November 1, 2006


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."
— 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 — 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 — 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 — 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

"The trouble is that public opinion is often ignorant, confused, and contradictory;" unlike the Soviet's or the Chinese where there is always a cohort of well-experienced, manipulative elders to shape the country's future, to tell you what to do, and what to think. You're too ignorant, and confused to know what is good for you and for the country. BTW, why don't we scrap our elections where contradictory public opinion is threatening our Republic. Case in point: Bush wants to stay in Iraq, Kerry doesn't. Nothing can be more contradictory than that.

Posted by: ic at November 1, 2006 11:05 AM

OJ, where's the regiphillia?

Posted by: Mike Beversluis at November 1, 2006 2:14 PM


tut-tut--recall that the reason a king would perfect the Republic is because he'd act as an emergency brake in case of "efficiency."

Posted by: oj at November 1, 2006 2:24 PM

"If. . .we look at the complete global dominance of America, almost since its inception, it becomes pretty hard to argue that the system isn't effective."

Wow! straight-up evolutionary sociology--who'da thunk it! There it is: what went wrong, what went right, and why.

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 1, 2006 8:24 PM