A democracy should abhor inequality. Through voting, the impoverished masses should have near absolute control over the rules of the economy. They should control the redistribution of wealth, the rules of trade, health care, labor etc. But while democracies have produced many of the most egalitarian economies in history, their record is far from perfect. And it often appears that this theoretical hegemony of the poor is just an illusion, or worse, non-existent. When this occurs, however, we know that we have, by definition, a problem with democracy, and our mission at CRI is to address this problem at its root.
The notion that inequality should be at least partially self-correcting in a democracy has a long pedigree in economic theory. In the canonical model of Meltzer and Richard, increased inequality leads the median voter to demand more redistribution.– Bonica, McCarty, Poole & Rosenthal 2013
Ironically, however, when wealth inequality shoots up and destabilizes (as it has over the past fifty years in the United States) the media turns almost exclusively to economists for answers. It is a bit like calling in a tailor to solve a problem with obesity. Sure, a good suit may make the patient look and feel better, but it doesn't address the underlying problem. Democratic governments, through voting, have provided the only occasional check on the accumulation of power in history. And government, not an invisible hand, defines the rules of the economy. And so, while inequality might appear to be a problem of a broken economy, it is more accurately a problem of a broken democracy.
In theory, democracy is a bulwark against socially harmful policies, but in practice it gives them a safe harbor.– Caplan 2006 Paradox of Democracy
And so, by reaching out to economists to fix a problem with democracy, we get tragic results. And this is a problem of perception. To many, the economy seems flexible and dynamic while government appears haggard and sclerotic. Indeed, the sentiment is that, in general, democracies are pretty much the same. And therefore, if a democracy is failing in Egypt, one could conclude that we have to question not just what is wrong with Egypt, but democracy in general.
This is where we take issue.
Not only do democracies differ, but they differ enormously. Even in the United States the dynamic nature of democracy is vast. Each city, town and state defines its own democratic rules which vary dramatically between each other and change (often drastically) over time. And tiny tweaks in the institutional nature of a democracy can, and often do, have massive repercussions. The introduction of the secret ballot, republicanism, referendums, separation of powers, federalism, the rule of law, universal suffrage, have all had enormous effects. But even on a micro level, things like committee structure, cloture votes, super majorities, special rules, suspended rules, judicial review etc., all have the potential to dramatically alter economy and the daily experience of the lay person.
The principal difficulty lies, and the greatest care should be employed in constituting this Representative Assembly. It should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.– John Adams 1776
Our motivating theme is that all representation should be representative. This single notion is the core value of all our work, whether we are investigating a democracy in a developing country or the US Congress. This may sound trite but it is not. A simple glance at a recent picture of the US Senate, suggests that all representation is not representative at all, and does not jive with Adam's notion of a 'portrait of the people.' Further, the extreme wealth of the members of parliament in the vast majority of the democracies in developing countries is also a salient and profound problem. As a result we focus on ideas of representative ratios, Senate misrepresentation and legislative transparency. In each of these cases we propose tweaks in the institutional design of all legislatures which would dramatically improve democratic outcomes and produce a government more able to respond to the needs of the people.
Congress can and should reflect the will of the people. Our research (conducted at the Harvard Kennedy School) strives to achieve this goal.