Friday, February 29, 2008

Good Government requires Civic Culture

Democracy is only as good (or as bad) as the demos. Cf. Matthew Yglesias:
If you have the relevant social conditions to support good government -- competent media, engaged citizenry, civil society groups that can form the basis of electoral coalitions, a political culture that values honesty -- then a politician who engages in a lot of shady behavior is likely to find himself voted out of office whether or not the shadiness in question is formally illegal. Conversely, absent adequate social conditions even the most admirable legal framework becomes a dead letter -- nobody investigates violations and/or nobody cares. At the end of the day there are always going to be loopholes in whatever scheme you create. You see good government when and where the citizens want it and are able to punish those who don't give it to them.

See also Timothy Burke:
The key priority is to rebuild the way the federal government actually functions in both its everyday and extraordinary business... the whole point of the U.S. Constitution [is] that it is an uncommitted, non-partisan prior constraint on the uses of governmental authority. If it turns out that its guarantees rest not so much on its formal provisions, but just on men and women of good will and honest commitment agreeing to live up to their responsibilities under the law and the social contract, then that’s what we need to work to rebuild and restore. The last eight years have been a test, and a lot of people, some of them surprising, failed it. Equally, many people in all parties and factions passed, which is also worth a lot of attention. A lot of the downward momentum has been arrested by people with whom I strongly disagree on political positions, but whose dedication to their office and responsibilities I appreciate. Much of what we know about what has gone wrong in the last eight years is due to Republicans inside and outside the Administration drawing some lines in the sand...

We thought transparency could help, and it does somewhat. Transparency only helps, however, if there are strongly internalized professional and social ethical commitments that are widely distributed both in the general population and among the people who do the business of government, or education, or medicine, or any other major institution. If you don’t have enough people like Grant Woods, the liberal state will fail.


  1. So is the number of "people like Grant Woods" required to keep the liberal state from failing greater or less than the number required to keep a non-democratic state from failing?

  2. A greater number of civic-minded people may be required for liberal democracy, though it is less vital precisely which people those are. They may be more dispersed through the population, and the relevant virtues may also be more dispersed, i.e. so that we have more people being civic-minded but each to a lesser degree.

    (A dictatorship might only require one good person, but it had better be the right person, and they had better be extremely good. So I'd sooner bet on a more dispersed system like liberal democracy.)

  3. If men were angels no system of governance would be needed. If they were devils none would help, and we would be sorely tempted not to care. The question has to be "how are various virtues distributed?". "Are they distributed in a manner that suggests that the expected distribution of outcomes will be better or worse under a supposed democracy with a particular list of institutions than under a given list of other systems, some more ostenably democratic and some less so?"

  4. I think that your answers are intuitive, but upon some reflection it may be otherwise. Surely a dictatorship requires far more than one at least fairly good person to function at all well. Decisions made on the advice of totally self-interested (or worse, capricious) advisers and executed by totally self-interested (or capricious) administrators will turn out badly even after very good deliberation. Dictatorships or tight oligarchies sure do make the deliberation part easier to bring about though.

    I'm pretty confident that a dictator doesn't need to be extremely virtuous compared to voters etc. Creating policies is his job, so he has more time to acquire expertise in it. His personal decisions have more weight, so they are worth making well even if motivated by fairly weak altruism, while the lower weight personal decisions of voters aren't worth making well unless motivated by much stronger altruism (which might motivate them to try to become dictators instead).

    The other problem, that the dictator had better be the right person, is far more critical. A bad dictator can do damage more rapidly than a bad populace. OTOH, a bad dictator is much easier to overthrow than a bad populace. Sadly, so are good dictators, which may cause even strongly altruistic dictators to spend more effort in protecting and maintaining their own power than voters do, and thus less on building a better society than they could. Of course, if the public won't elect people who don't spend all their time trying to win re-election we get a less extreme version of this problem from representative democracy, though not from direct democracy.

    Today, it's totally clear to me that North Korea is governed worse than Iran which is governed worse than the United States, which is governed worse than Sweden which is governed worse than Singapore. If that sequence was all we had to go on, democracy vs. dictatorship would be a toss-up. However, "one of those things is not like the others". The difference in quality of governance between North Korea and Iran dwarfs that between Iran and Singapore. For this reason, given the limited binary choice between things that are plausibly labeled as democracies and things not plausibly so labeled, Democracy seems far the safer and better bet.

    OTOH, the quality ranking of a non-democracy is surely not uncaused. If we had some good reason for believing, as Plato thought he did, that a democracy was more likely to transition to dictatorship of the North Korean variety than a dictatorship like Singapore is to do so we might very plausibly favor Singapore's system of governance to that of the US.


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