Tom Christiano, a leading theorist of democracy, has just reviewed Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy. In it, he accuses Jason of having an ill-equipped micro-theory that fails to account for the phenomena Jason addresses. In particular, Tom thinks that the book cannot explain why actual democracies are as successful as they are. He doubts such success could have been led by Jason’s hobbits and hooligans. Here’s Tom:
[T]he modern democratic societies of Europe, North America, and East Asia have actually been quite successful; and the democratic element in them is a large part of what seems to explain that. First, there is a great deal of data marking out the remarkable differences between reasonably high quality democracies and other kinds of societies. Brennan mentions these but I don’t think he takes the full measure of the evidence. Democracies do not go to war with one another and respect the rules of war better than other societies. They are responsible for the creation of the international trade system, the international environmental law system, and the human rights regime. In fact, democracies do massively better on basic human rights than other societies, and it appears to be more their majoritarian character that explains this than their systems of checks and balances. Democracies prevent famines and, since the onset of universal suffrage, have developed powerful welfare states that have been enormously productive, have greatly reduced poverty, and have smoothed out the disastrous economic crises that occurred in their more free market ancestor societies. Further, they have generally protected the interests of workers and lower economic classes, done a better job at producing public goods than other societies and generally have higher rates of per capita growth than their free market ancestors. Most of us hope for much more progress than this, but these achievements are extraordinary and are hard to square with the idea that hooligans and hobbits are at the helm.
Of course, I will let Jason defend himself. Here I want to examine the larger issue raised by Tom’s macro-theory: why are actual democracies successful?
There are reasons to doubt the accuracy of Tom’s story. Modern democracies have three components: a rights-constrained majoritarian component (universal suffrage and bill of rights), a redistributive component (the welfare state), and a capitalist component (robust markets). I do not quarrel with Tom’s observation that actual democracies do much better in terms of, well, democracy and human rights. But Tom thinks that these societies’ majoritarian and redistributive components are the key contributors to economic success, including poverty alleviation. This is entirely unclear to me and to those who have addressed the issue. For one thing, the Latin American experience shows that democracy and redistribution do not always lead to success. For another, the “free-market ancestors” managed to exclude many people from the market. So I think it is plausible (to put it mildly) that the great leap in prosperity and poverty alleviation occurred when modern democracies established secure property rights and allowed everyone the opportunity to better themselves through trade, as Deirdre McCloskey has claimed.
It may well be that, as Tom suggests, the introduction of universal suffrage is part and parcel of the ethics of equality that allowed everyone to attempt success. But it is much less clear that, with important exceptions such as publicly-funded education, redistributive institutions have contributed to the great enrichment and poverty alleviation in the modern world, and especially in successful democracies. Plausibly, these impressive achievements stem from the unprecedented opening of domestic and international markets, that is, from the capitalist component of successful democracies. Certainly, economic theory seems more congenial to this explanation (see here and here, and Lomasky’s and my discussion here.) If development economists are right, Tom’s argument sounds like a post hoc propter hoc fallacy.