Why We Can’t Have Democracy, Accountability, and Big Government all at Once

Modern democratic societies desire a government that’s simultaneously accountable and democratic as well as large in the sense it can carry out many functions. Leonid Sirota is a Canadian law scholar who explains why all three of these are not possible at the same time in an informative blog post entitled “The Good Government Trilema”. We can hope for two of the three.

Which role does democracy play in holding the government responsible for its actions? In one way or another, this question is the subject of live―and lively―debates in many (perhaps all?) democratic societies….

I am tempted to generalize, but my perception is that these discussions tend to be about clashes between values such as accountable government and democratic government. The other side believes that it is important that elected officials can run the show according to their own ideas, but that they are subject to being thrown out by voters. The other thinks that what matters is that the government be kept in check and made to answer for its actions on an ongoing basis, through some mix of elections, judicial supervision, and other accountability mechanisms, either internal to the government (such as ombudsmen and auditors) or external (NGOs and media)….

But I believe that this debate is insufficient. It ignores a third factor that needs to be taken into account: the size of the government in question….

The apparent necessity to compromise between accountability and democracy is a special instance of what I’ll, for the lack of better terms, refer to as the “good governance dilemma”. Of democracy, accountability, and big government, you can have two ― if you do things well; many polities won’t get two, or indeed even one ― but you cannot have all three. It is possible to satisfy the trilemma by choosing fractions ― a dose of democracy, a measure of accountability, a government not quite as big as one might dream of ― but the total cannot go above two, and it will certainly never go anywhere near three. It’s impossible to have everything.

What does the trilemma look like? We will start with the assumption that big government is an accepted fact. A government so big it takes scores of ― or, in the UK’s case, close to a hundred ― ministers of various sorts (or, in the US, agency heads) to run itself, to say nothing of the tens or hundreds of thousands of civil servants. This, of course, is ….  This is our current reality. One citizen could have a full time job if he wanted to monitor what is happening in the government at an average rate of half an hour per ministry per week. And for at least some departments…., half an hour per week hardly seems like it would be anywhere near enough to know what’s going on. Never mind ordinary citizens: even members of Parliament would struggle mightily to keep the tabs on the administration by virtue of its sheer size….

Realistically, voters are in no position to keep such a government accountable…. The reality is that voters cannot hold a government accountable for large-scale policies. If such a government it is going to be accountable for more than an infinitesimal fraction of its innumerable decisions and actions, it will have to be made accountable to, or at least through, non-democratic or indeed counter-majoritarian institutions….. Alternatively, a big government can be made answerable to voters alone, with no judicial and other interference. But then it would be foolish to expect it to answer for even fairly major screw-ups, let alone the small-scale indignities a large administration visits on those subject to it every day…. not because it’s necessarily evil or even especially incompetent, let alone corrupt; but because it is run by fallible human beings….

However, if one was willing to compromise government size one can at least expect a government that is accountable only through electoral means. For one thing, as the government does less, there is simply less for courts and other non-democratic accountability mechanisms to sink their teeth into…. But, less cynically, if government only does a few things, it is easier for citizens to keep track of those few things, and the odds of their using their vote to reward things done well and punish things done badly improve….

Naturally, not everyone will share my enthusiasm for radically smaller government. That’s fair enough. It would however be a good thing if they acknowledged the existence of the trilemma that I have described in this article. Its cause ― the difficulty for voters and even their representatives to keep track of a large administration ― should not be a matter of partisan controversy. This is a fact that must be recognized and addressed, regardless of the values behind each individual’s responses.

Sirota is a strong supporter of my position. I agree that “radically smaller government”, while I believe it to be the best approach, may not work for everyone. Additionally, I believe that “rational ignorance”, which is the belief of most voters, makes it harder for democratic accountability to be achieved.

There is very little likelihood that any single vote will have an impact on electoral results. This means there are few incentives for voters to invest more time or effort in finding information about government policy and government. Many are unaware of basic facts, like the names and functions of each branch of government. They also don’t know the details about specific policy effectiveness.  Inevitably, the combination of rational ignorance and large, complex government results in a system where voters are unable to accurately assess the performance of government. In my book, I discuss this more in depth. Democracies and political ignorance: Why a smaller government is better.

Additionally, many voters are biased and act like truth seekers rather than “political lovers”. This issue is more acute in times of intense partisanpolarization such as the current American political climate.

Many scholars believe that there is no need to be concerned about ignorance and bias in the general population. Instead, voters have “information shortcuts,” which allow them to reduce ignorance by providing small information pieces that can replace more comprehensive knowledge. The alternative is that even when individual voters make poor decisions and are unaware, the whole electorate still performs well. Individual errors counter each other which leads to “miracles of aggregation”.

I criticize shortcut theories, miracle-of-aggregation arguments, and other similar ideas in great detail in my book on political ignorance, and other writings. It is important to note here that although many people, particularly those on the left, believe democratic governments can handle complex tasks efficiently, they also worry about Donald Trump’s use of ignorance and bias.

I believe they are right to be concerned about Trump and his associates. Trump and others shouldn’t have got as far as he did if they believed shortcuts or miracles in aggregation. And if much of the electorate nonetheless falls for Trump’s relatively crude lies and distortions, it seems unlikely  they can effectively use shortcuts or other tools to assess more complex tradeoffs and policy issues.

Trump is not the only politician to exploit public ignorance and bias. Barack Obama’s deceit about Obamacare stating that “if your health plan is good, you can continue it” was a typical example of this.  The basics of Obamacare are so confusing that many voters do not even know what it is. It makes it difficult for them to evaluate it. Similar holds true for other government programs. Trump’s behavior is one of many examples that show a larger problem.

Sirota admits that we don’t know what government’s role should be based on the tradeoffs made between accountability, democracy and the size of the government. The problem of political ignorance is the root cause of the trilemma that Sirota describes. There are many options for addressing it. My forthcoming article will discuss a variety of approaches.

It is possible to reduce voter ignorance and “political fans” attitudes, which could help ease the tension. For reasons I have outlined in my book however, it is unlikely that either of those outcomes will be possible anytime soon.  Although you may be more optimistic about this issue than I am, the challenge is still difficult. We must recognize the real tradeoffs involved in creating a competent electorate. Sirota reminds that we can’t have everything.