Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Democracy and Other Oddities

I haven't had a chance to talk about Peter Orszag's much-insulted TNR piece about getting beyond gridlock, but for those who really want to delve into it I'll recommend Matt Glassman's exceedingly long but mostly quite interesting discussion of democracy that's more or less a response to it.

I'll make a couple of fairly quick points...

As regular readers could guess, my favorite point Glassman makes is that "There’s an important distinction between democracy and majoritarianism." Quite true. The way that I put it is I think a bit different than how Glassman explains it, however. In my view, majoritiarianism is a type of democracy, and rarely if ever the best one; you may recall that I've frequently quoted Hannah Arendt on this:
...we commonly equate and confound majority rule with majority decision. The latter, however, is a technical device...In America, at any rate [the Constitution was] framed with the express and conscious intention to prevent, as far as humanly possible, the procedures of majority decisions from generating into the "elective despotism" of majority rule (On Revolution, 164-165, or at least it was in the old editions).
It's probably true that when we don't use majority decision (as in, for example, filibusters in the Senate) we should have some sort of explanation for why the alternative process is more, or at least equally, democratic. But they can't rest on an assumption that majorities should inherently win in all democracies, because that's simply not so.

On the practical side of things...Orszag calls for more automatic processes, which is  really a non-issue as far as democracy is concerned. The other is for Congress to more frequently use independent boards similar to the Base Closing mechanism that was generally regarded as a success. I don't think that's problematic in terms of democracy either, but the record on this is clear: independent commissions are useful only in cases in which politicians agree on what should be done but do not want the credit for doing it. It's possible that these commissions are under-utilized by Congress right now, but mostly for relatively small and technical things. You're not going to get a Grand Bargain out of a commission unless leading politicians from both sides secretly want a Grand Bargain on similar terms in the first place, and that's not the case right now -- but if it was, I don't see that it's democratically suspect. I am, however, a whole lot less comfortable about using the Fed as a model for new policy-making bodies.

Again, I recommend Glassman's piece. I don't think I agree with all of it, but it's a good introduction to most of the relevant issues.

(Link fixed)


  1. There's a big difference between the BRAC commissions and what Orszag is advocating, commissions along the lines of the Independent Payment Advisory Board enacted as part of health care reform.

    BRAC and the Supercommittee (and the original MedPac, for what it's worth) were bodies set up by Congress to focus on a particular issue and make policy recommendations. But Congress still had to vote for the recommendations. They didn't become law automatically. For this type of commission, obviously Congresspeople just looking for extra cover for a policy they've decided is the right one.

    What Orszag is talking about is a commission more like the IPAB (or even the Fed), whose decisions automatically carry the force of law, without any additional Congressional action needed. With this type of commission, I think it really is possible to get concrete action without consensus among the power players in Congress.

    I think this latter type of commission is more akin to automatic stabilizers (like indexing UI benefits to unemployment rates) than it is to BRAC. It isn't just a mechanism to avoid political liability for tough decisions; it's a method (sometimes the only viable method) to actually make the decisions in the first place. And, as you note, it's not democratically suspect. So why are you hesitant to use the Fed as a model for policy-making bodies?

  2. Hmm. Do Fed decisions actually carry the "force of law" They aren't reviewable, but I don't think that means they are laws.

  3. "I am, however, a whole lot less comfortable about using the Fed as a model for new policy-making bodies."

    This deserves to be explained further in a separate post. I feel like the Fed (and for that matter SCOTUS) are really fundamentally a different kind of non-majoritarian institution than something like BRAC.

    @Andrew - I don't think it's totally correct to compare IPAB to the Fed. Congress has fairly straightforward (statutorily specified) ways of overruling IPAB. By contrast, there is no clear path for Congress to overrule the Fed; to do so would require very blunt instruments and would more or less mean the end of the Fed as it exists today.

  4. FACING THIS PROBLEM is crucially important because our current legislative gridlock is making it increasingly difficult for lawmakers to tackle the issues that are central to our country’s future—issues like climate change, the hard slog of recovering from a financial slump, and our long-term fiscal gap.


    No reason to read either of those articles, as it's just the typical whining, but just to respond to the first sentence of Orzag's whine.

    The Congress does what it has the votes to do. It doesn't have the votes to pass any global warming boondoggles, not even when the Left had full control. And Pelosi's whipping of that Cap & Tax vote locked in the House flip 18 months later... and wisely, the Senate completely ignored the issue, although it didn't save those lefty senators from a drubbing, ObamaCare doing for them.

    And there's no "legislative gridlock" over fiscal issues. There is a US Senate that hasn't passed a budget in over 2 years, meaning a legislative failure to uphold its Constitutional oath, and the law.

    At least the Senate honorables were on the job long enough to reject Obama's budget 97-0 last Spring... so at least we know they're alive, even if they're not doing their job. Now they just need to pass a budget for once. That'd be a welcome development.

  5. Orzag's proposals may or may not be good. I actually think that's the least notable aspect of the piece, even though I think some aspects of his ideas could be promising or at least merit consideration.

    What's striking is how much Orzag's poor, unflattering framing of his argument is a perfect example of how a certain strain of technocratic Democrat is horribly tone-deaf when it comes to *cultivating* political support for their ideas.

    The fact that it's clear enough to many journalists and political scientists that he simply could have made some basic distinctions about types of democracy, just shows how lazy Orzag was in considering how he might come across. Was there no editor at TNR who could have helped Orzag better massage his points into a more precise and attractive proposal?

  6. Gee I was taught in elementary school civics that democracy required majority rule and minority rights. The State Department still teaches this overseas (you can find their pamphlets online). When did we stop teaching it within our borders?


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