“Less democracy, better government,” says Mason professor

Garett Jones, associate economics professor at George Mason University, says that there should be less democracy in the United States, according to a talk he gave on Feb. 24.

Jones says that less democracy and more epistocracy could lead to better governance. Democracy leaves power to the majority while epistocracy allocates power to the knowledgeable. Jones did not imply that democracy should be eliminated, but lessened by 10% for the sake of long term economic growth.

According to Jones, less democracy would lead to better governance because politicians would be inclined to work on long term growth rather than spending to impress constituents during election season. Politicians try to please the public at the expense of neglecting long-term policies because they are elected through a democratic process.

For example, Jones said senators act like voters have short term memories. They make decisions to get reelected rather than spending their whole term focused on long-term growth.

Alec Schwengler, a senior economics major at Mason, agrees that less democracy and more epistocracy would benefit governance.

“As unpopular as it may be to say, I think the average voter doesn’t understand certain policy fields,” Schwengler said.  “[…] I think having tax or criminal justice policy farther out of the reach of voters would lead to improvements in those areas because voters have a lot of misconceptions that elected politicians must listen to if they want to be reelected.”

However, not everyone agrees that less democracy is better for governance like freshman government major Kyle Rosenthal

“Less democracy is not good for government,” Rosenthal said. “Even if someone is more knowledgeable about matters they may not have the public’s interest at heart.”

Jones’s talk heavily relied on Mason economics professor Bryan Caplan’s book, The Myth of the Rational Voter where Caplan outlines four democratic biases which are worsened as elections near. These biases are the anti-market bias, make-work bias, anti-foreign bias, and pessimistic bias.

The anti-market refers to people seeing themselves as victims rather than players in the market. In reality, the market is composed of people trading and exchanging which creates wealth. People are participants in the market, not victims but since many voters do not view the market this way, politicians favor protectionist policies in the end of their terms to appeal to voters’ fears. Protectionist policies add barriers to trade.

The make-work bias is the tendency for people to oversee the economic benefits of conserving labor. Initially one might think that more labor is better, interpreting it as lower unemployment, but that is not the full picture. Technology and other factors do consume labor jobs, but that is good because it gives people opportunities to specialize and work in other sectors. And in the U.S. economy the service industry is larger than the manufacturing industry. This meaning more wealth is created through service related jobs than manufacturing jobs. However, during election season voters like to focus on jobs such as manufacturing jobs because there is a conception that making something tangible and physical represents the economy.

The anti-foreign bias explains that many voters feel that protectionist policies are pro-American and better for the U.S. economy. However, globalization is beneficial to the American economy as well as the global economy trade creates wealth.

Finally, the pessimistic bias is a lens at which many voters view of the economy. They think that things are worse than they actually are.  There are different alleged causes for this including social media.

These four biases are the downsides of democracy and politicians cater to these biases to gain votes.

Jones’s overall message was a proposition that less democracy would be better for the economy, but that democracy should not be totally removed. The problem with democracy is that politicians cater to the ignorance of voters to get reelected. But the elimination of democracy could leave intelligent people with bad intentions in charge of the economy.

Featured photo credit: Claire Cecil

  • Connor

    It seems dangerous to me to stray further than we already are from a functioning democracy.. maybe finding ways to make voters more informed is a better alternative rather than the lessening of democracy.

    • Gus diZerega

      Not for apologists for oligarchy.

  • Jan Frel

    What’s so funny about all this is how appalling it is. Disgusting cesspool. Hyenas competing to demonstrate total obedience to Koch masters.

  • Guerre

    Oh college freshmen, and your belief that voters actually have any impact on policy.

  • Fred95

    And exactly who will decide who gets to be members of the epistocracy?

    Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll take the votes of the unwashed and uninformed over an elite few any day. Democracy may not be pretty, and it has its flaws … but it seems to be able to cleanse itself when it becomes too polluted. An epistocracy would offer no such advantage.

    As for professors and their opinions … not worth the many parchments their degrees are printed on.

    • Mxyzptik

      “but it seems to be able to cleanse itself when it becomes too polluted. ”

      That must be why 90% of incumbants
      are reelected.

      • lariokie

        Sorry Mxyzptik, but reelection of incumbents happens because of the suppression of democracy by gerrymandering, voter suppression laws, and unlimited money/propaganda by the “knowledgeable” who own a stable of lobbyists and a bank full of money with which to bribe incumbents. We are given generally two and only two real choices of candidates who are chosen not by us but by the two major partys’ leadership. We either vote for one of the two–Democrat or Republican”–or we toss our votes away on a third party. The system is the problem, not democracy.

