ONCE I GOT THE CALL FROM CAMPUS POLICE, I knew I needed to write this book.
It was spring semester 2015, and I’d recently given a brief talk to a student group at my university. Natalie Schulhof, a reporter for the student newspaper, Fourth Estate, had come to the event and reported on my talk, entitled “10% Less Democracy.” That was the first time I’d spoken at any length about this book’s central idea: that in most of the rich countries, we’ve taken democracy, mass voter involvement in government, at least a little too far. We’d likely be better off if we kept the voters and even the elected officials a little further away from the levers of power. Let the government insiders run more of the show. After all, the insiders don’t have to be perfect for 10% less democracy to be an improvement; they just have to be better than the voters.1
About a week after my talk, Schulhof’s piece came out, quite thorough and extremely accurate, complete with a photo of me standing before the small student audience. From the article: “Garett Jones, associate economics professor at George Mason University, says that there should be less democracy in the United States. . . . Less democracy would lead to better governance.”
But in our new age of social media, that article, accurate down to the last detail, wasn’t the article that became widely shared online. Instead, the subsequent firestorm was fed by ideology-driven websites, with authors posting articles loosely based on Fourth Estate’s original piece but filling in the blanks of the short, accurate article with their own vitriol and blue-sky speculation. My personal favorite—precisely because it was so over the top—was penned by journalist and musician Ben Norton, who after decrying my lightly sketched proposals, concluded that “Jones is in many ways metonymic of the entire capitalist system he so faithfully admires. What makes Jones different from his economic ecclesiastical brethren is simply the fact that he has the chutzpah to openly say what so many other bourgeois economists are thinking deep-down.”2
I’m quite happy to be told that I have chutzpah, and I’m also glad to be a metonymy—a symbolic stand-in—for much of anything! Alas, it appears my proposals weren’t sufficiently offensive for Norton, since he had to invent a few of his own, and to then “wonder . . . if the neoliberal economist secretly thinks” a variety of revolting ideas that I vehemently oppose and won’t deign to reprint here.
In the days after these ideology-driven websites wrote about my talk, I discovered a torrent of hate polluting both my email inbox and my Twitter account. I welcome disagreement with my ideas, and passionate disagreement is part of a healthy public debate, but for a brief period, I had my sole experience (so far!) as an object of profanity-laced Internet rage. It culminated in the call from campus police—and in my dozen years at George Mason, that was the first and still the only time I’ve received such a call. An officer left a voice-mail message, and I called back at my first opportunity. She said someone had left an angry voice mail criticizing me on a general campus phone number, and the officer noted with great discretion that the voice mail contained at least one profane expression. Was there anyone who might be upset with me lately? the officer asked.
I had an idea. And that idea became this book. So to the unknown person who left that voice mail, I offer my heartfelt gratitude. I dedicate this book to you.
Starting in summer 2002, I had the opportunity to spend a year as an economic policy adviser and legislative assistant to Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. I’ve never had a better boss. You hear stories on Capitol Hill about senators who torment their staff, yelling, throwing tantrums, spreading their low-grade anger around the entire office, but Senator Hatch was overwhelmingly cheerful, even-keeled, and kind to those around him. He has elements of folksy charm, but far more than that, he has a now-rare quality of gentility. He especially loved the late senator Ted Kennedy. Whenever the two met—and they frequently did, sometimes just outside my office—they usually shared a big bear hug, no mere political shoulder-to-shoulder touch but the real thing.3
I learned a lot about real-world politics that year, even though I was by Capitol Hill standards not at all a powerful or influential staffer. I watched and learned, and in particular I listened. I’ve had two other shorter stints on the Hill. In 2004 I spent part of a summer working for the Senate side of the Joint Economic Committee, and earlier, in 1995, I spent six months as an intern to Senator Hatch during the first months of the Gingrich revolution. I’ve seen a lot on the Hill—enough stories to last a lifetime.
But here’s the most important thing I learned: senators change their behavior dramatically when an election draws near. U.S. senators have six-year terms, and senators are broken into three classes, with one-third of them up for reelection every two years. Staff on the Senate side of Capitol Hill keep an eye on which senators are “in cycle”—less than two years out from an election. I recall a passing comment of a Senate staffer about a now-retired senator, relatively powerful, from the Midwest. I paraphrase my sixteen-year-old memory: “Oh, he’s been voting to please the party the last four years, but now that he’s in cycle he’ll be heading right back toward the center.”
