Libertarians and Pragmatists on Democracy Part 2: Classical Liberal and Libertarian Criticisms of Democratic Institutions

Note: 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 concretely defined. This post is meant to do be a non-comprehensive, though fairly inclusive, look at a variety of views of democracy in classical liberal thought. The next post will survey progressive and pragmatist views of democracy, and the final post will argue that the truth in classical liberalism and pragmatism perspectives on democracy lead to a defense of market anarchy.

As alluded to in the introduction to this series, democracy has occupied a tricky place in the history of classical liberal thought. Despite the fact that the prevalence of democratic institutions in the West is at least partially a result of the influence of classical liberalism (in fact, I’d argue classical liberalisms’ role has been extremely significant in this regard), classical liberals have always been at best ambivalent to democracy. In recent years, libertarians have been critical and outright hostile towards democracy. For this reason, I’d argue that classical liberalism is, on net, critical of democracy, and there is a lot to learn from these criticisms. As a matter of housekeeping, it is important to note that I am using the term “democracy” in the second sense—as a system of political decision making—through most of this section unless otherwise noted.

Early Liberalism’s Cautious Enthusiasm for Democracy

At classical liberalism’s conception, democracy was in many ways the end-goal. No doubt, most classical liberals of the Enlightenment preferred democracy to the absolutist monarchism that had dominated Europe in their times. John Locke’s entire political project can be read as a criticism of absolutism, and he tended to more democratic views. In his Second Treatise on Government “democracy” is only mentioned twice by name in Chapter 10, mostly to define it in contrast to oligarchy and monarchy. However, throughout Locke there is a tendency to emphasize what we today would call “popular sovereignty”—a concept which strikes at the heart of the appeal of democracy. As Peter Laslett writes in his introduction to the Cambridge edition of Locke’s Two Treatises:

In his analysis of politics in terms of force as well as in rightful authority Locke is closer to the thought of our own day on the subject of sovereignty than the assumptions of his own time. Behind the superior power of the legislative in his system there is always to be seen the finally supreme, all-important power of the people themselves, again conceived of as a force, though justified once more by the concept of trust. It was a power which would only rarely display itself, and, as we have tried to show, there is considerable obscurity about the actual circumstances in which it could come to action and more about what it might achieve. Nevertheless, this residual power must be called Locke’s idea of what we now think of as popular sovereignty.

Drawing off of Locke, the American founders; inherited a skepticism towards absolutism and a little bit of faith in popular sovereignty. Of course, there is a slight difference in the founders’ conception of popular sovereignty and Locke’s in that it is far more individualist; in fact, it might be more accurate to say the founders did not so much believe in popular sovereignty as individual self-governance, but there is still an affinity between Locke and most of the founders’ on this point. Contra most west coast Straussians (ahem, Tom West and Harry Jaffa), it is important to note that the founders’ were influenced by much more than the classical liberal philosophy of John Locke. They, particularly John Madison, John Dickinson, and most of the early federalists, were just as influenced (if not more-so) by classical Greek and Roman political philosophy and the style of old whig conservatism of Burke and his contemporaries as classical liberalism. This can be illustrated in their perspective on democracy.

Though certainly wary of democracy’s dangers, most of the founders overall could still be described as democratic in some sense of the term. Of course, this point must be nuanced with the founders’ healthy criticisms of democracy influenced by classical liberal thought, whiggish conservatism, and Aristotelianism. Maddison is probably the most frequently cited example of an American founder who waxed pessimistic about democracy, given his writings on the “problem of factions” in Federalist No. 10. To be sure, most of the founders, as Ben Franklin famously said at the end of the constitutional convention, would have probably preferred the term “republic” to “democracy.”

Because of Madison’s Federalist No. 10 and a variety of quotes that were harshly critical democracy from the founders (many of which are false), a number of right-wingers today, particularly populist and nationalistic constitutional conservatives, argue that the founders were not democratic at all and are adverse to anything that refers to America as a “democracy.” To be sure, America is not a pure democracy, however there is little doubt that the founders still had at least some affinity for democracy, particularly in contrast to absolutist monarchy, with the possible exception of Hamilton sometimes (I would also argue that Hamilton was the least classically liberal of the founders and is largely my least favorite founder, but that’s another issue).

