Quo vadis, domine?


If voting could change anything, it would be illegal. ~ Kurt Tucholsky

I still remember sitting on the wooden benches in front of Blakley Library at the University of Dallas on an early summer morning years ago, reading The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth, (originally Liberalism) of von Mises, surely the most succinct statement of classical liberalism ever written. Looking down the brick concourse and up at the Braniff Tower and at the bright clouds in the hard Texas light, it was easy to think that here the great project of the Enlightenment, the application of science to the problems of society, was realized. How easy to make this my ambition: not to devise some labor-saving invention, but to make people free! How obvious that the von Mises distillation of thousands of minds aspiring to freedom would sweep all before it!

Well, the most purely classical liberal program in the history of our republic has just been set before this democracy by Ron Paul, and it has not caught fire. It should be fairly obvious that the great majority of adults, all of whom enjoy the franchise, are not only unable to recognize a defender of their freedom in Ron Paul, but given the u201Cspectacles of turbulence and contentionu201D in our democracy (substance abuse, obesity, the popularity of talk radio and the u201Cchoking gameu201D – I draw a distinction, celebrity worship, sports obsession, snake handling, UFO belief, psychic belief, occult belief, cult belief, belief that government prayer can cause rain in Atlanta), are unable to even use freedom to advance their own happiness. We must admit the Ron Paul failure in the 2008 presidential election and ask ourselves quo vadis, where do we go now? His candidacy and the youthful, passionate support it generated should counsel against despair. The real temptation to despair lies in this foremost challenge: How are we to bridle democracy? The Founders feared it as much as any tyranny, and for nearly two centuries their mechanisms of federalism and the dispersion of powers were the bit in its teeth.

Institutional constraints

Let's meet the temptation head-on, and proceed top down from there. To pursue in this country an antidemocratic alternative would be despair itself. But let's state the case provocatively. Which is more probable: that the premier of communist China would open his country to liberalism, or that the American public would pass an amendment limiting the growth of the federal government? That question has already been answered, and the friends of democracy are embarrassed. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping decided to turn Shenzhen, a tiny fishing village near Hong Kong, into a laboratory of capitalism (The Chinese, Becker, p70). Thirty years later Shenzhen is home to 12 million people and the seventh-tallest building in the world (Newsweek, 12-31-2007, p42). In 1983, in his book Tyranny of the Status Quo, Milton Friedman described a u201CConstitutional Amendment to Limit the Growth of Spending.” The notion was kicked around the democratic forum for some 15 years and died.

In the forceful Democracy: The God that Failed of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, anarchism and kingship are given plausibility. You may think that they have no practical force, but Hoppe's central critique, that democracy has no long-term incentive for preservation of capital, must be addressed by every realistic thinker. The answer may suggest some institutional mechanism for lowering the time preference of capital in a democracy. Practical or not, the Prince of Liechtenstein is apparently impressed enough to invite professor Hoppe over to Schloss Vaduz to talk about these ideas. Also, it is no small thing that the most learned man I have ever read, Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, was a persuasive monarchist.

u201CBridlingu201D democracy means limiting its scope. Before James Madison, it was thought that democracy could only succeed in small communities. The genius of the American Constitution is that it compartmentalizes the scope of democratic power through federalism so that it is safe for a nation of any size. In our original federal republic the public could vote directly only on matters where it had direct knowledge: the funding of the local school, or the character of the representative they were sending, not to the central government, but to the state congress. Now, not only has the purview of government grown, but the franchise votes on matters of which it has not the slightest knowledge. Along with the widening of the scope of both government and of matters controlled by the franchise has come the consolidation of government power at the center. If u201Cconsolidationu201D is an evil, and if unlimited purview is an evil, then surely consolidation of all-intrusive government under direct democracy is worse still. The failure of Friedman's rather modest Constitutional amendment to limit the federal leviathan shows the difficulty of that approach. Ayn Rand famously advocated u201Ca separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.u201D It's time for the Randians to put up or shut up on that score. Let them translate this sound bite into a specific Constitutional amendment, if they can.

At a lower level, many alternatives have been offered to simple plurality voting. Range voting is one of these. Olympic scoring, where an average of the judges' scores is determined, is one example of range voting, as is the YouTube rating system. For voters, this would mean that they list several alternatives, and the averages of all alternatives would determine the winner. According to mathematician and voting theorist William Poundstone, range voting is the most fair. A less-favored alternative to plurality voting is instant runoff voting, or IRV. Under this method you also list alternatives, but choices below your first one are not considered unless the first choice fails to win a plurality, in which case your vote transfers to a front-runner. This method is not a novelty. For example, the Australian lower house has been using it since 1922.

Rob Richie at has been trying to mend various flaws in the democratic process since 1992. One interesting proposal is impartial redistricting, which would fix the inherently biased redistricting by the party in power. Another interesting proposal addressing the flaws in the primary process is The American Plan of Thomas Gangale. This proposal would order the primary process from smaller states to larger, with the states ordered randomly within 10 groups. In other words, states with a u201Ctownhallu201D approach to candidates would hold primaries before media circus states.

