No, David Brooks, we don’t need less democracy

Wikimedia Commons
(Wikimedia Commons)

Conservatives have lost a few elections, and now some of them think democracy is broken.

Okay, this isn't exactly what they've said. But it's close enough. David Brooks, for one, thinks that we've become "neurotically democratic." That we need to pivot from our system of checks and balances to a system of "elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions to push populist reforms" if we're going to avoid being disrupted by innovative one-party states like China. In other words, Brooks says, "we need to become less democratic at the national level," so we can implement the kind of policies that Brooks likes.

Democratic self-doubt is nothing new. In the 1930s, Americans worried that, unlike fascist states that could "get things done," our government was too sclerotic to get us out of the Depression. In the 1960s, we worried that communist states that were rapidly industrializing and sending satellites into space were leaving us behind. And today, we're worried that one-party capitalism is more effective than multi-party capitalism. These authoritarian states, Brooks tells us, "are better at long-range planning and can move fast because they limit democratic feedback." You can see the future if you go to Shanghai — and it works, at least at breathtaking catch-up growth.

Well, not really. These paeans to government of, by and for the elite ignore China as it actually exists. Their air is unbreathable. Their high-speed railways are unsafe and shoddily made. And their government's credit-driven stimulus might have inflated a monster housing bubble that's now popping. Not exactly examples of superior long-range planning.

The truth, as boring as it may be, is that Winston Churchill was right: Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Daron Acemoglu, Suresh Naidu, James Robinson and Pascual Restrepo have a new paper that finds that countries that switch to democracy have about 20 percent higher GDP per capita 30 years later. That seems to be because greater civil liberties lead to governments that reform more economically and invest more in education and health care — in short, that are more responsive to the people.

Here's a simple chart from their paper that links democratization to growth:

Democracy Growth

Now, poor countries can grow fast despite bad governments because they're poor. There's so much catching up to do that they don't need to make great decisions to do it. They just need to avoid making actively bad ones. But as they get richer, they do start needing to make better decisions to keep growing fast. They need to open up their governments — or stagnate.

So do we. Our problem isn't too much democracy. It's too little. The filibuster means you need a Senate super-majority to get anything done. The Hastert rule — which, remember, is more of a guideline — keeps bills that have majority support from even coming up for consideration. We could get immigration reform and tax reform and every other kind of reform we need done — first among them ones that help the long-term unemployed — if we didn't have these parliamentary rules that enable obstructionism.

Now, calling for the end of the filibuster isn't as thought leader-y as calling for Simpson-Bowles forever, but it might actually, you know, work.

Matt O'Brien is a reporter for Wonkblog covering economic affairs. He was previously a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.
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