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Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well (MIT Press) Paperback – September 13, 2013
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Democracy, like many other organizations and systems, is filled to the brim with flawed and irrational people. Democracy Despite Itself explains, with clever arguments, how we are able to transcend these limitations and harness them to our benefit through a perfectly imperfect democratic system.(Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics, Duke University; author of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty)
A provocative meditation on a profound question: why does democracy workat allwhen voters are so often irrational? In lucid prose filled with compelling examples, Oppenheimer and Edwards grapple with one of the deepest questions society faces: how to organize itself, in light of the inherent frailty of the human mind."(Gary Marcus, Professor of Psychology, New York University; Author of Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of The Human Mind)
A provocative meditation on a profound question: why does democracy work at all when voters are so often irrational? In lucid prose filled with compelling examples Oppenheimer and Edwards grapple with one of the deepest questions society faces: how to organize itself in light of the inherent frailty of the human mind.(Gary Marcus, Professor of Psychology, New York University; Author of Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of The Human Mind)
About the Author
Danny Oppenheimer is on the faculty at UCLA with a joint appointment in Psychology and the Anderson School of Management.
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1. The authors (O&E) define a country to be "democratic" if it holds "free, fair and meaningful elections." Right off the bat, this neglects many other aspects of democracy, such as protection of minority rights and even human rights generally. But even within this classification, what are "free," "fair," and "meaningful"? The authors' acknowledge that this definition is "purposefully vague" (@5), but that's an understatement.
The state of democracy in Japan, where I live, helps to gauge how vague O&E's standards are. For example, they highlight Japan as an example of "meaningful" elections (@id.), because "winners of parliamentary elections become legislators, capable of creating the laws of the land." Technically this is true, but actually very, very few laws in Japan are written by elected legislators -- the vast majority are written by unelected career bureaucrats. Moreover, 5 out of the most recent 7 prime ministers in Japan were NOT selected in general elections -- in fact, in only 8-1/2 out of the past 25 years, i.e., during only 1/3 of all that time, has Japan been governed by PMs with electoral mandates. Maybe even more shocking to an American's sensibilities, Japan's Supreme Court has held several elections unconstitutional for violating the principle of 1-person, 1-vote -- but in each case has refused to set the election aside or to call for a do-over. This kind of puts a different spin on "meaningful" and "fair," but none of this is mentioned by O&E.
Elsewhere, O&E rely on the "democracy index" of the Economist Intelligence Unit (owned by Economist magazine), which groups countries into "full democracies," "flawed democracies," "hybrid regimes" and "authoritarian regimes"; 0&E contrast the first two groups with the latter two. They gloss over the methods EIU uses to evaluate countries (@124). So we never get to consider what makes, say, Japan a "full democracy" in the EIU's eyes while France is a "flawed" one, or how it could be plausible that Japan has a higher civil liberties rating (9.41 out of 10.00) than either France or the US (both at 8.53). To calibrate: Japan has a 99% criminal conviction rate, mostly based on coerced confessions; it allows criminal suspects to be imprisoned in effect indefinitely without being charged (after releasing suspects on the expiration of a prescribed period of days, the police routinely re-arrest them on the jailhouse steps); and Japan's Supreme Court has upheld all of the numerous restrictions on free speech passed by the parliamentary legislators whom O&E celebrate. (See Shigenori Matusi's excellent "The Constitution of Japan: A Contextual Analysis (Hart 2012) for more about elections, human rights, etc. issues.) My point here isn't so much about Japan per se as to emphasize the very loose -- if not outright questionable -- benchmarks O&E use when they speak of "democracy."
2. Nonetheless, I tried to accept this broad definition as I read through 0&E's argument. O&E spend most of the book trying to convince us that despite democracy's defects and irrationality, it's still better than other systems. Along the way, they don't give very serious consideration to the real meaning of some of those other systems, such as "oligarchy." For example, they claim the Roman Republic was an oligarchy (@121), ignoring a couple of millennia of political thought (from Polybius to Machiavelli to 21st Century civic republicanism) holding that the Republic was actually a mixture of oligarchy and democracy. They also never for a moment consider that the US might be an oligarchy (see, e.g., Jeffrey Winters's monograph, "Oligarchy" (Cambridge U Press 2011)).
