America’s Other Democracy
William H. Peterson
by William H. Peterson
America worships a demigod in our media, legislatures, textbooks
broadcasting a one-word message, "Democracy," to
a near-deaf world. Near-deaf? Why? Well, such worship of democracy
hasn’t always been shared or sought. Hear, for example, the prescient
speech of Benjamin Disraeli, a young novelist and thinker
then a back-bench Tory M.P. but later twice becoming Britain’s Prime
Minister in the House of Commons, March 31, 1850 (Mencken,
New Dictionary of Quotations, Knopf, 1942, p. 484):
you establish a democracy, you must in due time reap the fruits
of democracy. You will in due season have great impatience of
the public burdens, combined in due season with great increase
of public expenditure. You will in due season have wars entered
into from passion and not from reason; and you will in due season
submit to peace ignominiously sought and ignominiously obtained,
which will diminish your authority and perhaps endanger your independence.
[Per Vietnam and Iraq, Dear Reader?] You will in due season find
your property is less valuable, your freedom less complete."
ruminate on this corroborative editorial in The London Times
shortly afterward on February 7, 1852 (ibid., p. 940): "Concealment,
evasion, factious combinations, the surrender of convictions to
party objects, and the systematic pursuit of expediency are things
of daily occurrence among men of the highest character, once embarked
in the contentions of political life."
Dear Reader, let’s seek out the political implications of Disraeli’s
prescience and that London Times editorial. Note first how
earlier thinkers on democracy were like-minded. Plato, for example,
saw democracy in his Republic (c. 370 B.C., Bartlett’s 15th
ed., p. 85) as "a charming form of government, full of variety
and disorder, and dispensing a kind of equality to equals and unequals
alike." Aristotle in his Rhetoric (c. 322 B.C., Mencken, op.
cit., p. 275) also censured democracy as "when put to the strain,
grows weak, and is supplanted by oligarchy." So later thinkers
such as George Bernard Shaw hit democracy in his Maxims for Revolutionists
(1903, ibid., p. 277) for substituting "election by the incompetent
many for appointment by the corrupt few." Or as economist Hans-Hermann
Hoppe at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, who in his Democracy
The God That Failed (Transaction, 2001, p. 96), holds
that "majorities of ‘have-nots’ will relentlessly try to enrich
themselves at the expense of the ‘haves’."
take account of how America’s Founding Fathers themselves suspected
political democracy of mindless self-extinction for the habit of
many voters to embrace "factions" or special interests.
James Madison spoke for his peers in No. 10 of The
Federalist Papers (Mod. Lib. ed., p. 58). Here he worried
over the lures to a majority to "sacrifice the weaker party
or an obnoxious individual," adding that "such democracies
have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever
been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of
property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they
have been violent in their deaths."
wonder the very word democracy is missing throughout the entire
Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Indeed,
note how sternly anti-democratic are the first five words of the
First Amendment on matters of abridging religion, speech, press,
assembly, and petition: "Congress shall pass no law .... "
Repeat, "pass no law." So Ben Franklin, asked outside
Independence Hall what kind of state the Fathers produced, replied
with a famous proviso, "A republic, if you can keep it."
Big if. I think Old Ben was warning us:
political democracy grows the individual shrinks.
voilà see how Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises
lit up an unknown yet safe and highly effective daily democracy.
In 1922 in his book Socialism
he saw it at work in our vast marketplace. See it around you today:
from the shopping mall to online buying to ordering by telephone
to getting cigarettes from a vending machine to filling up at the
gas pump by credit card to business consumers ordering supplies
for their operations. So do all these market voters vote, as a rule,
not but every other year but again and again every day. Check Socialism
(Liberty Classics, 1981, p. 11), which gives such democracy a crucially-needed
political dimension today. As Mises wrote: "When we call a
capitalist society a consumers’ democracy we mean that the power
to dispose of the means of production, which belongs to the entrepreneurs
and capitalists, can only be acquired by means of the consumers’
ballot, held daily in the marketplace." Democracy? Voting daily,
hourly, or even more often than that? Exactly. Mises stood on solid
just what is political democracy? Well, check its Greek roots: rule
or "kratia" by the people, the "demos." But
see the mean politics of Big Government today and ask: Who rules
whom? Why do state hegemony and intervention, deficit finance and
shady politics, reign if not rage today as near givens in America
and over the democratic West, why does the free individual fade,
how come inflation (of money and credit) ever bites into the value
of currencies across the globe (in the U.S. M.D.s charged $2 for
an office visit, $3 a home visit in 1930 when I was growing up in
Jersey City (today an office visit can cost $80), when a first-class
stamp cost two cents but 37 cents now , when a N.Y.C. subway ride
cost a nickel but now $2, when I worked at the A&P for the minimum
hourly wage of 25 cents (if I now curse the very idea of a minimum
wage)? And, why does our very political majoritarianism tend to
divide or even polarize society us vs. them, them vs. us
so graphically on view in the late unlamented 2004 presidential
I say "Three Cheers" for free capitalism, private property
rights, the Mises market democracy, all punished and deeply misunderstood
today, yet still the very fount of our wellbeing and employment.
