From Glenn Reynold in USA Today, Who’s to blame for Hillary and Donald?
And, of course, voters are to blame, too. One of the flaws of democracy is something called “rational ignorance.” Voters know that their individual vote isn’t likely to make a difference, so it’s rational for them not to put a lot of effort into informing themselves. Instead, politics is more like sports, with people cheering on a team or an idol regardless of real-world issues. Tyler Cowen writes that much of American politics is about which groups will rise in status over others, rather than policy per se. An electorate that views things this way is not likely to make political decisions that benefit the nation as a whole.
The Framers of our Constitution knew this, of course. This is why they created a representative democracy, a republic, rather than a pure democracy. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 55, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” The idea was that while voters might be rationally ignorant, the better sorts of people would be more informed, and more vigilant. The voters would be like a reset button, but mostly the machinery of government would be run by elites, who had a stronger incentive to know what was going on, and to deal with it effectively on behalf of the nation.
The problem is that today’s elites aren’t really the better sorts of people. As Richard Fernandez notes, today we have a principal-agent problem. Those happen when the agent (a lawyer, say, or a public official, or a journalist) cuts deals for himself instead of for the benefit of the people he’s representing. Our elites seem to be doing that now — looking after themselves, rather than after the country, with traditional limits on self-dealing having vanished.
If a republic is just a representative group elected by an ignorant democratic mass then the distinction between a republic and a democracy is moot. Democracy and demagogue have the same origin.
What makes our system unique is not that it is a republic but that it is moored in the written law and that written law in designed to restrain the government’s power. The progressive movement has sought to remove those restrictions and restore greater power to the central government. Progressives believed that liberty had more to fear from unrestrained commerce than from unrestrained government.
The dramatic growth in the administrative, regulatory and welfare state has created opportunities for government officials to enrich themselves through political opportunities. No one has mastered this development like the Clintons.