The Underdetermination of Just Social Order by Democracy

— Iraq, we are told, is to become a democracy. This is a laudable aim. But democracy is a genus, not a species. Getting a democracy is rather like getting a mammal for a gift. Kittens are nice. Wolverines will lunch on your eyeballs. You don’t drop a wolverine in your friend’s lap, and then walk away feeling you’ve done them a favor, since the best pets are mammals. Democracy names a vast range of possible institutional structures. There are good reasons to believe that certain kinds of democracy promote stable, mutually advantageous social order. However, other forms of democracy create incentives for corruption, dominance by special interest, and social instability. It’s true that the best pets are mammals, but it’s not an especially useful thing to know. What we’re really interested in is whether, say, Vizslas are better with kids than Weimeraners.

That’s why this paper by law and economics pioneer Robert Cooter is so important. He lays out the likely consequences of some different kinds of democracy. I won’t summarize his arguments (you should read them yourself, espcially if you’re rebuilding Iraq), but he indicates that countries like Iraq may benefit from a democratic structure quite different from our own.

Just as an example of the range of democratic possibility, imagine that there is no legislature. Instead of living in a single legislative district and voting for a representative who votes on every kind of issue–from economic policy to the environment to transportation–one instead is part of multiple overlapping jurisdictions that have authority over single issues. So you vote for a representative on the transportation policy board, and a different representative for the defense board, etc. And you just vote directly in referenda on certain issues, like what the tax rate will be, or whether weed’s legal. Kitten or wolverine?

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center