November 1, 2006
WHAT USE TRAINS THAT RUN ON TIME IF THEY GO NOWHERE?:
What If the Bums Are Us? (ROBERT SAMUELSON, November 1, 2006, The Washington Post)
"Public opinion stands out, in the United States, as the great source of power, the master of servants who tremble before it."
â€” James Bryce, "The American Commonwealth," 1888
The problem of American democracy is (of course) democracy. We are on the cusp of an election that commentators have already imbued with vast significance if Democrats recapture part or all of Congress â€” or if they don't. But here's something that no one's saying: Regardless of who wins, it won't make much difference for many pressing problems. We won't have a major new budget policy, energy policy, or immigration policy. The election might not even much affect the Iraq war.
In many ways, the election doesn't matter. We could blame the prospect of divided government or a bipartisan leadership vacuum; both might promote paralysis. But the deeper cause is public opinion. As Bryce saw, our politicians are slaves to public opinion. Superficially, this should be reassuring. Democracy is working because public attitudes remain the dominant influence â€” not "big money" or "special interests."
But it is not reassuring. The trouble is that public opinion is often ignorant, confused, and contradictory; and so the policies it produces are often ignorant, confused, and contradictory â€” which means they're ineffective.
American democracy may not be the most efficient market, but as Mr. Samuelson's own formulation demonstrates, is a market. Odd for an economist in the 21st Century to be anti-market. If we simply assume that the federal government gives us pretty nearly that government which most of us want and we look at the complete global dominance by America virtually since its inception, it becomes pretty hard to argue that the system isn't effective, however messy it may be. After all, undemocratic governments are effective for precisely the same reasons that they head off in disastrous directions. Posted by Orrin Judd at November 1, 2006 8:15 AM