Thursday, April 9, 2020

What People Want

A worldwide comparative study finds that government effectiveness, rule of law, regulatory quality, and absence of corruption are correlated with happiness, but democracy is not.

I used to think people loved democracy. Now I think that is a minority sentiment, and what most people want is 1) good government, 2) to feel free, and 3) to feel like someone with power cares about them. When people feel harassed or let down by democracy, or feel that they are ruled by people who despise them, they are perfectly willing to try something else.

Of course the advantage of democracy is that if we dislike the people in power we can vote them out, but if people feel that not just the people in power but the whole system is bad, they will support an authoritarian alternative. They may find out soon enough that the authoritarians are no better, leading to an alternation of democracy with dictatorship like we have seen in Latin America for generations.

Incidentally this is why I think it is important for each major political faction to hold power every once in a while, so the voters who support that view don't turn against the whole democratic project.


Shadow said...

Most people are not ideological. The only government they like is the one that works. We point to governments and say they fail their people. Okay, but why? Often we cite ineffectiveness, incompetence, and form of government as reasons for failure when it's really corruption in disguise. Corrupt governments never work for the people.

One can't have government effectiveness, good rule of law, or regulatory quality in the midst of institutional corruption. It seeps into every nook and cranny of government and ruins any and all trust between government and the people. We've seen more than one instance of a country getting so fed up with corruption that they turned to religious fanaticism to rid themselves of it.

Institutional corruption is, I think, the defining issue of our time and has been for a long time.

G. Verloren said...


"Of course the advantage of democracy is that if we dislike the people in power we can vote them out, but if people feel that not just the people in power but the whole system is bad, they will support an authoritarian alternative."

It's an advantage that only comes into play in a healthy democracy, which brings us to one of the downsides - when you involve the average person in the process of governance, you introduce a requirement for the average person to be educated and principled in order for your government to work properly.


Corruption is the ultimate enemy of any government - when the people who are empowered to make decisions start placing their own interests above that of the country, things start to fall apart. That's true whether every single person gets a vote, or whether only a small group of elites get a vote, or whether a single absolute dictator is only one who gets a vote.

Dictators and oligarchies become theoretically preferable in situations where corruption is widespread - like Eliot Ness and The Untouchables, a small number of "uncorruptible" individuals properly empowered can take down entire corrupted systems. There's a reason so many dictators come to power on promises that they will do whatever is necessary to combat corruption - when the average person can't be trusted, you quite naturally want to restrict power to a small number of people who can be trusted. People who feel like the entire system is rigged or broken are much more likely to respond to campaign promises to "drain the swamp".

On the other side of the equation, democracies become theoretically preferable in situations where corruption is concentrated in the elite echelons of power. When you have a corrupt dictator or oligarchy, people quite naturally start trying to decentralize power, taking it away from those corrupt sources and putting it into the hands of the people instead. When the average person is seen as more trustworthy than their leadership, that's when democracies emerge.

G. Verloren said...


Once you know to look for it, you can see the pattern all over.

The French monarchy was corrupt, so the people installed a democratic republic. But when the republic turned out to be corrupt and ineffectual, people then allowed Napoleon to seize power and declare himself dictatorial Emperor. But when Napoleon turned out to be corrupt, people then welcomed back the oligarchic nobility.

The Russian tsars were corrupt, so the people installed a republic. But when the republic turned out to be corrupt and ineffectual, people then allowed Lenin to seize power and create a oligarchic one-party state. But when Lenin died, Stalin seized power and formed a virtual dictatorship. But when Stalin died, Krushchev led the process of "de-Stalinization" and transitioned back to an oligarchy. Then when the Soviet Union collapsed, the push was for democracy. But when that democracy turned out to be weak and ineffectual, the modern Russian oligarchy formed.

The Thirteen Colonies felt they couldn't trust the oligarchy of King George and his nobles, so they founded a decentralized confederation. But the confederation was weak and untrustworthy, so they centralized into a united federal republic. That centralized government was eventually challenged by secessionists attempting to form a decentralized confederation in the Civil War. But once they were defeated, faith in the Union increased again.

That lasted about a century, roughly until the advent of the Civil Rights movement, and then counter-cultural values in the 1960s and '70s, with economic difficulties, social unrest, and political scandals fomenting growing distrust of the government. That transitioned into the 80s response of mass deregulation, the rise of hyper-indivudualism, and a general atmosphere of "breaking rules".

Then the Cold War suddenly ends, and people are less skeptical and cynical for a while - faith in the government is high, the economy is doing well, we're diplomatically active on the international stage, the EU comes into being and seems to work, there's a global trend away from warfare, we feel united as a country, we're getting into environmentalism, computers and the internet are becoming mainstream...

...oh no, terrorism. And also economic crashes. Now we're cynical again, and we're losing faith in government again, and we're becoming divided as a people again. Some of us want to fix things with decentralization, "states rights", etc. Others believe we need the central government to step in and fix things that the states are getting wrong - gay marriage, reproductive rights, minimum wage, etc.

Oh hey, let's elect Obama on a platform of hope! Looks like things are improving overall, particularly for minorities. Democracy seems to be working reasonably well.

But the poor white population resent minorities seeing bigger improvements than their own - they don't have faith in their usual party candidates, so they support Trump with his 'strongman' promises of taking power away from others and centralizing it in himself - "Drain the swamp!" And fittingly, he wins despite losing the popular vote.


We live in a boom and bust cycle of enthusiastically shifting toward one end of the spectrum or the other, slowly losing faith in the extant system, and then shifting in the other direction once we feel we can't trust the people in power.

Our leaders are out of touch and corrupt? Better become more democratic! Now the average person can't be trusted to vote responsibly? Maybe we should leave the decisions up to a small handful of individuals we know we can trust! Oh, but now that small handful have betrayed us and become self-serving? Better put power back in the hands of the people again. Oh, but wait! The people are dangerous morons! Power can only be put in the hands of the trustworthy few!