Democracy, or Who Made You King?

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It
often happens that a state will justify its various misdeeds and
foreign aggression by arguing that it was “democratically elected,”
while the other, evil state was not. Fortunately, this defense
proves too much.

Suppose
that I and a few other toughs form a gang with an intent to rob
and terrorize the populace. When some of my victims ask me how I
can do such evil things, I will patiently explain to them that my
fellow gangsters voted for me to be their leader. When my
bewildered victim objects that he does not understand what the rightness
or wrongness of my actions has to do with the procedure by which
I got to be chief, I will stubbornly repeat that this fact authorizes
me to do pretty much anything I want. Surely, this is not what the
democrats have in mind.

Democracy
is in essence an internal political institution used to remove unpopular
rulers peacefully, without violent revolutions. The ruler who got
a one-time approval of the masses does not receive a license to
do as he pleases. It is often alleged that democracy will nevertheless
produce more liberal and peaceful governments than alternative arrangements.
This, however, is by no means obvious. As economist Hans-Hermann
Hoppe has shown,
democracy has a crucial flaw. Elected officials are temporary caretakers
and therefore have little incentive to think in the long term. The
propaganda which the democratically elected rulers produce starts
to include false economic theories that justify their short-term
focus. Worse, this attitude spreads to the rest of society. Everyone
is in the political game, constantly being tempted to steal from
one another by taking control of the machinery of state. Life speeds
up and becomes more chaotic, more present-oriented, more error-prone,
and even perhaps less “examined.” There is no longer a clear separation
between state and society, a fact which tends to elevate limited
wars to total wars. Mass-men turned politicians, drunk with power,
send millions of their former fellows to die and to kill for those
politicians’ quite arbitrary value judgments. For example, in his
article entitled How
Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome
, Bruce Bartlett
quotes historian A.H.M. Jones:

Oppression
and extortion began very early in the provinces and reached fantastic
proportions in the later republic. Most governors were primarily
interested in acquiring military glory and in making money during
their year in office, and the companies which farmed the taxes
expected to make ample profits. There was usually collusion between
the governor and the tax contractors and the senate was too far
away to exercise any effective control over either. The other
great abuse of the provinces was extensive moneylending at exorbitant
rates of interest to the provincial communities, which could not
raise enough ready cash to satisfy both the exorbitant demands
of the tax contractors and the blackmail levied by the governors.
(italics mine)

Hoppe’s
assault on democracy is open to an objection, one which I believe
Ludwig von Mises would have made. Capitalism is a system of mass
production. It serves the interests of everyone, but especially
the common people. If the masses are completely inert and apolitical,
the elites will never be able to avoid the temptation to exploit
them to the max. Therefore, the masses must participate in
shaping the institutions that bind us all. The question “Who made
you king?” is thus answered as “Capitalism did.” Consumer
sovereignty does not protect itself. It is true that

[The rationalists] never gave a thought to the possibility that
public opinion could favor spurious ideologies whose realization
would harm welfare and well-being and disintegrate social cooperation…

After
having nullified the fable of the divine mission of anointed kings,
the liberals fell prey to no less illusory doctrines, to the irresistible
power of reason, to the infallibility of the volonte generale
and to the divine inspiration of majorities.

Yes,
“[i]t will require many long years of self-education until the subject
can turn himself into the citizen.” But there is no escape from
the need for popular sovereignty, even if it is properly made to
exclude the underclass. Free enterprise cannot exist without it.

Hoppe’s
answer, it seems to me, would go as follows. Why must a common ideology
necessarily be expressed in the process of voting for one
of the two candidates for public office? The threat of revolution
or a palace coup every now and then, while potentially disruptive,
is a good price to pay for freedom from the perverse incentives
of democracy. Furthermore, it is not at all obvious that there must
be a sovereign over private property owners at all. Since Hoppe
is an anarcho-capitalist, this is where I think he would disagree
with Mises the most.

Another
objection aims at the relevance of Hoppe’s argument. In the United
States, for example, there is little democracy. No government has
ever asked me for advice. Few people vote. The choice is usually
between the lesser of the two evils. There are many more permanent
bureaucrats who are notorious for ignoring the Congress than there
are elected officials. Courts wield a great deal of power. Politics
is played by the “interested parties,” also known as pressure groups.
In fact, popular referenda, when the state allows them, often produce
results superior to the decrees of the state.

We
can easily counter this by pointing out that while the Founders
had intended for the government to embody the best features of democracy
and monarchy (a “Republic”), things have changed so that it now
embodies the worst features of both. Hence we have on the
one hand what Joe Sobran calls the “autonomous government,” and
on the other hand, an autonomous government which is out of control.
It exploits the public to a much greater extent than a monarchy
would to the detriment even of the majority of government
workers themselves.

Finally,
we may question Hoppe’s assertion of a strong connection between
the king’s ownership of a territory and his desire to enhance its
capital value. If a king is placed in charge of a country the size
of the United States, then his own standard of living will be almost
unaffected if he mismanages it even to the extent that famines will
kill off half the population. After all, how much does one man need
that the rent he receives from one hundred million people is not
enough, but the rent he receives from two hundred million people
is? To be sure, in his capacity as a citizen and benefactor of the
well-functioning market economy he must respect economic laws if
he wishes to squeeze the most out of “his” people. But all elected
rulers face the same constraints on their power. Is not Hoppe placing
too much hope on the ideal chief of state whose far-sighted statesmanship
is supposed to free us from the tyranny of squabbling politicians
who think only in the short-term and are concerned exclusively with
the welfare of their own special interests? But in practice is not
that chief of state liable to treat his subjects as mere cattle
to be manipulated and exploited for his own amusement? Furthermore,
there is no guarantee that the king will not think, like Louis XV,
that “Apres moi, le deluge,” which is French for “In the long run
we are all dead.”

