Yascha Mounk, a fellow at the Transatlantic Academy and lecturer at Harvard University, appeared on the Ezra Klein Show podcast last week, where he discussed how support for democracy has consistently gone down over the last 30 years. Mounk's research finds that Americans are growing increasingly cynical about democracy and liberal institutions. Explicit support for authoritarian alternatives is on the rise.
President Trump was able to exploit this tendency in the last election, as voters opted for a strongman who made bold promises that no president has the ability to keep. But support for Trump's populism is driven by misunderstandings of economic policy and overestimations of what government is actually capable of in the economic realm.
Mounk and his colleague Roberto Stefan Foa have conducted surveys of Americans and Europeans that ask for opinions on scenarios involving military coup d'etats or strong leaders ruling unilaterally without a congress or parliamentary body. They found that support for these positions has consistently risen. Military rule scenarios are supported by one out of every six respondents today, as opposed to one out of 16 back in 1995.
It may sound crass, but ignorance of politics is a widespread phenomena. Most people just don't know much about public policy, particularly about the economy. According to Mounk and Foa, 32 percent of people want a "strong" dictator-like leader who brushes aside Congress and legislative procedures, and 49 percent believe experts should rule.
These desires are fueled by a vulgar form of what economist and political theorist Friedrich Hayek called "rational constructivism" — believing we have the ability to endlessly shape the world around us to achieve our own ends. All that stands between us and a utopian world where problems are easily solved are archaic rules about governance.
These simplistic narratives are particularly present during crises, such as the Great Recession, when governments are expected to do something to fix the problem.
But policy is much more intricate than that, and a healthy economy is not just a matter of smart people getting together and developing a formula for lowering unemployment, providing healthcare to everyone, or protecting against another economic downturn.
In the real world, we face problems of resource scarcity, trade-offs, limited knowledge, and unintended consequences, to name a few. Those constraints differ from country to country.
Sen. Bernie Sanders and many progressives insist that it's time for national healthcare like that of the Scandinavian social democracies — "Medicare for all" as he calls it — but the actual policy situation in Scandinavia is much more complicated. Local counties and municipalities collect the taxes, then pay for the health services. Medicare for all sounds nice, but it's a more complicated answer than simply earmarking more federal money.
Economics can tell us a lot about how the world works, but it doesn't provide us with the tools to will positive social outcomes into being. George Mason University economics professor Peter Boettke has said that "economists are not responsible for the wealth of nations, but they can be responsible for the poverty of nations." In fact, development economist William Easterly shows that experts and their economic development plans often do more harm than good. When asked by South American and European officials what they needed to do to achieve economic development, Nobel Laureate Douglass North responded: "That's simple. All you need is a different history."
Curing social ills is not just a matter of political desire, and having strong leaders does nothing to abate that. With every decision, there is a tradeoff. Raising the minimum wage to help low-income people often results in more unemployment, particularly for low-skilled workers. Similarly, using protectionist tariffs to save domestic jobs will result in higher prices for consumer goods.
Given the general ignorance that most people possess about all things related to policy, it makes sense that demagogic "strong" leaders like Trump will be attractive. But the real world is incredibly messy — strong leaders can't control it anymore than they can control the weather.
Jerrod A. Laber is a non-profit program manager living in Northern Virginia. He is a Young Voices Advocate.
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