Why the left loves democracy

The left loves to talk about democracy. Brazil’s former president Lula da Silva is in jail. Finally. Leftists inside and outside Brazil call this a crime against democracy because the polls were showing that in the upcoming October elections Lula would be elected president. The people wanted Lula president, and a judge, Sergio Moro, against the will of the majority, jailed Lula.

I will consent to this argument. Maybe Lula was going to be elected in October (although I have serious doubts about it). Would this be democratic? Maybe. In its most pure form, democracy is the rule of the majority. A good picture of this is three wolves and a sheep voting on what they are going to have for dinner. Leftists in power (or hoping to be in power) love this.

A pure Democracy, by which I mean a Society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the Government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of Government, have erroneously supposed, that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions. — James Madison, Federalist No. 10

Are voting ages still democratic?

Rather par for the course, our current gun debate, initiated after the school shooting in Parkland, has been dominated by children — only this time, literally.

I’m using “children” only in the sense that they are not legally adults, hovering just under the age of eighteen. They are not children in a sense of being necessarily mentally underdeveloped, or necessarily inexperienced, or even very young. They are, from a semantics standpoint, still teenagers, but they are not necessarily short-sighted or reckless or uneducated.

Our category “children” is somewhat fuzzy. And so are our judgments about their political participation. For instance, we consider ourselves, roughly, a democracy, but we do not let children vote. Is restricting children from voting still democratic?

With this new group of Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school students organizing for political change (rapidly accelerated to the upper echelons of media coverage and interviews), there has been widespread discussion about letting children vote. A lot of this is so much motivated reasoning: extending suffrage to the younger demographic would counter the current proliferation of older folks, who often vote on the opposite side of the aisle for different values. Young people tend to be more progressive; change the demographics, change the regime. Yet the conversation clearly need not be partisan, since there exist Republican- and Democrat-minded children, and suffrage doesn’t discriminate. (Moreover, conservative religious groups that favor large families, like Mormons, could simply start pumping out more kids to compete.)

A plethora of arguments exist that do propose pushing the voting age lower — 13, and quite a bit for 16 (ex. Jason Brennan) — and avoid partisanship. My gripe about these arguments is that, in acknowledging the logic or utility of a lowered voting age, they fail to validate a voting age at all. Which is not to say that there should not be a voting age in place (I am unconvinced in either direction); it’s just to say that we might want to start thinking of ourselves as rather undemocratic so long as we have one.

An interesting thing to observe when looking at suffrage for children is that Americans do not consider a voting age incompatible with democracy. If Americans do not think of America as a democracy, it is because our office of the President is not directly elected by majority vote (or they think of it as an oligarchy or something); it is not undemocratic just because children cannot vote. The fact that we deny under-eighteen year olds the vote does not even cross their minds when criticizing what many see as an unequal political playing field. For instance, in eminent political scientist Robert Dahl’s work How Democratic is the American Constitution? the loci of criticism are primarily on the electoral college and bicameral legislature. In popular parlance these are considered undemocratic, conflicting with the equal representation of voters.

Dahl notes that systems with unequal representation contrast to the principle of “one person, one vote.” Those with suffrage have one or more votes (as in nineteenth-century Prussia where voters were classified by their property taxes) while those without have less than one. Beginning his attack on the Senate, he states “As the American democratic credo continued episodically to exert its effects on political life, the most blatant forms of unequal representation were in due time rejected. Yet, one monumental though largely unnoticed form of unequal representation continues today and may well continue indefinitely. This results from the famous Connecticut Compromise that guarantees two senators from each state” (p. 48).

I quote Dahl because his book is zealously committed to majoritarian rule, rejecting Toqueville’s qualms about the tyranny of the majority. Indeed, Dahl says he believes “that the legitimacy of the Constitution ought to derive solely from its utility as an instrument of democratic government” (39). And yet, in the middle of criticizing undemocratic American federal law, the voting age and status of children are not once brought up. These factors appear to be invisible. In our ordinary life, when the voting age is brought up, it is nearly always in juxtaposition to other laws, e.g., “We let eighteen year olds vote and smoke, but they have to be 21 to buy a beer,” or, on the topic of gun control, “If you can serve in the military at 18, and you can vote at 18, then what is the problem, exactly, with buying a gun?”

What is the explanation for this? We include the march for democracy as one progressive aspect of modernity. We see ourselves as more democratic than our origin story, having extended suffrage to non-whites, women and people without property. We see America under the Constitution as a more developed rule-of-the-people than Athens under Cleisthenes. So, we admit to degrees of political democracy — have we really reached the end of the road? Isn’t it more accurate that we are but one law away from its full realization? And of course, even if we are more of a representative republic, this is still under the banner of democracy — we still think of ourselves as abiding by “one person, one vote” (Dahl, 179-183).

