What’s a demockracy?

– What’s a democracy?

– Democracy means that people rule and the government respects the opinions of the citizens.

– So the government should do what the people want?

– In principle, yes, but…

– Can a majority of the people decide to abolish the parliament?

– No, the basic institutions of the state are usually set in the Constitution and constitutional rules are not to be changed like that. Everything that is in the constitution is off limits.

– OK, I can see why. Can the people decide different groups deserve different pay for the same job?

– No, even if this is not outlawed by the Constitution, there is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and fundamental human rights are not be changed by democratic majorities.

– Makes sense. Can the people decide on gay marriage? That’s not in the Declaration.

– Well, there are certain human rights that are not yet in constitutions and universal declaration, but we now recognize them as essential so they are also not subject to majorities.

– OK, so in democracies the government does what the people want, but not when it comes to constitutional issues, recognized fundamental human rights, and other very important norms.

– Yes.

– So can the people decide to change the interest rate?

– Oh, no! Not even politicians can do that. Monetary policy is delegated to independent central banks.

– But people can decide on regulating tel…

– Nope, regulation is basically all delegated to independent agencies, so that’s out.

– Hm, ok, so can the people decide to change the terms of foreign trade?

– Not really, these are set in international treaties so people cannot change anything that is in international treaties just like that.

– Got it. But people surely can decide if their country goes to war or not?

– Well, foreign policy is tricky, there is a lot of secret information involved, complex strategies to be made and it needs rapid responses, so, no.

– OK, can people decide on pensions, then?

– Pensions affect the future lives of those who can’t vote yet, so current majorities can’t really decide.

– OK, so in democracies the government does what the people want, but not when it comes to constitutional issues, recognized fundamental human rights and other very important norms, and not on anything that is in international treaties, and not on monetary policy or any regulatory issues, and not on foreign policy, and not on pensions. But for the rest the government should do what the majority of people want?

– Well, not really. It might not be clear what people want: there could be cyclical majorities among policy alternatives. And it might not be clear how to respond: respecting majorities on particular issues might lead to disrespecting a majority of the people overall.

– That sounds complicated. But if there are not cyclical majorities and one can satisfy a majority of people on a majority of the issues, then one should do what the people want?

– Nope. People might not want what’s good for them. People don’t understand policy and don’t follow political developments close enough. And people are duped by politicians and the media.

– Hard to disagree. I think I got it now: Democracy is a political system in which the government does what the people want, but not when it comes to constitutional issues, recognized fundamental human rights and other very important norms, and not on anything that is in international treaties, and not on monetary policy or any regulatory issues, and not on foreign policy, and not on pensions, and not on anything where it is unclear what the majority wants or how to satisfy a majority of people on majority of issues, and then only if the people want what’s right for them, to be decided by some experts in government or outside. Now that’s what I call a real demockracy!

Inclusive institutions and economic development

Francis Fukuyama reviews Why Nations Fail, the new book by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, at his blog. The review is fairly critical. Fukuyama agrees that institutions are of paramount importance for development (as you would expect given his own recent book) but is unsatisfied with the vague (or even missing) definitions of the two central concepts of the book – ‘inclusive institutions’ and ‘extractive institutions’. This conceptual stretching allows the labels to be applied quite arbitrarily to fit the argument of the book.

In substantive terms the critique boils down to the question whether democratic (inclusive) institutions are necessary for stable economic development. In Fukuyama’s view they are not (think contemporary China) and might even be counterproductive (following Huntington). In Acemoglu and Robinson’s view, democratic political institutions and inclusive economic institutions are indispensible for sustained long-term development. Fukuyama’s quibble with Why Nations Fail fits into a line of argumentation he is in the midst of constructing which can be summarized as ‘good governance is necessary for development but democracy is not necessary for good governance’. His latest project, for example, is to develop a new conceptualization and measurement of governance which moves away from the traditional indicators of (Western-style) rule of law and democratic accountability. Here is a characteristic quote from the project’s announcement:

One can think of many ways in which greater democratic participation actually weakens the quality of governance.  

Acemoglu and Robinson respond to Fukuyama’s review at their own blog. But in my opinion Fukuyama’s general critique (and his smaller points about misinterpretations of historical episodes) remains. Irrespective of one’s normative convictions, one has to admit that economic development has been possible throughout history and space in the absence of inclusive, democratic institutions (unless one stretches the definition of democratic institutions to include 17-th century England or contemporary Singapore). Whether growth without political democratization is sustainable in the long term remains an open question (China).

Both Fukuyama and Acemoglu & Robinson focus on macro-level institutions but it is instructive to look at the meso- and micro-levels of institutions as well (taking the work on the management of common pool resources by Elinor Ostrom and others as a guide). In my reading, the message of this literature about inclusiveness, democracy and governance is the following: Successful management of common resources needs some form of participation and voice by the people within the community but also restricted access to the resource. Effective governance needs institutions that are inclusive for ‘insiders’ and exclusive for ‘outsiders’. For example, early community-based institutions for managing marine resources throughout the world provided for some influence by ordinary members of the community but at the same time they strictly defined who can and cannot fish and enforced these boundary rules. Of course, who is an outsider and who is insider is in itself a political question. And we don’t know whether these lessons from the micro-level generalize to society-wide institutions. 

