- Syria: the knowledge problem Chris Dillow, Stumbling and Mumbling
- Why tribal sovereignty is so important Ryan McMaken Mises Wire
- Seattle baseball fans are eating grasshoppers, not hot dogs Eric Gomez, ESPN
- Art, science, and political economy Peter Boettke, Coordination Problem
I recently pointed you towards a book that has turned out to be a compelling and interesting read.
At the end of the day, it’s a straightforward application of public choice theory and evolutionary thinking to questions of power. Easy to understand theory is bundled with data and anecdotes* to elucidate the incentives facing dictators, democrats, executives, and public administrators. The differences between them are not discrete: they all face the same basic problem of compelling others’ behavior while facing some threat of replacement.
Nobody rules alone, so staying in power means keeping the right people happy and/or afraid. All leaders are constrained by their underlings. These underlings are necessary to get anything done, but they’re also potential rivals. For Bueno de Mesquita and Smith the crucial facts of a political order are a) how big a coalition (how many underlings) the ruler is beholden too and b) how replaceable the members of that coalition are.
The difference between liberal and illiberal orders boil down to differences in those two parameters. In democracies with a larger coalition and less replaceable coalition members, rulers behave better.
I got a Calculus of Consent flavor from Dictator’s Handbook. At the end of the day, collective decision making will reflect some version of “the will of the people… who matter.” But when we ask about the number of people who matter, we run into C of C thinking. Calling for bigger coalitions is another way of calling for an approach to an effective unanimity rule (at least at the constitutional stage).
In C of C the question of the optimal voting rule (majority vs. super majority vs. unanimity) boils down to a tradeoff between the costs of organizing and the costs of externalities imposed by the ruling coalition. On the graph below (from C of C) we’re comparing organization costs (J) against externality costs (I) (the net costs of the winning coalition’s inefficient policies). The idea is that a unanimity rule would prevent tyranny of the majority (i.e. I is downward sloping), but that doesn’t mean unanimity is the optimal voting rule.
But instead of asking “what’s efficient” let’s think think about what we can afford out of society’s production, then ask who makes what decisions. In a loose sense, we can think of a horizontal line on the graph above representing our level of wealth. If we** aren’t wealthy enough to organize, then the elites rule and maximize rent extraction. We can’t get far up J, so whichever coalition is able to rule imposes external costs at a high level on I.
But I‘s height is a function of rent extraction. Rulers face the classic conundrum of whether to take a smaller piece of a larger pie.
The book confirms what we already know: when one group can make decisions about what other groups can or must do, expect a negative sum game. But by throwing in evolutionary thinking it shed light on why we see neither an inexorable march of progress nor universal tyranny and misery.
As you travel back in time, people (on average) tend to look more ignorant, cruel, and superstitious. The “default state” of humanity is poverty and ignorance. The key to understanding economics is realizing that we’ve bootstrapped ourselves out of that position and we aren’t done yet.
The Dictator’s Handbook helped me realize that I’d been forgetting that the “default state” of political power is rule by force. The liberalization we’ve seen over the last 500 years has been just the first part of a bootstrapping process.
Understanding the starting point makes it clear that more inclusive systems use ideas, institutions, capital, and technology to abstract upward to more complex levels. Something like martial honor scales up the exercise of power from the tribe (who can The Chief beat up) to the fiefdom (now the Chief has sub-chiefs). Ideology and identity can tie fiefdoms into nation-states (now we’ve got a king and nobility). Wealth plus new ideologies create more inclusive and democratic political orders (now we’ve got a president and political parties). But each stage is built on the foundation set before. We stand on the shoulders of giants, but those giants were propped up by the non-giants around them.
Our world was built by backwards savages. The good news is that we can use the flimsier parts of the social structure we inherited as scaffolding for something better (while maintaining the really good stuff). What exactly this means is the tricky question. Which rules, traditions, organizations, and processes are worth keeping? How do we maintain those? How/when do we replace the rest? And what does “we” even mean?