In response, it is said that children are not properly citizens. This allows us to consider ourselves democratic, even while restricting direct political power from a huge subset of the population while inflicting our laws on them.

This line of thought doesn’t cut it. The arguments for children as non- or only partial-citizens are riddled with imprecisely-targeted elitism. “Children can be brainwashed. Children do not understand their own best interests. Children are uninterested in politics. Children are not informed enough. Children are not rational. Children are not smart enough to make decisions that affect the entire planet.”

Although these all might apply, on the average, to some age group — one which is much younger than seventeen, I would think — they also apply to all sorts of individuals distributed throughout every age. A man gets into a car wreck and severely damages his frontal lobe. In most states there is no law prohibiting him from dropping a name in the ballot, even though his judgment is dramatically impaired, perhaps analogous to an infant. A nomad, who eschews modern industrial living for the happy life of travel and pleasure, is allowed to vote in his country of citizenship — even though his knowledge of political life may be no greater than someone from the 16th century. Similarly, adults can be brainwashed, adults can be stupid, adults can be totally clueless about which means will lead to the satisfaction of their preferred ends.

I venture that all Americans do not want uninformed, short-sighted, dumb, or brainwashable people voting, but they will not admit to it on their own. Children are a proxy group to try to limit the amount of these people that are allowed in on our political process. And is banning people based on any of these criteria compatible with democracy and equality?

Preventing “stupid” people from voting is subjective and elitist; preventing “brainwashable” people from voting is arbitrary; preventing “short-sighted” people from voting is subjective and elitist, and the same for “uninformed” people. We come to the category of persons with severe mental handicaps, be their brain underdeveloped from the normal process of youth, or injury, or various congenital neurodiversities. Regrettably, at first glance it seems reasonable to prevent people with severe mental defects from voting. Because, it is thought, they really can’t know their interests, and if they are to have a voting right, it should be placed in a benefactor who is familiar with their genuine interests. But now, this still feels like elitism, and it doesn’t even touch on the problem of how to gauge this mental defect — it seems all too easy for tests to impose a sort of subjective bias.

Indeed, there is evidence that this is what happens. Laws which assign voting rights to guardians are too crude to discriminate between mental disabilities which prevent voting and other miscellaneous mental problems, and make it overly burdensome to exercise voting rights even if one is competent. It is hard to see how disenfranchising populations can be done on objective grounds. If we extended suffrage from its initial minority group to all other human beings above the age of eighteen, the fact that we prolong extending it to children is only a function of elitism, and consequently it is undemocratic.

To clarify, I don’t think it is “ageist” to oppose extending the vote to children, in the way that it is sexist to restrict the vote for women. Just because the categories are blurry doesn’t mean there aren’t substantial differences, on average, between children and adults. But our reasoning is crude. We are not anti-children’s suffrage because of the category “children,” but because of the collective disjunction of characteristics we associate underneath this umbrella. It seems like Americans would just as easily disenfranchise even larger portions of the population, were we able to pass it off as democratic in the way that it has been normalized for children.

Further, it is not impossible to extend absolute suffrage. Children so young that they literally cannot vote — infants — could have their new voting rights bestowed upon their caretakers, since insofar as infants have interests, they almost certainly align with their daily providers. This results in parents having an additional vote per child which transfers to their children whenever they request them in court. (Again, I’m not endorsing this policy, just pointing out that it is possible.) The undemocratic and elitist nature of a voting age cannot be dismissed on the grounds that universal suffrage is “impossible.”

It is still perfectly fine to say “Well, I don’t want the boobgeoisie voting about what I can do anyway, so a fortiori I oppose children’s suffrage,” because this argument asserts some autocracy anyway (so long as we assume voting as an institutional background). The point is that the reason Americans oppose enfranchising children is because of elitism, and that the disenfranchising of children is undemocratic.

In How Democratic is the American Constitution? the closest Robert Dahl gets to discussing children is adding the Twenty-Six Amendment to the march for democratic progress, stating that lowering the voting age to eighteen made our electorate more inclusive (p. 28). I fail to see why lowering it even further would not also qualify as making us more inclusive.

In conclusion, our system is not democratic at all,
Because a person’s a person no matter how small.