    • dljvjbsl

      The Supreme Court is a member of the “epistocracy”. its membership is appointed according to a constitutional process by democratically elected officials. The Supreme Court makes policy on criminal justice, interstate trade which means almost anything these days, etc. Recall how Obamacare individual mandate was ruled a tax and therefore constitutional. This is policy making.

      • Fred95

        “… its membership is appointed according to a constitutional process by democratically elected officials.”
        Right … thank you for making the point that SCOTUS is not an epistocracy.

        • dljvjbsl

          The point that I was making is that the Supreme Court does more than just interpret the law. It makes social policy. Laws are ruled either constitutional or unconstitutional based on social polices that are determined by the Supreme Court.

          It is common for people to observe that the Court will go against the currently expressed views of the population. The examples of the rulings against segregation and other forms of discrimination , the rulings against school prayer .. come not from a democratic decision made by the population but by a consideration of higher principles This consideration of higher principles is what I think that is being advocated. here

          However what is not brought out in the article is the danger that this detached consideration can bring. Rhetoric about higher principles can become just the rationalizations of an establishment. We saw this in the Dred Scott decision in which entrenched the idea of white supremacy in the US constitution. We are seeing it in the treatment of the financial industry with the “too big to fail” and “too big to jail” principles.

    • RepubAnon

      Remember, the “epistocracy” would be self-appointed. Funny how folks who complain about “elitists” are also pushing for giving power to a self-appointed elite.

      Herschel Vinyard Jr. is a sample of the types of “experts” we’d likely see:

      Florida Officials Were Barred From Using The Term ‘Climate Change’ Once Rick Scott Took Power

      …According to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, the policy against mentioning global warming went into effect after Scott took office in 2011 and appointed Herschel Vinyard Jr. as the agency’s director.
      (emphasis added)

    • The Koch brothers and their friends.

      • Fred95

        The Koch Bros. … or whomever else has been able to grab the wheel and lets in only their friends … or the people who see the world through the same lens they do. It’s just another form of elitism.
        Hillary & Bill did the same thing … so do the members of most “groups”.

  • Stef

    “And in the U.S. economy the service industry is larger than the manufacturing industry. This meaning more wealth is created through service related jobs than manufacturing jobs.”

    How big a piece of the wealth pie created through service related jobs actually goes to the people working in those service related jobs?

  • JKA

    It seems to me that
    the objective and rationale for democracy are not good
    government but a substantial reduction in civil strife, civil war,
    rebellion, and armed conflict by having a peaceful alternative to armed conflict that approximates the
    results of the armed conflict (if the numbers on each side are a good approximation to who
    will win and lose).

    I can’t imagine many people agreeing on what “better government”
    is except for “I get more of what I want at less cost to me and the people who
    support me/I support”.

    • sglover

      “the objective and rationale for democracy are not good government but a substantial reduction in civil strife, civil war, rebellion, and armed conflict by having a peaceful alternative to armed conflict”

      Spot on. Do you need any better indication of how obtuse Jones and Caplan and the rest of that lot are, than that this never occurs to them? Never mind that these arguments for representative government have been around for better than two centuries, now.

  • dljvjbsl

    Much of USW policy is controlled by an “epistocracy”.

    Criminal justice policy is now strongly influenced by the Supreme Court just as the policies surrounding Obamacare are interpreted and controlled by the Supreme Court. Similarly the latest measures taken by president Obama on immigration will either be approved or denied by the Supreme Court. Obama took unilateral action on immigration outside of the democratic process which is not paralyzed. If the Supreme Court rules that this action is constitutional then it is ruling for less democratic control.

    The recent FCC ruling on net neutrality is another example of “epistocracy”. Appointed officials made a policy decision that will have a fundamental effect on American society and indeed world society.

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  • Charles Saeger

    “In reality, the market is composed of people trading and exchanging which creates wealth.”

    Uh, no. I don’t know if the writer chose to write that or whether it was oversight, but markets, through the process of folks trading and exchanging, do not create wealth. Markets are a method of distributing scarce resources. Those folks doing the trading and exchanging create the wealth. The market is a tool they use to distribute the wealth. The goal is getting the wealth to the person who can use it to create more wealth.

    Speaking as someone with a journalism degree, it is always dangerous to tell the reader what reality is, especially for something as contentious as public policy. There are folks who agree and disagree with the statement I quoted above who are smarter than any of us. If you’re taking Caplan’s idea, attribute it to Caplan. If you’re taking Jones’s idea, attribute it to Jones. (A quick check of Wikipedia about this book would give the idea to Caplan, who doesn’t appear to have made the mistake I quoted above.)