Changing the world involves uncertainty. There are complex interrelations between every part of reality. And the knowledge society needs is scattered through many different minds. To make society better, we need buy-in from our neighbors (nobody rules alone). And we need to realize that the force we exert will be countered by
an equal and opposite force some plural, imperfectly identifiable, maybe-but-probably-not equal, and only-mostly-opposite forces. There are complex and constantly shifting balances between different coalitions vying for power and the non-coalitions that might suddenly spring into action if conditions are right. Understanding the forces at play helps us see the constraints to political change.
And there’s good news: it is possible to create a ruling coalition that is more inclusive. The conditions have to be right. But at least some of those conditions are malleable. If we can sell people on the right ideas, we can push the world in the right direction. But we have to work at it, because there are plenty of people pitching ideas that will concentrate power and create illiberal outcomes.
*I read the audiobook, so I’m basically unable to vouch for the data analysis. Everything they said matched the arguments they were making, but without seeing it laid out on the page I couldn’t tell you whether what they left out was reasonable.
**Whatever that means…
A few weeks ago, I finished reading the Pox of Liberty authored by Werner Troesken. Although I know some of his co-authors personally (notably the always helpful Nicola Tynan whose work on water economics needs to be read by everyone serious in the field of economic history – see her work on London here), I never met Troesken. Nonetheless, I am what you could call a “big fan” in the sense that I get a tingling feeling in my brain when I start reading his stuff. This is because Troesken’s work is always original. For example, his work on the economic history of public utilities (gas and electricity) in the United States is probably one of the most straightforward application of industrial organization to historical questions and, in the process, it kills many historical myths regarding public utilities. The Pox of Liberty is no exception and it should be read (at the risk of become a fan of Troesken like I am) as a treatise on the political economy of public health.
Very often, it will be pointed out that public health measures are public goods that government should provide lest it be “underprovided” if left to private actors. After all, it is rare to hear of individuals who voluntarily quarantined themselves upon learning they were sick. As a result, the “public economics” argument is that the government should mandate certain measures (mandatory vaccination and quarantine) that will reduce infectious diseases. Normally, the story would end there. And to be sure, there is a lot of evidence that mild coercive measures do reduce some forms of mortality (mandatory vaccination and quarantine). The more intense the policies, the larger the positive effects on health outcomes. For example, taxes on cigarettes do reduce consumption of cigarettes and thus, secondhand smoke. In fact, even extreme coercive measures like smoking bans seem to yield improvements in terms of public health (another example is that of Cuba which I discussed on this blog).
However, Troesken’s contribution is to tell us that the story does not end there. In a way, the “public economics” story is incomplete. The institutions that are best able to deploy such levels of coercion are generally also the institutions that are unable to restrain political meddling in economic affairs. Governments that are able to easily deploy coercive measures are governments that tend to be less constrained and they can fall prey to rent-seeking and regulatory capture. They will also tend to disregard property rights and economic freedom. This implies slower rates of economic growth. As a result, there is a trade-off that exists: either you get fast economic growth with higher rates of certain infectious diseases or you get slow economic growth with lower rates of certain infectious diseases (Troesken concentrates mostly on smallpox and yellow fever). The graphic below illustrates this point of Troesken. Countries like Germany – with its strong centralizing Prussian tradition – were able to generate very low levels of deaths from infectious diseases. But, they were poorer than the United States. The latter country had a constitutional framework that limited the ability of local and state governments to adopt even mild measures like mandatory vaccination. Thus, that meant higher mortality levels but the same constitutional constraints permitted economic growth and thus the higher level of living standards enjoyed by Americans relative to the Germans.
But Troesken’s story does not end there. Economic growth has some palliative health effects (in part the McKeown hypothesis*) whereby we have a better food supply and access to better housing or less demanding jobs. However, in the long-run economic growth means that new sectors of activity can emerge. For example, as we grow richer, we can probably expend more resources on drugs research to extend life expectancy. We can also have access to more medical care in general. These fruits take some time to materialize as they grow more slowly. Nonetheless, they do form a palliative effect that contributes to health improvements.
