Little More Than A Diagnosis: A Review of ‘The Last Vote: The Threats to Western Democracy’

Winston Churchill famously said, Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” This could also be the summary of Philip Coggan’s new book The Last Vote: The Threats to Western Democracy. The title is as ominous as the argument: Today’s democracies are beset by problems, mostly of their own making. We take our democratic governments for granted, but history teaches that regimes which have stood for centuries can sometimes collapse very rapidly. This book is intended as a “wake up call” for citizens to strive harder for reform.

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Coggan worked at the Financial Times for over twenty years and now writes the Buttonwood Column for The Economist, where he provides a rare voice for free-market ideas amidst mostly formulaic left-of-center articles. So when I heard about this book, I was interested to hear Coggan express his own views at length.

The Last Vote is a mixed bag. Coggan devotes ten chapters to cataloging the problems of modern democracy and two chapters to discussing how to solve them. Some chapters are original and compelling, but others, unfortunately, tend toward the cliché.

For most of the book, Coggan is refreshingly level-headed about the concept of voting. He acknowledges how pointless voting can be, writing “it is, in some senses, a mystery that people bother to vote at all” (p. 40). He says that good institutions can do far more to safeguard a citizen’s freedom than the right to vote. An expansion of suffrage in any democracy is always accompanied by an increase in government spending levels. Politicians spend more public money to try to win new votes. Coggan even points out that there can be upsides to nondemocratic government:

“In ancient times, if a man paid his taxes and did not rebel or conspire against the government, he would probably be left alone by the ruling powers. In modern times, individuals are subject to a whole range of laws that are designed to constrain their behavior—from the requirement to wear a seat belt when driving to the ban on smoking public places” (p. 27).

But then in the very last chapter, he becomes a cheerleader for voting, exhorting us to “act as if each vote might be our last” (p. 266). This is intended to be inspiring, but seems disingenuous in light of his earlier statements.

As might be expected from a financial journalist, Coggan is most comfortable describing taxes and monetary and fiscal policy. He does a good job taking sophisticated concepts and making them intelligible for the lay reader. He explains that since World War II, western politicians have believed that “the economy could be driven like a car” (p. 88) and this has caused a host of problems.

For instance, during the recent economic crisis, central bank governors in the US and Europe have “pursued a radical and as yet unproven monetary policy” (p. 193) without any kind of democratic mandate. The European Central Bank has committed EU taxpayers to underwriting massive bailouts without seeking their consent. Coggan says that this threatens democracy, but he doesn’t really have any suggestion for what to do about it. He writes, “A government that sacked its central bank governor or closed down the bank altogether would lose the confidence of the markets” (p. 228). So, apparently, central banks are free to keep doing as they like.

The most interesting section of The Last Vote is probably chapter 5, in which Coggan details the huge distortions in the market that result from lobbying. “There is a big incentive for a lobby group such as farmers or steel producers to get a subsidy, or special tax break, from the government,” he writes. “Each of its members will get a sizeable benefit. The cost, though, will be spread among millions of taxpayers, so then it will appear quite small” (p. 110). He also frankly discusses public-sector pensions which are currently being hidden from government balance sheets, but which will become a huge burden on the next generation.

Social welfare programs, once established, are almost impossible to abolish. Coggan points out that even Margaret Thatcher was not able to shrink government very much. Public-sector spending was higher in real terms when she left office in 1990 than when she became Prime Minister in 1979.

In chapter 7, however, Coggan strays into typical left-wing elitist platitudes when he argues that today’s dispersed media is a threat to democracy. He says niche media outlets promote “groupthink” and “confirmation bias.” He yearns for the days when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. He attributes the decline of the mainstream media to journalists’ “regarding themselves as the unofficial opposition of the government of the day” (p. 147). If only that were true. People got fed up with the mainstream media because it is part of the same ruling elite as government officials and bankers. Coggan himself is part of that elite.

At the end of his book, he proposes a number of ways to protect democracy. These include online petitions to force government debates on certain topics (and making legislators’ attendance mandatory lest voters get the idea their elected representatives don’t care) and creating jobs via projects like insulating homes. Interestingly, the latter was recently tried by Britain’s government via something called the Green Deal, which failed spectacularly.

To Coggan, though, the best way to safeguard democracy is to limit campaign donations — a policy he deems so important as to recommend that Americans consider amending the Constitution to make it happen. He doesn’t realize that campaign donations are a symptom, not a cause. Due to government’s reach into all areas of life, campaign donations can determine whether a business makes a profit or goes bankrupt. Given these incentives, passing laws is like playing wackamole. Businesses and lobbyists will find new ways to make donations as each new restriction is added.

The Last Vote has many insights into the threats to democracy, but offers no real solutions. If “vote like it’s your last time” is Coggan’s best advice for fixing our problems, we may be in real trouble.

Emma Elliot Freire is an American writer based in England. Flag image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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