Further,  it is obvious the constitution incorporated democratic decision-making far more than any other of that time; in fact, the preamble beginning with “We the People” screams of the democratic, Lockean notion of popular sovereignty. Further, there is little doubt that even the America of the founders can be described as “democratic” at least in the third sense of the term (as a general term for modern Western governments).

Finally, some of the founders were pretty avidly pro-democratic, particularly Thomas Jefferson. As Jefferson wrote to John Taylor:

It must be acknowledged that the term “republic” is of very vague application in every language… Were I to assign to this term a precise and definite idea, I would say purely and simply it means a government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally according to rules established by the majority; and that every other government is more or less republican in proportion as it has in its composition more or less of this ingredient of direct action of the citizens.

Note how Jefferson’s definition of a “republic” is virtually indistinguishable from the way democracy is typically defined (in the second sense). Of course, Jefferson, especially in his later years in his later years was skeptical about the workability of this democratic/republican vision, writing “[s]uch a government is evidently restrained to very narrow limits of space and population. I doubt if it would be practicable beyond the extent of a New England township.” Nonetheless, it’s hard to consider Jefferson anti-democratic, especially in his younger years, when the notion of Jeffersonian democracy has been so influential in the history of American politics or if one considers Jefferson’s excuberance for the much more populist French Revolution prior to the Reign of Terror.

The Decline of Democracy in Classical Liberal Thought

After the founder’s era, however, experience with real-world democratic institutions began to contrast sharply with the theoretical hopes Enlightenment-era liberals had for democracy. The Jacobin reign of terror and aftermath of the French Revolution were sobering reminders of the dangers of the tyranny of the majority. As Edmund Burke wrote in Further Reflections of the French Revolution such a Democracy is a thing which cannot subsist by itself” and the specter of Robespierre led Burke to continually warn of mob-rule and the excesses of democracy. In America, the extremely low level of decorum in early elections (particularly in 1800 between Jefferson and Adams) must have made the more aristocratic and conservative of the founders (the likes of Washington, Hamilton, and John Dickinson) fearful of the direction in which their experiment was going.

By the Jacksonian era, it is safe to say that most classical liberal observers were waxing a bit more pessimistic on the prospects of democracy than their intellectual ancestors. The rise of a populist president in Andrew Jackson who had committed so many acts of tyranny against the Native Americans, the democratization of religious faith by the likes of Lorenzo Dow in the Second Great Awakening, and the growing of democracy into almost a political religion were signals of a disturbing trend to many of the surviving founders and European liberals like Mill and de Tocqueville. In fact, Jefferson even said of Jackson, in an interview with Daniel Webster:

I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President.  He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place.  He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions, and is, in fact, an able military chief.  His passions are terrible.  When I was President of the Senate, he was Senator; and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings.  I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage.  His passions are, no doubt, cooler now; he has been much tried since I knew him, but he is a dangerous man.

No doubt, Jefferson’s critique of Jackson’s inability to control his passions mirror Plato’s critique of the “democratic soul” in the Republic.

However, it wasn’t until Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous Democracy in America that the classical liberal view of democracy truly turned critical. De Tocqueville saw democracy’s influence in America as resulting in the decline of an aristocratic class that “furnished the best leaders of the American revolution.” Socioeconomic egalitarianism was far from the worst of democracy’s problems in de Tocqueville’s eyes. He saw the concept of popular sovereignty as leading to “unlimited power of the majority” that was corroding the checks and balances of the American constitution in every branch of government. Indeed, there has perhaps never been as eloquent a critic of “tyranny of the majority” as de Tocqueville.

