A Critique of Radical Democracy

by Benjamin Studebaker

A lot of smart people recognize that there are serious structural problems with the current political system, but there is much disagreement on how those problems should be dealt with. While I have often argued for sophiarchism, in many corners radical democratic theory remains more popular. I’d like to offer an argument for rejecting, at least in part, what radical democratic theory has to offer. “Radical democratic theory” is a lengthy phrase, so, for our mutual convenience, I will refer to radical democratic theory as “Rad-Demism” and those who believe in radical democratic theory as “Rad-Dems”.

As I’ve stated before, there are really four key problems with the political system as it exists today:

  1. Problem of Voter Ignorance–voters often do not know enough about social science to make good decisions. This is not merely confined to advanced theoretical knowledge, but often even basic political facts elude the average voter (see here and here), Importantly, the ignorance of the voters is reflected in the ignorance of the politicians (see here for an example) and consequently in public policy.
  2.  Problem of False Dichotomy–traditional democracy leads to the formation of opposing factions and parties, each of which seeks its own narrow interest rather than the interest of the community as a whole (see here and here). Political parties become dominated by these factions and consequently become incapable of pursuing healthy mediums between the positions of opposing interests.
  3. Problem of Groupthink–often there is a lag time of decades or even centuries before a new good idea catches on with a large enough portion of the population to be enacted even if it remains popular with a minority (see here).
  4. Problem of Convergence–in order to win elections, political parties inevitably appeal to the most common views, irrespective of whether or not those views are good, creating a negative feedback loop and excluding a large number of voters political relevance. These voters are not given equal consideration by the state, which generally appeals to the governing majority of votes (see here).

While Rad-Demism contains many diverse structural incarnations, most Rad-Dems attempt to resolve these problems by appeal to a set of common goals that they believe political systems should meet:

  1. Participation–Rad-Dems want everyday citizens to regularly participate directly in government. By eliminating/reducing representation, Rad-Demism hopes to avoid the problems of false dichotomy and convergence.
  2. Localization–Rad-Dems want politics to be conducted primarily or even exclusively at the local level, where the issues are most intimately familiar to the participants in order to eliminate the problem of ignorance.
  3. Transparency–Rad-Dems want open government so that citizens can participate with maximum knowledge in order to eliminate the problem if ignorance.
  4. Accountability–through these means, Rad-Dems hope to empower citizens to hold their government accountable for the things it does.

Many Rad-Dems also take on elements of Habermas‘ deliberative democratic model, hoping to use uncoerced deliberation to reach a consensus that will transcend the problem of groupthink.

Rad-Demism has wide appeal because it appeals to people on both the left and the right. Leftist Rad-Dems see Rad-Demism as an anarcho-Marxist solution that puts the state into the hands of the collective in a way the Soviet Union never did. Rightist Rad-Dems see Rad-Demism as a kind of anti-Federalist Neo-Calhounism that gets the national government out of people’s lives (by destroying it or reducing much of its powers by devolution). There is a strain of Rad-Demism at the heart of both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. Though the two movements would be pained to admit it, it is the principal similarity between the two.

The Rad-Dems have lots of useful things to say about how we should organize local government. In most liberal democracies, most citizens ignore their local government and allow their towns, cities, counties, and other municipalities to be run by tiny oligarchies. This is true despite the fact that the people most qualified to say if the intersection between Main Street and Wood Street needs a stop sign, a stop light, or a roundabout are probably the people using that intersection, who know how well they can see around the corners, how busy the intersection is, how dangerous it becomes in inclement weather, and so on. Many local issues are like this. Residents know if they want zoning to allow the construction of a new Wal-Mart, or if they want a new highway constructed or a town festival planned a lot better than they know whether or not congress should pass a stimulus package.

The trouble is that someone still has to decide whether or not we pass that stimulus package. There are some issues that are what I call “irreducibly national”. Chief among these are macroeconomic policy and foreign affairs.

