Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”     Winston Churchill

December 23, 2008

Well-Needed Lambast Of Democracy-Worship

by Brad Warbiany

I’ve come out with criticisms of democracy at many times in the past. I believe simple “majority rule”, which is what democracy is, is not a very good form of government. When most westerners think of “democracy”, they actually think of a western liberal form of government similar to that we have in the USA, where the government is hamstrung from becoming too heavy-handed by the natural history of the culture (in our case, English common law and natural rights doctrine), and Constitutional limits on the scope of power. Thus, many applaud the spread of “democracy” around the world, but do not understand that democracy without the above restraints ceases to be a good form of government.

I’ve pointed out that those restraints are beginning to crumble here in the USA, and we’ll all be worse for it. TJIC, along the same lines, gives his take on democracy:

I continue to assert that the leftist love affair with “democracy” is a horrid mistake. Or, rather, democracy is something horrible, and leftists love it for that very reason. Justice and freedom are the two important things in society, and democracy is neither – it is a tool whereby the political leaders are selected. Certainly, there is some reason to believe that a polity with a feedback loop whereby the worst leaders can – maybe – be ejected from power via the ballot box is preferable to the identical system where no leader can ever be ejected from power … but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement of democracy as the be-all, end-all of governance.

I am convinced that leftists love democracy, though, particularly because it does not promise freedom. Individual freedom (a negative right; an ability to say that government may not do something) is often distasteful to leftists, and “democracy” is an ideology that makes it easy to subvert the desire to stop government. “Stop government?” they say “why, the government is not something ‘other’ – the government is just you and me! All of us, working together, to accomplish a common goal! Now, it’s only fair that we the people …”, and thus begins the justification for all manner of theft, destruction and regulation.

I spoke about Libertarianism and Democracy two years ago, where the salient point is this:

Libertarianism isn’t anti-Democracy. In fact, the statement itself is nonsensical. Libertarianism is a moral system, valuing individual liberty as it’s highest ideal. Democracy is a form of government, consisting of majority rule. Or, to make it more plain, liberty is an end, democracy is a means to an end.

Unrestrained democracy does not always (some would say not even usually) lead to liberty. In fact, democracy is a subterfuge by which liberty can be restrained. The majority is often wrong, and many infringements of liberty (slavery, Jim Crow and segregation) were upheld by the majority. It’s not that I’m opposed to majority rule; I’m opposed to unjust rule. Unjust rule is far more difficult to defeat when it is justified by “the will of the people”.

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20 Comments

  1. In that a true democracy can and does lead to essentially mob rule is a historical given. However, what we are seeing in our government at all levels is the excuse of democracy being used to cover the actions of elected representatives who do not have either the philosophical inclinations nor the best interests of those who elected them at heart.

    Historically, when there is a great divide between government and the people, *trouble* follows.

    Comment by Harry Rossman — December 23, 2008 @ 9:25 am
  2. The leftist love affair with “democracy”? Is he serious?

    Remind me again who rammed all those bigot amendments through the ballot boxes citing “the will of the people”?

    Good grief.

    Comment by KipEsquire — December 23, 2008 @ 11:11 am
  3. I have to agree with Kip – both sides like to use “democracy” as an excuse for the infringement of the rights of others when it is convenient for them to do so, and both sides are more than happy to rely on anti-democratic arguments when it results in the infringements of rights of their constituents.

    Comment by Mark — December 23, 2008 @ 11:30 am
  4. Kip,

    I’d thought about clarifying — I have no illusions that this is necessarily a “leftist” phenomenon. You’ll notice I didn’t allude to it being a leftist phenomenon in my original content, but perhaps I would have been better served mentioning my issues with the “leftist” portion in the quoted text. Mea culpa.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — December 23, 2008 @ 10:49 pm
  5. “…I have to agree with Kip – both sides like to use “democracy” as an excuse for the infringement of the rights of others…”

    Mark is correct. All you have to do is look at the last ‘Republican’ congress. They were kicked out because they proved beyond any doubt that they were exactly the same as those ‘Democrats’ that were replaced.

    It doesn’t matter which philosophy you choose. If you take it far enough, you wind up with a dictatorship of some form. Different reasons, different methods, same face.

    Comment by Harry Rossman — December 24, 2008 @ 8:21 am
  6. Merry Christmas Brad…..