At a still lower level, it might be possible to change the method of governance at the civic level, in other words, strive to create a model city. The difficulty here is that the city is doubly burdened by federal restraints of all kinds as well as by state law, which takes precedence in setting voting rules, in how a city charters itself, and in many other matters.

In situ constraints

In stark contrast to the foregoing institutional bridling of democracy is what we might call the in situ constraint of democracy. This is the option of those who take earnestly to heart Franklin's or Rose Wilder Lane's motto u201Cwherever liberty dwells, there is my country.” In this case, those dissatisfied with their democratic rulers turn the tables and in effect elect new ones for themselves elsewhere. Once again we move top down through the possibilities, starting with creating a land of liberty out of nothing. In 1972 this was the goal of Werner Stiefel's Operation Atlantis, whose attempt to create a new island in the Caribbean foundered in a hurricane, as it was of Michael Oliver's Republic of Minerva, who failed to create a sovereign state in the South Pacific as well as in the Bahamas. Less difficult than this might be migrating to a country more favorable to liberty. New Zealand, Switzerland, Iceland, Lithuania, Liechtenstein, or any of the top numbers in the Fraser Institute's u201CEconomic Freedom of the World Projectu201D might be candidates. The trouble is, citizenship in these countries is very difficult to acquire, and even then, as the history of New Zealand and others shows, their friendliness to liberal principles is not guaranteed. In other words, they are democracies.

Libertarian literature on secession is broad and favorable, as Thomas DiLorenzo, James Ostrowski, C.H. Wellman, and others attest. Unfortunately, this issue was settled by force, to the detriment of liberalism. Secession is so forthright and true that the prevailing powers cannot fail to whip up hysteria against it.

The Free State Project of Jason Sorens focuses on the conversion of a single U.S. state to liberal principles, by having a critical mass of voters move to the state. That critical mass is thought to be 20,000. However, this number is about equal to the number that migrate to the state for other reasons. And in spite of the appeal of the idea, so far only 8,234 have pledged and 518 have actually moved.

Finally in this broad category is the one who enfranchises his family or himself, moving opportunely anywhere in the world as he sees fit. This is the u201CSovereign Individualu201D of James Dale Davidson, who proposed it after exasperation with the half-measures of the National Taxpayers Union, which he had founded. While we may discount much of what Rothbard derided as u201Cspace cadetu201D features of Davidson's eponymous book – that is, the hyperbolic gushing that new technologies would transform and save everything – the principle works if you can afford it. Notably lacking in this kind of hyperbole is Bill Bonner, who is perhaps a better representative of the principle.

The long march

The institutional and in situ constraints above provide medium- and short-term solutions to the problem of democracy. There remains the u201Clong march through the institutions.u201D Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn has said that all politics is at bottom theology, especially meaning that our view of the nature of man – fixed and fallible for those on the right; plastic and perfectible for those on the left – determines what we think politics can do. But however belief may shape our fundamental views and our motives, it seems proper that the prevailing notion of the separation of church and state, which is broader than the Founders' stricture against an established church, should rule. If this were not so, there would be no testability or falsifiability of proposals said to have come from belief. An advocate could say, u201CThe Koran/Talmud/Bible says so, and that's an end of the discussion.u201D – And the start of the power struggle. If pastor Ted Haggard proposes limiting the advance of homosexual rights, let him cite Michael Fumento, not the Bible. If pastor John Hagee thinks that Israel should dictate American foreign policy, let him convince us without inventing a doctrine of dual salvation not found in the scripture he purports to literally believe.

A successful long march through the educational system empowered many of the intellectuals of the 1960s. The truly liberal path must go there as well. It should include home-schooling at the lower levels and acquisition of chairs at the higher level. The Ron Paul campaign proved that classical liberalism is on the side of youth. Failing to provide it for the generations to come would be to put out the light completely.

A shadow government – say alternate government, to distinguish it from the broodings of conspiracy theorists – should be established by Libertarians. By this I mean that classical liberal candidates should be named for every post in government, at every level. The lopsided percentage of Libertarians who are programmers should make this possible by providing a multiplayer online application for that purpose. In this same vein there should be an online u201CProgram for the First 100 Days of a Libertarian Administration.u201D The Libertarian party should provide a plug-in framework in all the states for these candidates, should the fickle electorate provide an opening to realize what had seemed to be an online game.

And finally, where are the wealthy businessmen and rich eccentrics when you need them? If someone can waste $20 million for a bad ride into space, can't he be persuaded to be the David Koch for a good cause? I am convinced that this could happen if a committee of influential Libertarians determined to do it. A similar committee should also be created to effect the spectacular conversion of a u201Cmainstreamu201D Republican with Libertarian leanings.

I offer this map more as a sketch than a blueprint. But two things I think are not provisional: that we have much to be optimistic about, and that the first step from the defeat of Ron Paul must address the failings of democracy.

February 25, 2008