Newspaper headlines in democracies read like horror shows. There is always some sort of crisis. Please allow me to be the bearer of more bad news: democracy has always been this bad and it will continue to be as long as it exists. If you love the individual freedom and liberty which the democracy clown show provides and you want to keep it, then it all depends on how you make choices. Which choices? Well, all of them. But, in short, buyer beware.
You see, democracy is like sausage. Everyone loves the end product, but nobody wants to know how it’s made. If you are not familiar with how pork sausage links are traditionally made, let’s summarise: the pig is cut into small pieces, forced through a grinder, spiced, and then stuffed back into the submucosa of the pig’s intestinal lining. Once cooked, they’re delicious. So delicious, in fact, that one of the first meat substitute products (before the burger) to see market success in America was in the 1970s: Morningstar Farms Breakfast Links. (The process for making vegan sausages is equally disgusting, in my opinion.)
One of the biggest threats to democracy today is that people are grossed out from constantly watching how democracy is made on social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Worse, the democracy sausage is now made in our personal lives, as kids watch their ageing parents grind up politics in group texts, spice it with some Russian propaganda memes, and then force it down the gastric networks of Facebook only to see it spit back at them by a distant cousin they haven’t seen in ten years.
Don’t get me wrong. The end product, democracy, is still appreciated and delicious. But like a sausage, we are beginning to realize how unhealthy the way we consume it is. Democracy is gross, but that’s no reason to ban it. On the other hand, you cannot make sausage-making less gross by making more democracy sausage. Here, markets can help us understand what democracies can, and already are, doing. In markets, we also find reasons to be hopeful for the future of democracy.
Sausage-making tycoons, like their political counterparts, are very keen to protect brand reputations. Food industries, much like electoral politics anywhere, are chocked full of events that many would prefer to forget. In foodstuffs, consider romaine. The leafy green has had a rough couple of years in the United States with repeated E coli outbreaks. But there is not an outrage industrial complex built around lettuce like there is for politicians, thank God. So the response of the lettuce market, compared to the democracy sausage market, is easier to observe.
Romaine distributors in the US are responding by developing new technologies to better label products. Farmers are re-evaluating standard operating procedures. Consumers are trying out other types of lettuce and receiving an education on food cleanliness, as well as the caveat emptor (buyer beware) principle of free market exchange. But how does this relate to sausages and democracy? I’ll be brief because I don’t know about you, but I’m getting hungry.
Liberal democracy, republican democracy, democratic republic: whatever. The concept that most recognise as democracy today is a grinding dumpster fire of emotionally charged nouns and adjectives. That’s sort of the point. Of course, there is something nice about the certainty and firmness of a solid pork chop, but the soft blended juiciness of a good sausage link is divine.
So how can the example of the market help us to better understand and improve democracy’s current state? Distributors of democracy need to develop better methods for labelling their products. That way when bad information makes its way into the political ecosystem it can be more easily recalled. Producers of democracy, our political institutions, should begin the process of re-evaluating and updating basic standard operating rules, finding small areas of consensus where the rules for making rules can be adjusted to create a safer product for voters.
Consumers of democracy, much like consumers of anything, become complacent and forget about the dangers of democracy during the fantastically good times that democracies create. The school of hard knocks, ie learning things the hard way through trial and error, is one that free people know well. It’s also what makes them so resilient and prosperous. So, keep calm and sausage on.