Democracy: Ideology And Reality – OpEd


A romantic view of democracy is that it gives citizens control over their governments. Citizens decide who holds power, and if those who are elected do not carry out the will of the voters, democratic elections provide the mechanism to replace them. Elections provide the discipline that pushes elected representatives to represent the interests of those they govern.

The political elite have every incentive to push this propaganda about democracy on the masses, because it legitimizes their use (and abuse) of power. They make the claim that they are carrying out the will of the people, as revealed through the democratic decision-making process.

In fact, elections are simply the mechanism that determines which members of the elite have the power to impose their mandates on the masses. The idea that somehow the political elite are accountable to the masses is an illusion. The masses have no power, even though they far outnumber the elite.

Public policy, by necessity, can be made only by a small group of individuals because the group of people who make public policy must be small enough for them to negotiate with each other. To use economic jargon, for political bargains to take place requires low transaction costs, which means small numbers of negotiators. The masses face high transaction costs and can never be members of the group that makes public policy.

That small group–the elite, the 1 percent–includes legislators and high-level bureaucrats, and lobbyists who buy their way into the low-transaction-cost group. They make policy; the masses must follow their mandates.

There is a discontinuity in political power, unlike with economic power. A person with $20 has twice the economic power of someone with $10. A person with $10 million has ten times the economic power of someone with $1 million. But ultimately, when Warren Buffet walks into Starbucks, his $10 carries the same economic power as your $10.

People who have little economic power and want more can get it. They can work some overtime, take a second job, or look for a higher-paying job. People who have little political power have no good way to get more. They can donate to a political campaign, work for a party, or contribute to lobbying organizations, but they still have no power. They just give more power to those they contribute to and work for.

The reason goes back to high transaction costs. If you’re like me, you have no way to enter into negotiations to change public policy. You can vote, but when you do, you’re simply expressing a preference for which member of the elite will exercise the coercive power of government. And really, your one vote carries no weight. No matter who you vote for, or whether you even vote at all, the same people will be elected.

The ideology of democracy conveys legitimacy to those who are elected, because it suggests that they were chosen because their views correspond with those of the electorate. But the government is run by an elite few, and democratic elections do not alter that plain fact. Thinking otherwise simply conveys more legitimacy, and more power, to the elite few who already have too much power.

Democracy does not give citizens control over their governments. It is a method for determining which elites have the power to rule the masses.

This article was published by The Beacon

Randall G. Holcombe

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at The Independent Institute, DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, past President of the Public Choice Society, and past President of the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Virginia Tech, and has taught at Texas A&M University and Auburn University. Dr. Holcombe is also Senior Fellow at the James Madison Institute and was a member of the Florida Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors.

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