Sunday, January 5, 2014


127. Beneficial imperfection

What do democracy, market and science have in common? They do not achieve grand designs but correct the ones that fail. They are imperfect but redress imperfections: imperfection on the move. 

There is perennial grumbling about the imperfection of democracy, with its bumbling politicians, dilettantism, lack of long-term vision, cacophony of contrary voices, inertia, bureaucracy, decisions as watered-down compromise, and yo-yo policies, undoing under one government what the previous one did. Regularly there is a clamour for a strong, leader, a visionary, and occasionally there is envy of dictatorships or charismatic (Berlusconi) or authoritarian (presently Erdogan in Turkey) leaders, who do show vision and strength, and get things done.

As recognized by Alexis de Tocqueville, the purported weaknesses of democracy are in fact its strengths. The point of democracy is not that it achieves perfection but that it manages to timely weed out imperfections. The presumed strengths of dictatorships are in fact their weaknesses. In the long run, dictatorships lose and democracies win.

Consider Stalin, Hitler, Mao, with their grand designs ultimately collapsing in disaster. Democracies won the wars. After the disasters under Mao, China is now doing well economically, but will it sustain its success without yielding more to democracy?

Markets and science are similar to democracy, in their fundamental logic. They also are correction mechanisms of failures. They also do not achieve grand visions by design but allow for a variety of designs from others (here entrepreneurs, scientists) to arise, and then see to it that the ones that fail are weeded out. That also is the logic of evolution.

In markets it is not (or should not be) governments but entrepreneurs that yield ideas for products. With this, the risks of enterprise are privatized. Those risks would be unacceptable to a political system that is geared to be prudent, i.e. to avoid risks. When entrepreneurs fail they go bankrupt. Failures of grand designs by large firms or governments are hidden for reasons of prestige, and are propped up with subsidies from what does succeed. 

In science, according to Karl Popper’s methodology of falsificationism, scientists exercise their insights and risk their careers with ideas, ferreting out each other’s failures. It is the scientists, not committees or institutions that come up with the occasional successes and the frequent failures.

The point in all three cases, democracy, markets and science, is this. They allow for mistakes but also correct them, evoking criticism, giving voice to failure, and replacing failed visionaries. Dictatorships and economic and scientific planning, by contrast, stifle criticism, hide failure and prop up the failed visionary. As a result, mistakes develop into disasters, while in democracies they are redressed.

Of course, this does not happen automatically. There is a persistent urge to design blueprints, plans and programs top-down. In democracies as well as in markets and science systems, governing elites when given the opportunity will hide mistakes, will silence or divert criticism, seek agreement rather than opposition, collaborate only with collaborators, not critics, building bastions of support. Democracy requires a tenacious maintenance of freedom of speech, a vigilant press, and all the usual institutions of a separation of powers (the judicial, the legislature, and the executive), police monopoly of violence, etc.  Markets require that lobbying by established firms be curtailed. Science requires that open dissemination of publications be maintained. And they all require openness to new entrants.