Libertarians and Pragmatists on Democracy Part 1: What is Democracy?

Note:  This is part of a series of posts critiquing democracy. I plan on writing this series in four parts. First, in this post, I plan on introducing the various nuances to the term “Democracy.” Second, I will give a brief summary of classical liberalism’s skeptical attitude towards democracy. Third, I’ll summarize the insights into the benefits of democracy from the perspective of the American pragmatists. Finally, I’ll argue that the dialectical synthesis of these perspectives on democracy leads to a plausible defense of market anarchism.

Democracy has tended to occupy a bizarre position in the history of classical liberal and libertarian thought. Particularly in recent decades, here’s a sense of ambivalence amongst libertarians towards democracy the last couple decades even though the prevalence of democratic institutions in the west is almost a direct result of our intellectual ancestors. There are also a diversity of perspectives on democracy amongst libertarians, from fanatically opposed, such as Hoppe, to ambivalently supportive, such as Hayek, to fairly supportive, such as the younger Jefferson. Fellow note writers here at NOL have recently been showing a far more negative view on democracy typical of more modern libertarians.

My personal attitude is further complicated by other intellectual influences. Whereas there’s a tendency in my thought to be very skeptical of democracy, for many of the reasons anti-democratic libertarians are apt to emphasize, the other main intellectual tradition that influences my thinking—that of American pragmatism—is extremely pro-democratic. Democracy is arguably the very center of the philosophy of John Dewey, who has had a profound influence on my philosophical and political views (despite my extreme disagreements with his statist policy agenda). As a result, if someone were to ask me “What do you think of democracy?” I’d probably give a very wishy-washy response. In this series, I’ll attempt to reach a sort of dialectical synthesis between the variety of classical liberal opinions of democracy and the radically pro-democratic ideas of the Deweyan pragmatists.

Before critiquing it, perhaps understanding what the term “democracy” even means is in order. There are four main ways I see the term used in modern discourse. The first, trivially, is thrown around as an empty term of political praise; in popular political discourse, the term “democratic” is uttered as an almost meaningless praise when a politician does something the speaker likes that happens to agree with the majority consensus and the term “anti-democratic” is thrown around as an insult if a politician does something that the speaker disagrees with and happens to be against the majority consensus. The fact that democracy is now a term of empty praise is especially ironic as it is a pretty recent development; prior to the nineteenth century, democracy was a term with strongly negative connotations since Aristotle used it to describe tyrannical rule of the majority in his Politics and Plato critiqued the “democratic soul” in the Republic. This use of the term in America has been particularly abused since the age of Andrew Jackson, who committed a jihad (see what I did there?) on the concept of America as a republic by turning the idea of democracy into a national religion. Clearly, this use of the term is mostly (although not altogether) unrelated to the issues I’ll be addressing in this series.

The second way the term “democracy  is used, most obviously, is as a simple description of a mode of political decision making or constitutional design. In this most literal sense, democracy is defined as the election of political leaders or policies by majority vote. Third, democracy is used as kind of a generic term for the system of government that has dominated the west since World War II—even though terms such as “parliamentarian” or “republican” are probably more accurate.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, democracy is used in some circles (particularly by the pragmatists) to describe a social epistemology, an overarching philosophical orientation, or—to quote Sidney Hook and John Dewey—a “way of life.” As Dewey writes in the Democracy and Educational Administration “Democracy is much broader than a special political form, a method of conducting government…it is something broader and deeper than that.” Dewey describes this deeper meaning of democracy “as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in the formation of the values that regulate the living of men together[.]”  This notion of democracy is characterized by a thoroughgoing experimentalism and Dewey himself essentially sees democracy as the application of the spirit of the scientific method to social relations. I will have much more to say about this conception of democracy later, but for now note that it is possible to affirm many of the epistemic and philosophical commitments to the democracy of the pragmatists without necessarily affirming democracy as a political constitution.

In the next post, I’ll analyze what political democracy means in the tradition of classical liberalism; in particular, I’ll focus on some of the unease about democracy’s potential for tyranny occupied by earlier classical liberals such as Mill and De Tocqueville, and some of the criticism of democracy in more recent libertarian thought inspired by the insights of public choice theory. By the end of the series, I argue the criticisms that classical liberals and libertarians have had may be devastating to the argument that a predominately democratically (in the second sense) oriented government is the best possible political system; however, those criticisms do not necessarily apply to the fourth understanding of democracy extolled by the pragmatists. In fact, if we take into account the flaws of democracy pointed out by libertarians, some form of market anarchy may perhaps be the best way to fulfill the democratic goals of the pragmatists.

8 thoughts on “Libertarians and Pragmatists on Democracy Part 1: What is Democracy?

  1. Great post! I like how you put down the different notions of democracy first before you start critiquing it. I look forward to read the rest of the series. 🙂

  2. […] This is part of a series on democracy. It is assumed the reader is familiar with part one prior to reading, in which the basic direction of this series is introduced and democracy is more […]

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