Friday, April 9, 2021

Democracy Is A Pain

Kevin Williamson took to the National Review website earlier this week to argue against democracy. 

The proximate cause of Williamson's question--Why not fewer voters?-- is much of the debate about voter suppression in Georgia which, he says, "begs the question and simply asserts that having more people vote is, ceteris paribus, a good thing." (Yeah, I had to look up ceteris paribus, which means "with other conditions remaining the same")

Why shouldn’t we believe the opposite? That the republic would be better served by having fewer — but better — voters?

Williamson goes on to make an attempt to argue his proposal, bringing up the idea of "qualifications." But he can't help bringing in the real heart of his argument:

One argument for encouraging bigger turnout is that if more eligible voters go to the polls then the outcome will more closely reflect what the average American voter wants. That sounds like a wonderful thing . . . if you haven’t met the average American voter.

And there it is. There are Certain People who just shouldn't get a say.

As Heather Cox Richardson pointed out the next day, Williamson's argument is not a new one, having previously been embraced by pro-slavery folks before the civil war and Barry Goldwater's ghostwriter. Only the "better" voters should get to vote. 

And we have been hearing this argument in education for a while. Modern charters are often set to follow the visionary CEO model, where one guy should have unfettered say, not hemmed in by government rules of teacher unions or even teacher contracts. Being rich is supposed to bring freedom, so if I'm so rich, why should I have to listen to these not-rich people who try to exert their will by electing people who try to tell me what to do?? One of the key moments in this story is Reed Hastings, rich guy and charter school investor, back in 2014 telling the California Charter Schools Association that they need to get rid of school boards--

And so the fundamental problem with school districts is not their fault, the fundamental problem is that they don’t get to control their boards and the importance of the charter school movement is to evolve America from a system where governance is constantly changing and you can’t do long term planning to a system of large non-profits…

Alleged lefties are not free from this. Union leaders often succumb to the impulse to "steer" members toward the "right" decision (eg the national union support for Common Core and the early endorsement of Hillary Clinton). 

And schools themselves are all-too-often distinctly undemocratic institutions, where administrators impose autocratic rule and everyone from staff through students is supposed to fall in line.

Because democracy is a pain. 

It's messy and annoying, in large part because it codifies our connections to other people. It sets down in rules the fact that we cannot simply divorce ourselves from all the people in the world who we think are unworthy.

Yesterday, Andy Smarick put up a piece at The Dispatch about the narrative of reopening school buildings, and while it provides a good solid dig through some surveys and polls, the bottom line is that despite various attempts to shape a narrative, when it comes to reopening buildings, people are mostly getting what they want. As the comments section makes clear, that's a real pain if you live in a community that mostly doesn't want what you want, or if your heart is set on All Of This being the work of your preferred group of Bad Guys. 

I suspect that everybody at one point or another dreams of being set free from the ties that bind them to other people (like, every four years in November). It's mostly the rich and powerful who can try to make that dream come true, and we periodically suffer through their attempts to do so. And I expect they feel kind of heroic doing it, fighting back against the mob or making the world a better place for all the Little People. But their gaze too often falls upon democratic institutions--like public education. 

Democracy is a pain. Teachers, working for boards filled with elected amateurs, certainly get that. But attempting to break down all collective action, to disperse public education, atomize parents into uncollected singletons, remove the collective obligation to provide an education--these are not good things. Trying to dissolve every collective so that nobody can get together to thwart your wealthy, privileged will--that kind of free-lance autocracy is not good for society (it's not even healthy for the wealthy, privileged people who pursue it).

In any society that values freedom, there will always be tension between my freedoms and yours, tensions between the will of the many and of the few. The solution is neither thunderdome or the hunger games. Democracy is a pain, but "every man for himself" and "I've got mine, Jack" and "Only my kind of people should get a say" are morally and ethically indefensible. 



  1. The "why not" question we should be asking is why not vote all the libertarians out of Congress so we can get something done.

  2. We already have Constitutional Amendments protecting the right to vote based on sex, race, age, former slavery, and the ability to pay a [poll] tax. Apparently we now need one to protect the right vote based on a superlative. Perhaps something like...

    "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of not being 'better'."

  3. Kudos to you Mr. Greene for at least acknowledging that there is a credible contest between individual and collective choice. But my question is why is education a collective choice at all ? My choice of Pepsi isn't conditioned on you likewise foregoing Coke ? Let me clarify. You warn against "remove the collective obligation to provide an education". And I don't think anyone would argue with that - including supporters of choice. But isn't there a difference between collective decision regarding education spending (including spending on what you call Others) vs a choice of how each family spends those dollars. That's not the same thing. Let me put it another way. Several cities like NY and Chicago already require families to choose among various school options. Let's say those choices excluded charters and would be limited to unionized district schools. Would you be OK with this ? If no, why ? If yes, then it seems that your issue is not so much the concept of choice but rather the question of including non district non unionized choices.

  4. By the way, I don't think the issue with Democracy is so much qualications as Williamson says but rather skin in the game. Let's do a little thought experiment to explain. Five workers at a local hospital go into a pizza place for lunch. Some order two pieces with all the toppings. Others just have one piece and a glass of water. When they each pay for what they purchased, we call that capitalism. Or since they know each other, they could just agree to split the total bill equally. That's European socialism. Nothing wrong with it. It's how we mostly fund our schools with everyone paying the same property tax rate. Also how we fUnd SS. On the other hand, three of the hospital workers are janitors. And they decide that since the two other workers are doctors and earn far more, they should pay for everything. And since they aren't paying, they decide to add some fries and soda. That's where democracy breaks down since many people don't have skin in the game. Sure, they pay payroll taxes. But all this debt we're piling on is paid for by General Revenue which has nothing to do with payroll taxes. Instead, it's paid for by Income Taxes which about half the country doesn't pay. So if we're voting to go to war where each of us may lose our lives, then everyone votes since everyone has skin in the game. But why should someone get a vote re how tax revenue is spent if they didn't pay income taxes ?