However, there is an analogy that allows us to see why these palliative effects are important in any political economy of public health provision. This analogy relates to forestry. The health outcomes fruits from a “coercive institutional tree” can only be picked once. Once they are picked, the tree will yield no more fruits. However, the yield from that single harvest is considerable. In comparison, the “economic growth tree” yields fewer and smaller fruits, but it keeps yielding fruits. It never stops yielding fruits. In the long-run, that tree outperforms the other tree. The problem is that you cannot have both trees. If you chose one, you can’t have the other.
In this light, public health issues become incredibly harder to decipher and understand. However, we can see a much richer wealth of information under this light. In writing the Pox of Liberty, Troesken is enlightening and anyone doing health economics should read (and absorb his work) as it is the first comprehensive treatise of the political economy of public health.
* I should note that I think that the McKeown hypothesis is often unfairly lambasted and although I have some reservations myself, it can be adapted to fit within a wider theoretical approach regarding institutions – like Troesken does.
Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) seems virtually certain. Without the United States and with a weak Canadian prime minister on the issue (who got elected without a clear position on it), the agreement will die a swift death. By dying that rapidly, it confirms a point I have been making for years: agreements like the TPP are managed trade that generate as much (if not more) opposition than genuine free trade agreements (those that could fit on a few pages, not 10,000).
Protectionism are basically income-redistributing schemes. Shifting from protectionism to free trade means altering these schemes. Thus, the political opposition and the agreements we have seen over the last decades where special dispensations are placed inside the agreements. In some instances, like the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement of 1988 (CUFTA), this leads to genuinely freer (not free) trade. In other cases, like CAFTA in the early 2000s, the agreement is nothing less than rent-seeking by different means.
In the case of TPP, it seems that popular discontent is large enough to kill this very complex (and flawed) agreement. I am not sure whether or not, in net terms, the TPP was an improvement over the current state of affairs. What I am sure is that the opposition was similar to what the opposition would have been with unilateral trade liberalization.
At this point, small countries with no influence on world demand (like Canada) should simply go “at it alone”. What I mean is that unilateral trade liberalization is the way to go. There is a strong case for unilateral trade liberalization (see notably the work of Edwards and Lederman) for small economies. A large part of the cost of protectionism is not the level of tariffs and quotas, but the distortions generated in relative prices that lead to inefficient allocations of resources.The low hanging fruits are to be found in the tree of leveling the field. Small countries could convert quotas into tariffs and set a uniform (across the board) low tariff (see Chile’s case).Although far from ideal free trade (no barriers), this would represent a considerable improvement over the distorted relative entry barriers.
In such a situation, the political costs would be the same as those with agreements like the TPP, but the benefits would be infinitely larger making it easier for governments to proceed. The narrative would also be easy to sell to electorates: no special treatment for anyone. In the long-term, this may even “spillover” into multilateral trade agreements by reducing frictions during negotiations.
eNote: This is part of a series on democracy. It is assumed the reader is familiar with part one, defining democracy, and part two, summarizing classical liberal perspectives on democracy. In this section, we’ll analyze how pragmatists conceive of democracy as a broader philosophy. The final post will argue that a dialectical synthesis of libertarianism and pragmatism on democracy will yield an argument in favor of market anarchy.
As classical liberals have pointed out throughout history, particularly in since the mid-nineteenth century, democracy as a system of political decision-making can be extremely dangerous to individual liberty and social prosperity. It could lead to tyranny of the majority, it may be characterized in practice as the rule of the ignorant and irrational and yield awful policy, and it leads to a reification of the state as the just “voice of the people” which can cause further tyranny. For these reasons, there is a very strong argument from moving away from constitutions which rely primarily on democratic means for decision making for the protection of individual liberty. The natural question is: what is our current democratic regime to be replaced with?
To answer this question, perhaps it is worth examining what is admirable in democracy. Thus far, I have mostly been referring to democracy in the second sense mentioned in the introductory section (henceforth referred to, for want of a better term, political democracy), as a means of political decision making. However, there is also the fourth sense which, although related, is distinct from political democracy which may be called philosophical democracy. To further explore this meaning of democracy, and perhaps give an answer to the aforementioned question, it is worth engaging with the thought of some of the most strident defenders of democracy: the American pragmatists.
