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What Shouldn’t Be Surprising about Democracy

The following is a guest post from John Hasnas of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.


One of the drawbacks of not being a committed supporter of democracy is that one loses the ability to be continually surprised by the discovery of the obvious. Currently, the intelligentsia is shocked to find that significant percentages of the public 1) subscribe to “conspiracy theories”–the current euphemism for beliefs held without supporting evidence and in the face of strong disconfirming evidence–and 2) don’t seem committed to the preservation of democratic institutions. But to those of us who view democracy dispassionately rather than as true believers, there is nothing surprising about this at all. It is precisely what we would expect. 

1) Under democracy, the person or policy that receives the most support prevails. But majority support has no necessary connection to the facts of reality. For example, a majority that wanted to stop illegal immigration could vote for a politician who promises to build a wall across the southern border of the United States, even though, as a matter of fact, this would have almost no effect on illegal immigration. Or a majority that wanted to help the poorest members of society could vote to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, even though this would reduce employment for the poorest unskilled workers.

When we make decisions for ourselves, most of us pay close attention to the facts of reality. We look both ways before we cross the street. When we drive, we stop at red lights and refrain from driving 90 miles an hour through residential streets. We consider how much money we make in deciding how much money to spend. We comparison shop, consider the prospects for return before making investments, perform regular maintenance on our cars and homes, and purchase automobile, life, health, and homeowner’s insurance. We don’t just walk up and take other people’s stuff. 

We do this because each of us would personally suffer the consequences of ignoring the facts of reality. Failure to look both ways means that we might be hit by a car. Reckless driving means that we might crash. Profligate spending means that we might go bankrupt. Failure to comparison shop, invest carefully, perform necessary maintenance, and purchase insurance means that we may suffer financial losses. Failure to observe property rights means that we may be punched in the nose. 

Things are different when we vote. Because voting one way rather than another imposes no direct consequences on us personally, there is little reason to consider the way the world actually works. Thus, we are free to indulge our imagination and vote for the way we want the world to be. We can imagine that a big, beautiful wall across the southern border will stop illegal immigration, so we vote for the politician who promises to build it and have Mexico pay for it. We feel compassion for low skilled, low wage workers, so we vote to give them all $15 per hour. 

The incentive structure of democratic decision-making encourages people to indulge their fantasies and vote in ways that make them feel good about themselves. This good feeling can be obtained by signaling that one cares about the poor or that one cares about family values, or that one supports his or her team or that one is a loyal member of the tribe. There is no need for one’s vote or other political activities to be tied to the facts of reality to obtain these psychological benefits. After watching large segments of the population believe that a border wall will stop illegal immigration, that Russian interference determined the outcome of the 2016 election, that the Chinese pay tariffs rather than American consumers, and that deficits don’t matter, can it really be surprising that many people believe that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election? Since the believer suffers no personal harm from indulging in such a belief and can gain significant psychological benefit from doing so, how can we be surprised by the prevalence of political conspiracy theories?

2) And it surely should not be surprising that the abstract support for “democratic institutions” disappears when one’s side loses an election. In the first place, supporting democracy in the real world borders on the irrational. A commitment to democracy requires one to believe that the policy of the candidate who receives the greatest number of votes should be adopted. But when one votes, he or she is expressing a personal belief about the desirability of a proposed policy. If our committed democrat’s opponent receives more votes, he or she must now simultaneously believe that the policy of the candidate he or she opposed should be adopted based on the belief that social policy should be determined by the democratic process and that the policy of that candidate should not be adopted based on his or her personal belief. 

Imagine that a candidate runs for President on a platform of building a wall across the southern border of the United States, temporarily banning Muslims from entering the United States, and imposing tariffs on products manufactured overseas. Also imagine that Debbie Democrat, a firm believer in democratic governance, strongly opposes all of these measures and believes that their adoption is both immoral and would be disastrous for the country. Accordingly, she votes for the opposing candidate. Assume however that after the votes are counted, her candidate loses. Debbie Democrat is now in the uncomfortable position of simultaneously believing that a wall should be built across the southern border of the United States, Muslims should be temporarily banned from entering the United States, and tariffs should be imposed on products manufactured overseas based on her belief that social policy should be determined by the democratic process and that none of these measures should be adopted based on her personal belief that they are immoral and counterproductive. 

How surprising can it be that the losers of an election will try to obstruct the will of the majority whether through protests, lawsuits or other procedural impediments, civil disobedience, or even intimidation and violence? What wouldbe surprising would be for Debbie and those who voted with her to say, “Well, we lost the election, so we should do all we can to help put the will of the people into effect and support building the wall, banning Muslims, and imposing tariffs at least until the next election.” 

For most people, democracy is like religion. Belief that democracy is a morally justified and necessary form of government is accepted as a matter of faith. It is only we few heretics who actually examine democracy’s features. We are the ones who notice that democracy is a zero sum game; that under democracy, all must conform their behavior to the will of the majority, and that this makes democracy a winner-take-all game that creates an incentive to defeat one’s opponents at all costs.

In Chapter 10 of his 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom, Freidrich Hayek explained why, in a winner-take-all political system, adherence to principle is self-eliminating. The politician whose commitment to principle prevents him from doing what is necessary to gain power is washed out of the system, or as Bill Clinton more succinctly put it when asked why he lied during the 1996 Presidential campaign, “You gotta do what you gotta do.” In a democracy, any politician whose commitment to abstract moral or political principles prevents him or her from doing what will generate the most votes, loses. This makes politicians’ explicitly hypocritical behavior and application of double standards, which is so shocking to democracy’s true believers, such a mundane observation to us. It is also why we know that it is pointless to exhort people to eschew “whataboutism” as a form of political argument. Far from an aberration, such argumentation is baked into government by electoral majority. 

Many intellectuals seem surprised that Republican politicians who were running for their lives from a mob whipped up by President Trump on January 6 could vote overwhelmingly not to impeach Trump less than three weeks later. But to those of us with a realistic view of the incentive structure of democracy, nothing could seem more natural. You don’t get to make policy if you don’t get elected. So, in the words of Bill Clinton, “You gotta do what you gotta do.”