Yes, it’s obvious that senators behave differently when an election is around the corner, but if voters were easily duped, mere puppets manipulated by TV ads and a few handshakes, then a looming election would change the senator only superficially. More flights to the home state, more interviews with local TV, more ads with a waving flag and the senator’s smiling family: those would be the sole signs that an election was coming. Superficial changes, not changes in substance.
But in the Senate we saw more than that, we saw senators voting differently, drafting different types of bills, wondering and worrying more about how actions in DC would go over back home. Senators act as if voters care about the recent past, with the emphasis on recent.
The lessons I drew from learning the value of long terms?
1. If you’re hoping for politicians to be brave, don’t hope for much in an election year.
2. If you’d like your politicians to be braver, have fewer election years.
I was trained in monetary economics, and my early research was all about the different ways that the Federal Reserve, America’s central bank, influences the U.S. economy. Much of this research focuses on how shifts in monetary policy—looser or tighter money, selling or buying U.S. government bonds—influence interest rates, business hiring, and total economic activity. Monetary economics is often the study of how certain government actions today shape the private sector in the future. But monetary economists have gone further and asked which kinds of government rules and which kinds of government bureaucracies are likely to cause better government actions. It’s not just, “What’s the right choice?” but also, “Who makes the better choices?”
Economists care so much about good outcomes that we often search further up the chain of causation. It’s the same approach that medical doctors take when looking for ways to make people healthier. They start by looking for ways to cure disease, then for ways to prevent disease, and may end their quest by searching for the best public health programs to encourage vaccinations or to create safer tap water. The search for deep causes, root causes, may take us in unexpected directions.
Governments across rich countries have had widely differing rules about how to run monetary policy: gold standards, pegged exchange rates, vague promises of “price stability,” and many others. And they have different kinds of bureaucracies implementing those policies. Some are about as detached from democracy as an appointed judge, while others work directly for the nation’s prime minister and can be fired at any moment. Once monetary economists started looking into what kinds of government rules and government bureaucracies predicted economic success and which predicted economic tragedy, they found a repeated pattern: the more “independent” the nation’s central bank was from the political process, the better things typically turned out. Note the quotation marks: the area of research is known as the “central bank independence” literature, but that’s a euphemism. Good central banks tend to be independent, but independent from what? Mostly from voters.
The lessons I drew from learning about the value of central bank independence?
1. If you want good government policies, you’ll often want them determined and enforced by anonymous bureaucrats, far from the reach of the voters.
2. If you want policy determined and enforced by anonymous bureaucrats—like judges, central bankers, or trade commissioners—don’t say you want oligarchic, undemocratic bureaucrats in charge. Just say you want “independent” bureaucrats. It goes over much better.
I spent about a decade researching the many ways in which smarter neighbors can improve our lives. My first book, Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own, brings together that line of research. Through the process, I learned about the workings of the human brain, the value of intelligence tests, the merits and joys of listening to psychologists. 10% Less Democracy has nothing to do with any of that, at least not directly. But one relevant lesson I did learn from that experience was that voter skill matters for the wealth of nations—that the clichés are true and that informed voters are an extremely important ingredient in the recipe for good government. Indeed, informed voters are so important that many thinkers—including economist Dambisa Moyo of Barclays and other corporate boards and philosopher Jason Brennan of Georgetown—have been searching for ways to give the most-informed voters greater weight in modern democracies. The push for “one person, one vote,” come what may, has had both benefits and costs, and in the twenty-first century we have enough data to make it clear that the costs are pretty high. The costs of giving equal weight to the informed and uninformed alike are high enough that it’s worthwhile to look for creative ways to tilt the scales just a little bit toward the informed.
This may be this book’s most controversial claim, and if you conclude that the benefits of giving informed voters a little more weight are vastly outweighed by the costs, then I wholeheartedly encourage you to reject the proposals I offer. But I hope you’ll take the time to first look at the evidence. You may decide that even if giving more weight to informed voters is a bad idea for your country, it might be a reasonable choice for the country next door.
The lessons I drew from thinking about the value of informed voters?
1. Rich democracies already de facto give more weight to the informed. Indeed, it’s well known that the educated vote at higher rates. The core question is whether it would be wise to dial up this extra influence just a little.
