October 08, 2003

Talking with their feet

Posted by Curt at 05:40 PM in Politics | TrackBack

There seems to be some sort of libertarian philosophy to be teased out at the bottom of all of these schemes like the DoD's and Assassination Politics, which is that people generally consider their interests and the situation at hand much more rationally when their money or something equally immediately valuable is involved, simply because they feel much more is personally at stake for them. Therefore, their predictions will be more accurate when their economic well-being depends on it (from an entirely differenct perspective Richard Posner essentially made the same point by advocating the tracking and publication of the accuracy of public intellectuals' predictions; their money would not be on the line but their reputations would be). However, I think this fairly agreeable philosophy runs into the mile-wide problem that fair play in gambling requires the total separation of the gamblers from the event they are betting on. Obviously, Assassination Politics was relying on the corruption of that principle; I certainly hope the DoD is not. However, while people may be stupid and wayward, especially when they do not think that anything is at stake, I am not convinced that public opinion is actually inferior to that of any particular cultural elite. After all, Def Leppard's popularity may have been a stain on music, but popular taste was right about jazz against the sterility of modern classicism and right about the novel against the archaic lyric. So it is more true to say that public taste is not wrong, just behind the times. The Rolling Stones might be virtual parodies of the bluesmen they have spent their careers covering, but their popularity indicates that people at least recognized retroactively in some measure the superiority of those bluesmen over whatever pop drivel was popular in their time. I think it is the same thing with Schwarzenegger. Of course it is not a meritocracy: if I had to choose someone in California to get elected for something, I would pick Victor Davis Hanson. However, the people are right here in at least one respect: they know that their state has no direction, and that their governor has taken not to representing their interests but to pandering to them. The only people I have heard defending Davis and condemning his recall took the insufferable patrician attitude of horror towards the notion that people would take it upon themselves to violate the sanctity of the office of governor and actually, gasp, elect who they wanted to the office! No one actually tries to defend Davis' record. Again, the people are a little behind--California has had huge problems for years, and this is just a piffle that probably will solve nothing. At the same time, it is equally true that voters have been losing power for decades to bureaucrats and interest groups seemingly without doing anything about it, and now that they have discovered a weapon to correct the imbalance at least to some measure, it is they who are pulling the irredeemable snobs and dandys kicking and screaming into the future (all of these points are treated more elegantly here). As Posner notes in another book, the U.S. government was was essentially established as an elected aristocracy, and it would be almost superfluous to note that in a world that moves so much faster today the retention of 18th century perogatives of power (particularly term length) has concentrated power increasingly in the state's hands, even in the elected branches. So while the recall may confirm the criticism of democracy as an instrument of the stupidity of the people, it is directly at variance with the other criticism of democracy in America as window-dressing, an irrelevancy. Since I am concerned about voting becoming (or being) irrelevant and believe the public's concerns and desires in California at least to be far from stupid, I am happy that things have turned out as they have. Slow but on the right track they are. Maybe Hegel's faith in the verdict of history was not such an empty premise after all.

p.s. I am also quite aware that truncating an elected politician's term may serve not to bring power back to the people but rather simply to shift the power from elected officials, who come and go, to unelected bureaucrats. However, the only way that too can be counterbalanced is again through the electoral process, by electing politicians who will create legislation which makes it easier to hire, fire and otherwise hold unelected officials accountable for their performance. In any case, all of this depends first on softening the elected pols. and making them more responsive to popular mandate, which a recall does marvelously.