Thursday, February 08, 2007

The case for limited Democracy

In this post, Chris Dillow argues that there is a place for non-representative institutions such as the House of Lords. He claims that

Representative democracy, then, would drive out virtuous people

and that

Maybe it shows the difference between political and market institutions. Market institutions are a way of ensuring that vices work for the public good, so bad men can do good things. Political institutions, however, have an adverse selection effect, ensuring that virtuous men can do no good.

An interesting argument, coming from someone on the Left.

Last night, I was watching a PBS documentary on one such non-representative institution: the Supreme Court of the United States. This episode was about how the Supreme Court stepped in to massively expand the rights of American individuals in the second half of the 20th century. What struck me was just how undemocratically the Supreme Court acted in most of these cases. In Brown v. Board of Education and Cooper v. Aaron, the Court unanimously ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Segregation was hugely popular among the white majority in the Southern United States. The laws which were the basis of segregation were passed by democratically elected legislatures, and enthusiastically enforced by governments which were accountable to the electorate. In Miranda v. Arizona, the Court ruled that

detained criminal suspects, prior to police questioning, must be informed of their constitutional right to an attorney and against self-incrimination.

The Republicans argued that such laws needlessly tied the hands of the police, and this was one of the planks on which Ronald Reagan won the Presidency. These were cases in which one branch of the Government had to step in and restrain another branch, and the only reason the Court could do this was that they were not accountable to the electorate.
Why did the Legislature introduce these laws in the first place? Part of the answer may have been that they could thus pander to the prejudices of their electorate, while incurring none of the cost. Sometime back, Don Boudreax quoted an article by Thomas Sowell that suggests that this may have been true in the case of "Jim Crow" laws regarding public transport.

It was politics that segregated the races because the incentives of the political process are different from the incentives of the economic process. Both blacks and whites spent money to ride the buses but, after the disenfranchisement of black voters in the late 19th and early 20th century, only whites counted in the political process.

Katie blogged on the same article

Private owners of streetcar, bus, and railroad companies in the South lobbied against the Jim Crow laws while these laws were being written, challenged them in the courts after the laws were passed, and then dragged their feet in enforcing those laws after they were upheld by the courts.

Unconstrained democracy has a tendency to descend into demagoguery. To oversimplify, democracy is a tool to check the power of governments by making them accountable to the populace. A constitution is (among other things) a tool for checking the power of the people to use their elected government to tyrannize minorities.

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