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Democracy and liberty ahead

By J.K. Baltzersen
web posted November 11, 2019

There is a lot of talk of the threats to and the future of democracy. If the democratic world order ends, it may indeed be replaced by something worse. But need that be the case?

The Common Good and Self-Interest

Like most of what has been built by mankind, democracy has its downsides, its drawbacks. When considering this an essential question is self-interest vs. (the perceived) common good. Certainly, how a democracy works depends on the ability of separation of private and public interest. The public choice school generally emphasizes self-interest. Caplan, Brennan, and Somin, on the other hand, make the case that people mostly vote on basis of what they perceive as the common good. There is also research that shows that self-interest tends to play a greater role when one’s own benefits are involved.

There is, however, in any case distancing from the private sphere that takes place when resources are collectivized. It is easier to be a “limousine liberal” than handing out one’s own money, because voicing generosity from the public purse has lower cost, as there is a lower probability that one’s own private purse will be affected than when handing out one’s own money.

A Realist View of Democracy?

Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels have coined the phrase “folk theory of democracy,” as opposed to the “realist theory.” Achen and Bartels are democrats, but they find that people are too often over-optimistic about how well democracy functions.

One of the examples in Achen’s and Bartels’ book Democracy for Realists is a series of shark attacks in the incumbent President’s home state of New Jersey. Where the shark attacks occurred the incumbent President’s numbers were hit. Also, they found that weather giving poorer results for farming hit the incumbent electees in the affected districts.

These results have been contested, and it can certainly be questioned how significant they are, and the distinction between correlation and causation. However, it is reasonable to assume that voters are influenced – subconsciously at least – by factors that are more or less irrelevant. It is reasonable to assume that people would be inclined to support incumbents if they have high satisfaction in their daily lives. Achen and Bartels also show how well the economy is doing, which doesn't necessarily have to do with partisan politics, influences voter choices.

One could then wonder if there is some inherent feature in democracy that incentivizes expansion of government reach. If voters really penalize incumbents for everything under the sun, including weather and shark attacks, it is perhaps no wonder why politicians want to control everything?

Achen and Bartels also make the case that referenda and primary elections have not made American politics more responsive to the man in the street. Initiatives are often under strong influence of interests that failed to influence politicians. Primary elections are mostly under control of those who know how to run the political machine. Trump is an exception to the rule that the establishment runs the show, but then, when an outsider got hold of the reins of the political machine, all of a sudden democracy was under threat. (Yes, there are problems with Trump, and some of them are discussed here.)

How Well Has Democracy Worked?

At least democracy allows for peaceful transition of power when the ruled are unsatisfied. When there is misrule, the rulers can be thrown out. It is true unpopular rule easily will be thrown out with democracy – at least if the issues are serious enough and that's what's on the minds of the public at the relevant time. One could say it is an accountable form of government, although no legislator or magistrate is legally responsible for their actions; it does, however, require a moral people whose morals are not corrupted or otherwise distorted.

In the town square democracy, where the voters look each other in the eyes, democracy may work fairly well. However, in modern mass democracy secret ballot is a sacred right. While government may be accountable to the voters, the voters go to the voting booths with total anonymity and unaccountability.

With all the faults of democracy in the Western world, it has in combination with our liberal traditions worked fairly well. Attempts to export democracy to other parts of the world has proven to be more obviously failing. When universal suffrage was forced upon Rhodesia, we got Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe. The Arab Spring didn't turn out to be be much a spring for freedom.

The standard solution for American champions of liberty is often that the American people should wake up and start following the Constitution. It is a variant of von Hayek's solution that the people must learn to limit government under modern democracy. Perhaps that is the most realistic solution for generations to come. However, it is questionable whether there is more reason to be optimistic about this than when Constitution of Liberty was published almost 60 years ago. It depends entirely on the morality of the people, as it is filtered through democracy, and on self-restraint – of the popular majority and/or their representatives.

If the people are seeking free stuff, as Thomas Sowell has noted, or support going abroad in search for dragons to slay, freedom will certainly not increase.

The narrative that if the people as a whole hold sovereignty, we are safe from tyranny, is more or less fantasy. Tyranny comes in many forms: there is the strong man; there is the multitude of legislature; there is the multitude of the electorate.

While Henrik Ibsen through the character of Dr. Stockmann in An Enemy of the People claimed the minority is always in the right, and confirmed in a letter as his personal opinion, that may be way too categorical. However, the majority is certainly far from always in the right. (Ibsen does specify in the letter what he means by it.)

What Do We Do?

There is the anarchist option, of which Martin van Creveld noted that he could understand, given what government had done in the 20th century, but did not himself support.

Then there is the concept of liquid democracy, which is a mix of representative and direct democracy, in which you for instance may delegate foreign policy to Ron Paul and economic policy to Peter Schiff. To the extent that the problems lie with the electees, this system may solve problems. I do, however, fear that this is a way of solving the problems of democracy with more democracy. It may bestow even more legitimacy on government and empower it even more.

There are also various ways of restricting voting. One could raise the voting age. We have the Hayekian proposal (Law, Legislation and Liberty) of once-in-a-lifetime voting, where legislators are elected by and of 45-year-olds for a 15 year term, exchanging 1/15 of the legislature every year, giving a legislature consisting of members from 45 to 60 years old, with an equal age distribution. Perhaps even tax requirements for voting could be implemented. Jason Brennan has proposed knowledge tests.

Also, there is decentralism. Decentralism allows for more voting with one's feet and political competition. It also takes the poor scalability of democracy into account. Decentralizing down to the family, business, and individual level certainly gives more freedom. Ilya Somin draws to our attention a further advantage of decentralism: it makes the decision-making in the political system less complex, and thus reduces the consequences of political ignorance.

Further, we could go into the controversial theories of Hans-Hermann Hoppe on monarchy. Liechtenstein and Monaco are rather successful monarchies of the Western world, with real regal powers still intact.

Then there is the option of (strengthening) pseudo-monarchy, such as a presidency with a life-term. Walter Block has argued it's better with a system closer to monarchy, opposing term limits. This may not be so harmonious with the opposition to the powerful presidency. But perhaps the presidency could be abolished as decentralizing measure in combination with life terms for governors?

What Will Come?

Cambridge Professor David Runciman starts off his book How Democracy Ends with saying that nothing lasts forever. He presents the scenario that democracy will end long after it has ceased to be effective, when people realize it is reasonable to replace it.

We should keep in mind that revolutions have made things worse. That does also include some aspects of the American Revolution, although it certainly has been more successful than most other revolutions. What comes after liberal democracy may indeed be worse.

Perhaps democracy ends when enough people realize that the Churchill dictum is incorrect, or at least too unnuanced. Maybe it will happen in combination with rising regimes that are not democracies, with a patchwork of government less aligned than today's world with the Wilsonian world order, in which it is required that every nation be a democracy.

With revolutions and wars making things worse, intellectual and academic debate may be our best hope for a post-democracy world better than the liberal democracy order of today. ESR

This article is part III 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 II]

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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