What is the point of democracy?

Apr 9, JDN 2457853

[This topic was chosen by Patreon vote.]

“Democracy” is the sort of word that often becomes just an Applause Light (indeed it was the original example Less Wrong used). Like “freedom” and “liberty” (and for much the same reasons), it’s a good thing, that much we know; but it’s often unclear what is even meant by the word, much less why it should be so important to us.

From another angle, it is strangely common for economists and political scientists to argue that democracy is not all that important; they at least tend to use a precise formal definition of “democracy”, but are oddly quick to dismiss it as pointless or even harmful when it doesn’t line up precisely with their models of an efficient economy or society. I think the best example of this is the so-called “Downs paradox”, where political scientists were so steeped in the tradition of defining all rationality as psychopathic self-interest that they couldn’t even explain why it would occur to anyone to vote. (And indeed, rumor has it that most economists don’t bother to vote, much less campaign politically—which perhaps begins to explain why our economic policy is so terrible.)

Yet especially for Americans in the Trump era, I think it is vital to understand what “democracy” is supposed to mean, and why it is so important.

So, first of all, what is democracy? It is nothing more or less than government by popular vote.

This comes in degrees, of course: The purest direct democracy would have the entire population vote on even the most mundane policies and decisions. You could actually manage something like a monastery or a social club in such a fashion, but this is clearly unworkable on any large scale. Even once you get to hundreds of people, much less thousands or millions, it becomes unviable. The closest example I’ve seen is Switzerland, where there are always numerous popular referenda on ballots that are voted on by entire regions or the entire country—and even then, Switzerland does have representatives that make many of the day-to-day decisions.

So in practice all large-scale democratic systems are some degree of representative democracy, or republic, where some especially decisions may be made by popular vote, but most policies are made by elected representatives, staff appointed by those representatives, or even career civil servants who are appointed in a nominally apolitical process not so different from private-sector hiring. In the most extreme cases such civil servants can become so powerful that you get a deep state, where career bureaucrats exercise more power than elected officials—at that point I think you have actually lost the right to really call yourself a “democracy” and have become something more like a technocracy.
Yet of course a country can get even more undemocratic than that, and many are, governed by an aristocracy or oligarchy that vests power in a small number of wealthy and powerful individuals, or monarchy or autocracy that gives near-absolute power to a single individual.

Thus, there is a continuum of most to least democratic, with popular vote at one end, followed by elected representatives, followed by appointed civil servants, followed by a handful of oligarchs, and ultimately the most undemocratic system is an autocracy controlled by a single individual.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that constitutional monarchies with strong parliamentary systems, like the United Kingdom and Norway, are also “democracies” in the sense I intend. Yes, technically they have these hereditary monarchs—but in practice, the vast majority of the state’s power is vested in the votes of its people. Indeed, if we separate out parliamentary constitutional monarchy from presidential majoritarian democracy and compare them, the former might actually turn out to be better. Certainly, some of the world’s most prosperous nations are governed that way.

As I’ve already acknowledge, the very far extreme of pure direct democracy is unfeasible. But why would we want to get closer to that end? Why be like Switzerland or Denmark rather than like Turkey or Russia—or for that matter why be like California rather than like Mississippi?
Well, if you know anything about the overall welfare of these states, it almost seems obvious—Switzerland and Denmark are richer, happier, safer, healthier, more peaceful, and overall better in almost every way than Turkey and Russia. The gap between California and Mississippi is not as large, but it is larger than most people realize. Median household income in California is $64,500; in Mississippi it is only $40,593. Both are still well within the normal range of a highly-developed country, but that effectively makes California richer than Luxembourg but Mississippi poorer than South Korea. But perhaps the really stark comparison to make is life expectancy: Life expectancy at birth in California is almost 81 years, while in Mississippi it’s only 75.

Of course, there are a lot of other differences between states besides how much of their governance is done by popular referendum. Simply making Mississippi decide more things by popular vote would not turn it into California—much less would making Turkey more democratic turn it into Switzerland. So we shouldn’t attribute these comparisons entirely to differences in democracy. Indeed, a pair of two-way comparisons is only in the barest sense a statistical argument; we should be looking at dozens if not hundreds of comparisons if we really want to see the effects of democracy. And we should of course be trying to control for other factors, adjust for country fixed-effects, and preferably use natural experiments or instrumental variables to tease out causality.

