Tag: Oligarchy

Totes Not A Democracy

Well, it’s a scientific fact, friends. We don’t live in a democracy:

A new scientific study from Princeton researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page has finally put some science behind the recently popular argument that the United States isn’t a democracy any more. And they’ve found that in fact, America is basically an oligarchy.

An oligarchy is a system where power is effectively wielded by a small number of individuals defined by their status called oligarchs. Members of the oligarchy are the rich, the well connected and the politically powerful, as well as particularly well placed individuals in institutions like banking and finance or the military.

For their study, Gilens and Page compiled data from roughly 1,800 different policy initiatives in the years between 1981 and 2002. They then compared those policy changes with the expressed opinion of the United State public. Comparing the preferences of the average American at the 50th percentile of income to what those Americans at the 90th percentile preferred, as well as the opinions of major lobbying or business groups, the researchers found out that the government followed the directives set forth by the latter two much more often.

There are so many problems with this.

First, we are not a democracy. We never have been a democracy. And God willing, we never will be one. We are a Constitutional Republic. That means that our politicians are (at least in theory) restrained in their actions by the Constitution. The beauty of the system is not that the people get what they want — since what they want is often horrifying. We don’t want a system that bends and sways with every little breeze that blows. No, the beauty is that — in theory — the politicians are held accountable for their decisions to the people.

The idiocy of “democracy” can be demonstrated by simply looking at the public’s preference on policies. The Civil Rights movement, for example, often went in the face of public opinion. Almost all civil liberties, including freedom of speech and most protections of accused criminals, would be curtailed if the majority got their way. The Iraq War enjoyed huge support in the beginning. The real estate bubble was a result of very popular government policies that encouraged every more lending (e.g., low interest rates). One our biggest problems is the federal budget deficit. The deficit is primarily a result of two converging public opinions: the public does not want taxes raised; nor do they want spending cut. Hell, I’ve read some books arguing that our very independence never had majority support.

Screw the masses. They are an important check on government policy, not a guide to it.

The liberals touting this study are aware of this on some level. Many of the policies they support — strict gun control, socialized medicine, greenhouse gas emissions control, fricking Obamacare — do not enjoy majority support. That doesn’t stop them from pushing those policies because they are “good” for us. Yet somehow this “father knows best” attitude disappears when we’re talking about opposing gun control or hydrofracking. It’s absurd.

I mean, where is this enthusiasm for populism when it comes to the Tea Party? The Democrats often try to cast the Tea Party as an astroturf creation of the rich but it is a deeply populist movement and has drawn stiff opposition from the very oligarchs that are supposedly ruining our country. So which is it? Is the populist wing of the Republican Party the problem? Or is the establishment wing the problem?

As for this specific study, it only goes back to 1980 thus implying that oligarchs are more powerful than ever. I suspect that if it were extended back, we would see that this has always been true. I was just reading The Skies Belong to Us, which is about the “golden age” of hijacking in the late-60’s and early-70’s. During that time, American planes were being hijacked every couple of weeks. One of the impediments to doing anything about it? The airlines and their army of lobbyists in Washington opposed anything that would inconvenience travelers or make air travel more expensive. Special interests have always wielded outsized power. And they always will because government makes it worth their patronage.

I will let on that things seem worse now: our government is completely incapable of doing even the most basic things. Our regulatory system is spinning out of control, spending can not be cut in any meaningful way, our immigration system is broken, our tax code is a giant anchor on the economy. But to the extent oligarchs are ruining our Republic, it is partly because of policies that liberals support: massive government spending programs that get contracted to the politically powerful (the area around Washington is the wealthiest in the country); an absurdly complex tax code that tries to push policy through taxation; a powerful regulatory state that crushes small businesses with regulations that big businesses can absorb; gerrymandering that makes politicians unaccountable (yes, liberals do this too; check out Maryland’s districts some time).

I don’t think this study is wrong, per se. I just think it’s barking up the wrong tree. I wish that fixing our country’s problems were as simple as following opinion polls. Unfortunately, the solutions to our problems are likely to be unpopular. Take the deficit. The public support raising taxes … on the rich. But that won’t get you nearly enough revenue to close the gap. The public also support cutting spending … on foreign aide. That will give you about 1% of the cuts you need. The most important steps — overhauling the tax code and reigning in entitlements — have very little support.

The problem with our country is not a lack of “democracy”. The problem is a lack of political courage and accountability.