We would like to believe that democracy will lead to steady improvement in the rules that a society follows. In principle, it seems self-evident that if a rule is bad, citizens or their representatives vote for a better one. In practice, it is not always this simple.
Sometimes it takes a two-stage decision process to get rid of a bad rule. People must first vote to change a higher-level rule that structures voting on other rules. Then, following the new voting rules, they can vote to change the bad rule.
Political scientists have long known how important the details are in the rules that govern political decisions. Because they are so important, it makes sense to highlight this special class of rules and give them a name: meta-rules, the rules for changing rules. Recent experience with military base closures in the United States shows how this two step process can work.
As the United States’ defense priorities change, some military bases become obsolete and others become increasingly important. The efficient rule is to close the obsolete bases. The rules followed by US Congress used to let individual members amend bills to prohibit a specific base closure. Reluctant to forgo jobs and federal funding in their districts, members of Congress often stood in the way of base closures. So instead of the efficient rule, we had a rule that kept most obsolete bases on artificial life support.
There was widespread agreement that this was a bad rule. To change it, the Congress first passed legislation that changed the rules for voting on base closures. It created an independent Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission. The commission provides an objective, nonpartisan review of closures proposed by the Department of Defense and makes recommendations to the President. If the President approves, the list is submitted to Congress. Unless Congress votes to reject the list, the Department of Defense can go ahead with the closures. At each stage, the Congress and the President can accept or reject the entire list but cannot add or remove specific bases.
BRAC shows that the democratic process can sometimes impose limits or structure on itself and that this can lead to better decisions about everyday rules. Since 1988, the BRAC process facilitated five rounds of successful base closures. The change in the meta-rules that createdBRAC now lets the United States follow the obvious everyday rule: Close obsolete bases.
The challenge, of course, is that if the meta-rules that govern democracy are sufficiently bad, they can make it impossible to vote to change the meta-rules themselves. Reasonable people who follow the rules may then get stuck in a trap.