In his classic defense of free market economics, The Road to Serfdom, F. A. Hayek explains why the expansion of government control over a complex society inevitably shifts power from representative democratic assemblies to boards or bodies of technocratic elites. Democratic assemblies are designed to operate, within limits, on the principle of majority rule. Yet majorities in large bodies can only be effectively forged on the basis of general principles or laws; they are impossible to maintain in the context of the management of a complicated society or economy.
Why? On any given issue requiring management there is an infinite variation of possible policies, each suiting the needs or interests of different parties. Inevitably a representative assembly does not divide merely into two general segments, each seeking to gain the majority against another, but into innumerable factions. The result, as Americans witness constantly in their own government, is gridlock. And the solution to gridlock is the assigning of the particulars of legislation to technocratic elites (i.e., lobbyists and lawyers) who design a policy that will be enforced by another body of technocratic elites (i.e., bureaucrats). As Hayek puts it,
The inability of democratic assemblies to carry out what seems to be a clear mandate of the people will inevitably cause dissatisfaction with democratic institutions… The conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be ‘taken out of politics’ and placed in the hands of experts – permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies…. ‘It is common ground that the present parliamentary machine is quite unsuited to pass rapidly a great body of complicated legislation.’ (104).
Case in point: Obamacare. The average elected representative in Congress had very little influence over the particulars of the policy; most probably didn’t even know the details of what they were voting for or against. And yet the problem is not with President Obama and the Democratic Party. The same tendency is observable in Republican legislation like President Bush’s signature Medicare Prescription Drug legislation. Any piece of legislation seeking to expand federal control or management of something as complicated as health care or the economy requires the rule of experts.
One need not be a libertarian to accept Hayek’s basic insight on this point. And of course, it is by no means clear what Hayek’s alternative would look like in practice, particularly in a country committed to federalism like the United States. What is appropriate for a body of elected representatives at the local or state level is not necessarily the same as what is appropriate at the federal level.
But Hayek’s perspective is at least worth pondering. From his perspective the unpopularity of Congress today is less the result of the tendency of power to corrupt, or the irresistible need for the politician to do what will get her or him reelected, than it is the effect of the American people having given Congress a mandate it cannot possibly fulfill.
The fault is neither with the individual representatives nor with parliamentary institutions as such but with the contradiction inherent in the task with which they are charged. They are not asked to act where they can agree, but to produce agreement on everything – the whole direction of the resources of the nation. For such a task the system of majority decision is, however, not suited… There is no reason why there should be a majority in favor of any one of the different possible courses of positive action if their number is legion (105).
The delegation of particular technical tasks to separate bodies, while a regular feature, is yet only the first step in the process whereby a democracy which embarks on planning progressively relinquishes its powers… The belief is becoming more and more widespread that, if things are to get done, the responsible authorities must be freed from the fetters of democratic procedure (107-108).
Alexis de Tocqueville warned that when democracy went down this road it would spawn a massive interest group of government officials, bureaucrats, and associated elites whose interest would gradually diverge from that of the people. Tocqueville would not be surprised by the contemporary political battles between public unions and populist reforming governors such as that which took place in Wisconsin this past year. Yet Joel Kotkin points out that both President Obama and Governor Romney represent a set of elites seeking to manage the country in one way or another.
The middle class, we’re frequently told, decides elections. But the 2012 race has in many ways been a contest between two elites, with the plutocratic corporate class lining up behind Mitt Romney to try and reclaim its position on top of the pile from an ascendant new group—made up of the leaders of social and traditional media, the upper bureaucracy and the academy—that’s bet big on Barack Obama.
Kotkin interprets the Tea Party as a populist reaction to the increasingly authoritarian and technocratic character of American government. Yet he by no means conflates a President Romney with the Tea Party.
Of course, Romney himself is the very opposite of a populist. As president, he would offer four years of technocratic, corporate power. Yet at the same time, a Romney administration—contrary to the claims of Democratic operatives and at times also the mainstream media—would not embrace the savage worldview of Pat Buchanan, Sara Palin, or even Rick Santorum. It would be establishmentarian in a “sensible shoes” kind of way.
So what is the choice facing American voters? Hayek would tell us that we have given our democracy an impossible mandate: the management of the most complicated economy in the world. In this case we might want to moderate our hopes for what any politician can achieve. After all, when we go to the ballot box we are not usually voting for particular rules or policies. For most of us we are simply choosing which party, with all of its technocratic expertise, will do the least damage. Good luck with that.
[Note: I am not as cynical about the upcoming election (or some of the issues at stake) as this last paragraph may suggest. I am simply trying to put some things in perspective. Consider it a nod to the book of Ecclesiastes.]