Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Liberal Democracy

Liberal democracy has its benefits and it has its problems. One of the things the founders of the United States seemed to want to avoid was the creation of a democracy…instead they wanted to produce a republic. Why would this be the case?

A democracy, Webster’s tells us, is “rule of the majority.” A republic, Webster’s states, is “a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to the citizens and governing according to law.” In addition, a republic is “a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch.”

The difference in emphasis is dramatic…a democracy…the majority rules. In a republic…people govern who are representatives of the people…and are elected to use their own judgment. A democracy can also have an elected body, but the people serving in that government are expected to be conduits of the will of the people.

The founders and many other individuals of a “liberal” persuasion tended to shy away from the idea of a democracy because they equated democracy with a rule by the crowd or the mob. The thing that these people were concerned about is the tendency for the crowd to be moved by emotion and to swing first one way and then another. Representatives in a republic are responsible to bring with them their intelligence and experience and judgment…they are not expected to be swayed by the emotion of the moment or by this trend or that trend.

The problem that occurs when a republic becomes dominated by “public opinion” they begin to act more like a democracy. That is, they pay less attention to their own judgment and abdicate their responsibility to the “will of the moment.”

History has shown that incentives exist for politicians to extend the voting franchise whenever it is in their best interest to enlarge the number of people that are allowed to vote. We see this to be the case in England…Disraeli and Gladstone both increased the franchise to get them elected and serve their own purposes. We see that happening over-and-over again in the United States. The effort of the politicians is to play to the preferences of different “interest” groups and ride them into office and into power.

To discuss this in very modern terms, I refer once again to the recent work of Niall Ferguson, especially his latest book titled “The Ascent of Money.” There are two specific areas that I would like to focus on specifically in this post. The first area concerns how capitalism and, more specifically, the financial aspects of capitalism can create opportunities for politicians to build large constituencies that can help them attain office perhaps to the potential detriment of the health of the country. The second has to do with “housing” democracy, the idea that all…or at least the vast majority…of Americans should own their own home.

The first of these areas relates to the “bad press” that finance and financiers have gotten over time. Historically, finance and financiers have been depicted as parasites that prey on the “real” economic activities that are carried on by the rest of the society. Somehow these people attach themselves to what is really going on in an economy and “suck” the system for what it is worth. Essentially, what is being said about finance and financiers is that they are peripheral to the real work of the economy contributing little or nothing to the output produced real workers.

One of the things that Ferguson presents and stresses is that economic development requires that finance exist within an economy and without a financial system (private property and the rule of law) little enterprise, innovation, or expansion takes place. Finance brings resources, particularly financial resources, to where they can be the most productive in a society. Without this allocation function, societies tend to remain dormant…listless…poor.

With this said, Ferguson goes on to write that debtors have seldom felt well disposed toward creditors and the former has tended to outnumber the latter by a large amount. Because of this debtors have tended to get better coverage in the press and a wider audience for their complaints among intellectuals and people with particular political leanings. Politicians can count and are very aware that debtors outnumber creditors.

Furthermore, financial crises and scandals occur frequently enough to make finance appear to be a cause of poverty rather than prosperity, volatility rather than stability. That is, finance disrupts people’s lives…it seems to make things more difficult…it is identified with “cheats” and “frauds”. Again, the thing that seems to “stick” in people’s minds is the “bad stuff” and not the “good stuff” that comes from a well-functioning financial system.

There are two other factors that seem to permeate the image of the financier to “common” citizens. First, there are wide disparities in income and wealth distribution separating “financiers” from the rest of society. This doesn’t seem very democratic and fair…especially if these people are parasites. Second, for centuries, financial services have been disproportionately provided by members of ethnic or religious minorities who have been excluded from other important positions in the society.

The point of this is that people that have or can have negative feelings about finance and those people that work in financial institutions. These negative feelings can be played upon by those that can gain from obtaining support from these large numbers of people. That is, politicians and others can play on the emotions of the discontented, the dislocated, and the disenfranchised. In this way they can play down or tarnish the image of the good that comes from the financial system.

The other topic I wanted to emphasize is what has been titled “housing” democracy…the concept that all…or, at least, most…Americans should own their own home. This move started in the 1930s as laws and institutions were created to make it easier for people to own their own home. This effort increased after the close of World War II and gathered speed in the 1960s with the “Great Society” and did not slow down into the Nixon years.

I remember working on something called a mortgage backed security during the time I was in the Washington, D. C. in the 1971-72 period. The rationale, as least the one I heard, for this effort was to help get Republicans re-elected to Congress as well as to bring more Republicans into government. How could this happen? Well, if we could get thrift institutions, the primary organizations that originated mortgages, to package their mortgages and sell them to other financial institutions, like insurance companies and pension funds that purchased long term assets, then the thrift institutions could go out and originate more mortgages. More people could own their own homes…and since the Republicans created this process…the voters would reward them by electing or re-electing them to public office.

During the rest of the century this idea was not lost on either Republicans or Democrats. Basically, this effort became a part of the American dream…the creation of everyone owning their own home. So, financial innovation built on financial innovation…and these innovations were constantly celebrated. As a consequence, mortgage-related securities are the most prominent financial asset in the world in terms of outstanding amounts. And, this promotion of “housing” democracy has brought us to the brink of financial collapse…or worse. But, it reportedly got a lot of happy homeowners to vote.

If these politicians have pushed America…and other countries…into more and more of a democratic mode…the question is…has this been helpful? Has this made things better off or worse off? Another question follows…if this process of “democratization” has actually taken place and has not been the most beneficial approach to the health and welfare of the country…what can be done to counteract it? This last point will be discussed in my next post.

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