2. If we want people to think carefully about the topic of voting reform, it’s usually best to suggest that they try thinking about the question in the abstract—or about whether that reform might be a good idea in some other country. A little detachment goes a long way to spur objectivity.
Economists have a reputation for assuming away the hard problems of social science—assuming that people are perfectly rational or that the government data we have in front of us are accurate enough to be useful. We tease each other about this. There’s an old joke that economists tell to make the point:
Three professors—a physicist, a chemist, and an economist—get stuck on a desert island, and just as things are looking desperate, a crate of canned goods washes up on the beach. Pinto beans, spinach, chicken, potatoes—all that and so much more. But they don’t have an easy way to open the cans. So the three professors all offer their plans for opening the cans.
First, the physicist:
“If we climb the palm tree and drop the cans from a sufficient height to land on this particular rock, the cans will burst open, and we’ll be able to eat.”
Second, the chemist:
“Obviously, exploding cans aren’t the way to go. Instead, I believe we can make an acidic paste from a mixture of dried palm leaves, ground-up shells, and sea salt. Pour the mixture over the lids, set in the sun, and over the course of a few days, the mixture will burn through the cans and we’ll be able to eat.
Finally, the economist:
“Assume the existence of a can opener.”
When life gives you lemons, economists have a reputation for assuming the existence of enough sugar and water to make lemonade. Sometimes that’s a fair critique of my field. However, I think it’s also a fair critique of other fields of inquiry as well, and the reason we economists get called on our absurd assumptions more often is mostly because we make our absurd assumptions easier to see. In economics, the math we use has a pleasant side effect: frequently—and I’d say usually—it makes it more difficult to hide bad reasoning. If you’re trying to obfuscate, let me suggest that when talking to intelligent, well-informed audiences, verbal jargon works much better than equations.
But I don’t want to obfuscate, and I don’t want to assume my answer; that means that when I’m suggesting political reforms, they should be reforms that work in the real world, and I shouldn’t be “assuming the can opener” of replacing democracy with enlightened dispassionate technicians. So I won’t assume the can opener of meritocracy, of replacing control by voters with control by the perfectly wise. Instead, I assume that political reforms of the future will work a lot like political reforms of the past, warts and all. In the jargon of statistics I’ll be staying “within the normal range of variation,” staying in the real world.
Life is often about trade-offs, choosing one imperfect bundle of options rather than another. My job in the next ten chapters is to persuade you that if your nation enacts some of the political reforms I suggest, democracy-reducing reforms that take control of the state a little further away from the average citizen, your nation’s bundle of joys and sorrows after the reforms will be better, all things considered, than the bundle of joys and sorrows your nation would’ve experienced otherwise. Whether I persuade you of the value of each reform, I think you’ll be surprised by the joys you discover along the way—the joys of embracing, if only for a moment, if only in the privacy of your mind—the wisdom of slightly less democracy.
1. Natalie Schulhof, “‘Less Democracy, Better Government,’ Says Mason Professor,” Fourth Estate, March 3, 2015, http://gmufourthestate.com/2015/03/03/less-democracy-better-government-says-mason-professor.
2. Ben Norton, “Koch-Funded Economist Wants ‘Less Democracy,’” Counterpunch.org, March 27, 2015, https://www.counterpunch.org/2015/03/27/koch-funded-economist-wants-less-democracy/.
3. You might think that I’m saying good things about the senator because I want to keep the door open to some future position on the Hill; maybe everyone says nice things about their old Senate bosses. Cynicism is always appropriate in politics, but here are two reasons to believe me:
1. In my experience, Hill staffers are pretty willing to talk about what their bosses are like. There’s a kind of pride in having a stiff or arrogant or even mean senator telling you what to do all day long.
2. Senator Hatch retired in 2019 after forty years in the Senate; he was then president pro tempore, the most senior member of the majority party, when he retired. And once a senator is gone, the value of any political connections you have with that particular senator diminishes quickly. A 2012 study published in a leading economics journal reported the authors’ key finding: “lobbyists connected to US senators suffer an average 24 percent drop in generated revenue when their previous employer leaves the Senate.” Jordi Blanes i Vidal, Mirko Draca, and Christian Fons-Rosen, “Revolving Door Lobbyists,” American Economic Review 102, no. 7 (2012): 3731–3748. So an evidence-based cynic will realize I have a much weaker financial incentive to say nice things about my old boss than I did last year. That raises the probability that I’m actually telling the truth.