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May 21, 2014 9:21 AM I Don’t Know Whether This Point Needs to be Belabored…

By Henry Farrell

…but David Brooks apparently doesn’t know what ‘democracy’ means.

The quickest way around all this is to use elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions to push populist reforms.

The process of change would be unapologetically elitist. Gather small groups of the great and the good together to hammer out bipartisan reforms — on immigration, entitlement reform, a social mobility agenda, etc. — and then rally establishment opinion to browbeat the plans through. But the substance would be anything but elitist. Democracy’s great advantage over autocratic states is that information and change flow more freely from the bottom up. Those with local knowledge have more responsibility.

If the Guardian State’s big advantage is speed at the top, democracy’s is speed at the bottom. So, obviously, the elite commissions should push proposals that magnify that advantage: which push control over poverty programs to local charities; which push educational diversity through charter schools; which introduce more market mechanisms into public provision of, say, health care, to spread power to consumers.

So if I understand Brooks right, we have elite commissions “of the great and the good” pushing ‘populist reforms’ from on high, where ‘populist’ is apparently a specialized term of art for ‘shit that technocrats really love.’ And the ‘democratic’ elements at the bottom consist of:

  • Poverty programs that have been turned over from the public sector to charities.
  • Education, which has been turned over from the public sector to charter schools.
  • Healthcare, which has been turned over even further to the market.

If this is an argument for ‘democracy,’ it’s a deeply weird and contorted one. At the heart of the confusion – and I suspect that this is a real and profound confusion, not a deliberate obfuscation – is an elision of the concepts of democracy and “local knowledge.” Brooks’ ideal society seems to be a chimeric offspring of Plato and Hayek. Commissions of aristocrats (who really do know better) hammer out grand social reforms. The specifics of implementation are left to those with local knowledge, who can best decide how to do things given the particulars.

In this grand scheme, there’s no democracy, either at the top nor the bottom. The grand commissions at the top are designed not to be accountable. And at the bottom, Brook’s proposals for charities, charter schools and market-driven healthcare all look to carve large areas of public activity out of public control.

You can make a case for some of this (e.g. charter schools) if you like, based on the expansion of choice, but you aren’t making an argument for democratic choice, which is all about collective control of destiny through argument and voting. More specifically, you can argue that democratic choice is not the appropriate form of choice for a particular social activity, or that democratic choice is both effectively absent and unachievable for that activity, and hence that some other form of choice ought to be instituted. You may even be right – but you are not making an argument for greater democracy, and you shouldn’t pretend to yourself and your readers that you are.

More generally, if you’re using rewarmed Hayek as the basis for your arguments about how democracy should be revitalized, you’re starting off from the wrong place. Hayek’s enthusiasm for democracy is at best contingent. There are theorists (like James Scott) who do want to combine local knowledge with democracy, but they start in a very different place than Brooks does, and want to end up in a very different place too.

So in short, Brooks’ argument for how democracies ought to compete with (purportedly more efficient) non-democracies is that they should become less democratic themselves. Or maybe, it’s that the secret advantage of democracies can be found in their non-democratic elements. It’s a point of view, certainly, but one which ought to be stated clearly and directly, rather than cloaked in the fiction that e.g. turning over poverty programs to private charity somehow adds a ‘democratic’ gloss to your grand bipartisan commissions. There’s a strong technocratic strain in Anglo-American thought which wants to push back against democracy, on the right (Brooks), among liberal-to-centrists (e.g. this Alan Blinder piece) and the left (the late Tony Judt). But few technocrats are willing to come out and describe themselves as actually anti-democratic, even if that’s where their ideas very obviously are leading them.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

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