There are two reasons macroeconomic policy is irreducibly national:

  1. Preventing Recession–the national state is necessary to determine how the economy should be regulated so as to prevent overinvestment (bubbles) and underconsumption (stagnant wages). If there’s no national state, localities exist in a state of regulatory anarchy. If the city of Chicago decides to tightly regulate banks and have laws encouraging strong unions and high wages and the city of Houston decides to unshackle the banks and have subsistence wages, Chicago loses all its business and population to Houston  and the de facto result is a national policy of unshackled banks and subsistence wages that will promote overinvestment and underconsumption and thereby cause frequent economic crises.
  2. Curbing Booms and Busts–the national state is necessary to reduce the severity of market business cycles by the use of fiscal and monetary policy. Via fiscal policy, the state increases or decreases spending  either to hit the economy’s gas or its brakes, respectively. Via monetary policy, the state increases or decreases the money supply for the same purposes. Only the national state can engage in fiscal stimulus because only the national state has a balance sheet sufficiently large to take on debts when tax revenues are falling due to economic contraction, and without a national state localities are under strong incentives to fuel the extremity of the cycle rather than curb it. If other localities are spending and I don’t because I think the economy is in overdrive, businesses go to where the money is. The national economy continues to overdrive and my locality loses. Only the national state can engage in monetary stimulus because if there are hundreds or thousands of different organizations increasing and decreasing the money supply, the inevitable output is confusion, inflation, and crisis.

Foreign affairs are irreducibly national for even more clear reasons–local operation of foreign policy leads to war. It does so through two mechanisms:

  1. If all states are running their foreign policies at the local level, it’s entirely possible for different local units to wage war on each other without the others necessarily choosing to participate. Marseilles can fight Milan without the rest of France fighting the rest of Italy. This makes wars smaller and less destructive, thereby reducing the awfulness of war and thereby reducing disincentives to declare war.
  2. If some states are running their foreign policies at the local level but others are not, traditional states can declare war on individual local units and pick them off one by one. If Germany is a traditional state and France has embraced Rad-Demism, Germany can declare war on Strasbourg and intimidate citizens in Bordeaux into voting to stay home. An organized unitary state would be able to systematically pick apart and decimate a Rad-Dem state.

Rad-Dems may offer a rejoinder and claim that macroeconomics and foreign affairs should be left to a national government, but Rad-Demism doesn’t give us a realistic vision for what a national government should look like that resolves the four problems. Ignorance, dichotomy, groupthink, and convergence cannot be resolved at the national level by Rad-Demism alone.

Add to this the problem John Stewart calls the “Meth Labs of Democracy”. If local populations are deeply misguided about some issue, they may vote for policies that damage the nation as a whole or tyrannize over minorities. A county in Alabama could vote to teach Biblical creationism in school, or to ban sodomy, or to reintroduce racial segregation, or to permit citizens to own main battle tanks, machine guns, and flamethrowers. And if Rad-Dems propose to place limits on what kinds of laws the localities may pass, how do they propose to devise those limits nationally? Once again, ignorance, dichotomy, groupthink, and convergence infect everything.

For these reasons, while I am quite sympathetic to Rad-Demism at the local level, I do not believe Rad-Demism would have been able to prevent the world’s liberal democracies from embarking upon any of the major policy errors they have made in recent years. These policy errors have been overwhelmingly irreducibly national:

  • The Iraq War
  • Austerity
  • Internal Devaluation
  • Deregulation
  • Wage Stagnation

We cannot all meaningfully participate in the national government (and most of us don’t even want to). We cannot decide national questions at the local level. The national government is going to require a bureaucracy that cannot always be transparent. Accountability at the national level can be at best intermittent and fleeting. To get better policy, we need to circumvent the problems that lead to bad policy, Rad-Demism fundamentally cannot do the job where it most needs to be done. For this reason, I continue to advocate for sophiarchist political structures at the national level.