A question for critics of democracy

There’s a certain type of person that doesn’t trust democracy. On the left, there’s a perception that difficult issues must be left to the experts. On the right, a fear that “the mob” will try to extract wealth from the rich. These people have trouble explaining Switzerland, by far the most democratic country on Earth.

So here’a a question for all you right wing democracy skeptics. Chicago recently voted on a referendum to create a “mansion tax” on sales of real estate valued at $1,000,000 or more. How would you expect the vote to have gone? Here are a few helpful facts:

1. The median home price in Chicago is $359,900
2. Chicago has a very large population of renters, often living in low income black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Many live in public housing.
3. The recently elected mayor supported the proposal.
4. If it fails, alternative taxes or benefit cuts will be required.

Given those facts, how would voters have responded to this referendum question? Is this what you expected?

Chicago voters rejected Mayor Brandon Johnson’s plan to increase taxes on real estate transactions of $1 million or more, dealing a blow to the first-term Democrat’s progressive agenda.

About 53% of voters opposed the referendum, according to the Chicago Board of Elections. The measure would have allowed the city council to increase transfer levies on upmarket residential and commercial property sales.

I suspect that low income Chicagoans understand that if all the rich move to Florida it will make Chicago look like Detroit, and that won’t be to their benefit.

PS. You might wonder how I knew immediately after the 2020 election that Trump would be back in 2024. It wasn’t hard to figure out that after 4 years of Biden, America’s voters would be in a very conservative mood. Even San Francisco voters are shifting to the right. The pendulum effect.



21 Responses to “A question for critics of democracy”

  1. Gravatar of steve steve
    29. March 2024 at 10:13

    I would broaden that to 4 or 8 years of any Democrat. We always pendulum back and forth. Usually when a POTUS wins a 2nd term, the norm, you see stuff about how that party has a new, unassailable majority and will rule forever, only to lose the next election. In this case there is a natural pendulum plus he is old. Would note that the abortion issue is going to confound this.


  2. Gravatar of Eharding Eharding
    29. March 2024 at 14:40

    “These people have trouble explaining Switzerland, by far the most democratic country on Earth.”

    The average IQ in Switzerland is pretty high by global standards.

    “I suspect that low income Chicagoans”

    The figure was 53% of voters, not 53% of low income voters.

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. March 2024 at 15:21

    “The average IQ in Switzerland is pretty high by global standards.”

    Nothing all that unusual, it averages right at 100:


    And the vast majority of Chicagoans have no home, or a home worth far less than a million. So in terms of this ballot question, the vast majority are “low income”. Right-wing critics of democracy cannot explain this vote.

  4. Gravatar of BC BC
    29. March 2024 at 21:33

    How did you know that Republicans would re-nominate Trump, even after Jan. 6, over other Republicans, even Republicans like Nikki Haley, who had a much larger lead over Biden in head-to-head polls?

  5. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. March 2024 at 21:40

    BC, How could the GOP not nominate Trump? The GOP is nothing more than a Trump personality cult. There is no alternative to Trump. He could murder someone in the midst of Times Square and he still wouldn’t lose any significant support. If that seems like hyperbole, recall that Jan. 6th was far worse than murder, it was an attempted coup.

    You can no longer look at American politics from a rational perspective—we are a banana republic, not a serious country. We are the Philippines, not Denmark.

  6. Gravatar of Tsergo Ri Tsergo Ri
    30. March 2024 at 02:07

    However, most democracies seem intent on taxing the youth to support middleclass lifestyle for the last 20 years of the old voters. Even the Swiss voted to increase pension recently. Germans are increasing the payroll taxes as well.

    So I think your point holds only for old Chicagoans. I think they understand that it yould not be to their best interest if rich people fled Chicago.

  7. Gravatar of Sara Sara
    30. March 2024 at 02:42

    Both your premises are wrong.
    Conservatives doesn’t hate democracy.
    liberals doesn’t believe in ‘trusted experts’.

    You don’t understand the difference between left and right, so let’s go back to the beginning. I’ll make it as brief as possible.

    The liberals originated during the enlightenment. The liberals more or less started with the rationalists, but for simplicity we can trace it back to the empericist John Locke, and his two treatises of government, which laid down a moral framework for why there ought to be limits upon the state. He was one of the first intellectuals to promulgate the idea that universality was rooted in the state of nature.

