by Anders Mikkelsen by Anders Mikkelsen
Democracy is often held up as the worst form of government ever tried. But when has it really been tried? Democracy is supposed to be rule by the majority. We know the ruling class would never permit such a state of affairs. Democracy is something claimed, and rarely achieved. What is called Democracy is really just one variety of velvet glove to legitimate and mask the state’s iron fist.
What Is Democracy?
Democracy is supposed to be rule by the people — in practice this would mean majority vote of the assembled people propose and decides issues and what few government offices are required would filled by random selection or by election. This requires that the people must be available to be assembled to decide issues, or regular referendums are proposed and voted on by the people. In the first case we have many examples of cities and towns with assembled voting. In the case of Athens the results are well know to be ultimately disastrous, however we also have the ideal of the New England town meeting where the people decide issues. This is not, as I recall, often pointed to as an example of rampant lawlessness. This is perhaps because the small groups of people are familiar with the issues and able to have a considered opinions, and therefore unlikely to support bad ideas. They also have to live in the communities affect by their policies, which gives them different incentives from a DC bureaucrat making policy for flyover country. On the other hand there may be many examples of deliberate oppression of minorities or seizure of property. Still, deliberate forays into communism, liquidation of opponents, genocide and war mongering, must be exceedingly rare in the annals of small town democracy and certainly as compared to the history of great nations.
It should be clear that we do not live in this type of democracy.
What Is Our Present So-Called Democratic System?
In our present system we have the state which rules. It is a corporation, an abstract body of officials separate from society. These state officials make the rules, execute policies, and pass judgement upon members of society who violate the state’s rules. This state of affairs tends to benefit the ruling state officials. As Hoppe points out, rulers of the present democratic states don’t own the state and have short-term incentives to maximize the benefits of power. We are told we have a democratic system where the majority of the people decide how the government is organized and run.
In a democracy the people do participate by voting. But do they vote on the law or on policies or pass judgement? Very rarely and we’ll show some examples below. The point is not so much that this is a good or bad thing, as allowing either the people or the ruling class to rule is inherently dangerous as they may rule badly. The point is that the majority of the people do not effectively rule the rest.
A majority may decide referendums. But we know that the state routinely disregards referendum results it doesn’t like. The people of California may have decided that medical marijuana is just and right, but the state decides otherwise and has largely had its way. We should note that it is technically possible for the people to use computer and telecommunications to decide all questions. This is never pushed upon the people by the ruling class of our so-called democratic states.
A segment of the people is also occasionally allowed to participate as members of juries. However state officials help make sure the juries are the right people and will reach the right decision, and juries are told it is not up to them to decide the justice of the various statutes that may be used to condemn their fellow citizens.
People do elect representatives to act as their voice. They can therefore affect the political process. There are several examples below showing how the voice of the people is continually stifled by their rulers.
Elected officials routinely violate campaign promises. They are in no way beholden to the people and can pretty much do whatever they want for their term of office. If they support enough popular policies to ensure re-election, they support plenty of unpopular ones too that would never have passed a popular vote.
In the US the ruling class does all it can to ensure that the people can only vote for one of the officially approved candidates.
Those elected officials do have considerable power, as they can withhold money and get rid of top executives, even if this is rare in practice.
Even if we accept that the elected representatives do represent the people, we have additional problems. Much of the state is made up of unelected officials, the bureaucrats. These people do the actual work of executing policy, and it is extremely difficult to remove them. The history of the US, and other countries, shows that elected officials, including presidents, are not able to fully control the bureaucracy and popular pressure can not change who the rulers are.
Another important class of officials are judges, who are often appointed and routinely decide against popular decisions. They can put huge burdens on local community governments, some of whom may be democratically run, and are certainly more likely to be responsive to popular pressure. This too violates popular decision-making.
We often see attempts by the ruling class to do everything they can to suppress government by the people. After all, how can the ruling class rule if the people rule? As Murray Rothbard showed in his Conceived in Liberty a would-be ruling class did all they could during the American Revolution to set themselves up in power with a central government that would take power from the local communities.
Why Call this Democracy?
Calling our system democratic serves a very important legitimating function. Without legitimacy any state would disappear, just as the East German state the DDR did or the USSR dissolved into smaller states. The ruling class likes to talk about democracy because it is able to legitimize its activities, especially the nefarious ones, by claiming that the people think it’s okay or that the people think it’s ok for the rulers to make the call. If anyone disagrees with the rulers the rulers claim that the people have spoken. If this wasn’t an effective tactic people would ignore the rulers, just as they would ignore you or I if we declared ourselves king of our town and right ruler of all that we survey. But it is effective, even though it creates especially hilarious results when the majority of the people clearly disagree with a ruling official and would like to see the official change his policy if not recall or impeach him. (Bush and Davis spring to mind.)