    Comment by Lucy Stern — December 25, 2008 @ 4:38 am
  7. I vote for a Merry Christmas too. :-)

    Comment by Akston — December 25, 2008 @ 10:41 am
  8. “It’s not that I’m opposed to majority rule; I’m opposed to unjust rule. Unjust rule is far more difficult to defeat when it is justified by ‘the will of the people’.”

    It’s also far less likely to occur in the first place. Trouble always follows a major division between the government and the public. The above quote from the original post points to what is, from a liberal perspective, a bizarre quirk in American “Libertarian” thinking (perhaps “thinking” should be in quotes there, as well, in this instance). The theorists of liberal democracy wouldn’t deny that unjust things can happen under democratic rule; they would, however, deny that an anti-democratic system was even capable of being “just rule.” One is forever left with the impression that the ideal government as envisioned by American “Libertarians” is a dictatorship, one they’d regard as benevolent, that unvaryingly enacts their ideology, and over which the public has no say. Contrary to this, liberal theorists would argue that having a say in their own government is a fundamental right of every individual. Liberalism, as it emerged from the Enlightenment, is the eternal enemy of absolutism. A government over which we have no say is, by definition, unjust.

    Comment by j. of j. & Jenn — December 26, 2008 @ 3:26 pm
  9. j.

    I suppose, then, that you’re in favor of sharia law in the countries who have democratically chosen it?

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — December 27, 2008 @ 4:36 pm
  10. j. -

    A government over which we have no say is, by definition, unjust.

    This is true, but a libertarian government is *never* one over which the people have no say. The rights of the people are the center of the government, clearly proscribing its powers. People have say to enforce these rights by seeking redress against the government through the courts.

    Which is more just, a government where a majority vote could cause anything to be done to anyone or a government where a majority vote could only cause certain things to happen and where the government was answerable to individuals when it stepped outside its bounds? The former is democracy in its highest form. The latter is a good model for libertarian government. Take your pick.

    Comment by Quincy — December 27, 2008 @ 6:11 pm
  11. “I suppose, then, that you’re in favor of sharia law in the countries who have democratically chosen it?”

    Sharia law is theocratic and authoritarian, which, on its face, renders it incompatible with modern liberal democracy. If you “democratically” chose to eliminate the very elements necessary for a functional democratic society–the ability to freely debate issues, to participate in the political process, etc.–you pretty much end democracy. If you democratically elect a Stalin, who does what Stalins do, you don’t have a democratic state.

    It should also be noted that sharia law is virtually never democratically adopted. In almost every case, it’s an imposition of the male portion of an elite or of a privileged ethnic group, and, among other things, usually (but not always) strips women–who outnumber the men–of virtually all rights.

    Comment by j. of j. & Jenn — December 27, 2008 @ 9:45 pm
  12. “Which is more just, a government where a majority vote could cause anything to be done to anyone or a government where a majority vote could only cause certain things to happen and where the government was answerable to individuals when it stepped outside its bounds? The former is democracy in its highest form. The latter is a good model for libertarian government. Take your pick.”

    The assertion that the former equals “democracy in its highest form” is just nonsense. That is, in fact, democracy in its most primitive, least sophisticated form. Modern liberal democracies have adopted, as basic features, systems of representation, protections of fundamental rights, and so on. They’ve done it for centuries.

    You argue that “a libertarian government is *never* one over which the people have no say,” but any government in which the people have a say will sometimes do things with which you disagree. That will always be the case. The American “Libertarians” always become lost in theory, and put far too many things under that category of what people aren’t allowed to do through government–they favor people having a say only as long as people don’t say they want something American “Libertarian” ideology finds objectionable. Then, their say in things becomes “unjust.”

    The problem this runs into is that a great deal of what this ideology would disallow are things people consider fundamental to a healthy society. Workplace safety regulations, the 8-hour day, the minimum wage–things of this nature. “Libertarians” don’t just disagree with these democratically enacted measures; they present them as oppressive measures of an overreaching government, a view practically everyone would regard as bizarre in the extreme. People had to fight and die for such measures for years, and they did so because they didn’t want to live in a society that treated people the way they were being treated. These measures step on no fundamental rights–fundamental rights were being stepped on by the lack of them, and they were finally enacted, after years of struggle, because government was having to resort to ever-increasing violence in order to enforce the false notion of “laissez faire,” against the wishes of the public. If you enact a system that leaves people in bad situations with no legal recourse for changing things, then keep them in line with rifles, they stop caring about that system.

    –j.

