Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Review of Democracy for Realists

One of the first posts I made on this blog was a review of The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan.  That book convinced me that retrospective voting, mostly politicians' fear of it, is the greatest part of what makes democracy work in practice.

And we do need to explain why democracy works in practice, because the evidence is that it does.  Democracy causes countries to be more peaceful, richer, and when women were given the vote childhood mortality went down.  So there does seem to be something to this democracy business where we have to explain.

In Democracy for Realists Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels set out to "assail the romantic folk-theory at the heart of contemporary thinking about democratic politics and government, and offers a provocative alternative view grounded in the actual human nature of democratic citizens."

Well, that's not the only thing you could investigate about democracies.  You could look at:
  • How individual people or different groups in society decide who to vote for,
  • Who wins elections, or
  • Which policies democracies end up pursuing.
When looking at voting behavior there are also a lot of stories you could tell to explain voting behavior.  Some stories you could tell might be:
  • The people make prospective decisions, voting based on which politician agrees with them on the issues.
  • The people make retrospective decisions, voting the bums out of office when they don't like how things have gone recently.
  • The people express their identity.
  • The people vote for the most attractive candidate or the tallest.
  • The people vote for the candidate that bought the most advertisements.
  • The people vote randomly.
For any given person their behavior will almost certainly be a mix of those and each of those factors certainly has some effect on voting.  And you could try to make some estimate as to which might be the most important.  But it's also true that which of those stories is most important will depend on which of the three questions we're asking.  Imagine a world in which 40% of voters always voted Republican for reason of identity, 40% always Democrat, 10% voted randomly, and 10% voted prospectively.  Most of the votes in that election would be identity based, but those votes would all cancel each other out.  In any large election the Central Limit Theorem would also split the random vote evenly.  So if you looked at it from the perspective of one purpose voting would be all about people expressing their identity.  But if you are looking at figuring out why one party sometimes wins and why the other party sometimes wins it's all about people studying the issues.

Democracy for Realists did an excellent job of convincing me that most voting is identity based but that fact in no way contradicts The Myth of the Rational Voter's case that retrospective voting is the most important for deciding who wins.  We've always seemed to have had an even or nearly even partisan identity split between two major parties.  The Republicans and Democrats were evenly matched when the South was Democrat and when things switched around the the South went Republican they were still evenly matched somehow.  There have been a few brief periods of one party dominance, such as when the Federalists imploded, but those seldom seem to last for long and a situation where elections shift one way and then another based on the decisions of people who aren't firmly committed to one partisan camp or another regain their supremacy.

Democracy for Realists also spent some time trying to show that there is no way that retrospective voting could produce good results, but not in any way I found convincing.

First is the idea that often people apply retrospective voting to things that aren't actually under the control of the government.  The one example they give is the financial Panic of 1857 which they claim couldn't have been prevented because Keyes hadn't published his General Theory yet.  I'm pretty sure the authors are unfamiliar with the silver/easy money versus gold/hard money axis of political conflict in the United States in the 19th century to make that claim.  They also mention shark attacks swinging the election in New Jersey in 1916 as another example, though there's a lot of things we do these days to reduce the number of shark attacks.

In one sense I'm being unfair to Achen and Bartels's argument because coming up with a solution to those problems was probably beyond the wisdom and ability of the politicians in charge during those times.  But importantly, neither the voters nor the politicians were in a position to know that.

Democracy for Realists argues that since politicians can't be sure of re-election even if they work to the best of their ability they have no incentive to work hard for re-election.  To me that seems ridiculously black and white.  I have no perfect assurance that going to work tomorrow will result in my getting paid since some accountant might have absconded with the company's money without my knowledge.  And if I developed some lethal disease and could give myself a 50% chance recovery through an unpleasant drug regime I would undergo that even though it wouldn't be assured of curing me.  We all regularly put effort into things that don't have sure payoffs and those politicians who win elections are those who, mostly, are willing to work hard to win them.

These forces aren't 100% unique to democracy.  Dictatorships also have to worry a bit about being overthrown and can't ignore public opinion entirely.  But a free press and regular elections make the needs of the population a lot more salient for democratic politicians.

Just as we shouldn't rely on voters knowing which government policies can best prevent shark attacks or financial crises we shouldn't have our system depend on them knowing if such crises can be prevented or not.  The most important thing is that politicians are incentivized to figure out some way to control a crisis regardless of whether they or the voters know a way to do it.  And if they can't they'll be voted out and the next politician in will keep working to figure it out so that it doesn't get them booted too.

One criticism that Democracy for Realists makes of retrospective voting that I do think is on the mark is the electorate's recency bias.  If a politician has a four year term of which the first two see dismal economic performance but great economic performance on the last two then chances are they'll be re-elected.  But a good two years followed by a bad two years is a big disadvantage.  Politicians have noticed this and often engage in short sighted policies in election years in order to retain office.  This is a real problem and drawback of regular elections.

Another big problem is the mis-assignment of blame.  People often blame the president's party for the actions of a Congress controlled by another party.  The Democrats in Hoover's second term knew that by not passing the recovery legislation the president asked for they could greatly increase their chances of winning the presidency, and so they did.  The Republicans in 2010 knew that by thwarting Obama they could increase their odds of winning in 2012, and so they did.  This is a real problem and drawback of our system of separation of powers.

Of course, I think the best solution to these is something more like the English parliamentary system.  Parlimentary systems seem to do better than presidential systems in terms of stability so it's worth considering.

To summarize, democracy is a flawed system but it seems to do a better job of pushing politicians to look after the needs of their constituents than all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

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