Pragmatists on Philosophical Democracy
The writings of John Dewey and Sidney Hook are exemplars of philosophical democracy (though certainly others in this tradition are as well). Dewey, in his 1888 essay “The Ethics of Democracy,” specifically argues against Henry Maine’s view that “democracy is only a form of government.” Dewey explicitly defines democracy as a much broader “way of life,” as he says in his 1937 work “Democracy and Education:”
Democracy is much broader than a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws, and carrying on government administration by means of popular suffrage and elected officials. It is that, of course. But it is something broader and deeper than that. The political and governmental phase of democracy is a means, the best means so far found, for realizing ends that lie in the wide domain of human relationships and the development of human personality. It is, as we often say, though perhaps without appreciating all that is involved in the saying, a way of life, social and individual. The keynote of democracy as a way of life may be expressed, it seems to me, as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in the formation of the values that regulate the living of men together: which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the development of human beings as individuals.
Indeed, Dewey’s emphasis on how democracy allows for participation in the formation of social values is a common thread throughout his entire political philosophy. In his earlier days, he was deeply influenced by the Hegelian notion of society as a “social organism” (although, in his later work he became a bit more cautious about the collectivist and possible authoritarian implications of this doctrine; see his 1939 essay “I Believe”). In 1888, he argued that democracy, by allowing participation of all, “approaches most nearly the ideal of all social organization; that in which the individual and society are organic to each other.” He explains:
In every other form of government there are individuals who are not organs of the common will, who are outside of the political society in which they live and are, in effect, aliens to that which should be their own commonwealth. Not participating in the expression of the common will, they do not embody themselves. Having no share in society, society has none in them.
…The government is not made up of those who hold office, or who sit in the legislature. It consists of every member of political society. And this is true of democracy, not less, but more, than of other forms. The democratic formula that government derives its powers from the consent of the governed…means that in democracy, at all events, the governors and the governed are not two classes, but two aspects of the same fact—the fact of the possession of a unified and articulate will.
Thus, Dewey argues that “Democracy, in a word, is a social, that is to say, an ethical conception, and upon its ethical significance is based its significance as governmental.”
Dewey expands upon the sense in which Democracy is an “ethical conception” in his much later work “Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us,” in which he characterizes democracy as a “personal way of individual life” (his emphasis). In this sense, democracy is not only to be found in institutions but in “free gatherings of neighbors on the street corner to discuss back and forth what is read in uncensored news of the day, and in gathering of friends in living rooms of houses and apartments to converse freely with one another.”
The sense in which democracy is a personal way of life is characterized by what Dewey calls the “democratic faith.” There are two elements to this democratic faith, one is faith in “the possibilities of human nature.” That is, faith that “every human being, independent of the quality or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for the development of whatever gift he has.” Second, is a “faith in the capacity for human beings for intelligent judgment and action if proper conditions are fostered.” These two faiths combine to make democracy an overarching philosophy that characterized by “belief in the ability of human experience to generate the aims and methods by which further experience will grow in ordered richness.” It can be seen, then, how these faiths may be found in not so much the political institution of democracy but in every day deliberative discussion and face-to-face encounters like neighbors and friends discussing news.
Sidney Hook in his 1938 essay “The Democratic Way of Life” further expands on the ethical character of democracy as a personal way of life. He argues that there are “three related values which are central to democracy as a way of life.” Those are the “belief that every individual should be regarded as possessing intrinsic worth or dignity,” the “belief in the value of difference, variety and uniqueness,” and, to mediate between such values, a belief in “the method of intelligence, of critical scientific inquiry.”
