Democracy’s Most Critical Defect

Although democracy now comes closer than anything else to serving as a world religion, it has never lacked critics. For millennia those critics, such as Aristotle, had large followings among political thinkers and practicing politicians. Even as late as 1787, when a group of prominent men met in Philadelphia to compose the U.S. Constitution, democracy was viewed with trepidation, and the framers created an apparatus of government in which democracy was hemmed in on all sides, lest the country fall into the much-dreaded condition of “mob rule.”

Nowadays, democracy’s defects are more likely to be seen as relatively benign ― its devotees like to quote Winston Churchill’s quip that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” ― or as defects not of democracy itself, but of the party shenanigans and other frictions that keep the democratic system from operating more fully. Thus, people complain of “gridlock” and bemoan a “do-nothing” Congress because these things impede the unrestricted functioning of democracy.

Public choice theorists have written countless articles and books spelling out the manifold ways in which democracy, viewed as a political decision rule for making collective choices by means of voting, may fail to aggregate the preferences of individual constituents into an outcome that represents the “will of the people.” More than fifty years ago, Kenneth Arrow showed that no such aggregation is possible, given certain seemingly appealing restrictions on the nature of people’s preferences, such as transitivity (if A is preferred to B, and B is preferred to C, then C cannot be preferred to A).

None of this theorizing had the slightest effect on the common people’s idea that democracy can and should translate the “will of the people” into collective choices; nor has it kept generations of politicians from talking as if such a translation were possible and desirable. (Political practice, in contrast to political rhetoric, has always proceeded in the usual corrupt fashion, featuring scheming plutocrats, privilege-seeking special-interest groups, and the iron law of oligarchy.)

I mention these things only by way of introduction, however, because here I wish to claim that democracy’s gravest defect has little or nothing to do with the defects traditionally ascribed to it. I maintain that its severest defect, indeed, a flaw so critical that it gives democracy the potential to destroy civilization, pertains to its effect in corrupting the people’s moral judgment.

To see how this corruption comes about, let us begin by recognizing that in many people’s eyes, certain government functionaries may legitimately take actions that would be condemned as criminal if anyone else were to take them. If you or I were to threaten a neighbor with violence unless he handed over a specified sum of money, we would be universally recognized as engaged in extortion or attempted robbery. Yet, the functionaries of St. Tammany Parish, the state of Louisiana, and the United States of America routinely obtain money from me in precisely this manner. And although many people subject to such takings may complain that the amounts demanded are excessive, hardly anybody describes the exactions as constituting nothing more than extortion or armed robbery. Why not? Because the functionaries who assess and collect these sums of money ― which they style “taxes,” not loot, plunder, or swag ― are democratically elected “public officials.”

From a moral point of view, I am hard pressed to see how their employment status gives them a defensible right to act in ways that everyone would recognize as criminal if undertaken by a private individual. In political theory, a representative democratic government is said to derive its just powers by delegation from the people who are governed, with their consent. I assure you that I have never consented to have the various governments rob me, especially for the financing of countless activities that I consider to be useless, destructive, or inherently criminal. Regardless of the uses to which a government puts its booty, however, the people cannot justly delegate to political representatives any rights that they do not possess. If I do not have a right to plunder my neighbor, how can I delegate that right to a government functionary who purports to represent me?

The situation is the same with regard to innumerable other actions that governments carry out, including unjust imprisonment, murder, and demands for compliance with so-called “regulations.” If you or I were to demand the same actions that regulators commonly prescribe, our demands would be plainly seen to constitute unjustified intimidation and lawless coercion, at best. Likewise, if I were to send a private Predator drone to Pakistan to fire explosive missiles into villages, killing women, children, and other innocent persons, I would be seen as a monstrous mass murderer, and demands would be made that I be apprehended and “brought to justice” or killed. Yet when President Obama causes deaths in this way, no such demands are made. How did Barack Obama come by the right to kill innocent people? By democratic election to the presidency of the United States, of course. Most people actually believe, and act on the belief, that mere election to a political office can endow a person with standing to disregard the moral requirements applicable to people in general. And not only the elected official, but all those officials beneath him in the chain of command ― nobody demands that the technician who sits comfortably in the United States and directs the exact operation of the lethal drone be brought to justice; he, as the saying goes, is “only following orders.”

