Democracy is Not Our Savior

(Originally posted here, but I remain bewildered by the religious devotion to democracy, so I’m reposting.)

Imagine if your local grocer used mass voting to determine what to stock on the shelves. Everyone in a 30-mile radius of the store would get a ballot every few years, and you could vote on what items they should sell. Think long and hard about what people would vote for. Do you think this would result in better selection and quality than the current system of letting markets decide?

Voting is an incredibly inefficient mode of social organization. It rewards irrationality, selfishness, ignorance and greed. It makes peaceful coordination and cooperation incredibly difficult. It is divisive and hopelessly, systemically flawed. All the incentives are wrong. We should not see voting or democracy as a solution to social or political problems, but one of the primary causes.

Perhaps my example of voting on groceries is unfair. In most political systems we don’t vote on each and every issue. Instead, imagine that residents within 30 miles of the grocer don’t vote on the store’s stock and policies, but rather vote on who should manage the store. Let’s go a little further and say they vote on the manager, CFO, board members and a handful of other middle-management roles. What would be the result?

For starters, those seeking to hold management positions at the grocery store should forget about any skills except the skill of convincing all the voters to vote for them. Marketing themselves as better than the other would-be managers would be the only thing that would get them the job; not their expertise at running a store or their knowledge of stocking procedures, management or the industry. Would people’s votes provide better and clearer information about who should manage the store than the profits, losses, operations and happiness of employees? Of course not.

At first glance, voting may seem similar to a market. After all, when people buy or don’t buy from the grocer, it sends price signals telling management what shoppers value. It’s like a vote, with a crucial difference: It costs the buyer. Market exchanges reveal what people want when they face trade-offs. Voting reveals what people want when it’s “free.” Lots of people might vote for the store manager who promises not to import anything from other countries because it makes them feel good to support local farmers. These same people, when faced with higher priced and lower quality local food in the open market might very well choose to purchase imported produce. Voters support candidates who promise to restrict cheap imported goods, then on the way home from the polls they stop and buy cheap, imported goods. Voting irrationally is costless, while shopping that way hurts your pocketbook.

Voting also turns friends into enemies. I have neighbors that support different products and services and businesses than I do, but this doesn’t cause any tension in our relationships. But if we were forced to vote on which products, services and businesses were available to us, how much they should cost and who would pay for it, in a zero-sum election, you’d better believe tension would arise.

The fact that no grocery stores select products or managers by popular vote should clue us in to something: Democracy is a far worse way of coordinating and managing complex processes than markets.

It’s easy to see how disastrously inferior democracy is to the market in providing groceries. The provision of food is the most fundamental and important service to any society; if the market can handle food provision so much better than democratic processes, why not the provision of less fundamental services like health care, education, protection and all kinds of lesser services? In truth, the incentives built in to the democratic process create massive inefficiencies in all these government services, as well as allow for corruption and all manner of moral transgression.Government failure is an inescapable part of government.

In civil society, voting is a rarely used mechanism. We vote on inconsequential things like where to eat or what movie to see with a small group of indecisive friends. Voting is used in religious or civic organizations to select board members or decide on some major issues. Not only are these relatively small, homogenous groups, but they are groups of people who have voluntarily come together around a shared vision. They can also freely enter and exit; shopping for a church or denomination may sound off-putting, but the freedom to do so is crucial to the health of individuals and churches.

Even in these smaller, voluntary institutions, voting has important incentive and information problems that most organizations try to curb in some way. The more populous the group, the more complex the decision—and the more costly or important the outcome, the worse voting is as a coordinating mechanism. When you’re dealing with hundreds of millions of people and a cross-section of highly complex policies with life-and-death consequences and millions in potential gains or losses, voting becomes an absurd mechanism of coordination. Governments may try to supplement voting with all kinds of irritating and invasive data collection like censuses, but these do not solve the problem in any way—and can make it worse. Does your grocery store need to conduct a census to supplement the anonymous information you provide them with your purchasing behavior?

Most advocates of limited government understand why tyranny and central planning are dangerous. But too often they assume more or better democracy will improve things. We hear about turning backward countries around by making them more democratic. We hear about turning our own country around by convincing people to vote for better candidates or policies. None of these will ultimately address the problem. The grocery store that is managed by vote would not be much better off if the residents selected a “better” manager; the manager would face the same lack of vital information, and the voters and manager would face the same bad incentives.

The way to make the world a freer, better and more prosperous place is not to enhance and expand democracy or to elect better people through the democratic process. It is instead to reduce to a minimum the number of things decided through the democratic process, and to allow more peaceful and emergent institutions for social and economic coordination to take its place. This can only happen when enough people understand and believe in the power of peaceful, voluntary interactions over the power of coercive political methods.