A common quip about the Ontario election campaign that ends with Thursday’s vote is that, if None Oftheabove was running, she’d win in a landslide. Ontarians have become so disenchanted about their democratic choices that barely half of them even turn out to vote any more.
The irony of their disengagement is that it comes at a time when they’re asking more than ever of government. For starters, they want better hospitals and schools, secure retirements, more public transit, affordable daycare, a cleaner environment, cheaper electricity and university tuition and a million new jobs – all while keeping taxes and government debt low enough to avoid becoming Greece.
Ontarians aren’t alone. Across the West, voters want more for less. Elections have become vaudeville shows in which an apathetic public requires titillation to tune in. Plato’s theatrocracy – the rule of the audience – rings eerily true in the early 21st century.
Authors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge warn that the “dangerous paradox” emerging in the West is that “voters have scant respect for the governments that democracy has landed them with” yet “assume that democracy is beyond criticism.”
But what if the problem is democracy itself?
Two decades ago, Mr. Micklethwait and Mr. Wooldridge’s new book The Fourth Revolution might have struggled to find a publisher. In the post-Berlin Wall, post-Tiananmen Square world, the idea that Western democracies might be losing what they call “the race to reinvent the state” would have seemed ludicrous. Soviet communism was dead, and many wondered whether Chinese communism would follow.
But today, it’s the Western democratic model that’s in trouble. Our elected representatives govern only at the margins. They are unable to tackle really big issues because the decision-making process is clogged by lobbyists and the endless obligation to consult “stakeholders.” Policies become watered down, ineffectual, or worse, counter-productive. Often, no decisions are made at all.
Winston Churchill’s aphorism, that democracy is the worst system except for all the others, is no longer any consolation. It may not even be true. Churchill did not live long enough to witness the rise of modern China, whose hybrid model of market capitalism and authoritarian governance seems to be winning the race now.
Is democracy overrated? Asked another way, is freedom really the right to vote on every collective decision governing our lives? Or does being free mean being able to realize one’s potential in a system that nurtures the best and brightest while ensuring a small but sustainable safety net for the poor and sick?
Mr. Micklethwait and Mr. Wooldridge, respectively editor-in-chief and Schumpeter columnist at The Economist, are hardly apologists for China’s version of authoritarian capitalism. China has huge problems; almost no one would trade a Western passport for a Chinese one. But they argue that the West should start looking east for ideas about how to get big stuff done, or risk further decline.
“The great problem of the West is not just that it has overloaded the state with obligations it cannot meet; it has overburdened democracy with expectations that cannot be fulfilled,” the authors conclude. “Unreformed, the modern welfare state will stagnate under its own weight. It is already failing to help the people who need its support most, lavishing its largesse on cosseted vested interests.”
When we no longer vote as citizens – but as teachers, nurses, doctors, commuters, business owners, environmentalists, taxpayers or as part of some other narrow interest group – we invite politicians to pander to us. We also make it impossible for them to govern responsibly.
Lee Kuan Yew, another authoritarian capitalist and the architect of Singapore’s rise, calls Western democracy “a never-ending process of auctions – and the cost, the debt being paid for by the next generation.” An “impoverished swamp” 50 years ago, the ex-British colony now provides better schools, hospitals and living standards than its former British overlords provide their own people.
Mr. Micklethwait and Mr. Wooldridge say we Westerners first need to “revive the democratic spirit” by asking less of the state. Then we need to take some power away from politicians. They suggest handing control over “big decisions” to independent commissions of unelected experts. To avoid the “threat of technocracy,” this should be done sparingly and transparently.
We already do monetary policy this way. Why not fiscal policy?
I might vote for that.