The Purpose of Democracy

McClean, I. (1986). Some recent work in public choice. British Journal of Political Science 16(3): 377-394. Available online:

I’m back at Lincoln (from a brief journey to South Dakota) and hard at work at an expanded version of “The Suicide Bomber Type.” 378:

The other point of contact is with the normative theory of democracy. The only writer to tacke this convincingly so far is W.H. Riker in his Liberalism against Populism, which has already been reveiwed here by Albert Weale. Riker concludes that the General Possibility Theorem is fatal to the claims of populist democracy. Government cannot obey the “will of the people” because there is no such thing. There is almost certainly no state of the world that is socially preferred to all other possible states of the world. In any complex society, there is almost certain to be a cycle among winning alternatives, so that there is none that cannot be beaten by at least one other. Hence, according to Riker, democracy and and should only be a system where the people can get rid of intolerable leaders, not one in which they choose the best alternativeness. The echoes of Schumpeter are striking. There is an important issue for normative theory here, but so far Riker’s challenge has scarcely been taken up.

I agree, but I would add hobbling is equally important, as people may choose to trust their leaders with more or less power in different domains. Both checks & balances and initiatives & referenda are part of this process.

I wrote something similar a few months back:

The more you do something, the more you purposefully practice something, the better you get. At the same time, people have an inborn capacity for “learned helplessness,” where people save time for purposeful practice in a domain that matters to them by eschewing domains where they have less skill (and thus, have practiced less). Thus: politics should be left to the experts.

This approach is fully compatible with democracy. Research by the professors in this class have indicated genetic predispositions to democratic norms, including a preference for deliberative justice and an aversion to corruption and “big-man” behavior. In democracies the people will feel when this behavior becomes uncomfortable to them and will be able to throw the crooks out. Absent such social freeriding by politicians, however, it may make more sense for the government to by run by people who actually know what they are doing. For every decision that actually affects people’s well-being in a way they can predict (which, as we have seen, normally involves corruption or big-man behvaior) there are innumerable ones that require a modicum of experience and knowledge, unobtainable from slogans and rallies.

On most issues mass politics is probably the worst of all possible systems, because it combines our inability to think rationally with our genetic predilections for manipulable thought. The government should not be corrupt, should not be ostentatious, and should not have an agenda obnoxious to the people. Beyond that, leave politics to the politicians. Leave it to the experts. And whatever you do, keep it away from the people.

Good stuff.

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