    Kant came along, and said that universality wasn’t rooted in the state of nature, but rather in a noumenal realm, derived by pure reason. His idea was that certain fundamental precepts exist separate from our sensory perception; they cannot be violated by a legislature, or an apparatchik, or a so-called “expert”. They are immutable, intrinsic to nature, existing within a realm where we can ascertain it’s existence through pure reason. Hence, the name of his book.

    Liberalism sought an objective truth. It did not discard the individual. It did not place people into groups. Both Locke and Kant were the leading intellectuals of 17th and 18th century. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the declaration of independence, he had Locke in mind. He had Kant in mind. He was not thinking of Hume or Hobbes.

    The conservatives, on the other hand, can be traced to Hobbes. In fact, you can go all the way back to Plato’s philospher kings, but again, for simplicity, let’s just stick with Hobbes. Hobbes was the first to propose positivism. It’s the idea that experts run the show, and as long as those experts “whether kings, queens, tyrannical judges or haughty academics” don’t actually kill you with their legislation and rulings, then it’s still moral and just because it’s better than the alternative: i.e, the state of nature, which he said was “nasty, brutish and short.” (or so he believed).

    Let’s digress for a moment and mention Burke. There are poorly educated academics who write books calling him a conservative because he and Paine had an debate about the french revolution. They are totally wrong. Burke was also a liberal. Like Blackstone, and because he had political experience, he simply understood that progress comes slowly, methodically, that’s rooted in the common law and universality, and that if you destroy culture and tradition, and upend a society in the mold of Paine (french revolution) it’s more likely than not that society will descend into tryanny. The reason for this is because experience, through thousands of years of collective knowledge, passed down through generations, is the best way for humanity to to understand its failures and successes, creating a roadmap for the future.

    The federalist papers were the apex of the enlightenment, in the sense that it combined all of our knowledge and experience, and sought to create a limited form of government, a republic, which rests upon Lockean and Kantian ethics under the assumption that this form of government would be best capable of protecting individual loiberty from both the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny of the few. The fedearl government had one job: to protect the inalienable.

    The conservative party is weird, because it started with Lincoln. And lincoln didn’t really have a coherent philosophy. Lincoln was a liberal, however, and all conservatives at that time were liberals.

    The key to the transformation was the worker party movements.
    During the same decade, you had two movements that formed in Europe. Both of which challenged the classical liberal view. One of those movements sided with Marx. The other movement sided with Bakunin. Bakunin wanted anarcho syndicalism. He praised the founders of the U.S. constitution and their effort to create limited government. He was, however, anti-capitalist and skeptical of limited governments remaining limited. Lockes moral argument for private property was rejected. He wanted workers to have a right to determine policy at the work place. in essence, he wanted to democratize communities, remove government from the equation, and turn these communities into cooperatives where wealth and status was shared. Marx, on the other hand, wanted a centralized actor to control the means of production.

    Over the next 50 years, Bakunin and his faction lost.

    Now the republican party and the democrat party in America, during the victorian era, condemned Marx and Bakunin. They were both pro capitalist and pro liberal. However, the democrat party soon became known as the party that supported the working class, because they supported unions. They were worried about the balance of power that big companies had, particularly during the Rockefeller era. In other words, they were worried workers couldn’t bargain. They took an interventions approach to markets, rejecting the neoclassical or austrian view.

    After world war one, the democrat party became more tyrannical. The introduction of the federal income tax gave the federal government more power. They began to use that power to bludgeon states. They centralized poverty programs, health programs, began to give subsidies, etc.

    Then, FDR, a socialist, moved the left in a pretty dark direction. By the 1930’s, the democrats were no longer liberals. They were socialist.

    After world war 2, both parties moved away from liberalism on the internatioanl front; they sought interventionism, supranationals, and global policy, often times through coercion and force.

    Shortly therafter, during the counter cultural revolution in the 60’s, the republican party adoped FDR’s big government programs. Despite the fact that the numbers didn’t add up, you could not win an election by reason. The people wanted the money promised to them by FDR, and so they adopted the ponzi scheme out of necessity. They ceased being a liberal party.

    Many Americans appalled that neither party was a liberal party. As such the libertarian party carried on the tradition of the classical liberals. It’s main proponents were Isabel Patterson (the god of the machine), Ayn Rand, Garett Garrett and Rose Wilder Lane. Hayek emerged onto the scene later.

