“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” — H. L. Mencken
Mass democracy and individual liberty do not mix, despite the propaganda. Surely, if a majority can vote against the rights of the minority, the libertarian case against democracy becomes clear enough. This is why so many who favor democracy embed within its definition the concept of certain basic civil liberties of the minority protected against mob rule. Thus 60% of the population voting to exterminate a small minority would be considered “anti-democratic.” Yet if 60% vote merely to loot the minority, it would be considered undemocratic to stand in the way. Who it is who decides which rights are up for majority vote and which are not is always a difficult question to resolve.
In practice, you cannot have true majority rule for everything. The reason is obvious. Everyone would be voting all the time on all matters, no matter how trivial. So who decides what is being voted on? A democratic system cannot help but result in a power elite in practice. Mass democracy must be filtered through some sort of legal and political structure—and what results is essentially a ruling oligarchy.
Nor is the idea of a “republic” as being distinct from a “democracy” nearly as meaningful as is often assumed. Many will protest that the United States is not a democracy. It is a republic—or, it should be. The two words share much in etymology and meaning. A republic is a “state in which supreme power rests in the people.” That’s essentially what a democracy is.
Indeed, the fundamental difference between “representative democracy,” in which the “will of the people” is expressed through and tempered by a structure of delegates, legislators, electors and the like, on the one hand, and a “representative republic,” on the other, seems rather elusive to me. In either case we are conceding that “the public” are not to be trusted too much.
Of course many respond that the answer to the dangers of democracy is a Constitution. But , in the long run, outside marginal instances, a Constitution can limit state power only so long as the people are already predisposed to wanting to see power limited in any event. Where a paper Constitution is necessary it will prove to be insufficient. Where it is effective it will be a redundancy. We can assume that panels of wise and benevolent politicians and judges will keep the public’s thirst for oppression in check. Then once again, we are back to the assumption that something resembling a rule by a few truly is preferable to rule by the mob—straying further from the whole point of democracy.
As troubling as the implicit reliance on oligarchs and committees to “refine” the will of the people might be, what is even worse is the foundational ethical principle in democracy—that the people are the government or, to put it more modestly, that the government is some kind of expression of the people’s will.
Different critics of democracy have raised many objections, based on game theory, natural rights, public choice, time preference, the fact that we can never expect the voters to be quite as noble and vigilant, enlightened and jealous of their own rights, as we would all hope. Yet to me the most compelling case against democracy is the very notion that the state, an inherently coercive and collectivistic monopoly, be somehow associated with the best interests of the greater society. Under monarchy, autocracy, and naked dictatorship, we at least know one thing: the ruling class does not serve its subjects; it parasitically lives off them. In democracy, the idea becomes popular that those with the power of life and death over others are exercising this power on behalf of the common man. All states require a public ideology that either tolerates or supports the state’s existence and depredations on freedom. Democracy, like no other system, dupes the masses into believing that the state really is on their side. It creates the perfect storm for a deep if somewhat temperate oppression, as the state becomes increasingly active and meddlesome, and instead of cowering in fear or resenting the state for ripping them off, subjects become complacent or even celebratory at the sight of their rights and responsibilities co-opted in the name of the good of all. After all, if we are the state, who can complain? To badmouth a state’s treatment of prisoners, taxpayers, or foreign victims of war too vociferously becomes taboo, because “in a democracy, the government is us!” The Divine Right of Kings has nothing on this rationalization for oppression, this masquerading of institutional evil as the greatest public good.
But surely the state is responsive to the people! Consider a couple pieces of evidence to the contrary. About 3/4 of Americans—including over 2/3 of Republicans!—want the federal government’s raids of medical marijuana clinics to end. These raids, inaugurated by Clinton, stepped up by Bush, and vastly expanded by Obama, are thoroughly unpopular. Even a vast majority of law-and-order conservatives want to see the federal government stop its waste of resources cracking down on sick users of this relatively harmless controlled substance. Yet the raids persist and the administration laughs at those who would suggest drug law reform.
Or consider the centerpiece of the president’s foreign policy: The Afghanistan war. It is now about as unpopular as the Vietnam war was in the 1970s. Only about one out of four Americans supports the war effort. Not only does the war persist in spite of this; the administration is planning on a significant U.S. presence there through 2024.
At various other times, we see other government programs survive despite being unpopular—bailouts, health care subsidies, and foreign aid. The system is set up so the American people might hate what the government does but, believing that it is in the end speaking on behalf of “the people,” they tolerate its excesses and even atrocities because they believe in the system’s overall legitimacy. The ideology of democracy combined with the structure of the democratic state thus produces results even worse than democracy in a pure form would in many isolated cases.
All in all, however, the people mostly favor most of what government does where it most matters. Most Americans say they resent the federal government, but when particular spending programs are brought up in polls, almost all of them receive majority approval. What’s more, the majority of Americans at times favor all sorts of policies that are even worse than what the power elite want, for our rulers are aware that some policies, even popular ones, would be so disastrous to the economy that they would kill the goose that lays the golden egg. I’m thinking of protectionism and anti-immigration sentiment, in particular—policy areas where the ruling class is statist, but knows that the full-blown controls over society supported by the majority would be too harmful to their tax base.
I suppose we can take some solace in the fact that while in many cases we live under something worse than democracy, in what is likely many more cases, true democracy would be far worse than what we have.