Like Democracy? Then You Should Love Intractable Ideological Disagreement

Here's a talking point schema I find really annoying. It goes like this:

  • Government attempts to do X would work a lot better if people who were ideologically opposed to the government's doing X would just shut up and go away. 

I don't doubt that there are in fact many cases where there this is plausibly true. Laying out some of those cases helps illustrate why instances of the scheme are so often stupid things to say. 
Consider the following:

  • Government attempts to reduce the probability of terrorist attacks by indefinitely imprisoning suspects without trial would work a lot better if people weren't so ideologically committed to habeus corpus. 
  • Government attempts to make Americans safer by catching and prosecuting drug dealers would work a lot better if people were't so ideologically opposed to handing more or less unlimited power to the police to search people and their property whenever they want. 

True or false? I don't know. But both are at least plausible. The point is, you might agree but still opose the government's attempt to do whatever it's attempting to do. 
Some instances of the schema are just a weirdly useless way of highlighting the diversity of opinion in a pluralistic democracy:

  • Government attempts to ban handguns would work a lot better if so many people weren't ideologically opposed to banning handguns.
  • Government attempts to ban abortion would work a lot better if so many people weren't ideologically opposed to banning abortion.
  • Government attempts to balance the budget would work a lot better if so many people weren't ideologically opposed to cutting government spending
  • Government attempts to balance the budget would work a lot better if so many people weren't ideologically opposed to raising taxes. 

Why bring this up? Because I feel like I trip across it constantly from “good, big government” types who like to blame “market fundamentalists” for the fact that government isn't actually so good and big as they'd like. The idea is that it would be if only there weren't so many people in our democracy who want conflicting things. But, of course, that's just dense. I think titanic rates of economic growth would be about the best thing that could ever happen, but we don't get them because so many people have so many ideological axes to grind against the policies that would make it so. But this objection always comes down to an objection to ideological diversity, which is why I don't care to make it, and get annoyed when I see it. It seems more sensible and honest simply to note that technocracy has certain advantages over democracy. If you then want to go ahead and argue for technocracy, so that we can get the opinions of the wrong people out of the way, then go ahead. I'll stick with democracy myself, but I'll definitely see what you're driving at.  
So yes, this or that government initiative might work better if everyone was on the team (and then again, it might not work at all, in principle). But it appears that it is sometimes necessary to lecture good-government types on the fact that, in democracies, the diversity of opinion is a predictable side-effect of freedom of conscience and expression. As such, it is a constraint on policymaking, not something to rail against. If your program needs widespread buy-in to work, then you should do more to provide reasons for people to buy in. If other people come along and smack down your reasons, they aren't the problem.
I feel like we're in for a huge dose of this inanity in the era of Obama. We're going to get lectured a lot–probably by many of the same twenty-five year olds who have invested heavily in home decor featuring presidential power porn–on how the failure of this or that is due to a failure of all 300 million of us to come together like a bunch of Amish at a barn-raising. It will of course be the fault of the ideologues who think the Green Economy Five Year Plan is moronic, not a reflection of the diverse range of opinion in a free society, and certainly not that fact the Green Economy Five Year Plan will in fact be moronic.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center