OUR UNPROTECTED DEMOCRACIES

Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in the French presidential election suffered a massive hacking intrusion days before the final vote, probably of Russian inspiration. It turned out to be of no consequence but nevertheless goes to show that democratic procedures are vulnerable to manipulation from outside. In the American presidential election, the Democratic campaign suffered similar intrusions, which there may have had some influence on the outcome.

A democratic polity is like a market economy: it only works if certain conditions are satisfied. A market economy only works, for example to generate fair prices, if there is effective competition. If one or a few dominant actors are in a position to rig prices, consumers end up paying more than they should and monopolies earning more than they deserve.

As a market economy depends on effective competition, a democratic polity depends on effective elections. Only if elections are free and fair will they generate outcomes that are representative of the balance of opinions in the population. If one or a few dominant actors have decisively more influence than other citizens or groups, the will be like market monopolists. They may rig election outcomes in the way market monopolists rig prices.

Since Adam Smith, economic theory has recognised the distorting influence of monopolies. It is therefore standard economic doctrine that markets need regulatory protection against monopolistic influence. It is also standard economic policy in most countries to exercise such regulatory protection (more or less efficiently, no doubt).

But political theory is less clear about the vulnerability of democratic procedures and their need for regulatory protection. Rather, in most democracies, the polity is wide open to being manipulated.

Hacking, such as that of Russian inspiration, is a primitive form of interference, and probably does not represent much of a danger, at least now that we are aware of the menace.

Another form of primitive interference is in outright cheating, such as to rig the count of votes or to destroy unwanted ballots. This happens, but is now not the rule in at least reasonably mature democracies.

The more sophisticated, and democratically dangerous, rigging is that which occurs during the process up to and before election day. Elections are free if no one interferes with the casting and counting of votes and fair if the process up to election day has been unrigged. It is here, in the process, that democracies are particularly in risk of monopolistic distortions.

Such distortions occur when information or nominations are manipulated. If one side is able to dominate the information that flows through the campaign, that side may secure itself an advantage over others come election day. If organised interests are able to more or less control nominations, they may win the election before anyone even casts a vote.

The one resource above others that may enable self-selected groups to attain monopolistic political influence, is money. There are other influences that come to bear but the infusion of private money into democratic procedures is the main culprit.

It is money that may enable determined organised interests to manipulate the flow of political information. With modern IT tools – big data analysis, orchestrated use of social media – the scope is enormous for systematic information manipulation, provided enough money is available to put in efforts on a serious scale.

It is money that may enable organised interests to manipulate nominations in their favour, again provided serious money is available. Here, the American case is the horror show. In a system of mega-expensive politics and non-stop campaigning, candidates for elected office are dependent on raising private money, whereby the givers of money have won control over nominations. If there is no hope of winning without private money, candidates whom the givers of money will not invest in need not try.

We know that democratic procedures need some regulatory protection. Well functioning democracies invest enormously in protecting the integrity of the vote. But we do not in a similar way protect the integrity of pre-voting procedures. We allow private money to transgress pretty freely into the domain of politics. (“Transgression” is the term coined by the economist Arthur Okun for money flowing from markets, where it has a job to do, to politics, where it is an alien influence.) That money WILL distort information and nominations because that is the purpose of the investment.

It is urgent to give democracies regulatory protection against the monopolistic influence of dark money. In his final State of the Union Address, then President Barack Obama called on his fellow Americans that “we fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.” That’s strong language from a president, but he was right (and it was he who coined the term “dark money”). With the overpowering influence of money, as now in the American system, Obama explained, representatives are “trapped” and not free to make policies for the public good. And further: “We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections … and democracy brakes down.”

America is an extreme case but it would be a mistake to think that other democracies are clean. British democracy, for example, is shot through with the corrupting influence of private money. The need for regulatory protection is universal in the democratic world.

That the need for such protection of democratic procedures is poorly understood is in evidence in the American Supreme Court. This Court has fallen under the spell of a bizarre theory according to which the giving of money to political cause is a form of expression of opinion and therefore protected by the freedom of speech clause in the Constitution’s 1st Amendment. It has accordingly chipped away at such regulatory protections as existed in the American system. The Court the purpose of which is to protect American democracy is instead, by entirely convoluted logic, presiding over its erosion. It is also giving ideological coverage for practices of transgression elsewhere.

So there is a theoretical battle here, which should be waged primarily against the American Supreme Court, and there is a practical battle of regulatory policies, which should be waged everywhere.

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