Hope then that in the heat of current debate of what passes for
public policy, market democracy will be reborn, rethought, and reinforced.
Note its basis in equal rights (so unequal today) and a limited
state (so unlimited today). Note how it stars entrepreneurs with
their private tools of production of goods and services, how they’re
ever goaded by competition to ply consumers with more for less,
how fallible executives, when exposed (Enron, Tyco, etc.), get hit
far faster by the stock market than by the courts or the Securities
and Exchange Commission. For firms are led by and, if need be, democratically
punished by their customers, by their, said Mises, "sovereign
consumers" everywhere. Note their make-or-break "orders"
(what a word) and their key price signals of "demand"
(again, what a word). So market democracy enthrones you, Mr./Ms.
Consumer, or for another metaphor, puts you in the driver’s seat.
then, thanks to rabid state interventionism, our berated, underrated,
much overregulated and overtaxed, much misread and misapplied, capitalism?
Yet isn’t it still, per our Founders (though capitalism as a word
had yet to be coined by Karl Marx) a royal road to social cooperation,
a vast vital network of private governments of the people, by the
people, for the people, all via much-used withdrawable individual
A key to liberty. For in a free society are countless hierarchies
of power, governances such as The New York Times, Harvard,
New York Stock Exchange, Microsoft, Southern Baptists, Salvation
Army, Wal-Mart and some 25 million other firms, farms and organizations;
yet all are totally dependent on withdrawable individual assent.
So you can switch from GM to Ford, from Yale to MIT, from Burger
King to McDonald’s. And vice versa. Talk of democracy! Of your decisive
market freedom to choose.
anyone? Yes. But which one? For isn’t today’s political democracy
a shield for a Pax Americana for democratizing a sinful globe, with
the focus now on the raging undemocratic Middle East? But doesn’t
this serve up Jouvenel’s classic riddle (74 AD): Sed quis custodiet
ipsos custodes? (But who is to guard the guards themselves?) Thomas
Paine saw the fix in 1776 in his Common
Sense as "a necessary evil."
wonder Bismarck likened the legislative process to the unsightly
conversion of pigs into sausages. Or per Churchill, democracy is
the least awful way to effect a peaceful change of political power.
Or per Mencken, an election amounts to an advance auction of stolen
goods. Or held Swiss thinker Felix Somary in his Democracy at
Bay (Knopf, 1952, p. 6): Political democracy blends two "fictions,"
one the idea that "an entire people can assume sovereignty,"
the other the idea of "the innate goodness of man."
let me, Dear Reader, juxtapose America’s Political Democracy with
the Mises idea of Consumer Democracy to clarify which is which,
and ask you with both democracies needful of repairs
which needs the most by far?
In one democracy you vote only every other year for candidates (who
may not win) to "represent" you and many others indirectly
on myriad issues. In the other, you vote daily, often, directly
in a sense, one on one for specific vendors, goods,
or services, in an endless plebiscite that goes on every minute
of every day, with dollars as ballots. Yes, some get more ballots
than others. Yet Mises saw this outcome as mostly passing, as consumers
themselves vote "poor people rich and rich people poor"
Action, Yale University Press, 1949, p. 270).
one democracy is public, the other private. One, unequipped with
what Mises called "economic calculation," hires no profit-and-loss
bean counters and so funds failing programs and choiceless public
schools, the other, equipped with economic calculation, does hire
bean counters and lets failing firms and weak private schools fail,
as sovereign consumers withdraw their life support. One democracy
is coercive and centralized, the other voluntary and decentralized.
One runs, inadvertently, a growth-impeding win-lose zero-sum game,
the other, also inadvertently, runs a pro-growth win-win positive-sum
game. This difference, alone, sets America’s future, likely including
democracy runs by politics and legal monopoly (such as public schools,
Social Security, Medicare, U.S. Postal Service, and the Federal
Reserve central bank). Yes, people in this democracy do vote periodically,
if unmindful of Henry David Thoreau’s Civil
Disobedience of 1849. Thoreau saw "little virtue in
the action of masses of men" and voting as "a sort of
gaming." The other also votes but far more often and directly
as it runs a consumer democracy by market economics and competition.
