The 2018 midterm elections are just a day away and the media is understandably in a frenzy. Will the long-speculated “Blue Wave” materialize and drown the Trump administration’s agenda? Or did the spectacle of the Kavanaugh hearings sour voters’ perceptions of Democrats enough that Republicans will maintain their majorities? Our public discourse is saturated with think pieces on policy, on electoral strategy, and on contingency plans should the results prove disheartening.
The problem with this is that it’s almost entirely pointless. In the frenzy over whether we’re “losing our democracy,” we’ve forgotten something far more important: a democratic society and a well-governed society are not necessarily the same thing. It is the latter that free and responsible individuals ought to pursue.
Politics in the United States has been sclerotic for some time. The symptoms are clear but the diagnosis eludes us. Yet this combination of citizen frenzy and enervated government is hardly new. It has happened before, and it has been analyzed before. All large states fall prey to it eventually. To find a cogent analysis of it, you must go searching through some old and rather strange books.
The best insights come from a group of Italian social scientists active in the early 20th century. These thinkers are sometimes known as the Italian elite theorists, both due to their nationality and their subject matter. If you’ve read James Burnham, and in particular The Managerial Revolution, you’ve encountered them before. Burnham refers to them as the Machiavellians due to their unflinching political realism. They don’t have a cure to the problems that ail us—many of their proposed remedies are either impractical or, as the verdict of history has shown, downright dangerous—but that should not stop us from appreciating their insights. There are three who deserve our attention: Robert Michels, Gaetano Mosca, and Vilfredo Pareto.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “iron law of oligarchy,” you’re drawing upon Michels. He wrote about the tendency of all states, except perhaps those that are both new and small, to develop hierarchically. Importantly, this is true even within states, or their appendant organs such as political parties, that appear committed to democracy. Hierarchy means command-and-control, and while these methods have their limits—see the failure of central planning for example—when it comes to advancing specific goals, they work quite well generally. All polities will develop, frequently informally, status hierarchies that determine who is empowered to make political decisions, as well as delineate the limits of the group that benefits from these decisions. Even in democracies, for things to “get done” politically, there needs to be some institutional durability that allows for long-term planning and coordination of policy, oftentimes of a longer span than electoral cycles. In the U.S., this explains why the state and its bureaucracies keep growing regardless of who occupies the White House or has a congressional majority.
Mosca’s pioneering contribution was the idea of the “political formula.” Because all societies in practice have a clear distinction between those who rule and those who are ruled, there needs to be something that legitimates this distinction. In democracies, this often is the electoral process itself, despite the fact that power within modern states is actually quite insulated from democratic agitation. For Mosca, the truth or falsehood of the political formula is irrelevant. Perhaps it is true; perhaps it is false; perhaps it is nonsense, which means it is so incoherent we cannot even ascribe to it a truth value. What matters is that the political formula legitimates rule, and thus helps rulers maintain the regime. While this sounds sinister, keep in mind that without a political formula, individuals could not cohere into durable institutions for political action in the first place.
Pareto is a famous economist, and because his insights are a staple of the modern economics profession, his political writings are sometimes overlooked. This is unfortunate, because Pareto highlights a crucial difference between political action and market action. For Pareto, action is always rational, because it is always in pursuit of some desired end. But action is not always logical. Logical action means action properly oriented towards its end. If you are hungry, eating a slice of pizza is logical. Action is logical in contexts where there is something approximating “experimental” feedback between choice and consequence. But in social environments where there is not a strong link between choice and consequence, action can become illogical. Politics, especially large-scale politics, is a prime candidate for illogical action to flourish. When we make political decisions, whether we are an ordinary citizen casting a ballot or a top regulator promulgating a new set of rules, the consequences of our actions do not accrue chiefly to us. Instead they fall on others. Furthermore, political outputs are necessarily “lumpy”: when we act politically we often must pursue a combination of goods at the same time, making it difficult for us to understand the consequential link between our choices and particular outcomes. This lack of clear feedback makes politics messy and fraught with inconsistencies.
From the above, we can get a pretty clear picture of what’s happening in the United States, at least with respect to the problems in the public sector. The state has evolved a network of hierarchies to take on increasingly complex governance tasks. But these hierarchies have become almost totally insular: they are not subject to any effective responsibility mechanism, and thus have become unlawful and oftentimes downright predatory. As the state apparatus has simultaneously grown in size and diminished in efficacy, democracy—interpreted as policy being directly influenced by first-past-the-post elections—became enshrined as the new political formula, at the expense of older and wiser republican ideas. The combination of these two has contributed to the political arena not only failing to punish, but actively rewarding, illogical action writ large. This has all occurred amidst a growing distance, not just physically but culturally as well, between those who rule and those who are ruled. Nobody intended this result, yet it follows predictably from the insights of the Italian elite theorists.
What does any of this have to do with good governance or the midterm elections? The latter is easier to answer: the midterms ultimately matter very little because genuine solutions to the problems in American society and government are not on the table. Whoever wins, the results will merely be different manifestations of the same phenomenon: a hierarchical and unaccountable state apparatus, legitimated on an increasingly impractical political formula, creating benefits for itself while passing the costs on to the public at large.
The public hysteria surrounding the elections is also mere sound and fury. The conversation that matters is the one we’re not having. Russell Kirk expressed the point best when he wrote, “What men really are seeking, or ought to seek, is not the right to govern, but the right to be governed well.” In their rush to seize the means of government, both the Right and Left have forgotten to consider what ought to be done with power should they get it. Furthermore, in the service of tribal politics, both sides seem more than willing to tear down the institutional safeguards that prevent ordinary men and women from being abused by their governors. This will further exacerbate the problems uncovered by Michels, Mosca, and Pareto.
It is reasonable to desire both citizen feedback and specialized skills in government. But these two are necessarily in tension, and getting the virtues of each while forestalling their vices is an incredibly difficult constitutional balancing act. We are evidently unprepared to confront this problem. Until we are willing to enshrine good government as the end, and treat both direct democracy and managerial expertise as means, we will continue to languish in political dysfunction.
Alexander William Salter is the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at Texas Tech University’s Free Market Institute. This essay is based on his scholarly paper, “A Theory of Self-Governance: De Facto Constitutions as Filters.” His writings and contact information are available at his website: www.awsalter.com.