Hoppe
argues that such an outcome is both unlikely and will almost never
be permitted. This is plausible; for example, in his Discourse
Etienne de la Boetie tells the following story:

Cato the Utican, while still a child under the rod, could come
and go in the house of Sylla the despot. Because of the place
and family of his origin and because he and Sylla were close relatives,
the door was never closed to him. He always had his teacher with
him when he went there, as was the custom for children of noble
birth. He noticed that in the house of Sylla, in the dictator’s
presence or at his command, some men were imprisoned and others
sentenced; one was banished, another was strangled; one demanded
the goods of another citizen, another his head; in short, all
went there, not as to the house of a city magistrate but as to
the people’s tyrant, and this was therefore not a court of justice,
but rather a resort of tyranny. Whereupon the young lad said to
his teacher, “Why don’t you give me a dagger? I will hide it under
my robe. I often go into Sylla’s room before he is risen, and
my arm is strong enough to rid the city of him.” There is a speech
truly characteristic of Cato; it was a true beginning of this
hero so worthy of his end. And should one not mention his name
or his country, but state merely the fact as it is, the episode
itself would speak eloquently, and anyone would divine that he
was a Roman born in Rome at the time when she was free.

Some
theologians, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, permitted tyrannicide under
certain circumstances. Unfortunately, in totalitarian countries
such as Cuba, the former Soviet Union, the former Communist China,
the chief is or was the absolute monarch, completely mad, and restrained
by nothing. That no one there ever assassinated the dictators reveals
much about the power of fear and belief. 1
It seems therefore that the correct ideology and the correct religion
come first, and the choice of the procedure by which the continuation
of the government is assured a distant second.

It
is also worth keeping in mind that what matters the most is the
size of the state and the existence of a sufficient number of competing
political systems. As long as individuals have a good exit option,
the attitude of the members of each given polity will be not so
much “my country, love it or leave it” as “please love my country.”
We can speak of de facto market anarchism when the number
of competing states approaches some critical number. A canonical
example of this happy state of affairs is what exists among private
residential communities, condos, and cooperative apartment buildings.
Their smallness and the huge amount of competition ensure that the
governing boards of these settlements are focusing on one overriding
goal, viz. maintaining and raising property values. What is more,
they can do so rationally, unlike the larger governments
which can never know if their “investments” in “infrastructure”
and suchlike pay off. Here, also, is a list of things that an association
or a condo board may not, in practice, do:

  • Inflate
    the money supply.

  • Send you
    off to war to fight for the Greatness of Our Beloved Condominium.

  • Impose
    a progressive income tax or any tax other than head tax.

  • Use public
    funds for the private gain of board members and their friends.

This
looks like ideal government to me, insofar as anything can be ideal
in the fallen world. Any scandal or arbitrary inconvenience will
immediately lower the attractiveness of the community’s political
system and the residents’ property values. After all, would you
buy an apartment in a condo where you had to fill out tax forms?
Would you not notice if a board member has decided to place himself
“above the law” by painting the front of his house an ugly color
while denying the same privilege to everyone else? However, already
at the level of a small town things start to break down.

Today,
with the disappearance of the frontier and unexplored territories
suitable for human life and the impossibility of hiding from the
assassins
of the state
(unless you are Osama bin Laden) or from its bombers,
the task of ensuring the availability of a variety of exit options
falls upon the citizens of the world.

The
matter is complicated by the existence of nation-states.
On the one hand, the existence of many nations naturally implies
the existence of many states. On the other hand, for a citizen of
one nation-state all other nation-states may not provide a good
exit option. What to do? One approach is apparent. That the United
States is a magnet for foreign immigrants suggests that the standard
of living is the crucial benchmark for choosing one’s country of
residence. But prosperity requires liberty, and both carry with
them a large number of accompanying institutions and ways of living
and doing business. Hence free nations, like all happy families
according to Leo Tolstoy, are all alike in the most important
sense of the word. Not only then does laissez-faire capitalism make
it less likely for a person to feel the need to emigrate, but it
makes each nation a better alternative for the citizens of all other
nations.

In
sum, democracy is vastly overrated. The only argument which supports
it is that it prevents violent revolutions. Unfortunately, realistic
democracy introduces a number of extremely unpleasant side effects
which cancel out whatever usefulness democracy does have.

[1]
It is true that, for example, Stalin was extremely paranoid and
well guarded. No general, no matter how high ranking, could approach
him with his sidearm. He had guard dogs at his side trained to attack
if his visitor as much as put his hand inside his pocket. Nevertheless,
there is always the weak link (such as his personal bodyguard) who
could betray him, a clever assassination method which was not accounted
for, or a desperate man who lived only for revenge.

April
14, 2003

Dmitry
Chernikov [send him
mail
] lives New York City.


     

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