In regards to that last value, it could be said that for Dewey and Hook participatory democracy is not only a “way of life” or an “ethic,” but also a social epistemology. He argues in “Democracy and Education” that, although intelligence is unevenly distributed among individuals, “it is the democratic faith that it is sufficiently general so that each individual has something to contribute and value of each contribution can be assessed only as it enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all.” He says in Liberalism and Social Action that rapid changes in society “have to be directed” and “controlled that it will move in some end in accordance with the principles of life, since life itself is development.” For Dewey, taking advantage of the dispersed intelligence through the democratic process is essentially the application of the scientific method to political problems. Indeed, the idea of democratic experimentalism comes to the forefront in this philosophical conception of democracy precisely because of Dewey’s epistemological commitments to the scientific method.
Thus, democracy in this pragmatist sense is a personal philosophy and social epistemology that accepts scientific deliberation, humanism, and pluralism as necessary conditions for growth of individuals and society as a whole.
Dewey on Political Democracy
Of course, the pragmatists not only conceived of democracy as a way of life but defended democratic institutions. What is striking about this is how Dewey characterizes political democracy as a means to the aspirations of philosophical democracy rather than an end itself. Indeed, he writes in “Democracy and Administration” that the institutions of political democracy “are not a final end and a final value. They are to be judged on the basis of their contribution to end.” The end here, of course, is the extent to which it allows individuals to participate in the formation of social values and the defense of liberty necessary for such participation.
Recall that in The Constitution of Liberty Hayek also conceived of political democracy as an end, and there is a striking similarity between Dewey and Hayek on this point. One may be tempted to say that the ends they are seeking are entirely different as Hayek is seeking individual liberty. However, this is not necessarily the case, as Dewey argued in Liberalism and Social Action that the end of liberalism is “a social organization that will make possible the effective liberty and opportunity for personal growth in mind and spirit of all individuals.”
To be sure, Dewey’s and Hayek’s conceptions of what constitutes liberty are very different: Hayek specifically cites Dewey as conceptually confusing “power” with “liberty” for accepting a positive rather than negative conception of liberty. For Hayek, liberty simply means “the absence of coercion.” For Dewey, liberty means “the liberation of individuals so that realization of their capacities may be the law of their life.” However, what at first seems to be two contradictory beliefs in liberty are not necessarily contradictory. One may say, with Dewey, that positive liberties are necessary so that individuals may grow in mind and spirit and participate in the formation of social values, but agree with Hayek that a necessary prerequisite for such liberties is absence of coercion. Indeed, this defense of negative liberty for the sake of positive liberty is precisely the stance many modern neoclassical liberals take, most notably Jason Brennan and David Schmidt. Thus, Dewey’s and Hayek’s views on democracy as a means to the end of liberty are quite possibly complementary. (This is not to be confused with claiming they really said the same thing, which they clearly did not.)
Dewey defends democracy as the most effective means to this end on the basis that “no man or limited set of men is [sic] wise enough or good enough to rule others without their consent[.]” Political democracy is understood by the pragmatists, as Sidney Hook says, to be a society “where the government rests upon the freely given consent of the governed.” This consent (which Hook acknowledges is not in complete existence in reality) is given through voting.
Criticisms of the Pragmatist Incorporation of Political Democracy
The pragmatist conception of philosophical democracy is certainly admirable from a classical liberal standpoint. Its emphasis on dispersed knowledge, its call for liberal tolerance of diversity, its humanistic respect for the dignity of every individual, and its use of a broadly scientific (though not scientistic) approach to social issues are all well in line with classical liberalism’s goals. However, clearly the incorporation of political democracy as the political ideal by the pragmatists would irk many classical liberals and especially modern libertarians. In fact, I would argue that political democracy in practice is somewhat antithetical to the philosophical aspirations of the pragmatists.
There are four ways in which political democracy undermines the aspirations of philosophical democracy. First, in no meaningful sense could it be said that political democracy has the consent of the governed. Second, political democracy in practice is in no meaningful sense actually an application of intelligence and the scientific method to political issues in practice. Third, the centralization of political authority and planning in democracies undermines Dewey’s point that intelligence is distributed throughout society (particularly in his extremely interventionist views on economics). Finally, the democratic process undermines the mutual respect of individual human dignity philosophical democracy exalts.
