Something has gone wrong with America’s political institutions. While the United States is, on the whole, competently governed, there are massive problems lurking just beneath the surface. This became obvious during the 2016 presidential election. Each party’s nominee was odious to a large segment of the public; the only difference seemed to be whether it was an odious insurgent or an odious careerist. Almost two years on, things show little signs of improving.
What’s to blame? One promising, though unpopular, answer is: democracy itself. When individuals act collectively in large groups and are not held responsible for the consequences of their behavior, decisions are unlikely to be reasonable or prudent. This design flaw in popular government was recognized by several Founding Fathers. John Adams warned that democracy “soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”
James Madison was equally concerned with the pernicious consequences of large-scale democracy, arguing that democracies “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
Even George Washington had his doubts about whether democracy was consistent with wise government. Democracies are slow to correct their errors, and those who try to guide the public down a wise course frequently become the object of popular hatred: “It is one of the evils of democratical governments, that the people, not always seeing and frequently misled, must often feel before they can act right; but then evil of this nature seldom fail to work their own cure,” Washington wrote. “It is to be lamented, nevertheless, that the remedies are so slow, and that those, who may wish to apply them seasonably are not attended to before they suffer in person, in interest and in reputation.”
Given these opinions, it is unsurprising that the U.S. Constitution contains so many other mechanisms for ensuring responsible government. Separation of powers and checks and balances are necessary to protect the people from themselves. To the extent our political institutions are deteriorating, the Founders’ first instinct would be to look for constitutional changes, whether formal or informal, that have expanded the scope of democracy and entrusted to the electorate greater power than they can safely wield, and reverse them.
This theory is simple, elegant, and appealing. But it’s missing a crucial detail.
American government is largely insulated from the tyranny of the majority. But at least since the New Deal, we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction. What we’ve got now is the tyranny of the minority. It is not “the people” who govern the nation. Instead, the state is run by permanent civil servants, largely unaccountable to any popular control, and professional politicians who are usually hand-picked by party insiders (Hillary over Bernie, anyone?). This has made it such that the actual 2016 election was more akin to ratifying a foregone conclusion than a substantive choice over the direction of future policy.
But now we confront a puzzle: the rise of the permanent government did coincide with increased democratization. The administrative-managerial state, and its enablers in Congress, followed from creative reinterpretations of the Constitution that allowed voters to make decisions that the Ninth and Tenth amendments—far and away the most ignored portion of the Bill of Rights—should have forestalled. As it turns out, not only are both of these observations correct, they are causally related. Increasing the scope of popular government results in the loss of popular control.
If you’re a student of politics, you’ve probably heard of the iron law of oligarchy. The phrase was coined by Robert Michels, an early 20th-century social scientist, in his landmark study of political parties. The iron law of oligarchy is simple: minorities rule majorities, because the former are organized and the latter are not. This is true even within democratic institutions. As power was concentrated in the federal government, the complexity of the tasks confronting civil servants and legislators greatly increased. This required a durable, hierarchical set of institutions for coordinating the behavior of political insiders. Durability enabled political insiders to coordinate their plans across time, which was particularly useful in avoiding the pesky constraints posed by regular elections. Hierarchy enabled political insiders to coordinate plans across space, making a permanently larger government both more feasible and more attractive for elites. The result, in retrospect, was predictable: a massive executive branch bureaucracy that’s now largely autonomous, and a permissive Congress that’s more than happy to serve as an institutionalized rubber stamp.
The larger the electorate, and the more questions the electorate is asked to decide, the more important it is for the people who actually govern to take advantage of economies of scale in government. If the federal government were kept small and simple, there would be little need for a behemoth public sector. Developing durable and hierarchical procedures for organizing political projects would be unfeasible for citizen-statesmen. But those same procedures become essential for technocratic experts and career politicians.
One of the cruel ironies of the political status quo is that democracy is unquestioningly associated with self-governance, yet in practice, the more democratic a polity grows, the less self-governing it remains. This is why an upsurge of populism won’t cure what ails the body politic. It will either provoke the permanent and unaccountable government into tightening its grip, or those who actually hold the power will fan the flames of popular discontent, channeling that energy towards their continued growth and entrenchment. We have enough knowledge to make the diagnosis, but not to prescribe the treatment. Perhaps there is some comfort in knowing what political health looks like. G.K. Chesterton said it best in his insight about the relationship between democracy and self-governance:
The democratic contention is that government…is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly…. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves…
The first step towards renewed self-governance must be to reject the false dichotomy between populism and oligarchy. A sober assessment shows that they are one in the same.
Alexander William Salter is an assistant professor in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University. He is also the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute. See more at his website: www.awsalter.com.