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Even dogs prefer democracy

But the right, as well as the left, has plenty to learn about how to deploy it

14 January 2012

4:00 PM

14 January 2012

4:00 PM

Recent research has shown a robust and positive correlation between the amount of democracy we enjoy and how happy we are. This is true for the Swiss, at any rate, for it was among the cantons of Switzerland that the research was conducted. If you believe the Swiss are a peculiarly unrepresentative group, you may be interested to know that the same rule holds true not only for melted-cheese-­eating neutrality monkeys, but also for dogs.

Dogs prefer democracy? How can we possibly know? I’m not suggesting here that dogs have sophisticated political views — though Rod Liddle has written that ‘all dogs are notoriously right-of-centre creatures: loyal, patriotic, implacably pro-hunting … wedded to the family unit and deeply suspicious of all aliens’. Instead I am referring to a psychological experiment conceived by some ingenious though faintly sadistic scientists in order to demonstrate that it is not only your circumstances that determine your happiness, but the extent to which you control them.

The experiment, as explained to me, works as follows. You place two dogs in a single large box separated by a partition. The floor of the box is metal, and allows you to administer an electric shock to both simultaneously; not enough to harm them physically, but enough to cause them considerable annoyance. The only difference between the two compartments is this: in one there is a button, which the dog can nuzzle. Doing so cuts off the electric current, at least for a time. The other compartment has no button. Soon the first dog learns to push the button fairly rapidly in response to a shock administered by the experimenters, and so the bursts of electricity delivered to both are comparatively brief. What is interesting, however, is what happens to the mental state of the two animals. Even though the degree of pain delivered to both animals is identical — they both share the same floor — the moods of the two dogs diverge rapidly. The dog with the button, and hence the sense of control, retains its mental equilibrium, while the second dog descends into severe depression.

I must admit I haven’t tried this at home. (I do have twin daughters, but they are non-identical twins, and hence useless for the purposes of experimentation.) But it does seem significant. It implies choice is not only a means to obtain good things — it is a good thing in itself.

It is also interesting to note how many social rituals contain what I would call ‘a token element of choice’. Kingsley Amis once described ‘red or white?’ as ‘the three most depressing words in the English language’. I can see why. But these ritualistic two-way questions — ‘red or white?’; ‘tea or coffee?’; ‘still or sparkling?’ — have evolved not so much to increase our physical well­being, but as a symbolic act of deference: being given a trivial degree of choice feels very different from having no choice at all.

I mentioned this ‘red or white’ issue at an advertising conference about six months ago, and a delightful man came up to me afterwards. He had, as he explained, recently visited his NHS GP to discuss an impending minor operation. To his immense surprise, the GP asked him in which of two neighbourhood hospitals he would prefer the operation to be performed. As he explained to me, ‘I live equidistantly between both hospitals, which as far as I know are both equally good: so the decision was theoretically irrelevant. But the question completely changed my feelings towards the experience. Unlike my past experience of the NHS, it felt like being a customer, not a supplicant.’

I know how he feels. I much prefer eating out in America to eating out in France. The food is probably better in France, but it often comes with that demeaning sense of patronisation which ruins the whole experience. There is the implication that it is a privilege to be in the bloody restaurant at all: turn up for lunch at 1.32 p.m. and they refuse to give you anything to eat. I have stayed in French hotels featuring gastronomic restaurants where they claim they can’t make me a sandwich. In the US, they’ll make you a Caesar salad at three in the morning. Again, ‘a customer, not a supplicant’.


In our admiration for the German school system, we sometimes overlook one important detail. German schools are of course ‘selective’, typically in a three-way divide, the Gymnasium being the most academic school, the Realschule and Hauptschule being progressively less academic and more vocational in their teaching. The children are usually sent to whichever of these three schools was deemed most suitable by the headmaster of the primary school, using a mixture of past performance and subjective judgment.

But there is an important distinction. You can, if you wish, override the primary school’s recommendation and demand that your child attend the Gymnasium. This power is not limitless — if your child struggles at the Gymnasium for a couple of years, he moves to a Realschule. But the option to choose is vitally important. It means you are not at the mercy of the state, or some pinko headmaster instinctively prejudiced against the offspring of the bourgeoisie.

Does this small element of choice also contribute to a far greater readiness among all Germans to use the state system? By creating the feeling that you are a ‘customer and not a supplicant’? And can the greater willingness of Scandinavians to pay tax partly be explained by the fact that, when you have local democratic control over how tax revenues are spent, the payment of taxes feels less like an act of appropriation and more like a contribution towards something you want?

•••

Where does this all leave me politically? A little conflicted. At one level, it makes me a committed libertarian, in that I will defend to the death — well, to the point of mild inconvenience, certainly — the notion that individuals should, wherever possible, be left to make decisions over their own lives.

But I don’t quite buy the argument that the only way to do this is to tax people as little as possible and to view any form of wealth redistribution as a form of theft. The danger of this approach is you end up with the insane imbalance between private and public goods you find in California, where the cars are great but the roads are dreadful.

The real issue here may be psychological, not economic. The problem with paying tax is not purely about the amount you pay but the feeling that, once you write that cheque to HMRC, you surrender any control over how that money is spent.

Economics can be peculiarly blind to psychology. Since it sees everything in numerical terms, it considers the amount people pay in tax as the only important variable, not the frame of mind in which they pay it. But this is too simplistic. Paying a parking ticket and giving £40 to charity are economically indistinguishable — but they do not feel the same. Pay £30,000 to your local hospital to buy a new machine and you feel like a philanthropist; pay £30,000 in stamp duty and you feel like a mug. Ultimately, we spend money for how it makes us feel.

I’m not disputing that the left has done far more to limit freedom of choice than the right. I’m not even saying taxes should not be reduced. But the right, especially the American right, seems to have become trapped by a false dichotomy — the belief that there are only two things that can happen to your money. Either you get to spend it yourself, in which case you enjoy complete control over what you get with it, or else it disappears into the ungrateful maw of the state, in which case you might as well have burnt it.

But if choice matters to us as much as these findings suggest, what governmen
t should be trying to do is to find ways in which we can fund public goods without sacrificing a feeling of control. How can we make our payments to the state feel like — if I may borrow my employer’s slogan for the new and surprisingly affordable Ford Fiesta — ‘a choice, not a compromise’?

Should there, for example, be two forms of TV licence you can buy: one which costs £130 and operates just as the present TV licence does, and another that costs £150, but which allows you to direct where 25 per cent of your money goes?

Taking this principle to further extremes, some interesting theoretical solutions present themselves. You could create a parallel currency which you use to purchase public services called the Public Service Unit (or ‘sou’). Everyone receives a set number each year, with the option of buying further units at a cost that increases with earnings. You can now offer government services based on ‘willingness to pay’ without discriminating against the less well off. For one PSU it’s ‘the doctor will see you now’. For two PSUs it’s ‘when would you like to see the doctor?’ For three PSUs it’s ‘the doctor is coming to see you’ — a level of service unavailable on the NHS since the arrest of Harold Shipman.

The problem with democratic government isn’t that it’s government, it’s that it’s not remotely democratic. Starbucks typically offers me more choice in a day than the state offers me all year. And, unlike British democracy, it offers more than two kinds of coffee.

So it’s true. Democracy is great. Now can we have some please?


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