills. “The law says you cannot marry, buy a house, or look after your own money, so you cannot vote,” writes Jones. 

Then he proposes two measures: not to restore the felons’ voting rights, as they, on average, have a much lower education level than the general public. The other is education-based gerrymandering to give the more educated citizens slightly more voice. This entails manipulation of the electoral districts to place voters in areas with an above-average education. 

True it is that informed voters making rational decisions is the foundation of democratic principles. Yet, does this really make a significant change towards better policies? Jones seems to think that the voting process and informed citizens have a linear connection with a sound policy. 

Instead of distrusting the masses, Chomsky questions corporate power and influence on the policy direction. He cites a study by Martin Gilens, a leading political scientist. It found that ‘policy is uncorrelated with public attitudes, and closely related with corporate interests’. Out of 1,700 policy decisions, Gilens revealed that approximately 70% of the population has no influence. The wealthier they are, the greater impact they have on policy. 

The two sides draw from a wide range of well-documented empirical data, trends and literature to back up their arguments. It is surely understandable that the events in recent years including the Trump presidency, and Brexit have brought the essence of democracy into question. 

The 10% Less Democracy asks us to rethink what democracy could accomplish and how it could jeopardize policy direction. Again and again, it laments the unravelling of democracy rather than exploring ways to make society become more equal. Requiem for the American Dream begins the assessment of democracy with a basic question: where do the wealth and power concentrate?

Whether or not one buys the argument of restricting voting rights proposed by Jones, racial profiling, educational and residential segregation clearly illustrate the deep structural race inequality already embedded in US democracy. Predictably, this policy recommendation might have a demonstrably disproportionate implication on African- American and Hispanic citizens, which could exacerbate the already prevalent race discrimination in the country. 

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