The Gradual, Eventual Triumph of Liberty

Today I’d like to write a few words of hope and encouragement to those who already understand liberty’s value. I read a speech from 1853 that stood out to me. It’s easy to be caught up in the daily news cycle and feel that liberty is constantly under attack and threatened at every hand, that every gain is clawed back as liberties are eroded one at a time. At times like that, it is good to step back and took a better look at the broader history of the world.

The speech I read was by a gentleman named Parley P. Pratt, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Utah territory. This was just a few years after the Mormons, including Pratt and his family, had been driven from their homes by mobs and by indifferent and sometimes hostile state and federal governments in the United States proper to find freedom and refuge in the Rocky Mountains. There they still held 4th of July celebrations, honoring the sacrifices for liberty their fathers had made. Pratt, by this point in his life, had traveled through England and parts of Europe, much of the US, Canada, and along the Pacific into Mexico, and met with many people from Asia as well – a remarkably well-traveled man.

Despite the very real failures of the government to protect their individual rights or redress their grievances, he spoke in praise of the Constitution. The main thrust of his address was that the cause of liberty would expand and someday fill the world:

The longer I live, and the more acquainted I am with men and things, the more I realize that … the Constitution of American Liberty was certainly dictated by the spirit of wisdom, by a spirit of unparalleled liberality, and by a spirit of political utility. And if that Constitution be carried out by a just and wise administration, it is calculated to benefit not only all the people that are born under its particular jurisdiction, but all the people of the earth … . It seems broad enough, and large enough, to receive and protect all that may be in any way deprived of the common rights of man. …. [The principles of the Constitution] embrace eternal truths, principles of eternal liberty, not the principles of one peculiar country, or the sectional interest of any particular people, but the great, fundamental, eternal principles of liberty to rational beings – liberty of conscience, liberty to do business, liberty to increase in intelligence and in improvement […]

There is a day coming when all mankind upon this earth will be free. When they will no longer be shackled, either by ignorance, by religious or political bondage, by tyranny, [or] by oppression (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 1, p. 137-143)

Pratt claimed this would not happen predominantly by revolution and violence, but by America being a beacon light to the world. He spoke of throngs of people who would sit in his day enjoying to hear of our freedoms, our institutions, and our scientific and cultural progress. He spoke of the immigrants coming to this country from all parts of the world specifically to find that freedom, and that once enlightened by being allowed to think and reason and act for themselves without the bondage of kings, state religions, or other powers they would blossom and rise up in greatness. Whether they eventually returned to their native lands or not, this would act as an “indirect influence … on those despotic nations” of Europe and Asia.

Recognizing that our liberty is remarkably multi-faceted, I will focus on the same categories Pratt mentioned. At the time he spoke, there were exactly 3 nations that were in some measure democracies, where at least some large percentage of the populace had the liberty of choosing their leaders. You can see for yourself how this has grown in the intervening 160+ years:

NOL Watson 1
source: Our World in Data

Billias’ 2009 work on how the principles of American constitutionalism were “heard round the world” shows that waves of influence gradually spread the principles of self-determination, liberty, separation of powers, and checks and balances into the freedom movements and constitutions of most of the world. Even while warning that the last ten years have seen declines in liberty overall worldwide, Heritage shows us that the last thirty years still show remarkable improvement:

NOL Watson 2

From a time when the US was one of very few countries to legally protect religious liberty, today nearly three-fourths of all the countries in the world have a constitution that specifically protects freedom of belief, and two-thirds permit some religious proselytism – which preserves freedom of expression (Pew Global Restrictions on Religion). There is still much to do to improve and preserve religious liberty around the world, both in legally acknowledged protections and in fostering an actual peaceful society where religious groups are not subject to violence and persecution.

Despite the distance left to go, the cause of liberty has clearly moved forward in great ways in the last 160 years. Much as Pratt predicted, much of this was accomplished without great revolutions and civil wars, but through the power of example as free nations and free people proved themselves a beacon to the world. There is still good cause to believe in that fundamental converting power from setting the right example and allowing free people to govern themselves.

A quick update, then liberals and democracy, followed by racism and rectification

I have been busy. I picked up a gig at RealClearHistory as a ghost editor, and I also write a weekly column there. I have a baby daughter (she’s 8 months old). My musings here at NOL have been sporadic, but I have been learning a lot. Bill (morality) and Federico (law and liberty) continue to make me smarter.

Tridivesh’s thoughts here so far have a heavy element of “democracy-is-best” in them. I find this to be the case for most South Asian liberals. I wonder if this community has had the time to ponder Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom…, which laments the fact that most liberals worldwide have eschewed the “liberty” in the phrase “liberty and democracy.” One is surely sexier than the other, and there are probably many pragmatic reasons for this phenomenon, but it’s worth repeating here that you can’t have liberal democracy without liberty. China holds elections all the time, but this doesn’t mean the Chinese are free.