In England, JS Mill also was beginning to see the dangers of excessive democracy. Much of On Liberty can be read as building on and responding to de Tocqueville. For example, his warnings against the tyranny of majority opinion in the first chapter of On Liberty echo de Tocqueville’s concerns and are worth quoting at length (also, note how much of this anticipates much of the later insights of the Virginia School of Political Economy):

The notion, that the people have no need to limit their power over themselves, might seem axiomatic, when popular government was a thing only dreamed about, or read of as having existed at some distant period of the past. Neither was that notion necessarily disturbed by such temporary aberrations as those of the French Revolution….In time, however, a democratic republic came to occupy a large portion of the earth’s surface, and made itself felt as one of the most powerful members of the community of nations; and elective and responsible government became the subject of the observations and criticisms which wait upon a great existing fact. It was now perceived that such phrases as “self-government” and “the power of the people over themselves” do not express the true state of the case. The “people” who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority: the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals, loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein.

…Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyranny—society, collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries….Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs to be protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling[.]

By the generation of liberals after Mill, the insight that democracy itself can turn into tyranny became influential on the continent as well. French liberals such as Bastiat and Germans such as Mises became critical of democratic institutions. Both Bastiat and Mises noted how democracies are ultimately controlled by public opinion which can, often times, be irrational. Bastiat took note of this in regards to protectionist economics writing, “Protectionism is too popular for its adherents to be regarded as insincere. If the majority had faith in free trade, we should have free trade.” Mises elaborated on Bastiat’s insights more writing in Human Action:

Democracy guarantees a system of government in accordance with the wishes and plans of the majority. But it cannot prevent majorities from falling victim to erroneous ideas and from adopting inappropriate policies which not only fail to realize the ends aimed at but result in disaster.

(Note: Bryan Caplan has a great, more detailed analysis of Bastiat and Mises’ criticisms of democracy, it is highly recommended.)

Most of these problems of the tyranny of the majority highlighted by de Tocqueville and Mill, as well as the issue of a completely misinformed public, seemed confirmed in World War II after the rise of fascism via the democratic process in Germany and Italy.

Public Choice Theory and Democracy’s Continued Decline

In the middle of the twentieth century, classical liberals became influenced by a field of study that seemed to confirm and deepen their worst fears of democracy. I’m referring, of course, to the public choice theory of the Virginia School of Political Economy associated with the likes of James Buchanan, Richard Wagner, and Gordon Tulloch. It is important to note at this point, of course, that public choice theory itself is not a part of classical liberalism as it is a positive scientific research program that simply applies economic analysis to the political process that has been contributed to by libertarians, conservatives, and liberals like rather than any sort of political ideology; however, many of the founders of Public Choice Theory were themselves classical liberals and there is little doubt that this style of economic thinking has had more influence on libertarianism than any other political philosophy.

The new public choice theory found that democracy could result not only in the potential tyranny of the majority, but also in horrible policies thanks to the accumulation of special interests (akin to Madison’s analysis of the problem of factions). The idea that voters are rationally ignorant, the insight that elected representatives do not act in the public interest but out of their own rational self-interest and those of their lobbyist friends, and a number of concepts from the short-sightedness effect to the Arrow’s impossibility theorem seemed to cast poor prospects on democracy’s ability to protect individual liberty. The fact that so many democracies were adopting horrible Keynesian economic policies, and the explanation that this is due to the self-interest of politicians, caused further doubt on the compatibility of free markets and democratic institutions. Later insights from public choice theory revealed that voters were not only ignorant but also systemically biased and irrational, as Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter argued, only added to this anxiety.

This is not to say, of course, that classical liberals since the mid-nineteenth century have been wholly opposed to democracy. Indeed, Mill, Bastiat, Mises, and most of the public choice economists continued to prefer representative democracy strongly limited by a well-designed (well, at least for Buchanan) constitution to alternative systems of political organization. Even Mises in Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition defended democracy on the following grounds:

In the long run, no government can maintain itself in power if it does not have public opinion behind it, i.e., if those governed are not convinced that government is good….There is, therefore, in every form of polity a means for making the government at least ultimately dependent on the will of the governed, viz., civil war, revolution, insurrection. But it is just this expedient that liberalism wants to avoid. There can be no lasting economic improvement if the peaceful course of affairs is continually interrupted by internal struggles…Here is where the social function of democracy finds its point of application. Democracy is that form of political constitution which makes possible the adaptation of the government to the wishes of the governed without violent struggles.

