21 May 2014
David Brooks worries that "democracy" is in decline around the world, challenged by a "charismatic rival" he dubs the "Guardian State." The models here are the more advanced Asian states, which Brooks describes as more technocratic and innovative, if also sometimes more corrupt, than western democracies. He summarizes the weaknesses of democracies, though these may vary depending on particular constitutions: "Democracies tend to have a tough time with long-range planning. Voters tend to want more government services than they are willing to pay for. The system of checks and balances can slide into paralysis, as more interest groups acquire veto power over legislation." The U.S. in particular has become "neurotically democratic," a victim of the perpetual election cycle and the "disproportionate power" of "unrepresentative groups." Brooks's vague solution is to make the U.S. "less democratic at the national level in order to become more democratic at the local level." He seems to mean that technocrats should set policy in an "unapologetically elitist" manner, yet delegate as much authority as possible to responsive local management. For Brooks this combines the best of both worlds: the "speed at the top" characteristic of the "Guardian State" and the "speed at the bottom" that, for him, characterizes democracy at its best. That last part confuses me. He writes that "democracy's great advantage over autocratic states [apparently a separate category from Guardian States] is that information and change flow more freely from the bottom up." In practical terms he means that democracies are more responsive to feedback from the bottom, but depending on the subject at hand one person's feedback could look like another's obstruction. Brooks seems to assume that "information and change" will take objective, practical forms. Recent history suggests otherwise. Tweaking the settings as Brooks suggests misses what may be a more fundamental problem with democracy. Is it a means or an end? Democrats (in the ideological rather than partisan sense) act as if it's both at once, but the distinction is important. If democracy is a means to an end -- the survival of a people, the good life, the Good, etc. -- then democracy can be held accountable to a standard that could justify deviations from democracy. Are we a people -- as a nation, a culture, a species -- with innate obligations to one another prior to our forming a body politic? If so, then democracy is a means to an end. But democracy may also be seen as an end unto itself, on the assumption that we have no prior obligations to each other before we form a body politic and therefore can't be compelled without democratic consent. In that case there may be no standard for judging democracy that democracy feels bound to recognize. This distinction matters because we may want (or need) to argue that individuals or interest groups have no veto on imperative measures for species or planetary survival, and that while this may look like tyranny that doesn't necessarily make it wrong. Democracy itself can be a kind of tyranny if it leads people to believe that there is no good other than democracy, and especially if democracy becomes understood as the unconditional defense of vested interests against any other idea of the good. In simpler terms, if we understand democracy simply as our right to say no to everything, we will most likely accomplish nothing in the long run, despite how good democracy may look in the short run. I don't offer these observations as final answers, but I hope they raise the sort of questions more of us should ask.