Democracy vs. Civilization

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Hans-Hermann
Hoppe
Democracy,
the God that Failed:
The
Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy, and Natural Order

Transaction,
2001, paper, 304pp., $24.95

Favorable
book reviews are not difficult to find. This or that book, we are
routinely told, is "essential," "a must," or
"required reading." Thus when a book of genuine importance
comes along, it is difficult to call attention to it adequately.
But Hans-Hermann Hoppe's Democracy: The God that Failed really
is one of those books.

Hoppe,
a professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas,
is one of the most interesting and compelling living scholars whose
work I have studied. I have profited immensely from his writing,
and can also recommend his other English-language books, A
Theory of Socialism and Capitalism
and The
Economics and Ethics of Private Property
.

It
is simply taken for granted, even among most self-described conservatives
(and certainly among most libertarians) that the historic nineteenth-
and twentieth-century shift away from monarchy and toward ever-greater
democratization constituted a welcome step forward for civilization.
Hoppe's revisionist study seeks to undermine this self-congratulatory
consensus.

The
state, Hoppe explains, is a territorial monopolist of coercion.
When entry into the state apparatus is restricted to a select few
(and their heirs), we might speak of the government as being privately
owned. The entire realm can be passed on to an heir, in the same
way that one might bequeath an estate. When, on the other hand,
entry into government is (at least theoretically) open to everyone,
we might speak of publicly owned government.

Now
consider for a moment all the inefficiency and misallocation associated
with public property and ownership. In general, in cases in which
individual property rights do not exist, the result is the so-called
"tragedy of the commons" — overuse, exhaustion, inadequate
maintenance, and the like. Since none of the users of the property
is its owner, and indeed no discrete owner exists at all, a bias
in favor of present consumption and against the maintenance of the
property's long-term capital value is introduced. Thus a tendency
to overfish would exist with a pond available in common to all comers;
a private owner, on the other hand, thinks not simply of what can
be profitably extracted from his property in the short term but
also of the need to maintain a stock of fish to reproduce for next
year and the year after that.

Since
those who rule in a democracy are not the owners of the state apparatus
but rather are merely temporary caretakers, they have little incentive
to be farsighted, to preserve the country's capital value and to
think of its future welfare. To the contrary, their limited time
horizon necessarily translates into a tendency toward immediate
gratification. But since, on the other hand, a monarch can realize
the benefits of preserving the country's capital value, he is less
likely to squander his resources in order to realize some ill-considered
short-term gain.

Hoppe
uses the economic concept of time preference to illuminate
his discussion. Time preference refers to the degree to which a
person prefers present goods to future ones. A person with high
time preference is oriented toward present consumption, whereas
someone with low time preference tends more toward saving and deferred
gratification. According to Hoppe, democracy, or rule by caretakers,
inserts a systematic tendency toward high time preference throughout
society.

Hoppe
then buttresses his theoretical presentation with a systematic examination
of the empirical evidence. I shall leave it to readers to peruse
this data for themselves in Hoppe's book, but suffice it to say
that every single one of his theoretical claims regarding time preference
in a democracy is resoundingly vindicated: the transition to democracy
has been consistently accompanied by vastly greater national debts
(an obvious indicator of present-orientedness) and government employment,
higher interest rates, and the like. Hoppe extends his analysis
to cover even family instability and crime.

With
the same principle in mind, it makes sense to expect monarchical
wars, in general, to be less destructive and barbaric than democratic
ones. Wars are expensive and extremely damaging, and not to be entered
into lightly by someone who wishes to hand on a healthy and prosperous
realm to his heir. To a monarch, manpower is neither free nor expendable,
but extremely valuable and to be preserved to the greatest extent
possible. Moreover, the blurring of the distinction between rulers
and ruled that inheres in democracy makes it much easier for democratic
rulers to portray their wars as crusades of one whole nation against
another whole nation, as opposed to the limited, personal, and finite
quarrels of monarchs.