“First, the idea of democracy and majority rule must be delegitimized. Ultimately, the course of history is determined by ideas, be they true or false. Just as kings could not exercise their rule unless a majority of public opinion accepted such rule as legitimate, so will democratic rulers not last without ideological support in public opinion.”
Hoppe, The Political Economy Of Monarchy And Democracy, And The Idea Of A Natural Order
In many cases majority rule is “the” legitimating function. Just as it is important to delegitimize the idea of majority rule, which it to say the idea that one can legalize crimes like murder, it is also important that people realize that the majority is not in fact making the rules. As Hoppe points out, the democratic state allows common people entry into the exploiting class. This combines with the twin fictions that majority rule legitimates anything, and that the majority in fact does rule. Together this destroys the class-consciousness of the people that they are exploited by their rulers. Instead people believe that either they are the rulers, they might be the rulers some day, or the rulers are legitimate.
Back in the 18th century, people understood that the state was an organization for the aggrandizement of the rulers, usually the king and his ministers, and certainly not for the benefit of the people. The rulers of course agreed. It was usually clearly ridiculous to say that war was for the people, or that the state should help the people (say by feeding, educating, employing or nursing them). If anything the subjects should help the state. Therefore the people wished to support it as little as possible, and had no illusions that any good would come of the state. When the American and French revolutions came along, people were faced with a choice. Either dismantle the old state system, or take it over. In practically all revolutions the winning choice was to take it over, and a new set of people became the ruling class. Even in America that choice won. In France a plank of the revolution was the right of the middle class to compete for cushy government employment. This new ruling class faced a problem. If the old state system created to serve the ruling class was unjust because it served the ruling class at the expense of the people, how to justify the new ruling class using the old state system? Wouldn’t people assume it was still serving a new set of people at the expense of the rest of the people? The answer was to tell the people that all these evils were for their own good, this was a new state that would serve the people instead of the king or upper class. The doctrine that the people ruled, and that whatever the people ruled was just, served as the perfect way to legitimate any of the states actions and in fact contributed greatly to its power.
It was also essential to ensure that direct ruling by the people be minimized as much as possible. As Rothbard point out in Conceived in Liberty, in the USA, and other countries, it was argued that the central state or assembly represented all the people as a whole, while the smaller local states and governments were only part of the people and were not therefore truly popular government and the farthest from monarchy. Around the world regional government was suppressed in favor of the post-revolutionary central state’s democracy. Movements to abolish monarchy and the old order led to re-establishment of an even more powerful central state that had the full support of the people. As said in the great movie Il Leopardo, for everything to remain the same everything must change.
Why Is So-Called Democracy So Bad?
We have many great men telling us that democracy, as strictly defined, is a terrible thing because it would allow the people to engage in rampant lawlessness and bad decision making. We also have the history of Athens ever present in our minds. It is fortunate events 2400 years ago can trump any present experience.
However, as we’ve seen, we don’t really live under such a democracy. Strictly defined democracy is a fairly unimportant form of government in the modern world. In fact the ruling class rules quite firmly; though it may bend to popular pressure occasionally it is also good at creating the pressure so it can appear to bend. The progressive era in the US was partly about making voting irrelevant so experts could rule. As the saying goes, if voting could change things they’d make it illegal. So why does everyone denounce so-called democracy?
The problem with democracy is the idea that majority rule can decide what is right and wrong. This is surely an evil. In practice of course the ruling class decides what is right and wrong in a so-called democracy. This is what is wrong with so-called democracy, and people are rightly outraged by perpetual assaults on ordinary decency and morality in the name of the people. People see in republics and constitutions a solid foundation of what is right and wrong; some things cannot be decided or changed. There is a common and I would say true evil in both democracy and so-called democracy – that right and wrong can change. (I agree our conceptions or our understanding of right and wrong can change, but right is right just as 2 + 2 = 4 even if it is hard for people in any particular society to understand that truth.) Railing against democracy does not get to the root of the problem, which is the incoherent or evil rules that people are expected to follow. The state system is inherently contradictory, as what is wrong for ordinary citizens is right for state officials. As Mises’ works show, what made the countries of Europe such a mess was not the ethnic composition of their society or the forms of government, but to what degree that state was allowed to interfere with society. The more interference, the worse the results. A king, democracy, dictator, lord, republic, bureaucracy, colonial or communist regime that does not interfere in society is usually a quite pleasant place to live, one that does interfere is invariably unpleasant. As Hoppe points out, in our so-called democratic regimes not only do the rulers have every incentive to interfere in society while they still have power, but the people are more likely to permit them! When more people realize that majority rule does not legitimize everything and that they do not in fact rule, we will be farther along the road to a world without rulers.
Anders Mikkelsen [send him mail] lives in Manhattan and is an independent consultant helping private sector organizations cut costs.