02/10/2012 12:11 pm ET Updated Apr 11, 2012

Democracy Is Not Self-Correcting

Recently, I wrote an article posted here about the protests in Italy against the "undemocratic" government of meritocrats in Italy led by Prime Minister Mario Monti. Many responders, following the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, worry that Europe is entering a "post-democratic" phase, not just because of a government like Monti's, but because European institutions, such as the appointed European Commission, are seen to be beyond the accountability of the public.

Behind such sentiments is a suspicion of delegated authority of any kind in democratic societies. My response is to consider this:

The argument against the delegated authority of meritocracy based on experience and expertise is that it can get it wrong without adequate feedback. Without the capacity to self-correct it can end up oppressing the people instead of serving them.

The argument for one-person-one-vote democracy always is that it gets is right because, like the free market,it is self-correcting. But that is no truer for democracy than for the market, as we saw in the 2008-09 financial crisis.

Democracy, both representative and direct, also has its rigidities (ideology, populism, self-interest of voters, money as free speech). Often the accumulation of individual choices produces unintended consequences against the public good. As I pointed out in my earlier article, after a series of direct democracy initiatives to curb property taxes and punish criminals, California now spends more on prisons than higher education, thus undermining the foundations of its future.

What matters for good governance is an open society -- freedom of expression and the rule of law to protect feedback -- not whether the system is meritocratic, democratic or a hybrid.

With a one-party state, China can certainly not be considered an open society, and it has a long way to go from rule-by-law to rule-of law. But it is considerably more ajar than most in the West seem to realize.

Is China's "monitory webocracy," where the Communist government is acutely responsive to the public clamor over weibo on everything from tainted milk or toys to train wrecks to pollution, any less self-correcting than American democracy where the Wall Street banks that precipitated the financial crisis and were bailed out because they were "too big to fail" are now even larger and remain unregulated?