Although democracy now comes closer than anything else to serving as a world religion, it has never lacked critics. For millennia those critics, such as Aristotle, had large followings among political thinkers and practicing politicians. Even as late as 1787, when a group of prominent men met in Philadelphia to compose the U.S. Constitution, democracy was viewed with trepidation, and the framers created an apparatus of government in which democracy was hemmed in on all sides, lest the country fall into the much-dreaded condition of “mob rule.”
Nowadays, democracy’s defects are more likely to be seen as relatively benign — its devotees like to quote Winston Churchill’s quip that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” — or as defects not of democracy itself, but of the party shenanigans and other frictions that keep the democratic system from operating more fully. Thus, people complain of “gridlock” and bemoan a “do-nothing” Congress because these things impede the unrestricted functioning of democracy.
Public choice theorists have written countless articles and books spelling out the manifold ways in which democracy, viewed as a political decision rule for making collective choices by means of voting, may fail to aggregate the preferences of individual constituents into an outcome that represents the “will of the people.” More than fifty years ago, Kenneth Arrow showed that no such aggregation is possible, given certain seemingly appealing restrictions on the nature of people’s preferences, such as transitivity (if A is preferred to B, and B is preferred to C, then C cannot be preferred to A).
None of this theorizing had the slightest effect on the common people’s idea that democracy can and should translate the “will of the people” into collective choices; nor has it kept generations of politicians from talking as if such a translation were possible and desirable. (Political practice, in contrast to political rhetoric, has always proceeded in the usual corrupt fashion, featuring scheming plutocrats, privilege-seeking special-interest groups, and the iron law of oligarchy.)
I mention these things only by way of introduction, however, because here I wish to claim that democracy’s gravest defect has little or nothing to do with the defects traditionally ascribed to it. I maintain that its severest defect, indeed, a flaw so critical that it gives democracy the potential to destroy civilization, pertains to its effect in corrupting the people’s moral judgment.
To see how this corruption comes about, let us begin by recognizing that in many people’s eyes, certain government functionaries may legitimately take actions that would be condemned as criminal if anyone else were to take them. If you or I were to threaten a neighbor with violence unless he handed over a specified sum of money, we would be universally recognized as engaged in extortion or attempted robbery. Yet, the functionaries of St. Tammany Parish, the state of Louisiana, and the United States of America routinely obtain money from me in precisely this manner. And although many people subject to such takings may complain that the amounts demanded are excessive, hardly anybody describes the exactions as constituting nothing more than extortion or armed robbery. Why not? Because the functionaries who assess and collect these sums of money — which they style “taxes,” not loot, plunder, or swag — are democratically elected “public officials.”
From a moral point of view, I am hard pressed to see how their employment status gives them a defensible right to act in ways that everyone would recognize as criminal if undertaken by a private individual. In political theory, a representative democratic government is said to derive its just powers by delegation from the people who are governed, with their consent. I assure you that I have never consented to have the various governments rob me, especially for the financing of countless activities that I consider to be useless, destructive, or inherently criminal. Regardless of the uses to which a government puts its booty, however, the people cannot justly delegate to political representatives any rights that they do not possess. If I do not have a right to plunder my neighbor, how can I delegate that right to a government functionary who purports to represent me?
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. He is also a columnist for LewRockwell.com. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.