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December 08, 2017


David Friedman

The problem of rational ignorance still remains, since well informed voting faces the public good problem--any benefit produced is shared with the rest of the population, so it is rarely worth the cost to me of producing it. I haven't read the book, but from your description it sounds like a kludge, an attempt to make an unworkable system work.

The correct conclusion is implied by your "people conveyed less information to the government than they do in the most quotidian trip to Tesco." There is no way of making democracy work well as a solution to the coordination problem, there is a different and familiar solution to the coordination problem that works reasonably well, so we should shift as many decisions as possible from the political system to the market.

"Isn’t there a trade-off between liberty and democracy?"

Indeed there is. But the big tradeoff is not the one you emphasize, that freedom might make democracy work less well–there isn't a way of making it work well. The big tradeoff is that shifting decisions from individual choice to voting reduces the liberty of people whose decisions are now being made for them by the uninformed votes of other people.


Thought provoking post. Three thoughts, actually.

First thought.The older I get, the more I care about the how my team plays, rather than just winning.

Second thought. I'm not sure that which issues get on the agenda is only about what rich folk want to beon the agenda. It needs to be sellable to the public also. Brexit was an easy sell.

Third thought. More economic equality should be an easy sell. Perhaps the reason it isn't sold easily is that it's always packaged with progressive social values.

Fourth though. Ironly of the thrid point is that more economic euqality (people at the bottom less poor) *might* do more to promote social vaues than the demonising of people at the bottom for views our parents or grand parents probably had.




Its funny that there's never any of this 'Is democracy really that good?' stuff when the people vote the way the Liberal Establishment want them to vote (say for Blair in 1997, or to stay in the EEC in 1975), but how it all comes out when the people vote in a way the LE don't like the outcome of, such as Brexit.

And incidentally the EU referendum told us as much about what Remainers wanted from the EU going forward as it did about what form of Brexit the Leave voters wanted. Yes Brexit could take many forms, and a Leave vote tells us nothing about preferences for each of them, but a Remain vote equally tells us nothing about what form of EU we should be staying in. The EU isn't in stasis, its not going to be exactly the same as it is now forever, so perhaps Remainers should tell the rest of us whether they would still vote Remain if all the current noises about a United States of Europe turn out to become reality?


"perhaps Remainers should tell the rest of us whether they would still vote Remain if all the current noises about a United States of Europe turn out to become reality"

This was irrelevant to the referendum question: for as long as the UK is an EU member, it is impossible for the United States of Europe stuff to become reality without explicit UK government consent. Raising the question as if it were comparable to the very real differences on how to Leave is tedious derailing.

Of course, assuming the UK does Leave, the chances of the U.S.E stuff becoming reality are rather higher - and the the EU's future nature will certainly be relevant to any voting decision on whether to rejoin.


"perhaps Remainers should tell the rest of us whether they would still vote Remain if all the current noises about a United States of Europe turn out to become reality"

As Someone who voted Yes in 1975 on the understanding that an USE was the ultimate end point of the EU, and Remain for the same reason, YES I would vote remain again.

Ducky McDuckface

Well, the people of the United States (of America), elected Trump as President.

What makes you believe that the people of the United States (of Europe), would not?


«This poses Jason Brennan’s question: what is so valuable about democracy?»

That is the thing that "philosopher-king" dreamers don't get: they think that the purpose of government is "best government".

The purpose of democracy instead is quite different: settling political arguments without killing each other. This happens on two levels... In a representative democracy politics and policies are still decided and carried out by one faction of another of the elites but:

* The masses can veto whichever elite factions they don't like. This means that they are accountable for the policies enacted by the faction they did not veto.

* The factions of the elite settle their political arguments by figthing over the consensus of the masses.

The alternatives are: the elites ignore the veto of the masses, and then the masses riot and massacre the elites, or the factions of the elites fight over policies by massacring each other.

That's BTW why mandelsonianism is such a terrible idea: it prevents the masses from even attempting to veto neoliberalism, by offering them a choice only between far-right neoliberalism (Conservatives), right-wing neoliberalism (LibDems) and centre-right neoliberalism (New Labour).

So to summarize the valuable thing about representative democracy is that is minimizes the chances for slaughter between elites and masses, and among factions of the elites.

Or put another way what is valuable is that it makes the masses accountable the consequences of policies (the masses did not veto them), and the elite factions accountable to the masses (to avoid being vetoed).

"Good government" is not what representative democracy is about, even if eventually arises out of the masses being accountable for the consequences of their choice of ruling faction of the elites.


«"still vote Remain if all the current noises about a United States of Europe turn out to become reality"

[ ... ] as the UK is an EU member, it is impossible for the United States of Europe stuff to become reality without explicit UK government consent.»

