Democracy and Chronic Social Problems

STUDENT: Sure. My problem concerns what you said about democracy not being so good handling the chronic problems– SHAPIRO: Yeah. STUDENT: –and I’m wondering if you can offer what would be solutions to a chronic problem and if globalization can help or hinder, and if religion comes to play at all in that. SHAPIR0: Ok. So let me set the religion piece aside first and address the other parts. I think that in the kind of political theorizing that interests me, the question is always, “Compared to what?” So, democracy’s not very good at handling chronic problems, but compared to what? You know, we might have thought that –the boatloads of literature that’s come out of the analytical tradition of political theory, which tells you why democracies are not good at handling all kinds of chronic problems, like tragedy of the commons problems, public goods provision, and so on. But you know, one of the ironies of the collapse of the Soviet Union is that we discovered they didn’t handle these things well at all, you
know? The lakes in central Russia are toxic pits. They didn’t handle environmental problems well either. So democracy is not very good at it, but compared to what? And I think that the answer seems to be: certainly not compared to authoritarian systems. So the interesting question then becomes: which types of democracies are better and worse at it? And I think that– we created a democracy here that’s not particularly good at it. Because we created a democracy here which doesn’t allow governments to act. We built in what political economists call “veto points” all over the place, right? We We created bicameralism, we created separation of powers, we created a federal system, we overrepresented we overrepresented the small states in the Senate. We’ve got– as we all can watch playing out now– the filibuster rule. All of this stuff makes innovation– political innovation– really hard, ok? And it’s, in an important sense, all of it is anti-democratic, because one important analogue– one important reason that democracy is desirable is that you have political competition. I think that if you want to avoid winner-take-all politics, you really have to have competitive politics. Winner-take-all politics are really monopoly politics. And monopolies are as destructive in politics as they are in economics. We’re not used to thinking that way. You know, when people say, “Oh, isn’t that great. There’s bipartisan agreement on some bill.” Nobody stands up and says, “That’s collusion and obstruction of democracy,” right? Nobody stands up and says that, but that’s really what it is, because what we’ve created in the US is a system where the government of the day can only really govern with the consent of the opposition. RAE: Wait a minute, Ian, I don’t think I quite follow the idea.
SHAPIRO: Ok. RAE: That if the opposition or the various factions of the opposition come together with the governing party and agree on something–
SHAPIRO: Yeah. RAE: –that that is in any way contrary to the dictates of democracy. SHAPIRO: No, if that’s what happens. But if you design a system where the government cannot act UNLESS that happens. RAE: It’s a hell of a poor system that’s solving big
SHAPIRO: I think that’s right. So– I will just let Frederick come in in a second, just let me finish the thought. So, the thought here would be that– why is competition good in democracy? Well, you know, there are a lot of different reasons why competition is good. But one of the reasons is exactly analogous to why competition is good in the economy. Competition– as a byproduct of competition, we get information, right? We get information, because the opposition attacks the government, points out flaws in its arguments, shines light in dark corners, can undermine
corruption, and so on. Whereas if you essentially just have to have a system to get everybody on board, you figure out what the distribution of bribes is to do that, and you do it, right? So I think that the better system is the Westminster model where you have a strong government and you have an opposition which is not an ongoing monitor and participant in legislation, but rather a government-in-waiting. And that government-in-waiting, with its shadow cabinet and all of that, has the incentive to shine light in dark corners, to expose corruption, to– just, you know, go watch Prime Minister’s questions
online any day of the week, or read the British papers, and you’ll see what genuine, more genuine political competition is like, than what we get here. So I think that that’s a more desirable model. It’s not perfect, but as Churchill said, it’s the worst
system compared to the others.

Maurice Vega

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