Michelangelo’s most recent note on race is interesting, as always. If it’s just the US Census then I agree with Thomas: eliminate the race question. Matt’s idea, to leave it blank and let people fill it in themselves, is a good idea, too, provided the Census continues to pry too much into the lives of people living in the US. As far as race goes in general, the American system of classification is ridiculous (to be fair to us, I’ve never come across a good one). However, the US government has committed some heinous crimes based on racist classifications and as such I do think there is a need to continue asking race-based questions. My approach would be much simpler, though. I’d ask:

  • Do you identify as African-American?
  • Do you identify as Native American?
  • Do you identify as Japanese-American?

That’s it. Those are the only 3 questions I would ask about race. These three groups are groups because the US government, at some point in time, classified them as such and then proceeded to implement plans that robbed them of their labor, or their land, or their freedoms, and justice has yet to be delivered.

Libertarianism, Classical Liberalism, Right Wing Populism, and Democracy

An interesting exchange has occurred between Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center and Ilya Somin writing for the Washington Post on the issue of the influence of libertarianism over the modern Republican Party’s erosion of liberal democratic norms. In his initial piece, Wilkinson seemed to argue that the Libertarian view of absolutism in regards to property rights which was a way to offer an emotionally gratifying alternative to socialist redistribution was responsible for the Right’s adoption of a populist outlook which eroded democratic norms, for example, policies like Voter ID and Gerrymandering. Ilya Somin responded by pointing out that the libertarian “absolutist” conception of property rights had next to nothing to do with why many libertarians Wilkinson cites are skeptical of democracy. Wilkinson responded by saying his initial argument was confusingly stated, not that absolutist property rights is driving democratic erosion on the part of the right, by trying to clarify his distinction between “libertarian” and “classical liberal.” Somin pointed out that this response undermines the force of Wilkinson’s initial argument and took issue with some of his other points.

I wish to contribute to this debate because, even though Somin is largely right that Wilkinson’s argument is weakened by his clarification, I think both have missed that Wilkinson has fundamentally misunderstood what right-wing populism is and why it is a threat to democracy. Modern right-wing populism does not try to erode majoritarian democracy, even if it erodes some of the institutional norms which make it possible for modern liberal democracy to function. Rather, populism, in its many forms, weaponizes democratic rhetoric which is premised on the very notions which libertarians and classical liberals critical of democracy seek to challenge. Attempts to tie such criticisms to the modern right is absurd and distracts us from confronting those aspects which are actually threatening about the right’s pathologies. Afterwards, I will comment on some of the other minor confusions into which I believe Wilkinson falls.

Populism and Folk Democratic Intuitions

In Wilkinson’s genealogy, the root of modern libertarianism is an attempt to weaponize classical liberalism’s defense of property against the desire for socialist redistribution. As he tells it, classical liberals like Hayek and Buchanan sought to put trigger locks on democracy in the form of constitutional constraints on majority rule whereas radical libertarians like Rand, Nozick, and Rothbard sought to disarm democracy altogether from violating property rights. This conception leaves no room for any analysis of or support for democratic decision-making. Since the end of the Cold War, the right has continued to believe this absolutist property rights argument was extremely important even after the Red Menace had been slain and so is willing to do anything, including throwing democracy under the bus, to defend property rights. As Wilkinson puts it:

And that’s why ideological free-market conservatives tend to be so accommodating to, if not exactly comfortable with, populist white identity politics. In their minds, mundane left-right differences about tax rates and the generosity of the welfare state are recast as a Manichean clash between the light of free enterprise and the darkness of socialist expropriation. This, in turn, has made it seem morally okay, maybe even urgently necessary, to do whatever it takes—bunking down with racists, aggressively redistricting, inventing paper-thin pretexts for voting rules that disproportionately hurt Democrats, whatever—to prevent majorities from voting themselves a bigger slice of the pie.

In his follow up, after Somin pointed out that irrational factors like partisanship are more likely to influence a voter’s decision than complicated moral theories such as property rights, Wilkinson attempted to make this argument more plausible by giving the hypothetical example of a white working-class republican voter who, while not fully libertarian, uses his thin knowledge of libertarian property rights absolutism as a form of motivated reasoning justifying his erosion of democratic norms:

Burt is a moderately politically engaged mechanical engineer with ordinary civics-class ideas about democracy, as well as a strong distaste for paying his taxes. (He wants to buy a boat.) One day Burt picks up Atlas Shrugged on the recommendation of a friend, likes it a lot, and spends a few weeks poking around libertarian precincts of the Internet, where he encounters a number of libertarian arguments, like Rand’s, that say that taxation violates a basic, morally inviolable right. Burt happens to find these arguments extremely convincing, especially if he’s been idly shopping for boats online. Moreover, these arguments strongly suggest to Burt that democracy is a dangerous institution by which parasitic slackers steal things from hyper-competent hard workers, like Burt.