    All five failed in their objective. But they represented the classical liberals. They recognized that both the democrats and the conservatives were not liberal. Both parties had gone astray.

    In summary, the MAGA movement, which was borne out of the Tea party, is an effort to restore the vision of the framers. It’s a liberty movement.

    The democrat party today represents Hobbes and his positivism.

    The republican party is still a bit bizarre. It’s more liberal than the democrat party, but it has neo-con nasties like Cheney, McCain, and the Bushes who more or less represent Hobbes’s vision. These are not liberals.

    Even more bizarre, are people like Sumner who don’t know what a liberal is. He actually believes that MAGA is anti-liberal, when MAGA is the leader of the liberal Renaissance in America. But that’s because Sumner believes, oddly, that Liberals like the centralization of power and “trusted experts”. No, they don’t. The revolution was fought against “trusted experts”. It was hobbest, no locke, that supported “Trusted experts”.

    Sumner calls himself a libertarian. He’s not a libertarian either. People like Sumner say that because it’s fashionable in academy. But he doesn’t really know what it means. Democrats hijacked the word liberal. And now people like Scott are hijacking the word libertarian.

    Libertarians or liberals, believed in the austrian school, or as Friedman called them, the neoclassical school. Libertarians believe in universality. They followed Rand, Lane, Patterson and Hayek. Thomas Jefferson would be a libertarian. Andrew Jackson, the very founder of the democrat party, would align with the libertarians today. Because they were liberal.

    It’s important to read. It’s important to understand history. Otherwise, you cannot make an informed decision.

  8. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. March 2024 at 08:34

    Tsergo, But doesn’t Switzerland have lower taxes than other European countries? Why is that? Perhaps because people don’t like taxes, while politicians do?

    Sara, Such a long comment!

  9. Gravatar of ChicagoThrowaway ChicagoThrowaway
    30. March 2024 at 12:38

    As someone who lives in Chicago

    The mayor has been an absolute disaster, even by Chicago standards. Just complete and total incompetence, unable to handle any situations, disastrous press conferences getting into fights with the media, you name it.

    So outside of some die-hard supporters in the teachers union he is already widely reviled. That’s likely the main reason the proposal failed.

    However, his failure (along with the worsening crime problems resulting from lax criminal prosecution by State Attourney Kim Foxx, has certainly contributed to a growing discontent with the aggressive left wing ideology that the mayor espouses.

    I say this as someone who is pretty left wing myself.

  10. Gravatar of Ricardo Ricardo
    30. March 2024 at 13:02

    The rolling stone wrote an article recently about Gab’s new AI chatbot. They called it “Hard-right” because Gab supports free speech without restriction.

    In fact, the absurd title of the piece was “Nazi AI”.

    It begs the question: if free speech is hard-right, then what is liberalism?

    Sara lost me with the grammar at the top of her rebuttal. But she’s mostly right. The democrats are reactionary.

  11. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    30. March 2024 at 14:00

    I agree with your premise that democracy confounds its critics. Where democracy, at least here in the US, seems to get itself into trouble is with entitlements. We all know entitlements are bankrupting us but we’re not doing anything about it. The theory I’m working from is that kids can’t vote, people in their twenties barely vote( https://www.census.gov/library/visualizations/2017/comm/voting-rates-age.html), so we older people just fob our debts off on to them. That doesn’t jibe with the theme of this blog post.
    At the same time, to stick with your Swiss focus, Switzerland is more elderly heavy than us but has a better debt to gdp ratio than we do. Since they’re more democratic than us, that argues against my theory. And Switzerland, at least according to this article, https://lenews.ch/2023/10/21/swiss-elections-why-the-young-are-less-likely-to-vote/, has much lower voter turnouts among the younger voters (and, of course, zero voting rates among children.)

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    31. March 2024 at 08:40

    ChicagoThrowaway, Good comment–I agree.

    Carl, I don’t see any connection between democracy and entitlements. They also exist in non-democratic countries.

  13. Gravatar of Sean Sean
    31. March 2024 at 10:04

    I think the right has moved past fear of the mob for anti-Democracy. Most of the monarch’s probably think a monarch has better incentive structure (internalizes deadweight losses) along with some concerns that you can’t get anything done in a Democracy because power is to diffuse which sort of connects to internalizing deadweight loss.