In the war-crimes tribunals conducted after World War II, many defendants pleaded not guilty on the grounds that they were only following orders. This defense, however, was ruled inadmissible, because the top authorities of the Nazi regime, from Adolf Hitler on down, were themselves viewed as war criminals, albeit unavailable in many instances to stand trial as such. In contrast, none of the military officers and men who carried out the fire bombings of Tokyo, Hamburg, and Dresden were indicted; nor were those who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; nor were Churchill and Truman (Franklin Roosevelt having already departed this realm of political strife). Strange to say, Hitler himself originally came to power through democratic procedures, which shows that sometimes democracy is not enough to absolve a leader of criminal acts. Winning a war may also prove decisive when innocence and guilt are being decided and punishments administered.

I fully understand how most Americans would react to the preceding observations. They would say that in wartime, certain actions that would be regarded as crimes during peacetime automatically cease to have this character. It’s an interesting theory: if the leader, especially a democratically elected one, prosecutes a war, he thereby overturns the entire basis of morality ― provided of course that his side wins the war. Killing the innocent, for example, carries no stigma; nor does wanton destruction of property, unjust punishment or imprisonment, and a thousand other actions that would be regarded as flagrant crimes during peacetime.

As the government has grown in this country (and others) during the past century, the scope of government action has widened greatly. Government officials now demand vastly greater sums of money from their subjects, and they demand compliance with vastly more regulations. They and they alone may act in these ways without bringing moral denunciation down on themselves. No wonder they sometimes deport themselves as gods: by their election they have been loosed from the moral bonds that constrain you and me, and, thus unencumbered, they have soared to ever greater heights of criminality and savagery. “When the president does it,” Richard Nixon insisted, “that means that it is not illegal.” Interviewer David Frost pursued the point, asking: “the dividing line is the president’s judgment?” To which Nixon responded, “Yes, and the dividing line and, just so that one does not get the impression, that a president can run amok in this country and get away with it, we have to have in mind that a president has to come up before the electorate.” Ah, yes, blessed election ― that “accountability moment,” as George W. Bush described it ― surely covers a multitude of sins. We may think of those sins as democracy in action.

Libertarians often argue about whether they might more successfully recruit followers by showing that a free society works best or by showing that an unfree society is unjust. Most libertarians, as I see the matter, have chosen to base their arguments on utilitarian grounds, often because they despair of ever convincing the average person that government officials chronically, or even intrinsically, violate moral strictures. Although I have no doubt whatsoever that free societies do work better than unfree ones, that they deliver, for example, greater prosperity and more rapid economic progress for the masses, I am skeptical that we can cut deeply into the current mass support for the welfare-warfare-therapeutic state unless we open people’s eyes to see that the government actions they now support ― and demand ever more of ― are utterly immoral because they violate individuals’ just rights on a gigantic scale and because the government leaders who propose and implement these measures acquire not an ounce of moral justification from their democratic selection for office. “What works best” remains ever open to dispute, as public policy debate on almost any current issue illustrates: each side has its academic experts, prestigious scientists, or other authorities to prop up its position, and although these two sides rarely offer equally compelling evidence, the lay person can scarcely be expected to see through all of the disinformation and rhetorical flimflam.

Everybody understands, however, without any advanced instruction in the matter, that murder and robbery are wrong, and that no one has a justifiable right to bully his neighbors simply because he does not like the way in which they are conducting their lives. The greatest barrier to libertarian progress continues to be that most people give a moral pass to such criminal actions when democratically elected functionaries take them. This presumed moral immunity by virtue of election to public office is the sheerest superstition ― a montrous mistake in moral reasoning ― and if people can be brought to see it for what it really is, then they will be able to act more effectively to regain some of their lost freedom.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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