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BPR Interviews: Garett Jones on Questioning Democracy

Garett Jones is an economist at George Mason University. His most recent book is 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust the Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less. His last book was Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own. This post is the second in an ongoing series of interviews of people invested in the idea of human progress.

Nick Whitaker: Why only 10% less democracy?

Garett Jones: A core reason comes from Bill [William] Easterly’s research in the area, where he shows that countries in the top 25% of democracy essentially never kill their own citizens. Once one drops from the top quartile to the second quartile, the percentage of people who get killed by their own governments shoots up. So, I see this as sort of a metaphor more broadly where, when we’re looking for good outcomes, the good and excellent things we get from democracy (fewer famines, less killing of citizens, perhaps a lower likelihood of war), these are things where a little bit of democracy goes a long way. So, I want to make sure that whatever reforms I propose, they don’t make a country feel truly undemocratic. When I talk about my reforms with others, people often tell me, “Oh, these things you’re talking about: longer terms, more power for the Fed, even listening to bondholders, that wouldn’t make a country less democratic as long as we’re having elections every couple of years. That’s what democracy is all about.” So, whatever reforms I propose, I want them to be ones that will still make the nation feel and be a democracy. I want to remind people democracy is a continuum, not an either/or situation.

Nick Whitaker: Still, why not encourage more countries to think about, as you say “getting to Singapore” with 25% or 30% less democracy, if governance could be improved as much as your book suggests?

Garett Jones: Well, some countries will perhaps do that, right? But I think that once you get a lot less democratic, you run the risk of really bad outcomes. Based on the statistical evidence we have from the world as a whole, Singapore is a country that has gotten lucky with its low levels of democracy.

Most countries that have those levels of democracy seem to run what I think of as too great a risk of ignoring the wellbeing of large sections of their population, whether that shows up as famines or massacres or political repression or cutting segments of the population out of the welfare state or educational system. Once you become semi-democratic, the chances of winding up with the Singapore outcome are too low to bet on. Singapore is a country that, as far as we can tell, got lucky with having such good outcomes at its level of democracy. Most countries at that level don’t have as good outcomes as Singapore. So, Singapore is a fortunate country to be a semi-democracy with such good outcomes.

Nick Whitaker: Should we think of it as fundamentally as a matter of luck, or is it a matter of pursuing the right set of institutional reforms with the right leadership? Can the outcome be controlled more than rolling the dice?

Garett Jones: It’s possible that further research could find a perfect way of threading the needle, of running the slalom course, to get just the good outcomes from democracy reducing reforms without running many of the risks. But, at our current state of knowledge, we have to go based on the averages. This is a little bit like thinking, “Since I know someone who took an antibiotic and got better in two days, let’s find a way to make sure this antibiotic that normally works in seven could work two.” That’s the kind of thing that’s beyond, I think, our typical scope of knowledge in the realm of the social sciences. So I tend to think we should focus on the average outcomes, the common outcomes, the modal outcomes. Maybe 10 or 20 more years of artisanal, well-crafted research can yield better policy reforms. But, my job is to state the rules, not the exceptions to the rules.

Nick Whitaker: How do you think of your work in relation to Bryan Caplan and Jason Brennan‘s work on the same subject?

Garett Jones: Caplan’s work is enormously important and, and he has influenced me enormously. Knowing how ignorant voters are about the basics of governance and of government is a great starting point for thinking about critiques of modern democracy. His book on the subject, The Myth of the Rational Voter, is a book that everyone interested in rich country democracy should read.

Brennan’s book, Against Democracy, is, likewise, very important. It’s definitely, though, a philosopher’s book. He has these detailed and, to use the word again, artisanal proposals for epistocracy, for giving more weight to the more informed voters. By contrast, I see my book as being the 20-page diner menu of critiques of democracy. I’m bringing my experience as a monetary economist, as a former Senate staffer, and as a cognitive skill and human capital researcher, to bring different approaches to critiquing democracy. So, I’m not just looking at things from the perspective of saying, “Oh boy, voters are really uninformed on a lot of things. Let’s see if we can give more weight to the smarter folks.” That’s just one chapter of my book and it’s purposely entitled, “This Chapter Does Not Apply to Your Country.” The rest of the book is about other reforms that are not at all voting reforms. They’re ways of making government work more effectively, mostly by embracing some form of what Aristotle called “polity,” a blend of democracy and oligarchy.

Our modern democracies are something that I think Aristotle would recognize immediately as a polity, a blend of democracy with oligarchy. And our question should be, are we getting that blend right? I think we’re not getting the blend right in the rich democracies. I think we’d have a lot to gain if we leaned a little more toward the oligarchies side and a little less toward the democracy side. That’s what shows up when I talk about the merits of independent central banks, of longer terms for elected officials, and of giving bondholders a formal voice in government. Those are all approaches that are more oligarchic than democratic, but are not epistocratic. They’re not focusing on the more informed in any direct way.

Nick Whitaker: Of the reforms that you explore in the book, which do you think would be the most promising in the US?

Garett Jones: I think that longer terms for the House of Representatives is something that has been a hardy perennial in US politics. And it’s something you could always imagine getting through as a constitutional amendment. Two-year terms are just about the shortest in the world. Very few countries go that short. It seems like you can get a fairly broad consensus if it just became a thing people talked about for a year. You could imagine a lot of states passing constitutional amendments to lengthen those terms. That’s one.

I think another one could be something like the council of US treasury bondholders, as I suggest in chapter six. It would involve having some kind of formal mechanism to listen to people who have skin in the game, who have invested in the United States government, who have a long run time horizon, and who want to get repaid. I think that some kind of formal representation for the bondholders, having the US treasury listen to them in a formal way, say twice a year through nonbinding resolutions, is something that really could happen.