One democracy forgets the individual, per Yale’s William Graham
Sumner’s famed "The Forgotten Man" public lecture in 1883,
the other remembers him/her most accountably if not beholdenly (if
imperfectly per that spam in your PC).
democracy seeks legal plunder and plays incumbency ruses: compromises
with principle, gerrymandering, log-rolling, grandstanding, warmongering,
free-lunch guises such as big federal "grants" (bribes?)
to states and localities ($352 billion, annualized, 2nd
qtr., 2004), the other is cleansed by competition and cost-cutting
by demonstrated producer actions aimed at pleasing consumers,
in Milton Friedman’s phrase, free to choose.
democracy veers to electioneering, an amoral short run, the other
to moral contracts and the longer run. One, armed with coercive
power, yields to Acton’s law that power tends to corrupt and absolute
power corrupts absolutely. Yet the other, if gloriously voluntaristic,
can sometimes slip into corporate misbehavior sly ways of
manipulating money or getting into bed with political power to win
anti-consumer import quotas, subsidies, special tax relief and other
mischief via special interests, despite President Eisenhower’s 1961
farewell warning against a "military-industrial complex."
democracy glorifies war, including class warfare, the other glorifies
peaceful trade in a virtual global concordance on private property
rights (if widely derided as "globalization") per
IBM’s old motto of "World Peace Through World Trade."
One entered World War One, naïvely, as "The War to End
War" and "Make the World Safe for Democracy." Some
democracy! Reaping Lenin and Stalin in Russia, Hitler in Germany,
Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain, Tojo in Japan, Tito in Yugoslavia,
Mao in China, Peron in Argentina, Castro in Cuba, Allende in Chile,
Pol Pot in Cambodia, Chavez in Venezuela, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, with
lesser imitators throughout Asia, Africa, Central Europe, Latin
America, and the Middle East. Yet the U.S. still seeks to "democratize"
the turbulent Middle East, citing Japan and Germany as post-World
War II successes, yet remaining silent on failures such as North
Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, and Haiti (the Clinton
military action there gamely tagged as "Operation Democracy").
democracy rues income disparity and, like Robin Hood, "transfers"
wealth, the other, per John F. Kennedy launching a big across-the-board
tax cut in 1962, "lifts all boats." One denies itself
crucial market feedback data, or, again, what Mises called "economic
calculation," predicting in 1920 the ultimate implosion of
socialism à la the USSR, the other uses that calculation
to help allocate limited resources to their perceived optimum market
uses. One wastes capital and talent (human capital), the other saves
and invests it self-interestedly, yes. Yet, if under a moral code
and the rule of law, it does so spontaneously, harmoniously, constructively,
as Hayek abundantly demonstrated.
democracy tends to divide or even polarize the people and works
the dubious rule of winner-take-all, sometimes touching off revolution
or war. The other is inherently peaceful and explains the success
of the West via the Adam Smith "invisible hand" idea of
sharing self-interest in a system of "natural liberty,"
of self-help by helping others, including the poor or per his famed
line in The
Wealth of Nations (1776, Mod. Lib. ed., p. 14): "It
is not from the benevolence of the butcher, or the brewer, or the
baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard of their
own interest." No question capitalism or market democracy is
far and away our greatest, most hopeful democracy. Yet this friendly
peace-inducing democracy is, as such, nearly unknown, invisible,
and, because it’s driven by "evil" profits, frowned upon
here and abroad.
facing us are three challenges: Challenge One, can we free up our
market democracy from the tightening binds of preemptive heavy taxation,
regulation, and power grab, to bring it into broad public grasp,
approval, and esteem? Challenge Two, can we use America’s second
democracy to widen individual freedom and help tame or relimit political
democracy à la our Founding Fathers in 1776? And Challenge Three,
will we welsh on what freedom remains and let political democracy
with its latent authoritarianism go the way it did in Ancient Greece?
there’s a better way, a far freer way, the way of IBM’s Thomas J.
Watson and his motto of "World Peace Though World Trade,"
the Mises way of Consumer Democracy.
it power to the people or, better, America’s Other Democracy.
Peterson [send him mail],
studied under Mises at NYU in 1950–1969 and taught economics at
NYU, is an adjunct scholar at the Mises
Institute. Above, largely drawn from his article in the December
is the introduction to his book in progress, Letter
to Mr./Ms. America: Re Our Other Democracy – The Vital, Vibrant
One Coordinating Choice and Change.
© 2004 LewRockwell.com