Monday, December 26, 2016

Democracy Is Dying as Technocrats Watch

Brilliant piece from one of most useful and practical thinkers of our generation - William Easterly.

My own field of economics can be so technical that whenever I give a talk mentioning values, I feel like I have to apologize. Yet economics is better equipped to defend values than usually believed. At the core of models of economic behavior is individual choice. Hidden in plain sight is the assumption that all individuals — whether male, female, white, black, gay, Muslim, or Latino — should indeed have equal rights to make decisions for themselves. The assumptions that guide analysis of what makes people better off embody the same respect for individual choice — we infer A is better than B for an individual if they voluntarily selected A over B. And if an individual chose something for himself or herself that did not make anyone else worse off, we say that overall well-being improved.

Although these principles are more than a century old in economics and are still at the core of our textbooks, they get sporadic attacks and less attention than they should due to our infatuation with evidence-based policy. Yet as Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser argued along the same lines in 2011, economics still has a “moral spine” beneath all the technocracy: “That spine is a fundamental belief in freedom.” As the economist John Stuart Mill said almost 150 years ago, the true test of freedom is not whether we care about our own rights but whether we care about “the rights of others.”

But can economics provide a conception of democracy that truly protects the “rights of others”? The field does indeed offer a potential defense against one of the core democratic dangers — the possibility that a tyrannical majority might vote to violate the rights of some minority group. Economists teach that it’s in a majority party’s interest to conduct a simple thought experiment before making political decisions: Since it’s impossible to know for sure that they will always be in the majority, and they could always wind up as part of some minority that some future majority decides to tyrannize, they should make political decisions behind a so-called “veil of ignorance” that sets aside their personal status and group affiliations. And anyone running that thought experiment faithfully would join a coalition to protect all future minority and individual rights.

Needless to say, the “veil of ignorance” thought experiment is ultimately a voluntary exercise. This year’s U.S. election tore the veil of ignorance to shreds and not for the first time. Many white men apparently did not perceive, or consider, this “ignorance” about the future, feeling confident that they will always have enough power to protect themselves and thus are free not to vote to protect the rights of others.

The long campaign for equal rights, by mixing eloquent moral appeals with “veil of ignorance” warnings, has nevertheless tried to make us all care just enough about other groups to forge a broad coalition in favor of democracy. Our technocratic age often sees such appeals as sentimentalism — more suitable for refrigerator magnets than serious debates. But Trump’s attack on core values required a response of such universal moral appeals — to white people as well as to minorities — instead of Clinton’s coalition of minorities and the 41-point plan of measurable outcomes on her website.

Democratic values have never been capable of defending themselves — equal rights require eloquent defenses capable of building broad alliances on their behalf. History offers plenty of inspiration. Abraham Lincoln: “Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.” Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Elie Wiesel: “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”

Or take this famous quote by an anti-Nazi pastor. It warns explicitly against the consequences of failing to respect the veil of ignorance:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Grand sentiments can’t sustain politics by themselves; technical expertise has its place. But the long reign of technocracy has deprived us of the moral weapons needed to defend the core values that are the foundation of democracy. We are sadly lacking in any figures remotely resembling King or Wiesel today. But we will not be able to fight back against Trump unless we can find once again a capacity for moral advocacy for democratic values.

No comments: