Democracy vs. Civilization

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