The attitude of FA Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty towards democracy is perhaps the most typical attitude of most classical liberals and libertarians since the days of de Tocqueville, and the majority of libertarians in mainstream political discourse today. Hayek defends a heavily limited concept of democracy as a means to the end of individual liberty; as the most efficient of current possible political constitutions to ensure the freedom of the individual. He echoes Mises in the fifth chapter entitled “Majority Rule” where he writes:

If democracy is a means rather than an end, its limits must be determined in the light of the purpose we want it to serve. There are three chief arguments by which democracy can be justified, each of which may be regarded as conclusive. The first is that, whenever it is necessary that one of several conflicting opinions should prevail and when one would have to be made to prevail by force if need be, it is less wasteful to determine which has the stronger support by counting numbers than by fighting. Democracy is the only method of peaceful change that man has yet discovered.

Modern Libertarianism’s Hostile Opposition to Democracy

Since Hayek penned those words in 1960, before many of the most depressing insights of public choice had risen to prominence, classical liberals and libertarians—particularly more radical anarchists—have grown even more skeptical of democracy and are, at times, outright hostile to it. Hayek himself in his next major work on political theory, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, waxed a bit more pessimistic on constitutional representative democracy than he did in The Constitution of Liberty. Just thirteen years after he spent over five-hundred pages defending and articulating liberal constitutionalism, he opens the introduction to the first volume of his next major work by declaring “The first attempt to secure individual liberty by constitutions has evidently failed.” Though he still proclaims the destruction of liberty that was running rampant in the immediate aftermath of World War II was “not a necessary consequence of democracy,” he laments the role democracy had played in recent politics:

If I am right, it would indeed seem that the particular form of representative government which now prevails in the Western world, and which many feel they must defend because they mistakenly regard it as the only possible form of democracy, has an inherent tendency to lead away from the ideals it was intended serve. It can hardly be denied that, since this type of democracy has come to be accepted, we have been moving away from that ideal of individual liberty of which it had been regarded as the surest safeguard, and are now drifting towards a system which nobody wanted.

In other corners of classical liberal thought, the prospects for democracy were even grimmer. This hostile attitude is perhaps best exemplified by Hans Herman Hoppe’s book Democracy: The God that Failed. Hoppe argues that democracy suffers from a problem akin to the tragedy of the commons; whereas medieval monarchies, aristocracies, and feuds had some sense of ownership over the state, democracies have no clear sense of ownership and so democratic representatives have little incentive to make good policies that protect liberty and economic prosperity.

Though Hoppe spends far too much of the book on anti-intellectual, abrasive, and, at times, bigoted (in the literal meaning of the term) polemics, there is some truth to his central insight and it certainly has a resonance with the public choice research on the short-sightedness effect. I doubt that Hoppe’s insights have the radical implications he draws of by necessity (mainly that monarchy is preferable to democracy); there might be a case to be made that pre-democratic institutions had lower taxes and better protection of property rights, on virtually every non-tax matters it is fairly obvious that such governments were far more tyrannical. Freedom of movement, which was so important to Mises in Liberalism and is among our most important of liberties, was non-existent in feudal Europe; indeed, serfs in many European manors were little more than slaves, pieces of property tied to their land, rather than sovereign, free individuals. Further, social freedom and freedom of religion were virtually non-existent in such polities; homosexuals were executed, Muslims and Jews were persecuted, and there were a number of other violations of human rights I doubt even Hoppe (in his implicit and occasionally explicit homophobia) would defend. (Of course, Hoppe would throw a fit because his argument is purely deductive and a priori whereas mine actually uses empirical evidence, but his simpleton, idiosyncratic, and laughably unintelligent economic methodology and epistemology is another topic.) I highly doubt even the most dogmatic Rothbardian Hoppe-lover would rather live in a medieval Europe feudal manor or monarchy than a modern democracy, despite their flashy polemics.

