Democracy, or Who Made You King?

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