More than Compromise

More than Compromise

Richard A. Posner’s Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy

Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy
by Richard A. Posner
Harvard University Press, 2003, 398 pp., $35.00

Nineteenth-century leftists assumed all that was necessary to create a just society was universal suffrage and free schools. An educated electorate, they thought, would understand that the economy should maximize the happiness of all rather than just the wealth of investors. So they would elect candidates who would pass laws that would guarantee fair shares for all citizens and equal opportunities for all children. Social democracy would be the natural consequence of educating the workers and giving them the vote.

If this assumption had proved true, the class struggle in the United States would have been over long ago. Neither Calvin Coolidge nor George W. Bush would have been elected. But it has been proved false. The poor in the United States can not be persuaded to vote their interests-or even to vote-except at moments of extreme crisis such as the Great Depression. When they do vote, it is often merely to display their ignorance.

Many leftist intellectuals still hope that educating the masses, or educating them to a higher level, will eventually make the United States into the “participatory” or “deliberative” democracy of John Dewey’s dreams-a country most of whose citizens spend time discussing the merits of alternative economic and social policies and then use their votes to back up their decisions. Intellectuals of this sort usually believe that the more the masses deliberate, the more appealing they will find social democracy.

But these same intellectuals are bewildered by the fact that millions of voters who have to scrimp to put meat on the table seem quite prepared to reelect a president who is doing his best to redistribute wealth and income from the poor to the rich. The success the Republican Party has had at inculcating the idea that “big government” is stealing taxpayers’ money rather than providing a needed social safety net makes it hard to believe that educating the masses has made them more responsible citizens, much less voters sympathetic to leftist ideas. Universal literacy, and additional years spent in school, did not have the results that our leftist predecessors foresaw, and it looks as if they never will.

Richard A. Posner, a federal appellate judge who is one of the most admired figures in the American legal system, thinks we should face this fact. We should put aside the illusion that the American public will gradually become better informed and wiser. He asks us to recognize that modern democratic governments, including our own, are better described as what Alan Ryan has called “elective aristocracies” than as examples of popular rule. We should take note of the tautologous but depressing fact that half the populatio...