More recently, Michael Huemer has had criticisms of democracy’s morality in his book (which I highly recommend) The Problem of Political Authority. Heumer’s argument throughout the book is that all attempts to justify the legitimacy of government authority or to argue that there is any real consent between real-world governments and citizens fail, and a better form of government may be found in market anarchism. He notes how democracy has created a false identification of voting with actual consent that can morally legitimize government, and argues against all attempts to claim that citizens of democracies—real world or hypothetical—are under legitimate authority by virtue of the fact that they are living in a democracy. In another chapter, Huemer analyzes the problematic psychology of authority and how democracy contributes to the idolization of government.

Even more recently, Jason Brennan has a forthcoming book out that is perhaps more critical of democracy than any other classical liberal—save perhaps Hoppe—aptly titled Against Democracy. Brennan argues, like Huemer, that our relationship to democracy is non-consensual. In line with most public choice theory, he argues that democracy is truly the “rule of the irrational and the ignorant” and that democratic deliberation, voting, and electoral participation actually makes people worse, more biased, more irrational citizens. Brennan, instead, defends what he dubs “epistocracy”—a sort of aristocratic rule of the knowledgeable. (I have yet to read through Brennan’s book as it hasn’t been released yet and I’m basing this entirely off of reviews and Brennan’s other writings, particularly BHL blog posts, so I may be butchering some of the details of his argument in this description.)

Clearly, the classical liberals—from de Tocqueville to Jason Brennan—have very good reason to be skeptical of democracy, and perhaps even to feverishly oppose democracy. I still do not take the conclusions to the extremes of Hoppe and (at least from my limited knowledge of his writing on this topic) Brennan. I would agree with Hayek and Mises that constitutional representative democracy is the nth best alternative to other systems such as feudalism, absolutist monarchy, and any form of authoritarianism. (Although my general opposition to nation-states for both anarchist and communitarian reasons makes me more critical of democracy than most moderate classical liberals.)

However, it is clear that democracy is far from the best of all possible governmental arrangements. At the very least, the truth that Aristotle emphasized in his Politics that it matters not so much the make-up of the government (rule of the many, few, or one) but the quality of government, whether it is tyrannical or not. There is very good reason to believe, due to most of the arguments by the great thinkers discussed above, that democracy is, unfortunately, more likely than not to lead to tyranny—even if it is less likely to do so than the existing alternatives.

Having said that, perhaps not all is lost for the spirit of democracy. In the next post, I will analyze the pragmatist conception of democracy perhaps most popular among American twentieth-century liberals and progressives. This conception of democracy is far more than a form of political decision making discussed by the classical liberals, but a broader social epistemology and philosophy as mentioned in the introduction. I hope it will be clear by the end of the next post in this series that it is possible to affirm some of the philosophical commitments of democracy extolled by thinkers such as John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and Richard Rorty without necessarily embracing democracy as a political decision-making progress or, as Hayek would argue, democracy as it presently exists.


9 thoughts on “Libertarians and Pragmatists on Democracy Part 2: Classical Liberal and Libertarian Criticisms of Democratic Institutions

  1. Great post and discussion. I have been pondering democracy and its inherent dangers for some time. This article describes those dangers well. The solution, market anarchy, better accomplishes the Founders’ desire of individual self-governance better than any system I know. Yet, as we know, not all humans are capable of governing themselves, examples include the severely mentally ill and children (I know…”its for the children”). I do not know if these examples require some form of very limited government or not but I tend to think it would be extremely difficult to allow market anarchy to replace democracy without considering such issues.

    The other problem is other nations. True, the geographic area currently encompassing the United States could for example allow a system of market anarchy but what stops a foreign power from forcibly imposing its will on the people. No militia system is going to be sufficient to repel the military forces of a nation like China. This then leaves one with the question of eliminating the nation-state when other nation-states continue to exist and have the means to impose its will on your undefended anarchist marketplace existing inside a particular geographic area.

Please keep it civil (unless it relates to Jacques)

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