2020, Books, Non-Fiction

10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less (2020) by Garrrett Jones

This is a frustrating book. I agree with some of what he says and he inspired me to come up with some additional ideas. But I find the presentation ill-thought out, and I find his perspective limited, and rather traditional.

Jones is an economist. Moreover, he’s on the supply-side of the great divide, which is a problem for me because supply-side ain’t what it used to be. Moreover, he’s a believer in Public Choice. This is a big problem for me because it’s a little like saying you’re a Jungian psychologist and you’ve just not bothered to read any cognitive psychology yet. I get that we are all taught what we’re taught but, surely, learning about behavioural economics would be a good thing to do before writing a book about reforming liberal democracy? I mean, the reason why democracy doesn’t function as well as we think it should just might be revealed through understanding how and why people make decisions, right? (Rather than relying on a more traditionalist model that makes giant, incorrect assumptions about decision making.) Jones acknowledges his professions’ flaws by telling a good joke. But he doesn’t seem to be aware that other economists have tried to correct them!

The way it is written is also kind of bizarre. Jones takes his title and runs with it. Instead of trying to build his case through the book, he starts off with the assumption that the title is the goal, that we should just take his word for it. Yes, he assembles evidence to support, but he’s constantly saying how we need to work towards this number without every really justifying it. I get it, it’s just an arbitrary choice low enough not to scare most people, but it seems to have caused him to put the cart before the horse. Have a better title, and then argue the reforms.

He’s very concerned with macro outcomes, like most economists. This is frustrating because his readers are not, right? The problem with focusing on macro outcomes in a country as large as the United States, for example, is that just because something is a net positive for the country as a whole doesn’t mean there aren’t a whole heaping pile of net negative outcomes for individuals or communities. Saying “but the economy will be a little bit better” is not very convincing.

He’s too focused on the US, which should come as no surprise given where he teaches.

Also, another shocker given where he teaches: he once worked for a Republican. I assume Jones meant well but, for those of us who do not live in the US, copping that you tried to help the Republicans with their policies is not a vote of confidence. (Did he walk in there to try to convince them not to lower taxes while spending more?) Ahem…

Jones clearly intends this book for lay people, and particularly lay people who lean “conservative” (in the US sense). There are little appeals to pop culture and there is way too much about Alexander Hamilton. Moreover, the conclusion is basically just an intro to democratic theory that anyone who has ever taken a university level class on political philosophy already knows. It’s very, very basic, to the point of making me wonder why it exists. The conclusion I come to is that he has tried to write this for people who do not have a background in political philosophy. Fair enough, but these ideas (in the conclusion) are not new, and are among the most discussed in political philosophy. The presentation, a brief summary, could be a lot better.

Oh, one other thing: like so many Americans on the Right, Jones assumes there are not barriers to entry to the elites beyond merit. This is demonstrably false in many ways. And one of the great debates in society right now is how to fix that, or at least make it less bad. But Jones doesn’t seem to believe they exist and rather believes in the myth of a meritocracy. (I mean, he’s a professor of economics, right? The system must work!)

But, despite all of that, I tend to agree with a lot of what he says, with the notable exceptions of deciding Singapore is the best country in the world and deciding bondholders should have actual votes in government. (On the latter: like most economists of his ilk, Jones doesn’t seem to understand that the point of government is not to run a balanced budget but rather to be effective.) I think he could have done a much better job of presenting the material, arguing the points, and convincing me, but I do think that there is a strong case to limit the power of the masses. Now, I’ve believed this for a long time, so he’s preaching to the converted with me. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t intrigued. He even inspired me to wonder about giving tax policy to economists. Imagine if our elections didn’t concern taxes because taxes were set by an appointee serving a 10 year term! What would our elections be about then? (It’s intriguing, isn’t it?)

So this is a big shrug from me. A lot of it made me frustrated. Some of it made me laugh. Some of it made me think. I wish someone a little more broadly read had written it, that’s for sure.


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