Both Dewey and Hook argue that political democracy’s legitimacy and its epistemic superiority rest on its ability to take the freely given consent of the governed through the electoral process. Dewey is, at best, vague on what this means, but Hook is a bit more explicit in “The Democratic Way of Life:”
In saying that government rests upon the “consent” of the governed, it is meant that at certain fixed periods its policies are submitted to the governed for approval or disapproval. By “freely given” consent of the governed is meant that no coercion, direct or indirect, is brought to bear upon the governed to elicit their approval or disapproval. A government that “rests upon” the freely given consent of the governed is one that in fact abides by the expression of this approval or disapproval.
Hook gives three conditions of how this consent must be reached. First, the method of giving consent must not be obstructed (in this case, free elections without coerced voting). Second, there can be no economic threats to political dissenters, so the economic policy must be controlled through political means. Third, there can be no monopoly in education or the press. I argue, though the third may be reached in political democracy, the first two are nearly impossible to be achieved in political democracies.
On the first point, it is highly dubious that voting is truly a method of consent in the first place. Michael Huemer in The Problem of Political Authority identifies three arguments that are typically given to claim democracy has the consent of the governed. First, “naïve majoritarianism,” which believes that if all vote or have the opportunity to vote in an election the majority has just authority to govern as they please. Second, deliberative democracy, which holds that if participants can publicly reason about their proposals, have an equal voice, and a consensus can be aimed at, the resulting consensus or majority vote is just. Third, equality from authority which holds that treating others as equals means we must respect democratic decisions. Though neither Hook nor Dewey explicitly explain why they think a vote constitutes consent, it is safe to say that their beliefs fall somewhere between naïve majoritarianism and deliberative democracy, thus it is worth rehashing Huemer’s arguments against those views. (The equality argument is mostly irrelevant for present purposes.)
Against naïve majoritarianism, Huemer asks us what if such a principle were applied to everyday situations through a thought experiment of a number of friends trying to decide who pays for the tab in bar. Imagine that, against your wishes, everyone among your friends says they should take a vote on who should pay for the bar tab, and they happen to choose you. Are you morally obligated to pay the tab? Do your friends have the right to forcibly take your money away from you and pay the tab? Our intuition says no and that this isn’t really consensual, so why, Huemer asks us, is it any different with political institutions?
The more interesting argument Huemer takes up is Joshua Cohen’s conception of deliberative democracy, which certainly bears some similarity to the pragmatists. Huemer characterizes Cohen’s notion of deliberative democracy as bearing the following features:
- Participants take their deliberation to be capable of determining action and to be unconstrained by any prior norms
- Participants offer reasons for their proposals, with the (correct) expectation that those reasons alone will determine the fate of the proposals.
- Each participant has an equal voice.
- The deliberation aims at consensus, however if consensus is not achieved, it is decided by voting.
First of all, as Huemer notes, there is little reason why deliberation in democratic institutions should legitimize the claim that participants have consented to the results. If we return to the bar tab example, imagine if we just added the stipulation that before the vote was taken everyone gives you reasons and arguments about why you should pay the tab, fail to convince you, and still vote that you pay for it. Nothing changes in terms of your consent to their taking your money. Indeed, the fact that government coercion involves deliberation is irrelevant to whether that coercion was consented to.
However, there is a second reason why the argument for political authority from deliberative democracy fails, and this brings me to my second argument against the application of political democracy for the ends of pragmatist philosophical democracy. Dewey and Hook, as well as Cohen, act as if democratic discourse is actually deliberative as if reasons are actually given, as if everyone participates in the process. Dewey likens this process to the scientific method, holding that it is the “intelligence” that can control and direct changes in society.