Now, none of this leads Burt to think of himself as a “libertarian.” He thinks of himself as a Lutheran, a moderate Republican, and a very serious Whovian. He’s suspicious of “free trade.” He’s “tough on crime.” Burt would never disrespect “our troops” by opposing a war, and he thinks legalizing drugs is bananas. Make no mistake: Burt is not a libertarian. But selective, motivated exposure to a small handful of libertarian arguments has left Burt even more indignant about taxes, and a bit sour on democracy—an altogether new attitude that makes him feel naughtily iconoclastic and a wee bit brave. Over time, the details of these arguments have faded for Burt, but the sentiments around taxation, redistribution, and democracy have stuck.

Ayn Rand and the other libertarian thinkers Burt encountered in his brief flush of post-Atlas Shrugged enthusiasm wanted him to be indignant about redistribution and wanted him to be sour on democracy. He drew the inferences their arguments were designed to elicit. The fact that he’s positively hostile to other elements of the libertarian package can’t mean he hasn’t been influenced by libertarian ideas.

Let’s suppose that, a few years later, a voter-ID ballot initiative comes up in Burt’s state. The local news tells Burt that this will likely make it harder for Democrats to win by keeping poorer people without IDs away from the polls. Burt rightly surmises that these folks are likely to vote, if they can, to take even more of his money in taxes. A policy that would make it less likely for those people to cast a ballot sounds great to Burt. Then it occurs to him, with a mild pang of Christian guilt, that this is a pretty selfish attitude. But then Burt remembers those very convincing arguments about the wickedness of democratic redistribution, and it makes him feel better about supporting the voter-ID requirement. Besides, he gives at church. So he votes for the initiative come election day.

That’s influence. And it’s not trifling, if there are a lot of Burts. I think there are a lot of Burts. Even if the partisan desire to stick it to Democrats is doing most of the work in driving Burt’s policy preference, the bit of lightly-held libertarian property rights absolutism that got into Burt’s system can still be decisive. If it gives him moral permission to act on partisan or racial or pecuniary motives that he might otherwise suppress, the influence might not be so small.

The problem here is not just, as Somin says, that this dances around the issue that people like Burt have become less libertarian over time and so it seems silly to blame libertarianism for his actions. It sounds as if Wilkinson has never actually talked to a populist-leaning voter like Burt. If you do, you will not find that Burt is skeptical of democracy or sees himself as defending some important ideal of laissez-faire capitalism against irrational socialist voters who are using democracy to destroy it. It is more likely that you will find that Burt sees himself as defending the “silent majority” who democracy should rightly represent from evil liberal, socialist and “cultural Marxist” elites who are undermining democracy, and how Trump will stop all the elitist liberals in the courts and media from alienating the common man with common sense by “draining the swamp.”

Read, for example, Rothbard’s original call for libertarians to ally with nationalist right-wing populists. In it, you’ll find no mention of how small “d” democracy attacks property rights because voters are rationally ignorant, and you won’t find, to quote Wilkinson, skepticism towards “a perspective that bestows dignity upon democracy and the common citizen’s democratic role.” Instead, you’ll find that the “grassroots” of the right-wing common man like the secessionists and neo-confederates who are defending property rights against the “socialist tyranny” of the “beltway elites,” Clintons, and the Federal Reserve. Modern adherents to this Rothbardian populist strategy define populism as “a political strategy that aims to mobilize a largely alienated base of the populace against out-of-control elites.” It sounds more like a radically majoritarian, Jacksonian screed about how the voice of the people needs to be truly represented.

Importantly, what the libertarian populists are trying to do is take the folk democratic intuitions which populist right-wingers have, intuitions upon which most peoples’ beliefs in the legitimacy of democracy rely, and channel those intuitions in a more thinly “libertarian” direction. Unfortunately, this is why many modern right-libertarians in the style of Ron Paul are impotent against white supremacists and often try to cozy up to them: because an important part of their strategy is to regurgitate the vulgar democratic rhetoric in which populists believe.