Yet such studies have in fact been done. Stronger degrees of democracy appear to improve long-run economic growth, as well as reduce corruption, increase free trade, protect peace, and even improve air quality.

Subtler analyses have compared majoritarian versus proportional systems (where proportional seems, to me, at least, more democratic), as well as different republican systems with stronger or weaker checks and balances (stronger is clearly better, though whether that is “more democratic” is at least debatable). The effects of democracy on income distribution are more complicated, probably because there have been some highly undemocratic socialist regimes.

So, the common belief that democracy is good seems to be pretty well supported by the data. But why is democracy good? Is it just a practical matter of happening to get better overall results? Could it one day be overturned by some superior system such as technocracy or a benevolent autocratic AI?

Well, I don’t want to rule out the possibility of improving upon existing systems of government. Clearly new systems of government have in fact emerged over the course of history—Greek “democracy” and Roman “republic” were both really aristocracy, and anything close to universal suffrage didn’t really emerge on a large scale until the 20th century. So the 21st (or 22nd) century could well devise a superior form of government we haven’t yet imagined.
However, I do think there is good reason to believe that any new system of government that actually manages to improve upon democracy will still resemble democracy, because there are three key features democracy has that other systems of government simply can’t match. It is these three features that make democracy so important and so worth fighting for.

1. Everyone’s interests are equally represented.

Perhaps no real system actually manages to represent everyone’s interests equally, but the more democratic a system is, the better it will conform to this ideal. A well-designed voting system can aggregate the interests of an entire population and choose the course of action that creates the greatest overall benefit.

Markets can also be a good system for allocating resources, but while markets represent everyone’s interests, they do so highly unequally. Rich people are quite literally weighted more heavily in the sum.

Most systems of government do even worse, by completely silencing the voices of the majority of the population. The notion of a “benevolent autocracy” is really a conceit; what makes you think you could possibly keep the autocrat benevolent?

This is also why any form of disenfranchisement is dangerous and a direct attack upon democracy. Even if people are voting irrationally, against their own interests and yours, by silencing their voice you are undermining the most fundamental tenet of democracy itself. All voices must be heard, no exceptions. That is democracy’s fundamental strength.

2. The system is self-correcting.

This may more accurately describe a constitutional republican system with strong checks and balances, but that is what most well-functioning democracies have and it is what I recommend. If you conceive of “more democracy” as meaning that people can vote their way into fascism by electing a sufficiently charismatic totalitarian, then I do not want us to have “more democracy”. But just as contracts and regulations that protect you can make you in real terms more free because you can now safely do things you otherwise couldn’t risk, I consider strong checks and balances that maintain the stability of a republic against charismatic fascists to be in a deeper sense more democratic. This is ultimately semantic; I think I’ve made it clear enough that I want strong checks and balances.

With such checks and balances in place, democracies may move slower than autocracies; they may spend more time in deliberation or even bitter, polarized conflict. But this also means that their policies do not lurch from one emperor’s whim to another, and they are stable against being overtaken by corruption or fascism. Their policies are stable and predictable; their institutions are strong and resilient.

No other system of government yet devised by humans has this kind of stability, which may be why democracies are gradually taking over the world. Charismatic fascism fails when the charismatic leader dies; hereditary monarchy collapses when the great-grandson of the great king is incompetent; even oligarchy and aristocracy, which have at least some staying power, ultimately fall apart when the downtrodden peasants ultimately revolt. But democracy abides, for where monarchy and aristocracy are made of families and autocracy and fascism are made of a single man, democracy is made of principles and institutions. Democracy is evolutionarily stable, and thus in Darwinian terms we can predict it will eventually prevail.

3. The coercion that government requires is justified.

All government is inherently coercive. Libertarians are not wrong about this. Taxation is coercive. Regulation is coercive. Law is coercive. (The ones who go on to say that all government is “death threats” or “slavery” are bonkers, mind you. But it is in fact coercive.)

