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The Heart of the US Election

CHICAGO – A real debate is emerging in America’s presidential election campaign. It is superficially about health care and taxes. More fundamentally, it is about democracy and free enterprise.

Democracy and free enterprise appear to be mutually reinforcing – it is hard to think of any flourishing democracy that is not a market economy. Moreover, while a number of nominally socialist economies have embraced free enterprise (or “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” as the Chinese Communist Party would say), it seems to be only a matter of time before they are forced to become more democratic.

Yet it is not clear a priori why democracy and free enterprise should be mutually supportive. After all, democracy implies regarding individuals as equal and treating them as such, with every adult getting an equal vote, whereas free enterprise empowers individuals based on how much economic value they create and how much property they own.

What prevents the median voter in a democracy from voting to dispossess the rich and successful? And why do the latter not erode the political power of the former? Echoes of such a tension are playing out as President Barack Obama tries to tap into middle-class anger, while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney appeals to disgruntled businesspeople.