    Comment by j. of j. & Jenn — December 27, 2008 @ 11:48 pm
  13. Time to trot out the apocryphal quote

    Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.”

    There are other variations and many attributions, but the point is that without constraints on what is up for vote and what is not, anyone can end up the sheep in such a situation.

    In America, that constraint starts with the limits in the U. S. Constitution. Incoming presidents swear an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” They do this because Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution explicitly obligates them to do so. The reason they swear an oath to the Constitution (not the people or the country) is because the Constitution was designed to be a major limiting factor on the power of government.

    Libertarians generally hold that government should be as small as possible. This is partly to keep any potential abuses as small as possible. Many functions are performed democratically, but not all topics are supposed to be available for vote.

    When libertarians argue against democracy, it’s not because they prefer dictatorships, theocracies or plutocracies. The opposite of democratic rule does not have to be totalitarian rule. A system can be designed where rule itself is limited to the minimum necessary for peaceful interaction of its free citizens. This system would require a written template explicitly defining which issues would call for majority approval and government enforcement, and which issues are not in the purview of the government at all. In America, this written template is called a constitution.

    I’ll take living in a Constitutional Republic over a Democracy any day.

    Comment by Akston — December 27, 2008 @ 11:53 pm
  14. These measures step on no fundamental rights–fundamental rights were being stepped on by the lack of them

    j -

    There are three fundamental rights: life, liberty, and property. Please name which of these were stepped on by lack of an 8-hour day or a minimum wage. (Employers being held accountable for workplace safety I won’t argue with you on.)

    Comment by Quincy — December 28, 2008 @ 12:47 am
  15. j.

    Sharia law is theocratic and authoritarian, which, on its face, renders it incompatible with modern liberal democracy. If you “democratically” chose to eliminate the very elements necessary for a functional democratic society–the ability to freely debate issues, to participate in the political process, etc.–you pretty much end democracy. If you democratically elect a Stalin, who does what Stalins do, you don’t have a democratic state.

    You’re making the same fallacy I argue against in my post:

    When most westerners think of “democracy”, they actually think of a western liberal form of government similar to that we have in the USA, where the government is hamstrung from becoming too heavy-handed by the natural history of the culture (in our case, English common law and natural rights doctrine), and Constitutional limits on the scope of power.

    The word “democracy” is not synonymous with “modern liberal democracy”. In the US (and most western countries) — as Akston points out — we live in a Constitutional Republic with many democratic processes. We do not live in a “Democracy”. However, the poor mangling of words (coupled with the poor mangling of thought) in today’s America makes it very easy for people to get confused on this point.

    I’m merely trying to wake those people up.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — December 28, 2008 @ 8:37 am
  16. “In America, that constraint starts with the limits in the U. S. Constitution. Incoming presidents swear an oath to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’ They do this because Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution explicitly obligates them to do so. The reason they swear an oath to the Constitution (not the people or the country) is because the Constitution was designed to be a major limiting factor on the power of government.”

    Actually, it’s because the constitution is the controlling instrument by which they rule, their source of authority. And what is *its* source of authority? It tells you: “We, the people…” It’s there because people agreed on it as a practical means of governing. If they ever disagree, they can change it at will. They are the source of authority.

    “When libertarians argue against democracy, it’s not because they prefer dictatorships, theocracies or plutocracies. The opposite of democratic rule does not have to be totalitarian rule.”

    All governments have a controlling authority. If it isn’t the people, it’s going to be a monarch, a dictator, a theocrat, or just someone with a lot of guns. Like it or not, as a practical matter, those who are governed by a government that derives its authority from the consent of the populace, are the only real depositories of our rights and of the powers of that government. The best anyone can do is make a case for what they’d prefer to see happen.

    –j.

    Comment by j. of j. & Jenn — December 28, 2008 @ 10:15 pm
  17. “You’re making the same fallacy I argue against in my post”

    No, actually, you’re committing the same fallacy opponents of democracy have frequently made–completely ignoring history (the physical and intellectual development of democratic ideas), so narrowly defining the concept that it’s something that never existed in the real world at all, then insisting that this torturously narrow definition of a thing that doesn’t exist be the full extent of the proper definition of democracy. Unfortunately for you, democracy does have a history, it has evolved over time, there is a body of democratic theory, and all of that does trump your reading from the dictionary.

    “The word ‘democracy’ is not synonymous with ‘modern liberal democracy’.”

    No, but modern liberal democracy is one of its highest forms to date. If you’re going to critique contemporary democracy, that’s where you have to start.