The coercion of government is particularly terrible if that coercion is coming from a system like an autocracy, where the will of the people is minimally if at all represented in the decisions of policymakers. Then that is a coercion imposed from outside, a coercion in the fullest sense, one person who imposes their will upon another.

But when government coercion comes from a democracy, it takes on a fundamentally different meaning. Then it is not they who coerce us—it is we who coerce ourselves. Now, why in the world would you coerce yourself? It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Not if you know any game theory. There are in fall all sorts of reasons why one might want to coerce oneself, and two in particular become particularly important for the justification of democratic government.

The first and most important is collective action: There are many situations in which people all working together to accomplish a goal can be beneficial to everyone, but nonetheless any individual person who found a way to shirk their duty and not contribute could benefit even more. Anyone who has done a group project in school with a couple of lazy students in it will know this experience: You end up doing all the work, but they still get a good grade at the end. If everyone had taken the rational, self-interested action of slacking off, everyone in the group would have failed the project.

Now imagine that the group project we’re trying to achieve is, say, defending against an attack by Imperial Japan. We can’t exactly afford to risk that project falling through. So maybe we should actually force people to support it—in the form of taxes, or even perhaps a draft (as ultimately we did in WW2). Then it is no longer rational to try to shirk your duty, so everyone does their duty, the project gets done, and we’re all better off. How do we decide which projects are important enough to justify such coercion? We vote, of course. This is the most fundamental justification of democratic government.

The second that is relevant for government is commitment. There are many circumstances in which we want to accomplish something in the future, and from a long-run perspective it makes sense to achieve that goal—but then when the time comes to take action, we are tempted to procrastinate or change our minds. How can we resolve such a dilemma? Well, one way is to tie our own hands—to coerce ourselves into carrying out the necessary task we are tempted to avoid or delay.

This applies to many types of civil and criminal law, particularly regarding property ownership. Murder is a crime that most people would not commit even if it were completely legal. But shoplifting? I think if most people knew there would be no penalty for petty theft and retail fraud they would be tempted into doing it at least on occasion. I doubt it would be frequent enough to collapse our entire economic system, but it would introduce a lot of inefficiency, and make almost everything more expensive. By having laws in place that punish us for such behavior, we have a way of defusing such temptations, at least for most people most of the time. This is not as important for the basic functioning of government as is collective action, but I think it is still important enough to be worthy of mention.

Of course, there will always be someone who disagrees with any given law, regardless of how sensible and well-founded that law may be. And while in some sense “we all” agreed to pay these taxes, when the IRS actually demands that specific dollar amount from you, it may well be an amount that you would not have chosen if you’d been able to set our entire tax system yourself. But this is a problem of aggregation that I think may be completely intractable; there’s no way to govern by consensus, because human beings just can’t achieve consensus on the scale of millions of people. Governing by popular vote and representation is the best alternative we’ve been able to come up with. If and when someone devises a system of government that solves that problem and represents the public will even better than voting, then we will have a superior alternative to democracy.

Until then, it is as Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Should we give up on growth?

JDN 2457572

Recently I read this article published by the Post Carbon Institute, “How to Shrink the Economy without Crashing It”, which has been going around environmentalist circles. (I posted on Facebook that I’d answer it in more detail, so here goes.)

This is the far left view on climate change, which is wrong, but not nearly as wrong as even the “mainstream” right-wing view that climate change is not a serious problem and we should continue with business as usual. Most of the Republicans who ran for President this year didn’t believe in using government action to fight climate change, and Donald Trump doesn’t even believe it exists.
This core message of the article is clearly correct:

We know this because Global Footprint Network, which methodically tracks the relevant data, informs us that humanity is now using 1.5 Earths’ worth of resources.

We can temporarily use resources faster than Earth regenerates them only by borrowing from the future productivity of the planet, leaving less for our descendants. But we cannot do this for long.

To be clear, “using 1.5 Earths” is not as bad as it sounds; spending is allow to exceed income at times, as long as you have reason to think that future income will exceed future spending, and this is true not just of money but also of natural resources. You can in fact “borrow from the future”, provided you do actually have a plan to pay it back. And indeed there has been some theoretical work by environmental economists suggesting that we are rightly still in the phase of net ecological dissaving, and won’t enter the phase of net ecological saving until the mid-21st century when our technology has made us two or three times as productive. This optimal path is defined by a “weak sustainability” condition where total real wealth never falls over time, so any natural wealth depleted is replaced by at least as much artificial wealth.

