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Is democracy the best we can do?

By J.K. Baltzersen
web posted November 4, 2019

When discussing democracy in public discourse, it is almost as if it is assumed that the conclusion in favor of democracy is a given presumption. Is it really that simple?

Was Churchill Right?

The Churchill dictum on democracy is well-known: that democracy is the least bad of all forms of government (among those tried). However, it is important to keep in mind that there was a certain context for this statement.

The statement was made in November of 1947. A long, hard war had ended just over two years prior, a war between Western democracies (and Stalin’s Soviet Union) on one side and Nazi and fascist dictatorship on the other. In this context, it is pretty obvious which regime type in the conflict is preferable. It was also at the start of the Cold War, with Western democracies in conflict with the Communist block, again obvious what to prefer.

A democratic politician supporting democracy in a speech before his own legislature, the House of Commons, should not come as a surprise. Might we even consider such speeches with a grain of salt? Churchill was speaking as political leader in a relatively successful liberal democracy. Particularly, the statement came as part of a speech in opposition to further emasculation of the House of Lords. That might strike at least some as ironic.

When Churchill the following year had the first volume of his six-volume work on World War II published, writing extensively on World War I, one could read a comparison of how the aristocrats following the Napoleonic wars made peace and how democratic politicians made peace at Versailles following World War I. In that comparison the aristocrats could easily be perceived, in the view of Churchill, as the better ones. Also, Churchill had good praise for the bygone world of the Habsburgs, not normally seen as a democratic ideal.

Francis Fukuyama is also among the prominent proponents of democracy, proclaiming at the end of the Cold War liberal, capitalist democracy as the end of history, not so much in the sense that history is unidirectional, but in the sense that liberal, capitalist democracy is the highest form of human civilization, and that there are driving forces promoting this form of government/society, notably universal recognition. Yet Fukuyama does recognize the growth of modern government – in his two-volume work on the history of government (modern government “being very large”).

Liberal democracy is what is often meant when one just says democracy. Liberal democracy implies certain liberal traditions in addition to mere majority rule. However, there is no definite, authoritative, precise definition of liberal democracy either.

Is Liberal Democracy Doomed?

Although liberal democracy does imply that there are limits to majority rule. But then again, experience shows that there are limits to the limits. Liberal democracy includes large welfare states; it apparently includes Sweden, where the authoress Astrid Lindgren in the 1970s responded to a 102 percent tax level. (More recently, the Swedish think tank Timbro  has revisited the issue, showing that the marginal tax rate was between 101 and 102 percent, but that it was lowered to 85 percent, and that Mrs. Lindgren did pay 87.5 percent tax in total of her 1976 1.2 million SEK income – an income equaling roughly 300,000 USD.) It also apparently allows for mass surveillance and arbitrary, intrusive treatment of visitors and own citizens crossing borders, just to name a very few examples.

In this age of Trump, there has been a load of doomsday literature, predicting the end of democracy. Or is it the end of liberal democracy? One of these doomsday books is How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in which a major point is that Donald Trump takes the polarization between Republicans and Democrats to a new level, and that this polarization is threatening (liberal) democracy.

Perhaps so. Words and how we speak with each other is certainly not without importance. However, actions are more important, which one could suspect is not the case when comparing the reactions to Trump's words with the reactions to bombing other people's countries back to the stone age. That being said, polarization is not necessarily. Let's say it denotes a move away from a culture of shoving violations against liberty under the rug.

But let's have a look at something that might be underrated as threat to liberal democracy, For decades politicos have been saying things such as "democracy must be something more than majority rule," but when stepping down from the podium after having given fancy rhetorical speeches, they pretty much leave their ideals at the podium; in their actions majority rule is much more important than limits to that majority rule, or at least so it is perceived by a great number of people.

This leaves two problems:

  1. When majority rule has been near deified, it is hard to tell people they cannot (collectively) do as they like because that would be stepping over the minimal limits to majority rule set in a liberal democracy.
  2. When people perceive the talk of limits to majority rule as little more than mere rhetoric, they lose faith in liberal democracy as a system for limiting government.

The deification of majority rule and the extent to which the size and the reach of the state has grown under liberal democracy may in this way be a threat to liberal democracy itself.

Do the Limits Suffice?

