The anti-democratic tenor of the criticism of Australian policy is troubling

In prior posts, I argued that Australia’s covid policy can be criticized, but that it cannot simply be dismissed on the grounds that it is “authoritarian”.  Here I will argue that some criticism of Australian covid policy has a distinct and troubling anti-democracy flavor to it.

Tyler Cowen argues that Australia should be investing in rapid testing and pushing harder on vaccines and treatments.  Fair enough, especially on vaccines.  But then he continues (my bold):

If Australia implemented all of those policies, or even just one of them, they could attain a much better “liberty vs. lives” frontier, no matter where you think the government should end up on that frontier.  They could save lives, and enjoy more liberty.  [EK – I agree.]

And that is the great shame and indeed I would say crime.  There seems to be an incredible complacency that people in some parts of the country will put up with the current measures and not demand the government look for more practical measures to boost both liberty and security.  [EK – Yes, ordinary voters have not pushed for rapid testing.  Nor did they push for advance market commitments for vaccine development, or even for an all-hands-on-deck approach to deployment of vaccines.  In a perfect world, they would have.]

So when you write me and suggest “this is democratic and the people approve,” yes that is exactly the problem.

Alex Tabarrok makes a similar remark:

Australians largely support the restrictions but to me that makes them all the more disturbing.

The fact that policy is responsive to public opinion is a feature of democracy, not a bug.  Of course, democracies often adopt policies that are harmful, unfair, even malicious, and sometimes they do this because of public pressure.  When this happens, we have good reason to criticize the specific policies involved, and perhaps to recommend specific democratic reforms that might lead to better outcomes in the future (e.g., in the United States, we might suggest multi-member congressional districts with rank order voting).  In some circumstances we may be justified in disobeying the law.  But Cowen and Tabarrok are simply complaining about the fact that democracies respond to public opinion, and that voters are not demanding policies that highly educated economists support. 

I understand that this is frustrating to economists – of course it is!  But criticizing democracy in this unfocused way is pointless at best because it does not propose a constructive alternative and choice is always comparative.  At worst, it undermines support for democratic institutions and incumbent politicians and gives fodder to would-be authoritarians.  It is difficult to see what Cowen and Tabarrok hope to accomplish by criticizing democracy in this broad, indiscriminate fashion.

Finally, I note that Cowen and Tabarrok are not extreme libertarians.  (It is difficult to say what exactly their views are, but they certainly do not insist on a minimal state.  Tabarrok’s policy work on Covid – which I think has been tremendous – is pure utilitarianism, without even a hint of libertarianism in it.)  You can find much more extreme anti-democratic sentiment in the writings of libertarian purists.

To be continued . . .