    –j.

    Comment by j. of j. & Jenn — December 28, 2008 @ 10:31 pm
  18. “There are three fundamental rights: life, liberty, and property. Please name which of these were stepped on by lack of an 8-hour day or a minimum wage.”

    The right to all of those things, of course. People who were at the mercy of their employers were being literally worked to death for “wages” barely worthy of the name. The various legislation that developed over time was aimed at putting a stop to that, and people had to fight for it for decades.

    “(Employers being held accountable for workplace safety I won’t argue with you on.)”

    That is wise (and puts you well outside of the American “Libertarian” mainstream).

    –j.

    Comment by j. of j. & Jenn — December 28, 2008 @ 10:51 pm
  19. j –

    The right to all of those things, of course. People who were at the mercy of their employers were being literally worked to death for “wages” barely worthy of the name. The various legislation that developed over time was aimed at putting a stop to that, and people had to fight for it for decades.

    That’s a rather evasive answer. A blanket assertion with no evidence. Nice try.

    While looking at history, many of the workplace practices that led to the reforms you cite as “fundamental to a civilized society” were coercive. Employers exercised force, or the threat of it, to keep employees in line and not complaining. No libertarian anywhere would support this, and indeed in a libertarian society the employee would be able to hold the employer accountable for that coercion and its consequences.

    That said, there is no reason that an employee should not be able to voluntarily agree to work more than an 8-hour day or for less than the minimum wage. Several times over the past year I’ve put in 14- or 16- hour days trying to meet a deadline. Doing so was my choice. I could easily have asked for an extension, but chose to grind it out instead.

    Likewise, there are some situations where people would gladly be employed for less than the minimum wage, but cannot do so legally. So, they are forced instead into the underground economy where they are open to all sorts of abuse with little or no recourse. I see this *ALL THE TIME*. We liberatians argue that these people would be better off seeking above-board employment on their own terms.

    Also, there is a major discrepancy in your thinking I’d like to call out. You say:

    Workplace safety regulations, the 8-hour day, the minimum wage–things of this nature. “Libertarians” don’t just disagree with these democratically enacted measures; they present them as oppressive measures of an overreaching government, a view practically everyone would regard as bizarre in the extreme.

    You also say:

    Actually, it’s because the constitution is the controlling instrument by which they rule, their source of authority. And what is *its* source of authority? It tells you: “We, the people…” It’s there because people agreed on it as a practical means of governing. If they ever disagree, they can change it at will. They are the source of authority.

    Federal law regulates labor conditions of companies that do not do business across state lines. The US Constitution contains no provision for such activities. If, as you say, the people have enshrined the Constitution as the controlling instrument of the government, are they free to then circumvent it without changing it? If so, is it not true that any protections put in place by the people may also be taken away by them, and does this not reduce the state of our government to a democracy where the people can vote to do anything they so desire?

    Comment by Quincy — December 28, 2008 @ 11:31 pm
  20. j.

    Like it or not, as a practical matter, those who are governed by a government that derives its authority from the consent of the populace, are the only real depositories of our rights and of the powers of that government. The best anyone can do is make a case for what they’d prefer to see happen.

    Okay, so what if I don’t consent? What if, for example, you and 50%+1 of your friends decide something, for which I do not consent? Have your votes made me consent? I don’t see how. So where does this authority come from again?

    No, but modern liberal democracy is one of its highest forms to date. If you’re going to critique contemporary democracy, that’s where you have to start.

    Oh, so you’re talking about taking a populace with a long-standing respect for the rule of law, a long-standing respect for individual rights, and then limiting the discussion to only democracies governed by those groups. Who’s cherry-picking now?

    How about we use a standard definition for “electoral democracy”, as defined by an organization, Freedom House, who regularly compiles this data year by year. This is a list of countries over the years defined as “electoral democracies”. If you scroll over to 2008, you’ll see the current list. For the sake of argument, the definition of “electoral democracy” refers to a state where there are multiple political parties and a general approximation of free elections. To give an idea of where their biases lie, Venezuela is still considered an electoral democracy, but Zimbabwe (where they do hold elections but they are heavily rigged) is not.

    “Electoral democracy” is not the same as “liberal democracy”. Liberal democracy may be — as you say — the “highest” form of this type of government, but to generalize about “democracy” based on that observation is like saying that because Hondas and Toyotas are the highest form of automobiles, that a Fiat will also be reliable.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — December 29, 2008 @ 9:16 am

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