  • Sandwichman

    “Jones’s talk heavily relied on Mason economics professor Bryan Caplan’s book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter” where Caplan outlines four democratic biases which are worsened as elections near. These biases are the anti-market bias, make-work bias, anti-foreign bias, and pessimistic bias.”

    Caplan’s “make-work bias” has another name. It’s usually referred to as the lump-of-labor fallacy. But I suppose a bogus fallacy claim has to skulk around under a wide variety of aliases.

    So let’s get this straight. We should reduce democracy and give more power to people who make up shit about what other people think? No. They already have too much power.

    One thing is certain, — Bryan Caplan’s mind is a suppository of knowledge.

    • Sandwichman

      “The make-work bias is the tendency for people to oversee the economic benefits of conserving labor.” should say: “the tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of conserving labor.”

  • Outtanames999

    LOL what an idiot. How about the myth of the intelligent college professor?

  • sglover

    Jones is right to disparage politicians. They must be dopes if they cater to voters. Clever people like Jones know that if you’re going to play scutboy, you do it for people with money. Lots of it.

    Jones gasfest is really excellent. Now we have a better idea of just what the GMU econ department is really all about. Not that it comes as news, really…. One problem, though: For the amount of money that they dump into it, I imagine that the Koch brothers really want their shills to play with a somewhat lighter hand. The best courtiers have always used a little subtlety in their flattery. If he doesn’t have tenure, maybe he should consider shopping the CV around to shill shops like AEI or the Heritage Foundation. He’d fit right in.

  • MattMatt

    China has a system precisely like the one he is proposing. So, he wants us to be more like a communist country in an effort to improve our economy?

  • Jerry

    Or….we could just deny the vote to non-Aryans.

  • margaret Bartley

    “Politicians try to please the public at the expense of neglecting long-term policies because they are elected through a democratic process.”

    That is true, but not as true as politician try to please their campaign contributors because otherwise they won’t get elected.

    I have seen, over and over again, politicians selling the American public down the river, and when you look at their campaign contributors, they received tens of millions of dollars from the very corporations and industry sector lobbyists who make out like bandits. I did an analysis once that shows a 1,000 to one return on investments for the campaign contributors. In other words, for every dollar they invest in campaign contributions, they get back $1,000. They invest millions, harvest billions.

    I suspect this ‘epistocracy’ movement is just another way to keep people like myself, who would flunk their polling tests by giving the wrong answers, away from the polls.

    For example, look at the statement in the article, “Protectionist policies add barriers to trade.”. The US for many years had tariffs that supported native industry and the country grew and prospered. Those barriers went away in the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in the lost of its manufacturing sector and most of its high-tech sector.

    Meanwhile, the countries that maintained (and still maintain) very high tariffs and limits on foreign imports like China and India, are growing leaps and bounds. There is a way that tariffs can be done to hurt trade, and a way they can be made to help trade.

    To institute a voting test where the only people who can vote are the people who agree with the testmakers (probably the same gang of banksters who currently control the US government) is to tighten the shackles that are already clanking in the not-too-far-away rooms.

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  • Sandwichman

    You walk into the room
    With your pencil in your hand
    You see somebody naked
    And you say, “Who is that man?”
    You try so hard
    But you don’t understand
    Just what you’ll say
    When you get home

    Because something is happening here
    But you don’t know what it is
    Do you, Professor Jones?

  • Gus diZerega

    The laissez faire sorts at GMU’s econ dept make a big deal about the “knowledge problem” that prevents central planning from being able to match the coordinating capacities of markets and the price system. Here they are correct. This hack turns around and commits exactly the same error regarding democracies. Along with my own work he might take a look at John Kingdon’s research on agendas and public policy. But that would require an actual interest in the subject beyond hackdom so I doubt he will.

  • cabl

    Haha..I might agree with the kochprofs if they start with a Sarah Palin metric of stupidity…in my mind, if she can vote, ANYBODY is eligible to vote!

  • SqueakyRat

    The notion that America’s plutocratic, kleptocratic oligarchy is too democratic . . . is mind-boggling.

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  • lariokie

    Natalie’s point about “intelligent people with bad intentions” is playing out in our current democracy, which obviously has been taken over by an oligarchy the likes of which we have not seen in nearly a century. If our current “money is speech democracy” isn’t evidence enough of the dangers of all-out rule by the intellectual elite, I don’t know what is. If we allow this idea of epistocracy to prevail over democracy, we will have signed the death warrant of our freedoms and rights.