OK, so I swallowed all this, too. But eventually I started wondering, who exactly were O&E trying to persuade? Would any reader seriously doubt that the broad-as-all-outdoors "democracy" they invoke is inferior to the alternative -- an absence of "free, fair and meaningful elections"? Does someone need to read this book to decide whether to live in, say, Japan or even France over Iraq? Surely not. If I may mix metaphors, the book is preaching to the choir while attacking a straw man, rather than a real problem. By framing their problem in the way they do, they make their main argument about the superiority of "democracy" utterly uncontroversial. At the same time, and despite its intrinsic interest, all the stuff O&E tell us about psychological experiments is rendered superfluous as support for this main argument. There never is any danger that the so-called "craziness" (do they mean "mishugas"?) of democracy would be a plausible reason for rejecting it.
On the other hand, there are real problems within every real democratic system: pace the EIU, all democracies are flawed. So does this book give any insight as to how to address any of *those* problems? Other than in a very sketchy final chapter, unfortunately not. Even there, O&E's recommendations are not new: Get rid of the electoral college. Have redistricting done by bipartisan commissions instead of state legislatures. "Demand more from your news media," which in practice seems to mean switch to another channel (@226). And "put a stop to the recent fad of calling for major investigations of outgoing presidents" (@228), which they argue with surprising passion. OK, so even if the advice isn't new, it might still be good, as far as it goes. But is the discussion of psychological "craziness" in the beginning of the book necessary to come up with any of these recommendations? I didn't see it.
If the book had emphasized the connections between voter psychology and re-engineering the US electoral system, or used the psychology experiments to highlight pros and cons of institutions in different democracies (US vs. UK, France, Switzerland, Japan, wherever), that might have been more meaningful than to compare "democracy" in general to all the bad-guy governments out there. Maybe that would make for a better next book.
3. Some of the book's smaller-scale arguments aren't so well fleshed-out, either. Cartoon character Hank Hill is criticized for being turned off by then-Governor Bush's alleged bad handshake (@178), but why should this direct personal experience of a candidate necessarily be a bad indicator of character? We're not told. Professional bureaucrats are mentioned as counterbalance to our bad decisions (@196-198), but the dangers of groupthink among them (especially in societies where they have similar educational backgrounds, like the US, UK, Japan and France) go unmentioned. O&E also invoke the "wisdom of crowds" argument about how a crowd is better than an individual at estimating the number of jellybeans in a jar -- and then claim that similarly, "so long as there are enough people voting" in a democracy, "ignorance [about candidates and issues] will cancel itself out" (@186). What evidence is there for this claim? None is given. Nor is this plausible, absent some "invisible hand"-type wishful thinking. Candidates are not jellybeans, and voting for a candidate is not like guessing about a single, determinate number. Even when voters' opinions are "random" (see @185), there isn't any guarantee that they are randomly distributed about any sort of meaningful statistical mean. Moreover, candidates -- and especially incumbents -- can actively conceal information about themselves and about the issues. A final example: why does it follow that "If Times Square tourists can guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, surely kids can guess the weight of a bag of candy?" (@193). For me, the cumulative effect of this sort of casual hand-waving was to reduce the book's gravitas. All in all, a book about democracy of above-average readability, but with a heft more like "Toy Story 3" than "Citizen Kane" (@108).
You don't have to know a lot--or even anything at all--about psychology or politics to enjoy this book. Everything is presented in a clear and engaging manner. But there's no need to worry about being bored if you're an expert, either. The authors combine the disciplines in an exciting way that will make you think about both human decision making and politics in ways you haven't before. And whether you go into the book knowing a little or a lot, you'll come out having learned a lot, including a deeper understanding of our flawed nature, plenty of fun and fascinating historical and psychological tidbits (enough for at least several years' worth of cocktail parties), and--most importantly--a new appreciation for all that democracy does for us as citizens and allows us to do together as a society.