Thursday, November 02, 2006

Democomplexity and Elections -- How Sexy Are We?

Complexity in the Field
By J.B. Ruhl

Jim Chen's recent posts, coming as they do on the brink of what could turn out to be an unusually interesting election nationally and for many states, reminded me of a law review article Glenn Reynolds wrote long ago (before Instapundit) called Is Democracy Like Sex? (48 Vanderbilt Law Review 1635). His basic thesis was that, like sexual reproduction, democracy serves the function of shuffling decision makers (the genes of governance) and thereby increasing society's resistance to the governance equivalent of biological parasites--special interests. His corollary thesis, however, was that this effect depends on an enhancing the institutions of representative democracy, not on providing more opportunities for direct popular decisionmaking. From there he argued that the anti-parasitic effect of electoral turnover has been suppressed by the growth of federal power, which I took him to mean the growth of the federal administrative state, because it is (a) easier to lobby just one rather than 50 governments, and (b) the administrative state tends to persist through electoral turnover.

Of course, Reynolds was using sex as a metaphor, but in fact the underlying properties, in my view, are of complex adaptive systems and do map fairly well with sexual reproduction because, after all, sexual reproduction involves complex adaptive system properties too. So it should be no surprise that maintaining a governance system that sustains a healty turnover of decision makers against a relatively stable institutional background is a pretty good recipe for governance resilience and fitness.

This leads to some interesting questions. Many people, for example, are banking on some serious "shuffling" in Congress November 7th, but what difference do they expect it will make? Has the administrative state, particularly as the growth of the Unitary Executive theory of presidential power seems increasingly to be coming into application, sucked the anti-parasitic effect out of representative democracy? Will "more cooperation," as Jim suggests in his posts, give us more resilience, or in fact is a little more tension needed? Do term limits promote the anti-parsasitic effects of representative democracy, or do they interfere with the natural shuffling process? Etc. Jim and Glenn, any thoughts?

Perhaps the question to ask November 7th is, just how sexy is the American electorate?


Blogger Elizabeth Weeks said...

I'm not sure that I buy Reynolds's basic thesis that the "randomness" of democratic systems reduces interest group parasitism. If anything, it seems that interest groups are non-partisan, equal-opportunists. True, they may have start-up costs after each election as they have to form or reform alliances and relationships with the new party in power. But that just seems to give them additional prey on both rather than just one side of the aisle. And once their well-oiled lobbying factory is in place, it doesn't seem like much of a barrier to switch from one side to the other. Think of it as the producer's substitionability in antitrust analysis: It seems that the same basic, raw materials that generate favors from the Right can readily be retooled to produce favors from the Left. (Recall Posner's analysis in Marshfield Clinic regarding an alleged monopoly in health care financing and the seller's substitutionability of an HMO-model health plan to a PPO-plan, using the same basic raw materials, i.e., doctors and money).

For example, the Pharma lobby was a huge factor in the last elections and the driver behind Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit. If Pelosi becomes Speaker and amends the key parasitic, rent-seeking provision of the Part D statute to allow the government to bargain with pharmaceutical companies for drug prices, thereby diminishing the drug companies' Part D profits, won't the Pharma lobby simply line up outside of her office, instead of Rick Santorum's?

11/02/2006 4:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

elizabeth --

The non-partisan nature of interest groups has just recently been under heavy attack. Conservative interest groups rarely support Democrats, but Liberal interest groups support whoever servers their interests. DailyKos and other party activists have tried to get these groups to support the party at any cost. These groups took heavy criticism for supporting a party which may not represent their interests (Chafee and The Sierra Club/HRC/NARAL or Shays and League of Conservation Voters).

The real question is how activist demands for party loyalty in the interest groups will conflict with an activist push for an "anyone-who'll-win" strategy (supporting Casey, Nelson, Webb).

Maybe the push to make left-leaning interest groups partisan will end once the Dems gain power...

11/02/2006 6:37 PM  
Blogger J.B. Ruhl said...

Well, it seems to me the point Elizabeth makes is the one Glenn was making--i.e., interest groups prefer a strong federal government b/c it allows them to appear non-partisan, to play both sides of the aisle, b/c there is just one big aisle and hungry politicians on both sides.

In any event, as to whether interest groups are increasingly non-partisan, I'd have to side with Elizabeth in favor of Chris. My experience in environmental law and particularly agriculture is that industry and the mainstream enviro groups are comfy playing ball with whichever party is in Congress and the White House, and agriculture...well, they're used to running their show. Some days I can't tell what the difference is between "left" and "right" interest groups just by listening to them.

11/02/2006 9:21 PM  

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