But
Hoppe hastens to point out that in spite of this qualified (and
rather impressive) defense of the monarchical system, he is not
himself a monarchist, although he obviously prefers monarchy to
democracy. What Hoppe supports — and he is far from the first to
take this position — is a pure private-property order in which all
goods and services, even those traditionally associated with the
state, are provided by the private sector. A number of recent scholarly
books, including Bruce Benson's The
Enterprise of Law
and Randy Barnett's The
Structure of Liberty
, both cited by Hoppe, have advanced
intriguing legal and historical arguments against the supposition
that even a monopolistic system of law enforcement and adjudication
is either desirable or a historical inevitability.

This
is a complicated argument, though, and one to which I cannot do
justice in such little space. But as we watch helplessly as our
civilization enters what we fear may be its terminal phase, it is
difficult to pinpoint many destructive trends that the state is
not accelerating in one way or another. There is something
about the modern state that appears to attract degenerates, lunatics,
do-gooders, and criminals, and I cannot really imagine that a traditionalist
wouldn't at least be intrigued by what Hoppe has to say about how
society might operate if this institution, whose inherent tendency
toward expansion has effortlessly turned solemnly drafted constitutions
and bills of rights into quaint museum pieces and made the idea
of "limited government" seem laughably utopian, were stripped
of its functions.

Hoppe
also devotes considerable space to immigration policy and his objections
to the liberal policy under which the United States has lived for
several decades. I am always disappointed to find among some traditionalists
a soft spot for current immigration policy. A posture toward immigration
that might have made sense at a time when the immigrants in question
were remotely assimilable is ridiculous and suicidal in the current
climate. It is not true that all human beings, wherever they may
be throughout the world, are equally and perfectly interchangeable
with all others, and that a society composed of huge population
subsets from radically different backgrounds, religious traditions,
races, criminal propensities, intelligence, and the like, stitched
together through a policy of forced integration, can necessarily
function properly and peacefully. (See Peter Brimelow's Alien
Nation
for a lengthy list of "multicultural" societies
that have degenerated into terrible civil strife.) Conservatives
— and a fortiori Catholic traditionalists — ought to be able
to recognize utopianism and Enlightenment sloganeering when they
see them. To be sure, many churchmen favor more or less unrestricted
immigration, but, harsh and condescending as this may sound, it
is hard to expect modern churchmen, the overwhelming majority of
whom speak in an Enlightenment idiom, to know any better. Traditionalists,
on the other hand, really ought to be able to see the problem with
such a program. It is a sign of the destruction of a coherent "conservative
movement" in the United States that the supposedly right-wing
Newt Gingrich could point with satisfaction to the Chicago school
system, in which over eighty languages are spoken, and note
that its diversity was its strength. George Orwell, call your office.

The
massive Third World immigration that commenced with the liberalization
of immigration laws in 1965 has translated into more crime, more
wealth redistribution, more anti-Western multiculturalism, more
interracial tension — and, naturally, more social-welfare bureaucrats
to manage the inevitable social turmoil that such population shifts
leave in their wake. This is why the Left favors it.

Hoppe
argues that the traditional libertarian position on immigration
— that is, completely open borders — is fundamentally wrongheaded,
even from a libertarian point of view. Here Hoppe builds upon the
late Murray Rothbard's overhaul of the libertarian position in the
early 1990s. (Rothbard, as some readers are doubtless aware, was
the culturally conservative libertarian theorist who made many enemies
— and at least as many new friends — when he supported Pat Buchanan
in 1992.) "I began to rethink my views on immigration,"
Rothbard explained, "when, as the Soviet Union collapsed, it
became clear that ethnic Russians had been encouraged to flood into
Estonia and Latvia in order to destroy the cultures and languages
of these peoples." After serious reflection, he realized that
"the regime of open borders that exists de facto in
the U.S. really amounts to a compulsory opening by the central state,
the state in charge of all streets and public land areas, and does
not genuinely reflect the wishes of the proprietors."

The
concepts of community and private property are meaningless and empty
if they exclude the right to discriminate. Discrimination
is a pervasive and indeed absolutely necessary feature of life.
We discriminate in the foods we eat, in the neighborhoods we live
in, and in the friends we make. And we discriminate in whom we invite
for dinner. There is no such thing as "equal access" to
our homes.

The
triumph of the nondiscrimination principle, and its ossification
into incontrovertible dogma, has meant the disruption and degradation
of economic and social life: "Teachers cannot get rid of lousy
or ill-behaved students, employers are stuck with poor or destructive
employees, landlords are forced to live with bad renters, banks
and insurance companies are not allowed to avoid bad risks, restaurants
and bars must accommodate unwelcome customers, and private clubs
and covenants are compelled to accept members and actions in violation
of their very own rules and restrictions" (p. 210).