This exact discussion happened between Alec Douglas-Home and Jo Grimond during the debate on the vote to join the EEC on 1971-10-21:

«[ADH] Some of the advocates of European unity have supported a federal system for Europe. This has caused a good deal of anxiety, not least to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell). Some may still like and pursue the idea.
What has happened within the partnership of the Six? Political change, it is agreed, has to be unanimous.»
«[JG] I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's argument that we shall have a veto on political developments. The implication of that is that we do not want political development. Many people think that possible political developments are the most important thing about the Community. Are the Government saying that they would resist and oppose political developments in Europe?»
«[ADH] Not at all. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman can possibly have interpreted that from anything that I have said. I said that the political processes in Europe would evolve, and that they would evolve by consent, because if one tried to go too fast and impose too much the Community could break up. The change will occur by evolution and by consent.
Finally, there is security, with all the problems which that poses for Western Europe, whether in the context of defence or détente. All the way through our history events in the centre and west of Europe have conditioned our foreign policy. The balance of power is achieved through a European contribution, and the omens that the Western Europeans will have to carry a greater share of the responsibility for Western defence and the defence of their continent are very strong, stronger than they have been since the war. [ ... ]
During the last year I have twice been in the councils of the Ten, because they have anticipated the larger Community. Matters are talked about there which concern the defence of Europe and the defence of Britain. Matters are talked about—for example, the Middle East—which have the greatest implications for our country. It is essential that we should be in the councils when these questions are discussed, and that a decision should not be taken without us.»


David Friedman - I know I would say this, as the author of the tome in question, but I think you'd find a lot of what you look for in the book.

I think it is a mistake to assume that democracy and individual liberty can't be reconcilled. It's an argument that has similar countours to the one about popular sovereignty v national sovereignty. I'm opposed to Brexit on the grounds that it will increase national sovereignty but reduce popular sovereignty. As a democrat, I hate nationalism. I hate the idea that, under all circumstances, we have to assume that the nation state is the default locus for most of our popular sovereignty.

If a democracy is unjust (i.e. an individual has their interests advanced or defended more than another because they, and individuals that they have an affinity with have more resources such as time, money, political skills and expertise, etc at their disposal) then democracy is an imposition on those people and can be tyrannical towards people who aren't as resourceful/connected.

If you remove that source of tyranny, the net benefit of being in a democracy is that the social contract works and any trade offs you make are unlikely to be 'unjust'.

d - there's no question that popular reflexes are as important as 'lobbying power' (for want of a better term). I think it's important that people make a concious decision in how much they invest in decisions though and how far good democracy is about giving people what they say / think they want as much as it is about giving people what they *actually* want. People who moan about how arrogant do-gooder governments are about making assumptions about what the proles want are the same people who happily shop with retailers who make much more high-handed decisions about what choices to offer us without ever having to publicly justify themselves (quite rightly, btw). Your point about how government isn't "the sort of government that we *ought* to have (by anyone's standards) is one that I make in the book, and I think we agree on this.

Jim - we know even less than you think about what both remainers and leavers want as a result of the referendum. We will never really decode that. My objection to referendums goes way back to the point at which the Labour government (I'm a long-standing Labour member) was using referendums to do things I approved of. I'm objecting to referendums - not just particular outcomes.

Apropos of nothing, I *would* want to stay in the EU if it were a deeper democratic union, as it happen (see above for why).

Ducky, it is my argument that we shouldn't be electing politicians in the first place. So no Trump (or Blair / Obama / Farage / Corbyn etc) for me. Especially Trump. And Corbyn.

David Friedman


I suspect you are misreading my point, which isn't about democracy being unjust because some people's views are unfairly weighted. It's that making decisions through the political process, however well designed, is a much clumsier way of getting the right decisions made than making them through the decentralized process of private property and voluntary exchange.

The conclusion is that you should use the former mechanism, if at all, only when the latter, for some special reason, works much worse than usual–and that might mean never using the political mechanism at all.

At its simplest level, the problem is that the political mechanism means that I have a tiny voice in making choices whose effect is on everyone, instead of a very large voice in making choices whose effect is mostly on me--such as deciding what to buy or what job to take. To see how far that argument can be pushed, I refer you to my first book:


N. N.

"the political mechanism means that I have a tiny voice in making choices whose effect is on everyone, instead of a very large voice in making choices whose effect is mostly on me--such as deciding what to buy or what job to take"

But because of externalities, using this large voice always simultaneously amounts to also using a quite similar "tiny voice ... whose effect is on everyone". And if the tiny voice suffices to do harm in politics, it suffices in the marketplace too.

For instance, if I have a favourite product (a brand of chocolate, say) which (a) ceases to be manufactured due to declining sales, this has exactly the same negative effect on me as would (b) a Soviet-type planned economy where a faceless bureaucrat in an office suddenly decides on a whim to discontinue the chocolate, or (c) a capitalist democracy where a government is voted in that decides to pass a law banning the chocolate. In all three cases, the end result is the same: no more chocolate for me.

And it isn't as if this argument isn't well known in economics. As Tibor Scitovsky put it forty years ago in his classic The Joyless Economy:

"Thanks to the technology of mass production, things bought by many people can be produced more cheaply than those bought by only a few. [...] In the modern economy, therefore, wherever economies of scale lead to important reductions in cost, [the result is] mob rule: the crowd's ability to get those things on whose desirability its members agree. [...] A person finds his tastes well catered to if he is conformist enough to share them with millions of others, because the things he then wants are profitable to mass produce and to sell at prices lowered by mass production. [...] The more advanced the economy, the greater the economies of scale, and the greater the difference in price between what is mass-produced and what is not, between conformity to the established life-style and preference for a divergent one."

To vote with one's wallet is to vote, and therefore, by parity of reasoning, all the kinds of objections to voting that characterise the kind of political philosophy represented in Paul Evans's book apply to it too.

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