Archive | Democracy

Democracy, Natural Disasters, and Political Ignorance

The massive destruction and tragic loss of life in the recent earthquake in Japan will surely rekindle debates over how well democratic governments handle natural disaster. The good news is that democracies handle natural disasters much better than nondemocratic nations. On the other hand, the quality of democratic disaster policy is still negatively affected by widespread political ignorance.

I. Why Democracies Handle Disaster Better than Dictatorships.

Recent research shows that democratic governments handle natural disasters much better than dictatorships do, even after controlling for differences in wealth. The reason is not hard to figure out. If a natural disaster kills thousands of people, even the most ignorant voters are likely to notice and blame incumbent political leaders, whom they can punish at the next election. As a result, democratic leaders have incentives to try to reduce the death and destruction as much as they can, given other political constraints. Dictators don’t have any comparable electoral incentives.

II. How Political Ignorance Makes Disasters Worse.

Unfortunately, voter ignorance still has a negative impact on democratic states’ disaster policies. It is rational for most voters to pay little or no attention to the details of public policy. And rationally ignorant voters often make serious errors as a result of their ignorance. Natural disaster policy is no exception.

Economists Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra provide evidence that voters reward politicians much more for disaster relief spending than disaster prevention spending, even though the latter is far more effective. Why this bias? Probably because disaster relief spending is far more visible to poorly informed voters than is prevention spending. After a disaster happens, the media constantly covers relief efforts, often in dramatic fashion. Many people watch, in part because the coverage is entertaining. By contrast, there is little media coverage of disaster prevention policy, […]

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Northwestern University School of Law Panel on Democracy and Technology

This Friday, I will be taking part in a panel at the Northwestern University School of Law on the implications of accelerating technological development for democracy. The panel will be held from 3:30 to 5 PM in the Atrium. It will focus on Northwestern law professor John McGinnis’ forthcoming book Accelerating Democracy, in which John argues that the internet and other new technologies can greatly improve democratic decision-making by increasing the flow of information to policymakers and voters. Northwestern lawprof Robert Bennett and I will be commenting on the book. More details on the event (which is open to the public) here. The panel is part of a conference sponsored by the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property.

I think there is a lot to John’s thesis, but I also have some reservations based on my work on deliberative democracy and political ignorance. I will also suggest that the information revolution strengthens the political knowledge-based case for political decentralization and privatization that I outlined in this article.

John’s book is likely to become a major work in this field. The panel will be of interest to legal scholars, people interested in democratic theory, and of course technogeeks. I suspect that we have Chicago-based readers in all three categories. All are welcome! […]

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Reflections on the Potential Revolution in Egypt

I don’t have any brilliant suggestions for how President Obama should handle the situation in Egypt. But history and economic theory do give us some insight on why the revolt against the government started so suddenly and unexpectedly. They also highlight the danger that any regime that replaces incumbent dictator Hosni Mubarak might turn out to be much worse than he is.

I. Why the Revolt was Such a Surprise.

It seems likely that the revolt against Mubarak came as a surprise to him, and also to Western intelligence agencies, including the Israelis, who are renowned for their capabilities in this field and have obvious incentives to keep close tabs on events in Egypt. Why was everyone so surprised?

A key reason is that citizens of oppressive regimes have strong incentives to keep anti-government opinions to themselves. As a result, many who oppose the government might hesitate to say to to pollsters, foreign journalists, and anyone else who might potentially reveal their views to the authorities. As I have previously emphasized here, here, and here, this makes it very hard to gauge the true level of opposition to the government. Indeed, even the regime itself might underestimate the true extent of its own unpopularity, which may be one reason why Mubarak was caught flatfooted.

As economist Timur Kuran showed in a brilliant 1995 book on this kind of “preference falsification,” regimes that rely on repression to inhibit expression of opposition opinion can rapidly collapse if the public perceives that the reins have been loosened. Once a few people start protesting openly and the government does not react as forcefully and effectively as everyone expects, protests can quickly snowball and spread, as more and more people begin to believe that it’s safe to express antigovernment opinions openly. […]

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