Of course some things can’t be paid back; while forests depleted can be replanted, if you drive species to extinction, only very advanced technology could restore them. And we are driving thousands of species to extinction every single year. Even if we should be optimally dissaving, we are almost certainly depleting natural resources too fast, and depleting natural resources that will be difficult if not impossible to later restore. In that sense, the Post Carbon Institute is right: We must change course toward ecological sustainability.

Unfortunately, their specific ideas of how to do so leave much to be desired. Beyond ecological sustainability, they really argue for two propositions: one is radical but worth discussing, but the other is totally absurd.

The absurd claim is that we should somehow force the world to de-urbanize and regress into living in small farming villages. To show this is a bananaman and not a strawman, I quote:

8. Re-localize. One of the difficulties in the transition to renewable energy is that liquid fuels are hard to substitute. Oil drives nearly all transportation currently, and it is highly unlikely that alternative fuels will enable anything like current levels of mobility (electric airliners and cargo ships are non-starters; massive production of biofuels is a mere fantasy). That means communities will be obtaining fewer provisions from far-off places. Of course trade will continue in some form: even hunter-gatherers trade. Re-localization will merely reverse the recent globalizing trade trend until most necessities are once again produced close by, so that we—like our ancestors only a century ago—are once again acquainted with the people who make our shoes and grow our food.

9. Re-ruralize. Urbanization was the dominant demographic trend of the 20th century, but it cannot be sustained. Indeed, without cheap transport and abundant energy, megacities will become increasingly dysfunctional. Meanwhile, we’ll need lots more farmers. Solution: dedicate more societal resources to towns and villages, make land available to young farmers, and work to revitalize rural culture.

First of all: Are electric cargo ships non-starters? The Ford-class aircraft carrier is electric, specifically nuclear. Nuclear-powered cargo ships would raise a number of issues in terms of practicality, safety, and regulation, but they aren’t fundamentally infeasible. Massive efficient production of biofuels is a fantasy as long as the energy to do it is provided by coal power, but not if it’s provided by nuclear. Perhaps this author’s concept of “infeasible” really just means “infeasible if I can’t get over my irrational fear of nuclear power”. Even electric airliners are not necessarily out of the question; NASA has been experimenting with electric aircraft.

The most charitable reading I can give of this (in my terminology of argument “men”, I’m trying to make a banana out of iron), is as promoting slightly deurbanizing and going back to more like say the 1950s United States, with 64% of people in cities instead of 80% today. Even then this makes less than no sense, as higher urbanization is associated with lower per-capita ecological impact, which frankly shouldn’t even be surprising because cities have such huge economies of scale. Instead of everyone needing a car to get around in the suburbs, we can all share a subway system in the city. If that subway system is powered by a grid of nuclear, solar, and wind power, it could produce essentially zero carbon emissions—which is absolutely impossible for rural or suburban transportation. Urbanization is also associated with slower population growth (or even population decline), and indeed the reason population growth is declining is that rising standard of living and greater urbanization have reduced birth rates and will continue to do so as poor countries reach higher levels of development. Far from being a solution to ecological unsustainability, deurbanization would make it worse.

And that’s not even getting into the fact that you would have to force urban white-collar workers to become farmers, because if we wanted to be farmers we already would be (the converse is not as true), and now you’re actually talking about some kind of massive forced labor-shift policy like the Great Leap Forward. Normally I’m annoyed when people accuse environmentalists of being totalitarian communists, but in this case, I think the accusation might be onto something.

Moving on, the radical but not absurd claim is that we must turn away from economic growth and even turn toward economic shrinkage:

One way or another, the economy (and here we are talking mostly about the economies of industrial nations) must shrink until it subsists on what Earth can provide long-term.


If nothing is done deliberately to reverse growth or pre-adapt to inevitable economic stagnation and contraction, the likely result will be an episodic, protracted, and chaotic process of collapse continuing for many decades or perhaps centuries, with innumerable human and non-human casualties.