By contrast, modern skeptics of democracy in libertarian circles (or “classical liberal” or “cultural libertarian,” whichever semantic game Wilkinson wants to play to make his argument coherent), such as Ilya Somin, Bryan Caplan, and Jason Brennan, fundamentally undermine those folk democratic intuitions. While right-wing populists believe that the “common man” with his “common sense” knows better how the world works than the evil conniving academic elite does, the libertarian skeptic of democracy points out that the majority of voters know next to nothing and fail to be competent voters due to their rational ignorance. While populist voters believe that the voice of the majority should rule our governing structure, public choice tells us that “majority will” is mostly an illusionary concept. While populist voters believe that the “trigger locks” like courts are evil impediments to the people’s will and regularly attack them, libertarian skeptics of democracy view such institutions as the last line of defense against the irrational and ignorant mob of hooligan voters.

In fact, if people listened to folks like Somin and Brennan, populism of the sort that we’ve seen on the right would be an impossible position to maintain. This is partially why Rothbard largely rejected the public-choice analysis on which scholarship like Somin’s depends.

To try to link modern public choice-inspired skepticism of democracy with populism of any form, even in its most pseudo-libertarian form of the late Rothbard, is to grossly misunderstand populism, classical liberalism, and libertarianism. It seems rather odd to blame Somin and company for the rise of a political ideology which their arguments render incoherent. A Nancy MacLean-like conspiracy to undermine majority rule doesn’t have much of anything to do with the modern right when they think they are the majority who’s being oppressed by elites.

Neither is this some trivial matter of simply assigning blame incorrectly. The problem with populism on the right which has eroded American democracy is not that it thinks democracy is wrong, most populists naively have a lot of folk intuitions which imply some sort of vague proceduralist justification of strongly majority rule. Rather, they’ve taken the majoritarian, quasi-Jacksonian rhetoric (rhetoric to which libertarians other than Rothbard and classical liberals alike have mostly been opposed) which democrats often use and weaponized it in a manner that undermines the non-majoritarian norms on which liberal democracy is dependent for functioning. For someone like Wilkinson, who defends liberal democracy vigorously, misunderstanding the very nature of the threat seems like a particularly grave error as it renders his arguments impotent against it.

Democratic Majoritarianism versus Democratic Norms

In part, I think Wilkinson falls for this trap because he makes a conceptual confusion between the non-majoritarian liberal ideals on which democracy depends—towards which most libertarians are sympathetic—and democracy’s institutional form as majority rule. I’ve described this as a distinction between “institutional democracy” and “philosophical democracy” in the past, and have argued that one can uphold philosophical democratic norms while being skeptical of the current institutions in which they are embedded. Wilkinson argues, citing an article by Samuel Freeman, that libertarian absolutist conception of property is inherently illiberal as it implies a sort of propertarian, feudalist order. Of course, Wilkinson neglects to mention a response to Freeman by Peter Boettke and Rosolino Candela claiming that Freeman misunderstands the role property rights play in libertarian theory.

I am not an absolutist natural property rights-oriented libertarian at all, however in their defense, it is wrong for Wilkinson to think that belief in absolutist property rights—even to the point that one becomes an anarchist like Rothbard—means one is necessarily willing to do anything to undermine democracy to defend property rights. As Somin mentions, not all libertarian absolutists in property completely disbelieved in government like Nozick, but more importantly one can be an anarchist who is strongly skeptical of democracy for largely propertarian reasons but still believes, given that we have democracy, certain norms need to be upheld.

Norms such as equality before the law, equal footing in public elections (which Gerrymandering violates), and equal access to political power (which Voter ID laws violate). Just because one believes neo-Lockean arguments about property rights are valid does not mean one cannot coherently also endorse broadly Hayekian accounts of non-majoritarian liberal norms which make it possible for democracies to function (what Wilkinson calls “trigger locks”), even if in particular instances it might result in some property rights violations.

In other words, one can be skeptical that institutional democracy is moral for libertarian reasons while still embracing a broadly philosophically democratic outlook, or simply believe it is preferable to keep some democratic norms intact given that we have a democracy as an nth best possible solution.

What Wilkinson takes issue with is how the modern right attacks the sort of norms which make democracy work, norms with which no libertarian ought to take issue with given that we have a democracy as they are precisely the “trigger locks” which Hayek called for (even if libertarians want much stronger trigger locks to the point of effectively disarming governments). To think these norms are identical with how many libertarians think the specific voting mechanisms which democracy features are flawed is a conceptual confusion.

