Monday, June 3, 2013

Remember: In Democracies, Policy is Contested

I wrote: "The chief job of party leaders in the Senate is to look out for individual senators’ interests and protect their rights." Which led to a letter-to-the-editor denouncing me, or Senator, or someone; my sentence "perfectly captured what’s wrong with Congress."
The chief job of leaders in the Senate is to do the people’s business.  The minute people in an organization begin protecting their interests and rights instead of doing what the organization is supposed to do is the minute the organization becomes dysfunctional. Unfortunately, that describes most of the government today.
I pick on this mainly because I suspect this sentiment is extremely widespread. It is, however, wrong.

To the letter-writer, I would say: go back to Madison, and read Federalist 51. For Madison, the self-interest of politicians was a given. What's needed, he says, is a way to harness that self-interest for democratic purposes. 

Which is exactly what's happening here. Party leaders in the Senate look out for individual Senators' interests -- which means that they make it possible for Senators to work for their own states' interests. 

More broadly, the entire US political system (and, I think, every representative democracy) is based in very large part on the career ambitions of politicians, and thus on electoral incentives. What's unusual about the US system is that great efforts are made to restrain the maximum influence of any one politician or even set of politicians (federalism, separated institutions sharing powers); and, at the same time, individually empowered politicians are given very different constituencies, thus giving them incentives to see particular, localized interests as well as or even more than the "national" interest. 

Indeed, one of the big changes over the last fifty years or so has been the rise of the national political parties, which has balanced out to some extent the constitutionally-mandated bias towards localism and particularism. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is certainly a question for reasonable disagreement, but that it's happened is, in my view at least, clear historic fact. 

If one believes that "the people's business" is self-evident, and that the majority will agree, then it's natural to conclude that something must be wrong with democracy when those self-evident policies are not being followed. The problem with exhorting politicians to just "do the people's business" is that what constitutes "the people's business" is contested.  And what to do when large groups disagree about what is self-evident, or at least what is best, is the whole point of democratic design -- and a difficult problem indeed to solve. 

Which is not to say that the Framer's solution, as adapted and modified over the years, is the only solution, or even necessarily the best one. But one doesn't get far in designing a democracy without understanding that basic problem.


  1. Well, okay. But I'm not sure you are being completely fair to what Ms. Kaltenborn was saying, or at least to one interpretation of what Ms. Kaltenborn was saying (although the issue of interpretation just underlines your point about things not being self-evident). It also relates to your recent post about representation. That is, it's all very well to say that the system runs on the self-interest of politicians, if the self-interest of politicians actually included reasonably trying to look after the interests of their supporters and constituents. Many people these days feel like politicians don't particularly care about the interests of their constituents and supporters. That is, they don't attend to the "people's business" which, in a well-functioning system, would be the same as attending to their own self-interest.

    Now, one can argue about whether that is a fair judgment of American politicians. One can point out that politicians try to keep their promises, that many people disdain Congress but not their own representatives, or that the interests of constituents and supporters might themselves not be self-evident or unconflicted. One can even say that it is the voters own d*$@n fault for not being better informed.

    Still, even saying all that, I don't think it's appropriate to so casually dismiss Ms. Kaltenborn's concern. Fairly or not, many would say that there has been a fundamental rupture in which the interests of the people, however defined, no longer seem to be regarded by politicians as congruent with their own interests. You yourself have spoken of this with regard to the GOP, in your columns pointing out that they no longer seem inclined to deliver policy that benefit their aligned constituencies and interest groups, even when those groups are actually organized and knowledgable about policy and current affairs.

    Maybe Ms. Kaltenborn is naive. Maybe she didn't phrase things very elegantly. And maybe I am just putting words in her mouth. Maybe the concerns themselves are misplaced. But, if democracy does indeed mean rule by the people, the very fact that so many of the people no longer believe democratic institutions are serving their interests is certainly of concern.

  2. I've been discussing something like this topic for awhile with a good friend, who has very good knowledge about the history of the US. He's a classicist and quite the historian.

    I suppose his argument comes from a distinctly ideological point of view, but it might be worth noting. He likes to point out to me that our system is not, structurally, built to protect any but a minority of property owners. In fact, he likes to say, our entire system of justice is built on protecting property rights. Yes there have been amendments and tweaks, but ultimately, the right of property is paramount.

    Now, wouldn't that necessarily cause frustration among a population who have been told that the rights of property are not as important as other rights?

    It might explain why so many Americans, who don't think that property is as important as, say, their right to privacy (which isn't even mentioned in the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights, or for that matter, the Federalist papers). It also might explain why many people perceive the system as being dysfunctional. "The People's Business" is up to interpretation. But that might be the biggest tension. The Senate and House are doing an admiral job at protecting property rights from the various attacks from those who find other things paramount. But, well, I think the rest of the people may not use the word "admirable" in this context.

    I'm not wedded to this idea, of course, but it's something I'm pondering.

    1. I dimly remember the existence of a document called the Bill of Rights, which was a short set of amendments to the Constitution brought into being to placate those who felt the Constitution by itself was tilted as you describe....

      Of course, right now we live in a nation where the idea that a corporation can have a right to religion is not laughed into the sea. Nonetheless, these ideas have always been in tension.

    2. Well, sure, always in tension. But there's not much explicit discussion of that tension in our discourse. At least, not that I can find. We certainly don't discuss this in high school. Well, then didn't when I was. Do they now?

  3. "And what to do when large groups disagree about what is self-evident, or at least what is best, is the whole point of democratic design -- and a difficult problem indeed to solve."

    As the neo-reactionaries point out, what you do then is elect a new people. Although there aren't many Americans who want democracy to supply them with a tightly constrained federal government, there are still too many for the liking of most politicians and almost all members of the Cathedral. So ever more immigration is the word of the day ... every day.


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