I still don’t think this is right, but I understand where it’s coming from, and like I said it’s worth talking about.

The biggest mistake here lies in assuming that GDP is directly correlated to natural resource depletion, so that the only way to reduce natural resource depletion is to reduce GDP. This is not even remotely true; indeed, countries vary almost as much in their GDP-per-carbon-emission ratio as they do in their per-capita GDP. As usual, #ScandinaviaIsBetter; Norway and Sweden produce about $8,000 in GDP per ton of carbon, while the US produces only about $2,000 per ton. Both poor and rich countries can be found among both the inefficient and the efficient. Saudi Arabia is very rich and produces about $900 per ton, while Liberia is exceedingly poor and produces about $800 per ton. I already mentioned how Norway produces $8,000 per ton, and they are as rich as Saudi Arabia. Yet above them is Mali, which produces almost $11,000 per ton, and is as poor as Liberia. Other notable facts: France is head and shoulders above the UK and Germany at almost $6000 per ton instead of $4300 and $3600 respectively—because France runs almost entirely on nuclear power.

So the real conclusion to draw from this is not that we need to shrink GDP, but that we need to make GDP more like how they do it in Norway or at least how they do it in France, rather than how we do in the US, and definitely not how they do it in Saudi Arabia. Total world emissions are currently about 36 billion tons per year, producing about $108 trillion in GDP, averaging about $3,000 of GDP per ton of carbon emissions. If we could raise the entire world to the ecological efficiency of Norway, we could double world GDP and still be producing less CO2 than we currently are. Turning the entire planet into a bunch of Norways would indeed raise CO2 output, by about a factor of 2; but it would raise standard of living by a factor of 5, and indeed bring about a utopian future with neither war nor hunger. Compare this to the prospect of cutting world GDP in half, but producing it as inefficiently as in Saudi Arabia: This would actually increase global CO2 emissions, almost as much as turning every country into Norway.

But ultimately we will in fact need to slow down or even end economic growth. I ran a little model for you, which shows a reasonable trajectory for global economic growth.

This graph shows the growth rate in productivity slowly declining, along with a much more rapidly declining GDP growth:


This graph shows the growth trajectory for total real capital and GDP:


And finally, this is the long-run trend for GDP graphed on a log scale:


The units are arbitrary, though it’s not unreasonable to imagine them as being years and hundreds of dollars in per-capita GDP. If that is indeed what you imagine them to be, my model shows us the Star Trek future: In about 300 years, we rise from a per-capita GDP of $10,000 to one of $165,000—from a world much like today to a world where everyone is a millionaire.

Notice that the growth rate slows down a great deal fairly quickly; by the end of 100 years (i.e., the end of the 21st century), growth has slowed from its peak over 10% to just over 2% per year. By the end of the 300-year period, the growth rate is a crawl of only 0.1%.

Of course this model is very simplistic, but I chose it for a very specific reason: This is not a radical left-wing environmentalist model involving “limits to growth” or “degrowth”. This is the Solow-Swan model, the paradigm example of neoclassical models of economic growth. It is sometimes in fact called simply “the neoclassical growth model”, because it is that influential. I made one very small change from the usual form, which was to assume that the rate of productivity growth would decline exponentially over time. Since productivity growth is exogenous to the model, this is a very simple change to make; it amounts to saying that productivity-enhancing technology is subject to diminishing returns, which fits recent data fairly well but could be totally wrong if something like artificial intelligence or neural enhancement ever takes off.

I chose this because many environmentalists seem to think that economists have this delusional belief that we can maintain a rate of economic growth equal to today indefinitely. David Attenborough famously said “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad – or an economist.”

Another physicist argued that if we increase energy consumption 2.3% per year for 400 years, we’d literally boil the Earth. Yes, we would, and no economist I know of believes that this is what will happen. Economic growth doesn’t require energy growth, and we do not think growth can or should continue indefinitely—we just think it can and should continue a little while longer. We don’t think that a world standard of living 1000 times as good as Norway is going to happen; we think that a world standard of living equal to Norway is worth fighting for.