An Alternative Account of the Relationship between Libertarianism and the Right’s Pathologies

To me, it seems that Wilkinson’s attempt to shoehorn the somewhat nuanced (by the standards of electoral politics, if not by the standards of academic philosophical argumentation) philosophical arguments of Nozick and Rothbard into an account of the rise of Trumpian politics seems fundamentally inconsistent with the way we know voters act. Even if voters sometimes use indirect intellectual influences as a way to reason about their voting preferences in a motivated manner likes Wilkinson imagines, it’s not really explaining why they need to use such motivated reasoning in the first place. Here’s an alternative account:

During the Cold War, as Wilkinson notes, libertarians and conservatives had a common enemy in communism and socialism. As a result, fusionism happened and libertarians and conservatives started cheering for the same political team. After the end of the cold war, fusionism continued and libertarians found it hard to stop cheering for the “red” team for the same tribalist reasons we know non-libertarian irrational voters remain fiercely loyal to their political parties. Today, even though the GOP is becoming extremely less libertarian, some libertarians find it hard to stop cheering for the GOP for the same reasons New England Patriots fans still cheer for Tom Brady after the deflation scandal: old tribalist affiliations are hard to break.

The only real link between libertarians and modern right-wing pathologies are that some voters who have vaguely libertarian ideas still cheer for populist right-wingers in the GOP because they’re irrational hooligans who hate the left for tribalist reasons. This accords better with the fact voters aren’t all that ideological, that they (unlike Burt who’s interested in just lowering his own taxes selfishly) vote based off of perceived national interest more than self-interest, and how we know generally voters behave in partisan tribalist patterns. But this doesn’t make libertarianism any more culpable for the rise of the modern right’s erosion of democratic norms any more than (and probably less than given its limited influence) any other ideological current which has swayed the right to any degree.

How does this make sense of Wilkinson’s only real, non-hypothetical evidence of libertarian influence on the modern GOP, that some right wing politicians like Paul Ryan and Rand Paul sometimes cite Ayn Rand and Rothbard? Politicians sometimes use intellectual influences haphazardly to engage in certain sorts of motivated-reasoning to cater to subsets of voters, even though they overwhelmingly disagree with those thinkers. This why Paul Ryan first praised Ayn Rand, to get some voters who like Rand, and then later emphasized how much he rejected Rand. This is why Rand Paul cites libertarians simply to virtue-signal to some subset of libertarianish voters while constantly supporting extremely un-libertarian policies. Ted Cruz has said that conservatives “should talk about policy with a Rawlsian lens,” but nobody thinks that Rawls has been particularly influential over Cruz’s policy decisions. All politicians do when they cite an intellectual influence is try to play to cater to the tribalist, pseudo-intellectual inklings of some nerdy voters (“I read the same guys as you do, therefore I’m on your team”), it usually doesn’t mean they really were deeply influenced by or even understand the thinker they cite.

Libertarians and Classical Liberals

Let me conclude this article by addressing a side-issue of how to parse out the distinction between classical liberals and libertarians. One of Wilkinson’s ways of clarifying his disagreement with Somin was by claiming that there is something fundamentally different between “libertarianism” and “classical liberalism.” As Wilkinson puts it:

Absolutist rights-based libertarianism isn’t really part of this conversation at all. It’s effectively an argument against liberalism and the legitimacy of liberal political institutions, which is why it’s so confusing that the folk taxonomy lumps libertarianism and classical liberalism together, and sets them against standard left-liberalism. The dispute between liberalism and hardcore libertarianism concerns whether it’s possible to justify democratic political authority at all. The dispute within liberalism, about the status of economic rights and the legitimate scope of democratic decision-making, is much smaller than that.

Thus, Wilkinson seems to think that libertarians think political authority can’t be justified given that property rights are absolute and that classical liberals just think economic liberties should be included as liberal liberties. However, in my view this taxonomy of ideologies is still confused. Many who typically count as “libertarians” do not fit neatly into such a schema and need to be ignored.

You need to ignore significant portions of libertarians who still endorse property rights but think they are insufficient to a full conception of liberty and endorse other liberal freedoms, like the aforementioned Peter Boettke paper. You need to ignore intuitionist libertarians who do not endorse an absolutist conception of property rights but still dispute that political authority is justified at all, like Mike Huemer. You need to ignore consequentialists who do not embrace absolutist property rights as a philosophical position but think some sort of absolutist property-based anarchist society is desirable against liberal democracy, like David Friedman and Don Lavoie’s students. You need to ignore “thick” left libertarians like Charles Johnson and Gary Chartier who endorse libertarian views of rights yet think they imply far more egalitarian leftist positions. Further, you’d need to claim that most people the public readily identifies as some of the most influential libertarians of all time, like Hayek and Milton Friedman, are not actually libertarian which obscures rather than clarifies communication. Basically, the distinction is only useful if you’re trying to narrowly clarify disagreements between someone like JS Mill and someone like Rothbard.

