Arnold Kling  

The Problem with Democracy

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Will Wilkinson writes,


People who finally gained equal political rights through a long democratic struggle cannot have been unreasonable to see democratic politics as a morally and politically progressive force.

Basically, what I read into this sentence is the notion that the right to vote is so precious we have no business questioning what people use that right for. If they elect a demagogue who proceeds to nationalize most of the U.S. economy, well, they earned that privilege "through a long democratic struggle."

Romanticizing the right to vote is a bad move. The only good voting does is that it permits you to peacefully throw out the incumbents. However, once you romanticize voting, you undermine a lot of that value. The political class exploits your romantic feelings to expand its powers and take away your rights.

Libertarians face three choices relative to their postures on democratic voting.

1. Share the enchantment.

2. At least pretend to share the enchantment.

3. Express open disenchantment.

Will's post (read the whole thing) seems to advocate something between 1 and 2. I'm going with 3.



Comments and Sharing


CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (22 to date)
Les writes:

I have come to believe that one person one vote is a flawed formula. I think some people should have more than one vote. For example:

Those who are employed should have 2 votes. There should be an additional vote for each $10,000 paid in federal income tax.

Those in the military should have 1 extra vote.

In short, the bigger stake a person has in our nation, the more votes that person should have.

Will Wilkinson writes:

Why exclude "share some of both the enchantment and the disenchantment?" James Buchanan is perhaps the greatest living theorist of democracy, and I take that to be his view. In any case, it's mine.

Do you think that people who gained rights through the democratic political process are wrong to be impressed by its progressive potential because an earlier incarnation of the same system denied them rights?

Prakhar Goel writes:

@Les

Have you read "The Republic of Gondour" by Mark Twain?

I think you would enjoy it.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

Will, do you think that people who lost rights through the democratic political process are wrong to be impressed by its regressive potential? I think there are many people in Venezuela who feel that achieving greater "voting rights" has actually worsened their prospects for freedom. I can't really blame with them.

micanopyan writes:

Thanks, Will. It seemed to me Arnold shot from the hip there and got his foot. Occupational hazard of the blogger's trade, I suppose. I was hoping some friend would give him a little slap.
I often hear Kling and Caplan whining about democracy. I thought your "The scheme laid out in most libertarian ideal theory is so distant from actual democratic practice that the whole existing system can seem by comparison a comprehensive injustice. When one’s ideal theory implies that politics is by its nature illegitimate and corrupt, one tends to develop a sharply disapproving attitude toward participation in politics." describes the situation very aptly. (I also think you could substitute the name of any ideology for "libertarian ideal theory" in the statement above.)

Will Wilkinson writes:

Jayson: "do you think that people who lost rights through the democratic political process are wrong to be impressed by its regressive potential?"

Not at all!

Matthew C. writes:

Great post Arnold.

You are the mainstream academic blogger who gets things right more than anyone else I can think of.

SydB writes:

"libertarians have done a terrible job countering the widespread suspicion that it’s a uselessly abstract ahistorical ideology for socially retarded adolescent white guys."

Bingo.

meh writes:

Sigh. Swat...so damn liberal our graduates sometimes come out on the other side.

SheetWise writes:

"If they elect a demagogue who proceeds to nationalize most of the U.S. economy, well, they earned that privilege ..."

What happened to Constitutional limitations?

I think people misunderstand the divide in this country -- and Les is on the right track.

Our last revolution was fueled by taxation without representation -- the coming revolution is being fueled by representation without taxation.

Les writes:

Prakhar:

Thanks for recommending that I read "The Republic of Gondour" by Mark Twain.

It happens that I did read and enjoy it. But it differs from my proposal, because I do not suggest extra votes for higher education. The weird antics of many professors has reduced my respect for higher education - except for Masonomics, one of the few islands of excellence in academia.

Joshua Macy writes:

Saying that the only good that voting does is that it allows you to peacefully throw out the incumbents is like saying the only good that capitalism does is it allows you to peacefully exchange value with strangers. It may be true, but it's a big enough only that I feel I can spare some enchantment.

George writes:

There's nothing in the Constitution that keeps the government from taxing you at a 100% rate. Considering that the guys who wrote it were clearly concerned with property rights, that seems like a glaring omission.

But they did originally limit the vote to property owners, which takes care of the everybody-votes-themselves-a-share-of-my-stuff problem (an instance of tyranny of the majority).

Then we got rid of that restriction (and a lot of worse ones, granted). Now we're vulnerable to the flaw Tocqueville identified:

The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.

caveat bettor writes:

Democracy is the end-game of the mean-reversion strategy.

And the mean is, unfortunately, very low.

Bribing people with hope, change, education subsidies, healthcare subsidies, above-market wages via protectionism and unions, and insulation from the consequences of personal decisions does not seem to raise the mean, either.

JP writes:

How about (4) Get beyond both enchantment and disenchantment, and try to see voting realistically?

stephen writes:

As the population size goes to infinity the political signifigance of any individual goes to zero.

In small populations, democracy is a way to make decisions. In a large population, it gives the state the ability to signal it is providing liberty and freedom when in fact it is doing just the opposite.

8 writes:

I don't recognize the right of other people to infringe upon my property rights. Democracy has always been dead to me, I just keep alive the fantasy that maybe I could convince other people would vote like me.

"libertarians have done a terrible job countering the widespread suspicion that it’s a uselessly abstract ahistorical ideology for socially retarded adolescent white guys."

A lot of slurs in there, but the reality is that it is mainly an ideology of white guys and their wives (in the U.S.), and most of the "fellow travelers" on the right are white guys too. Ever look at the demographics of the Republican party?

One goal should be to get rid of multiculturalism and force people to consider ideas, not race.

Rimfax writes:

It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Pure democracy may be a tyranny of the majority for good and ill, but a constitutional democracy that puts certain protections beyond the scope of democratic decision making has an astonishingly good pragmatic record and a pretty impressive set of philosophical underpinnings. Dismissing democracy on its own as an incomplete solution seems myopic.

Certain choices are simply less clear or less critical than others. Democracy (or really representative democracy) is better suited to decisions that don't involve infringement on individual rights.

You would have a much stronger point if you were discussing the process by which the constitution is established and amended and how it can be subject to the flaws in democracy.

Yancey Ward writes:

Democracy in all it's forms sows the seeds of it's own destruction. Regardless of how you attempt to limit it, the majority will always enslave the population by popular vote eventually.

hacs writes:

Yes, a vigilant posture with relation to the government, etc., it is the main message from the earliest age of the democracy (not only to vote) in America. The perpetual process of institutional refinement strongly enlightened by the history, preserving the basic principles, is the democratic and precautious way forward. But that cannot be confounded with general skepticism regarding to the Democracy itself. The countries from Latin America nowadays in proto-dictatorships suffered from the same feeling some years ago by consequence of their impoverishment.

Freedom Thinker writes:

Please keep it up. These posts are great! Short yet enlightening. Along with your post at

http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2009/05/the_case_for_li_1.html

of course your saying things that need to be said. Keep it up.

George writes:

Wil wrote:

People who finally gained equal political rights through a long democratic struggle...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't all those Europeans get the vote in the 19th century when the ruling classes saw that it was a good way to enable drafting huge citizen armies? I mean, maybe the French fought for the vote, but an awful lot of people just had it thrust upon them.

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