Maybe it won’t happen. It won’t happen in the US this year or next year. But I think as aging democracies face fiscal crises every 5 or 10 years, eventually it’ll become an idea that will make it onto the menu.

Nick Whitaker: It seems like a lot of language games are played with the word “democracy.” Some, including the Polity IV index, define positive outcomes as part of democracy. How did you think about that in the context of your work?

Garett Jones: This is an exceptionally important thing because people often use democracy as a word for as a synonym for good governance. People will unironically treat an independent judiciary, for instance, as part of democracy, when in actuality an independent judiciary is quite undemocratic. We could easily be voting for Supreme Court decisions on our smartphones. Yet, essentially nobody wants to do that. So you’re right. Being clear about what one means by democracy is central to being able to critique modern democracies.

That’s why I focus — I say it in the first paragraph of the book and I just keep hammering on this theme, especially early in the book — that what I mean by democracy is direct or indirect voter control over government outcomes. But, when we have a choice between short terms and longer terms, shorter terms, as the ancients knew, are more democratic and longer terms, as the ancients knew, are less democratic. I can show that the less democratic option, longer terms, seems to be associated with better outcomes. By keeping the definition of democracy concrete, I think that I can offer a much better critique of democracy than others using lazier definitions.

Nick Whitaker: Why not frame things in terms of majoritarianism? Do you see the two as synonymous?

Garett Jones: No. Majoritarianism and democracy are not synonyms. I actually draw on James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock’s, my late GMU colleagues, work where they point out that a unanimity rule is just as democratic as majoritarianism. Indeed, ethically it has a better case as a starting point. So majoritarian and democratic decision making are not the same thing. When I hear people say this or that democratic government is weakened by supermajority rules or the filibuster or unanimity decision making, as is the case of some parts of the European Union, those are failures of democracy. Those are not failures elitism or oligarchy.

Nick Whitaker: Your book focuses on institutional reforms on a state level. I’m curious whether you have an opinion on whether cities should be more or less democratic.

Garett Jones: This is a very good question and it’s come up before. I tend to think that cities are controlled to a strong degree by a right of exit. It’s very easy to leave. The power of exit is already a pretty strong constraint on the governance that goes on inside of cities. So I am open to the idea of greater elite control of cities.

Let me give it a concrete example. I’m from Southern California. In the southern part of Orange County, California, it’s largely heavily influenced by the Irvine Company, a real estate development company, which has done an exceptional job, I think, of creating cities that have high levels of livability, low levels of crime, and are desirable destinations for both businesses and consumers. That sort of privatization of vast regions of governance I think has been quite effective. There’s good reason to emulate it more often.

Likewise, a lot of shopping malls in Southeast Asia have, essentially, privatized forms of governance. These malls are often have not just places for shopping, but they’re places to live. They’re places to work. Apartments and call centers are sometimes integrated into the environment. I think they’re a model that really should just be embraced much more widely. They are, in a sense, quite democracy reducing but the ability of these privatized governments to exploit and abuse people is greatly minimized by the fact that people can leave if you don’t like living there. In Irvine, if you see there being oppression going on in areas that are controlled by these private real estate developers, you can leave. That reduces the abuses that we have to worry about when considering democracy reducing reforms.

Nick Whitaker: How does your work in this book connect with your work in your previous book, Hive Mind?

Garett Jones: Hive Mind got me thinking about the importance of cognitively skilled citizens in creating good governance. That influences one chapter of this book. But, I think the core overlap is that both books emphasize that governments are created by people. People differ in their traits and people differ in their incentives. Those differences matter for good governance.

I spoke to someone, a philosopher recently, who pointed this out, that this is an overall theme in my work. A lot of modern political speak is built around this tacit assumption of absolute equality on every issue, that all people are equally skilled on the supply side. That might have been a be a useful working assumption.

But I think the statistical evidence of the last few decades gives a strong reason to think that differences between people are big enough to matter for shaping government outcomes. That may be the difference between more educated voters and less educated voters. And that may maybe the difference between people who think a lot about the short-run versus people who think a lot about the long-run. But regardless, these differences matter for governance. Economists think about this routinely in political economy research. Part of my goal in this book is to bring these ideas from political economy research out into the broader public debate over the nature of good governance.

Nick Whitaker: In Hive Mind, you suggest that immigrants with low cognitive skills may undermine institutional quality and governance. Would a less democratic society be better prepared for immigration, in your view, for an influx of immigrants, as the immigrants would have a smaller effect on policy?

Garett Jones: That’s an interesting question. It’s actually a point that Caplan indirectly addresses in his new graphic novel, Open Borders, where he points out that mass, low-skilled immigration happens in the Gulf States, which are quite undemocratic, and nobody there thinks that it’s likely to have a big effect on the domestic political system.

At the same time, in the kind of range that I’m thinking about, I really do mean 10% less democracy. I’m not being ironic when I say that. 10% less democracy would not have a noticeable effect, I think, on any interaction between immigration and future changes in government.

And, of course, that’s part of my goal, right? As I emphasize in chapter five, a key goal of any kind of change in the voting system would be to make sure that everyone still feels like their group is represented and to have that group actually be represented in government. I’m writing a book that really is 10% less democracy, not 50% less. So anything that substantively changed the way any demographic group was represented in government would be a failure.

Nick Whitaker: Finally, what do you plan on researching next?

Garett Jones: I’m now working on the third book in what I’m calling my Singapore Trilogy. That book is going to focus on long-run cultural change. It’s working title is The Assimilation Myth: How Culture Persists and Shapes Our Economic Future. I think the economics of culture is an area where big data and good theory have a strong overlap. That’s been a key to the two other books in the Singapore trilogy and I’m going to keep that overlap in the third book.