  14. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    31. March 2024 at 18:01

    I don’t think I made my point clearly. Your post highlighted an instance when Chicagoans voted with some awareness of the long term economic consequences of their votes. I don’t see similar economic awareness of voters in federal elections of the consequences of continuing to vote for people who say they will not touch entitlements even though our entitlements are set to bankrupt us.

  15. Gravatar of Jim Glass Jim Glass
    31. March 2024 at 18:49

    Is this what you expected?
    Let’s see. The vote turnout was 23%. Who were those 23%? Well, we know the well off always vote at a higher rate than the poor, and parties with skin-to-lose in a vote always turn out at higher rate than those not affected by it. Those with the skin-to-lose here were the well off enough to own a property — or hope sometime in the future to own a property — that might get hit by the tax. So I’d guess the 23% was significantly weighted towards them, and the poor as usual didn’t care and weighted up the 77% who didn’t vote. (Just as per national data. So, yeah, the outcome is around what I’d expect.

    I suspect that low income Chicagoans understand that if all the rich move to Florida it will make Chicago look like Detroit, and that won’t be to their benefit.
    Wow, you sure don’t put much cred into “rational ignorance”. You think the poor in Chicago believe protecting the rich is good for them, on the double speculation that Chicagoans might move to Florida and then in an unknown future Chicago might become Detroit? That’s some counter-intuitive deep econ foresight. Have they figured out yet that ‘price gouging’ is good for them?

  16. Gravatar of Jeff Jeff
    31. March 2024 at 20:34

    Another explanation is that people by and large actually do care about having tax systems that are fair and non-arbitrary. Perhaps the idea that voters are blindly obsessed with resentment and a desire to soak the rich is simply a right wing fantasy. People know that a tax tied only to specific, optional events (like asset transfers) is inefficient and can of course be easily gamed. How many would vote for a supplemental tax on high income earners but which is levied only when they change jobs? I doubt it would be very popular even among leftists.

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    31. March 2024 at 21:43

    Carl, If you are saying that democracies often make bad decisions, I obviously agree. If you are saying that democracies make worse decisions than autocracies, then I obviously disagree.

    I was addressing the specific fear that the poor would try to expropriate wealth from the rich, which didn’t happen in this case.

    You see other commenters explain it away as if they expected this result. That’s great, if we all now agree that the poor won’t expropriate wealth from the rich in a democracy. QED.

  18. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    1. April 2024 at 10:14

    I agree that democracies make better decisions than autocracies. And, I’m not so worried about the working poor expropriating wealth from the rich. What we don’t seem willing or able to address, at least here in the US, is the elderly expropriating wealth from the next generations which is what our entitlement systems are doing.

  19. Gravatar of viennacapitalist viennacapitalist
    2. April 2024 at 00:24

    I think you are misrepresenting the view of the critics somewhat.
    Historically, critics of democracy have pointed to the danger of the democratic process beeing coopted by organised minorities, i.e. lobby groups big business and the like. After all, the ordinary voter doesn’t have the time and ressources to sit in endless meetings and go through the details of every house bill. The German Ordoliberals even explicitly state that one purpose of the state is to prevent such influence from distorting the market.
    Switzerland is somewhat immune to that as it has very strong direct democratic elements (Austria has it too, but with much larger hurdle which parties called “populist” are constantly trying to bring down) which other countries lack.
    It is evident that say the US and France, etc. are a diffent democratic animal than Switzerland.

    Modern critics of democracy, of course, point to Liechtenstein, a monarchy located between Switzerland and Austria and even more successful than Switzerland.

  20. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. April 2024 at 19:02

    Viennacapitalist, That’s my point. The more democratic countries are more effective than the less democratic countries (where special interest groups have relatively more power.) In the completely undemocratic countries, it’s all special interest politics.

  21. Gravatar of viennacapitalist viennacapitalist
    5. April 2024 at 01:02

    not sure it is correct to classify Lichtenstein, the UAE, Singapore, or the Kremlin for that matter beeing run by special interest politics.

    They are run by a elite, yes, but you need voters to have special interest politics.
    In other words: whereas elites exist in any complex society, special interest groups are democratic phenomena – less democratic countries therefore cannot be run by special interest groups (as commonly understood)

    Here is a useful definition:…a special interest group is any organization that takes action on behalf of an identifiable group of voters…”

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