Indeed, we are often the ones trying to explain to leaders that they need to adapt to slower growth rates—this is particularly a problem in China, where nationalism and groupthink seems to have convinced many people in China that 7% annual growth is the result of some brilliant unique feature of the great Chinese system, when it is in fact simply the expected high growth rate for an economy that is very poor and still catching up by establishing a capital base. (It’s not so much what they are doing right now, as what they were doing wrong before. Just as you feel a lot better when you stop hitting yourself in the head, countries tend to grow quite fast after they transition out of horrifically terrible economic policy—and it doesn’t get much more terrible than Mao.) Even a lot of the IMF projections are now believed to be too optimistic, because they didn’t account for how China was fudging the numbers and rapidly depleting natural resources.

Some of the specific policies recommended in the article are reasonable, while others go to far.

1. Energy: cap, reduce, and ration it. Energy is what makes the economy go, and expanded energy consumption is what makes it grow. Climate scientists advocate capping and reducing carbon emissions to prevent planetary disaster, and cutting carbon emissions inevitably entails reducing energy from fossil fuels. However, if we aim to shrink the size of the economy, we should restrain not just fossil energy, but all energy consumption. The fairest way to do that would probably be with tradable energy quotas.

I strongly support cap-and-trade on fossil fuels, but I can’t support it on energy in general, unless we get so advanced that we’re seriously concerned about significantly altering the entropy of the universe. Solar power does not have negative externalities, and therefore should not be taxed or capped.

The shift to renewable energy sources is a no-brainer, and I know of no ecologist and few economists who would disagree.

This one is rich, coming from someone who goes on to argue for nonsensical deurbanization:

However, this is a complicated process. It will not be possible merely to unplug coal power plants, plug in solar panels, and continue with business as usual: we have built our immense modern industrial infrastructure of cities, suburbs, highways, airports, and factories to take advantage of the unique qualities and characteristics of fossil fuels.

How will we make our industrial infrastructure run off a solar grid? Urbanization. When everything is in one place, you can use public transportation and plug everything into the grid. We could replace the interstate highway system with a network of maglev lines, provided that almost everyone lived in major cities that were along those lines. We can’t do that if people move out of cities and go back to being farmers.

Here’s another weird one:

Without continued economic growth, the market economy probably can’t function long. This suggests we should run the transformational process in reverse by decommodifying land, labor, and money.

“Decommodifying money”? That’s like skinning leather or dehydrating water. The whole point of money is that it is a maximally fungible commodity. I support the idea of a land tax to provide a basic income, which could go a long way to decommodifying land and labor; but you can’t decommodify money.

The next one starts off sounding ridiculous, but then gets more reasonable:

4. Get rid of debt. Decommodifying money means letting it revert to its function as an inert medium of exchange and store of value, and reducing or eliminating the expectation that money should reproduce more of itself. This ultimately means doing away with interest and the trading or manipulation of currencies. Make investing a community-mediated process of directing capital toward projects that are of unquestioned collective benefit. The first step: cancel existing debt. Then ban derivatives, and tax and tightly regulate the buying and selling of financial instruments of all kinds.

No, we’re not going to get rid of debt. But should we regulate it more? Absolutely. A ban on derivatives is strong, but shouldn’t be out of the question; it’s not clear that even the most useful derivatives (like interest rate swaps and stock options) bring more benefit than they cause harm.

The next proposal, to reform our monetary system so that it is no longer based on debt, is one I broadly agree with, though you need to be clear about how you plan to do that. Positive Money’s plan to make central banks democratically accountable, establish full-reserve banking, and print money without trying to hide it in arcane accounting mechanisms sounds pretty good to me. Going back to the gold standard or something would be a terrible idea. The article links to a couple of “alternative money theorists”, but doesn’t explain further.

Sooner or later, we absolutely will need to restructure our macroeconomic policy so that 4% or even 2% real growth is no longer the expectation in First World countries. We will need to ensure that constant growth isn’t necessary to maintain stability and full employment.

But I believe we can do that, and in any case we do not want to stop global growth just yet—far from it. We are now on the verge of ending world hunger, and if we manage to do it, it will be from economic growth above all else.