Book of the week: Too much democracy

Cover of The Edge of ChaosThe Edge of Chaos
By Dambisa Moyo
Published by Little, Brown, £20 (Published on 24 April)
(Buy at Amazon)

Dambisa Moyo is not afraid of courting controversy. At a time when world leaders were pledging to write off debt and increase support for less developed countries, the Zambian-born economist argued in Dead Aid that development assistance was making things worse.

Her latest book argues that liberal democracy is struggling to deal with the problems of technological change and rising income inequality. In turn, these failures are creating huge levels of public discontent that threaten the future of the entire system. In her view the only solution is radical structural change to improve the quality of governance.

Such arguments aren’t new. Indeed, Moyo isn’t saying anything that hasn’t already been said in a thousand opinion columns. However, the big twist is that she thinks the real problem is that we have too much democracy. Leaders are too focused on what people want, rather than on what they need. What’s more, many voters aren’t intelligent enough, or engaged enough, to understand the nuances of the issues. Her solutions involve making politicians less focused on public opinion and reworking the electoral system in favour of specific groups.

Moyo’s most provocative suggestion is that voters should have to attain a certain level of educational achievement before they are allowed to vote. She does admit that such tests have a dubious heritage, especially in the US where they were used to exclude newly enfranchised African-Americans after the Civil War. So she comes up with an alternative of giving suitably qualified people extra votes, which, while apparently more palatable, really isn’t very different from her original idea. She also uses Mexico to showcase how term limits can work successfully, which overlooks the fact that the country has failed to get out of the middle-income trap.

You could argue that the problem isn’t too much democracy, but too little. In many countries special interests have taken advantage of political systems, designed to encourage cooperation, to block reform. And being insulated from losing office can tempt politicians to switch their attention away from serving the public.

Moyo is correct that a certain level of stability is vital, as is the ability for the government temporarily to go against public opinion if it believes this to be for the best. Yet the competition and legislative creative destruction engendered by a flexible, responsive political system will always beat the alternatives. If you’re going to bash democracy, then you need to marshal strong arguments. This book doesn’t – indeed, if I were a populist demagogue, I’d be tempted to buy up copies to send to floating voters.