Can democracies make the world a better place?

The Founding Fathers seemed to think so. In fact, they may be some of the most optimistic, rational, idealists who ever lived.

Which puts them at great odds with modern intellectual thought, which commonly goes by the name “Postmodernism.” Postmodernism is defined as “a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.”

In short, Postmodernism is against just about everything the Founding Fathers weren’t.

Consequently, it’s very interesting to look at interpretations of governments in general, and democracy, an ideology/government form, in specific to see what they are saying.

There’s a fascinating video by CGP Grey, which can be found here, entitled “The Rules for Rulers.” It’s a fantastic video, worth watching in its entirety, even though it’s 20 minutes long. Totally worth it.

The video is based on the book The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, and I’m about to give you a summary of the video. I ask that you keep in mind that this is a summary of a summary.

The primary thesis of the video is that people gain and maintain power by getting the support of the majority of influential people known as “key supporters” or “keys” within a single country. They might be an influential military commander, someone who represents business interests, or perhaps even a prominent religious figure.

Once you’ve taken over, you need to control the supply of wealth. Doing this allows you to channel wealth to your key supporters. This keeps them loyal, but also helps them maintain the power they are using on your behalf. While you could channel it to programs designed to help the people in your country, they are not the ones that are keeping you in power. Spending money on the people and not the keys is thus wasteful.

The third prong of this theory dictates that the best way to maintain power once you have it is to cut down the number of key supporters in your country. Having to control three key people is easier than having to control seven, for instance. This is part of the reason that dictators who overthrow dictators often end up acting like the people they just overthrew. While they used a different set of key supporters to gain power, a different set, the one that the old dictator was already using, is already in place for maintaining power, which is the new dictator’s ultimate goal.

CGP Grey argues that this same principle applies to democracies because people can be sorted into blocks, such as the elderly, business owners, or the poor, which can be rewarded as a group via the tax code. The tax code isn’t complicated because it must be, but rather because it is built as a reward to the blocks that put/keep the democratic rulers in power.

He also suggests that there are ways to limit key supports in democracies, such as making it easier for your keys to vote and harder for other people’s keys to vote, as well as using gerrymandering and the party system to help rig the outcome. This is part of why politicians seem so duplicitous—they say they’ll do something to sway a block over to their side in order to get elected, but then do the opposite of what they promised because that’s what the key that will keep them in power needs.

Ultimately, you can’t even try to make things better or someone less scrupulous will come along and steal your keys by promising them things you can’t or won’t.

While looking for criticism on this video, I came across this video by John Green, where he says, “very powerful people are in fact not that powerful at all, they’re just doing what power tells them to do,” which seems like a tangential way of saying that there are things people must do if they want to stay in power.1 Such as, correctly manage their keys.

But, I think both of these people are at least partially wrong. Democratic rulers, especially the President, are limited in what keys they can manipulate. For instance, while a gerrymandered district may have helped them gain power, it is the state legislatures that create these districts, and the point of them is to get more senators and representatives from a certain party elected. If they help the President, it’s an accident.

But some seem to have been placed intentionally out of the President’s reach. The President has little direct power to pass laws but instead can sign or reject laws created by the Legislative Branch, which frequently refuses to just do what the President wants. But even if he can get the Legislature under his control, the Supreme Court can overturn laws he passes. Additionally, terms limits prevent the President from having long-term designs on maintaining power. Consequently, his key management is much more restricted than that of a dictator or king.

What if CGP Grey and company are being overly jaded, or perhaps a bit too postmodern. Would there be a way we could measure it? In theory, if democratically elected leaders did the opposite of what was suggested, and instead of hoarding wealth to distribute to keys they gave it to the people instead, wouldn’t the people be happier? After all, they’re getting more stuff.

And, as it turns out, people have done these studies.

Intriguingly, the factor that correlates most strongly with happiness is the “technical quality of government,” which rises when governments offer more services and services of a higher quality. And the second-strongest corollary is democratic quality. The more democratic a country is, the happier its people are.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean anything on its own. But it does suggest that either democracies are better than other kinds of governments at finding nonmonetary sources of happiness to placate those who aren’t part of their key groups, or that interpreting getting and maintaining power in terms of key supports and key groups is missing a couple of factors in its analysis.

  1. Full disclaimer: I can’t stand John Green and have disagreed with just about everything I’ve ever heard him say.