Yes, there are limits to majority rule in a liberal democracy. But if you want to limit the power of the majority, you have the burden of proof. Slavery is considered a crime against humanity, but the government can tax you way in excess of 50 % – and in the case of Astrid Lindgren in Sweden of the 1970s it was apparently in excess of 100 %. In the cases where there are clear and obvious rights violations, you may stand a chance; otherwise, it's mostly hopeless.

It has been said that liberal democracy is based on compromise. Yes, liberty is compromised – much more often than not. And compromises are made on your behalf without you ever having consented.

Keeping within the limited limits of government power in a liberal democracy, the majority does whatever it pleases, as long as they follow constitutional and other legal procedures for doing so, which normally involves letting the opposition have its say. That's comforting. The government takes 80 % of your earnings, but they're generous enough to let you say what you think about it. How charitable!

As the saying goes, in a democracy you can say as you please, but you're to do as you're damn well told!

Systems of government with their limits can be illustrated with a set of circles, some more inner, some more outer. A night-watchman's state is a rather small circle. A liberal democracy tends to be a rather wide circle, while there certainly are wider circles, notably the totalitarian regimes that rose in the 20th century.

Under the rule of law, what is not explicitly forbidden is allowed. That works very well for the laws that apply to individuals. However, if that also is how a liberal democracy's constitution applies to the government, it may have very dire consequences for liberty.

The federal constitution of the United States is arguably – de jure at least – an exception to this rule, with the enumerated powers clause and the 10th amendment. Certainly it would be great if this principle were far more abided by. However, we must remember that this is a clause in a federal constitution, a clause which puts no bounds on government at lower levels.

There is, of course, also the 9th amendment, which references non-enumerated, non-codified rights. With the fading of natural law, and the rise of the modern democratic state, it is, however, hard to see how this in practice is applicable today.

But what am I complaining about? Isn't modern liberal democracy the greatest success in human history? Yes, and that's because the liberal part of that term. It is due to the liberal traditions, largely from before the rise of modern democracy. The success also comes from the exercise of self-restraint on use of power on part of the majority or the majority representatives.

Are Voters Rational?

It is often claimed that in order for a democracy to work well the electorate must be educated/enlightened. Bryan Caplan, Jason Brennan, and Ilya Somin give good portions of balance against the belief that voters are informed, rational, and enlightened.

The jar-of-jellybeans guessing game is often used as an illustration of the wisdom of crowds, as does James Surowiecki. Surowiecki points out that there are individuals who make a better estimate than the crowd, but that there also is no way of identifying those individuals beforehand.

Indeed there are tasks where individuals' choices can be aggregated in ways analogous to this guessing game as the best way of reaching results. A requirement would then be that individuals make their choices independently of each other. However, to suggest that the jellybeans-jar example can be generalized to all sorts of mass decision-making under democracy is a fallacy.

Not only are these tasks not simple visual estimation tasks, but they do not satisfy the requirements that decisions be made independently and errors made are non-systematic, i.e., cancel each other.

The miracle of aggregation supposes that errors of individuals in mass decision-making cancel each other. It makes sense in a jellybeans guessing game, but not when individuals make systematic errors. It is quite ironic that proponents of democracy use it. On the one hand, it supports everyone's participation in the decision-making process, so it's understandable, but what they are saying is that their participation doesn't matter because their individual choice is canceled out.

A central point in producing an enlightened, informed, rational electorate is the individual incentive for being informed. The likelihood that one's own vote will make a difference is extremely low. Hence, the incentive to spend time building competence for use in an election is low. There are lots of other things one could spend one's limited time on.

One could do it for a load of other reasons, such as being a good citizen, but in a strict rational evaluation of spending time on it for the sole purpose of casting a vote, it makes no sense.

It makes no sense – or very little at least – either to spend time going to the polling station, but people do so anyway. However, being informed for decision-making is way more time-consuming than just casting a vote. And the big question is whether the masses do produce good decisions.

To be continued. ESR

This article is part II of a series of three, based on the talk by the author at FreedomFest 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada on July 17, 2019, entitled “Is Government the Problem? Yes, but the Collective People Are Too!” [link to part I]

J.K. Baltzersen writes from the capital of the Oil Kingdom of Norway. He is the editor of the book Grunnlov og frihet: turtelduer eller erkefiender? (in Norwegian and Swedish; translated title: Constitution and Liberty: Lovebirds or Archenemies?), with Cato Institute’s Johan Norberg amongst the contributors.

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