Finally, although I remain skeptical whether democratic (in the narrow sense) institutions are necessary (in the strong sense) for economic development, the recent experience of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) suggest a strong link between the two. Even for those with only cursory knowledge of the region would be clear that the countries that installed the most open, democratic and inclusive political regimes are also the most economically successful ones. In the early phases of post-communist transitions after the fall of the Berlin Wall many advocated economic development before political liberalization. In line with Fukuyama’s reasoning, it was feared that democratization prior to, or together with, economic reforms would impede development and lead to the implosion of these countries. Fortunately for the region, these opinions did not prevail and most of the CEE states initiated political and economic reforms simultaneously (in some cases with the additional burden of nation-building). Looking back, we can ascertain that those states which experienced the earliest and most far-reaching political liberalization were also the ones to achieve the greatest economic development (Poland, the Czech Republic, one hesitates to add Hungary). Whether economic reforms led or followed political liberalization or whether they were all predetermined by pre-communism legacies, political culture, etc. might be still an unresolved issue. Nevertheless, at the very least we can say that in CEE the establishment of democratic political institutions did not halt economic development.

Governing by Polls

The study of policy responsiveness to public opinion is blossoming and propagating. Work published over the last two years includes the 2010 book by Stuart Soroka and Chris Wlezien (Canada, US and the UK), this paper by Sattler, Brandt, and Freeeman on the UK,  this paper on Denmark, my own article on the EU, Roberts and Kim’s work on post-Communist Europe, etc.  The latest edition to the literature is this article by Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips from Columbia University (forthcoming in AJPS).

“The Democratic Deficit in the States” takes a cross-sectional rather than a dynamic (time series) perspective and analyzes both responsiveness  (correlation)  and congruence between policy outcomes and public opinion in the US states for eight policies. In short, there is a high degree of responsiveness but far from perfect congruence between majority opinion and policy. More salient policies fair better, and having powerful interest groups on your side helps. Altogether, this is an interesting and important study that adds yet another piece to our understanding of policy responsiveness.

What starts to worry me, however, is that the normative implications of the policy responsiveness literature are too often taken for granted. Lax and Phillips seem to equate the lack of correspondence between public opinion and policy to democratic deficit(similarly, Sattler, Brandt and Freeman speak of ‘democratic accountability’). But there is quite a gap between the fact the a policy contradicts the majority of public opinion and the pronouncement of democratic failure. And we need to start unpacking the normative implications of the (lack of) policy responsiveness. 

Of course, at a very general level no political system can be democratic unless there is dynamic responsiveness and broad correspondence between the wishes of the public and what government does. But can we equate congruence of policy with public opinion with democracy? I don’t think so. Precise responsiveness and congruence are neither necessary nor sufficient for democratic policy making. Why?

First and foremost, public opinion as such does not exist. One doesn’t need to embrace a radical post-modern position to admit that the numbers we love to crunch in studies of policy responsiveness are, at best, imperfect (snapshot) estimates of a fluid social construct. It is not only that estimates of aggregate public opinion are subject to the usual measurement problems. It has been shown times and again that the answers we get from public surveys are sensitive to the precise wording, form, and  context of the questions (see George Bishop’s ‘The Illusion of Public Opinion’ for an overview). The questions themselves are often vague and imprecise. Polls will elicit responses even when the people have no meaningful opinion towards the issue (opinions will be regularly given even on fictitious issues). The availability bias is often a problem, especially in surveys of the ‘most important problem’ (open vs. close forms of the question).

A second problem is that public opinion as portrayed by mass surveys need not be the same as the opinion of a group of people after they (1) have been given relevant information about the issue, (2) have been allowed ample time to think about it, and (3) have had the opportunity to deliberate about it (on deliberative polls which come with their own set of problems see James Fishkin). People know astoundingly little about current policies even when they are personally affected by them (here). Do we expect congruence and responsiveness between policy and public opinion as given over the telephone after a modicum of brain activity, or policy and public opinion as it would have been if people made informed decisions with the common good in mind?

The third problem is that public opinion is expressed on various issues presented in isolation. I can very well support an increase in spending on defense, education, and health, and a decrease in the overall state budget at the very same time.  My opinion and preferences need not be consistent but policies need to be. The problem is compounded by the possibility of preference cycles in aggregate public opinion. Even if individual opinions are rational and well-behaved, preference cycles in aggregate public opinion cannot be ruled out.

There is some unintended irony in Stimson et al. designating the aggregate of attitudes and opinions they construct the ‘policy mood’ of the public. Normatively speaking, do we really expect policy to respond to the mood of the public with all the irrationality, instability and caprice that a mood implies? All in all, the lack of perfect temporal and spatial correspondence between public opinion and policy cannot be interpreted directly as a sign of democratic deficit and failure. Political institutions translating mass preferences into policy exist for a reason (well, a number of reasons, including preference aggregation, deliberation, and inducing stability).

The other side of the same coin is that responsiveness is not sufficient for democracy. The fact that a government follows closely majority opinion as expressed in the polls and adjusts policy accordingly cannot be a substitute for a democratic policy making process. This is especially clear in my own analysis of the EU: although I find that aggregate legislative production closely follows the ebbs and flows in public support for the EU during the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s this cannot dispel our misgivings about the democratic deficit of the EU during this period – the polls are not a substitute for elections, representation, and accountability.

The lack of sufficient reflection on the democratic implications of the (lack of ) policy responsiveness is especially worrying in view of the tendency (identified on the basis of my subjective reading of the political process in several European states) of more and more reference to and reliance on ‘instant’ polls in making policy. The increased availability and speed of delivery of ‘representative’ public opinion polls lures politicians into dancing to the tune of public opinion on every occasion. Sensible policies are abandoned if the poll numbers are not right (e.g. second hand smoking restrictions, see here), and retrogressive policies are enacted if the percentage of public support is high enough. But government by polls is only one step removed from the government by mobs. Politicians should sometimes have different policy opinions than the public and they should have the courage to pursue these opinions in the face of (temporary and latent) opposition by the citizens. Meanwhile, social science has the important task to uncover when and how policy responsivness and congruence works. But I see no need to inflate and oversell the normative implications of the research.