I agree that there are distinctions between “libertarians” and “classical liberals” that can be drawn and the folk taxonomy that treats them creates a lot of confusion. However, it seems obvious if one talks to most libertarians, there is more going on in their ideology than just “property rights are absolute” and that there is a strong intermingled influence between even the most radical of anarchist libertarians and classical liberals. It is also true that there are a small minority of libertarians who are thoroughly illiberal (like Hoppe), but it seems better to just call such odd illiberal aberrations “propertarian” and still treat most libertarians as a particularly radical subset of classical liberals.

Ultimately, however, I think this taxonomical dispute, while interesting, isn’t particularly closely related to the problem at hand: the relationship between right-wing populism and libertarianism.

A short note on the Holy Roman Empire, “democracy,” and institutions

At the heart of Europe […] lay a hugely complex and fragmented political entity which resisted the ‘modernizing’ trend of national state formation, and preserved medieval arrangements conceived as rooted in antiquity: the Holy Roman Empire. After three decades of bloodshed retrospectively known as the Thirty Year War (1618-1648), the Empire had achieved a somewhat precarious equilibrium in which hundreds of semi-autonomous imperial estates co-existed under the loose authority of an emperor and a college of princes. Disparaged as a multi-headed monster by many […,] for Leibniz the Holy Roman Empire remained a preferable alternative to national and absolutist states. In his mind, the Empire offered an ideal of shared sovereignty in which limited territorial autonomy could be combined with a central imperial authority, and the main Christian confessions could cohabit peacefully in a balanced, representative Reichstag. Alongside his more famous works on logic, metaphysics, and mathematics, Leibniz wrote innumerable memos and proposals advising rulers on how to strengthen and re-order the Empire into a stable, supra-national political structure which could protect and promote common interests while maintaining local self-determination in territories and imperial free cities. In short, Leibniz regarded political unity in diversity under a supra-national authority as a better path to peace, prosperity, and stability in Europe than the ascendancy of competing national states.

This is from Maria Rosa Antognazza, a philosopher at King’s College London, writing for Oxford University Press’s blog.  (h/t Barry) Check out this map of the outline of the Holy Roman Empire in 1600 AD (it is superimposed onto the outlines of today’s European states):


It reminded me of this map I produced a couple of years ago showing the GDP (PPP) per capita of administrative units in Europe. What the map illustrates, generally, is a Europe where present-day Austria, western Germany, northern Italy, Switzerland, and Benelux are much wealthier than the rest of Europe (sans Scandinavia).

And here is a map, thanks to Vincent, of GDP per capita in European regions. What his map illustrates, generally, is a Europe where present-day Austria, western Germany, northern Italy, Switzerland, and Benelux are much wealthier than the rest of Europe (sans Scandinavia).

Wow, right? Eastern Germany, Poland, and Czech Republic are poor today, but the rest of what was once the Holy Roman Empire is very prosperous. So, two lines of thought here. One, socialism is really bad for people. It not only destroys economies and political and civil liberties, it also destroys institutions.

The second line of thought is to wonder aloud a bit more about institutions and their long-term viability. The first question that needs to addressed is “what are institutions?” Today, many scholars use “democracy” and “property rights” as generic answers when explaining to the general public what good institutions are, and they are not wrong, but they don’t do justice to the concept of democracy (or property rights, for that matter). I think a better term might be “representativeness,” or “constitutionalism,” or “republicanism.” Anything but “democracy.” Democracy implies rule of the people, but this doesn’t describe what has happened in the West, in regards to political equality and economic growth (both are uneven, but undeniably real).

“Democracy” sounds better than “political institutions favoring separation of powers and coalition-building in parliamentary settings, as well as the inclusion of people who don’t pull the levers of statecraft (through the voting mechanism),” but this shorthand has obvious negative unintended consequences: many a demagogue will use the term democracy to mean something quite different from what actual self-governance requires institutionally.

There is more to the Holy Roman Empire than just path dependency (albeit stretched to its limits). For instance, you’d have to explore why representative institutions in the HRE eventually failed. My quick guess would be that HRE’s neighbors (Russian Empire, French Empire, Ottoman Empire, Scandinavian kingdoms) were pretty ruthless and thus made it impossible for more formal constitutional institutions to take deep root and flourish in the heart of Europe. Instead, because of HRE’s unruly neighbors, the Empire was forever in flux between a loose alliance of petty states and a confederation.