An
intermediate step toward Hoppe's goal is encouragement and support
for radical decentralization and secession movements throughout
the United States and Europe. This is to be desired both because
smaller territorial units would be under greater pressure to keep
the economy relatively free (they would lose their tax base when
their overtaxed subjects simply hopped across the border into the
next principality), and also because the smaller the unit, the closer
its people can come to approximating the social order and demographic
patterns that would exist in a pure private-property regime. "[O]ne
would be on the right path toward restoring the freedom of association
and exclusion implied in the institution of private property,"
Hoppe suggests, "if only towns and villages could and would
do what they did as a matter of course until well into the nineteenth
century in Europe and the United States." He continues: "There
would be signs regarding entrance requirements to the town, and,
once in town, requirements for entering specific pieces of property…and
those who did not meet these entrance requirements would be kicked
out as trespassers. Almost instantly, cultural and moral normalcy
would reassert itself" (p. 211).

On
the subject of cultural and moral normalcy, Hoppe argues in an especially
interesting chapter on conservatism and libertarianism that it is
conservatives above all who should hold an antistatist position,
particularly given current circumstances. Consider his summary of
what the welfare state has wrought:

In
conjunction with the even older compulsory system of public
education, these institutions and practices amount to a massive
attack on the institution of the family and personal responsibility.
By relieving individuals of the obligation to provide for their
own income, health, safety, old age, and children's education,
the range and temporal horizon of private provision is reduced,
and the value of marriage, family, children, and kinship relations
is lowered. Irresponsibility, shortsightedness, negligence,
illness and even destructionism (bads) are promoted, and responsibility,
farsightedness, diligence, health and conservatism (goods) are
punished. The compulsory old age insurance system in particular,
by which retirees (the old) are subsidized from taxes imposed
on current income earners (the young), has systematically weakened
the natural intergenerational bond between parents, grandparents,
and children. The old need no longer rely on the assistance
of their children if they have made no provision for their own
old age; and the young (with typically less accumulated wealth)
must support the old (with typically more accumulated wealth)
rather than the other way around, as is typical within families.
Consequently, not only do people want to have fewer children
— and indeed, birthrates have fallen in half since the onset
of modern social security (welfare) policies — but also the
respect which the young traditionally accorded to their elders
is diminished, and all indicators of family disintegration and
malfunctioning, such as rates of divorce, illegitimacy, child
abuse, parent abuse, spouse abuse, single parenting, singledom,
alternative lifestyles, and abortion, have increased [pp. 195-96].

Hoppe's
point is one that conservatives seem to have forgotten, or at least
no longer really discuss. The modern state is a jealous god, and
has shown itself "intent upon breaking down and ultimately
destroying families and the institutions and layers of authority
that are the natural outgrowth of family-based communities in order
to increase and strengthen [its] own power" (p. 197). Among
other works, Hoppe cites Allan Carlson's study of family policy
in Sweden, a case study in what happens to the traditional family
when virtually all of its customary functions are usurped by the
state.

Hoppe's
book is tough medicine. It is not another tiresome catalogue of
piecemeal reforms, but a stimulating and intellectually exciting
interdisciplinary analysis of the present situation of Western civilization.
In this regard it is also a useful companion to Pat Buchanan's new
book, The
Death of the West
. Joseph Sobran has expressed great enthusiasm
for Hoppe's book, devoting two separate columns to it. Surveying
the catastrophies of the twentieth century, including the democracies'
relentless incursions against normality, Sobran went so far as to
say, "We would have been far better off with no state at all."
Quite a radical conclusion, to be sure, but Joe Sobran is no marshmallow.
If we are unwilling to consider unusual or intellectually challenging
remedies to our present impasse, then perhaps we do not fully appreciate
how truly serious and desperate our situation is.

March
20, 2002

Thomas
E. Woods, Jr. [send him
mail
] holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard and a PhD in history
from Columbia. He is professor of history at Suffolk Community College
on Long Island and associate editor of The
Latin Mass
, where this was first published.

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