This is decidedly not the case in any actual modern democracy. As public choice theorists note, the incentives facing voters is not to apply their intelligence and knowledge to voting, they instead vote as rationally ignorant. Further, contrary to Dewey’s democratic faith in the ability of people to make good decisions voting, they are systemically biased and irrational, as Bryan Caplan argued in The Myth of the Rational Voter. The result is not the controlled, experimental, scientific deliberation and discourse the pragmatists describe, but rule of an ignorant, irrational majority. How one can look at the cacophonic caterwauling in political discourse, the superficial pomp and circumstance of the electoral process, the irrational partisanship that low-information ideological voters possess, and the sensationalism of media coverage and call it “deliberative” or “intelligent” in any sense is quite beyond me. It seems that democracy is more like cheap pornography than science and deliberation, deliberative democracy and intelligence in the scientific method of actual democratic institutions is a myth.
Further, the idea that everyone has an equal say in any existing democracy is, at best, absurd. A fraction of the population votes and their votes are controlled by an even smaller fraction of the population in the press, policy research, and who controls campaign ads. The actual policies are not controlled by elections, but by backroom deals and bureaucracies in modern democracies. As public choice theory teaches us, this makes policy in democracy the whim of special interests who contribute to the politician’s campaigns, who engage in rent-seeking and regulatory capture, not the majority and this certainly undermines the idea that anyone has an equal say in political democracies.
Hook has another condition of consent for political democracies, that there is no indirect economic coercion. He elaborates on this point:
There are less obvious but no less effective ways of coercively influencing the expression of consent. A threat, for example, to deprived the governed of their jobs or means of livelihood, by a group which has the power to do so, would undermine a democracy even if its name were retained. In fact, every overt form of economic pressure, since it is experienced directly by the individual and since so many other phases of his life are dependent upon economic security, is an overt challenge to democracy…Where it cannot influence the expression of consent, it may subvert or prevent its execution. This is particularly true in modern social instruments of production, necessary for the livelihood of many, are privately own by the few…Genuine political democracy, therefore, entails the right of the governed, through their representatives, to control economic policy.
My strong disagreement with Hook here brings me to my third point, that political democracy’s tendencies towards centralization are antithetical to Hook and Dewey’s arguments that philosophical democracy acknowledges and takes advantage of the dispersed intelligence among individuals. Anyone schooled in public choice theory immediately sees the problem with Hook’s analysis that government policy controlling economics is necessary to reduce indirect economic coercion. As the concept of “concentrated benefits, dispersed cost” shows, the reality is that when policy is controlled by the government in democracies a select few special interests have the incentive to use government policy to their ends at the expense of the public good. In other words, what Hook calls “economic democracy” is undemocratic in every way due to the public choice problems embedded in the democratic process for selecting economic policy. Further, Hook’s point about unequal distribution of wealth needing to be subverted by state intervention is far off the mark; that exact state intervention is what causes such centralization of wealth in the first place.
But this brings me to my broader point about how political democracy is inconsistent with Dewey’s assertion that “it is the democratic faith that it is sufficiently general so that each individual has something to contribute and value of each contribution can be assessed only as it enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all[.]” Political democracy has resulted in the centralization of decision making into ever larger governments by an increasingly elite group of bureaucrats, politicians, and special interests. This is not taking advantage of the intelligent contributions of each individual.
Further, Dewey’s general views on economic policy and favoring for big government that were bordering on socialism at times and were definitely in favor of progressive state intervention, are at odds with his broader epistemic commitments which are closely linked to philosophical democracy. This may be seen by directly comparing Dewey on these points with Hayek.
In a great paper entitled “Hayek’s Challenge to Dewey,” Alan Reynolds points out that both Hayek and Dewey have very similar epistemic views and both derive their political views from their respective epistemologies. However, Hayek’s and Dewey’s respective visions of liberalism are very different. Hayek counts himself in the old classical liberal tradition which seeks limited government to maximize individual negative liberty, while Dewey, despite acknowledging this older liberalism’s success at progress in the past, sees classical liberalism as an obstacle in Liberalism and Social Action and says it should be replaced with a “renascent liberalism” that embraces large government policies to guarantee positive liberties.
Yet, as Reynolds notes, both Hayek and Dewey have similar epistemologies, and his analysis is worth quoting at length on this point:
Dewey constantly argues that the philosophical tradition, starting with Plato but achieving its sharpest articulation with Descartes, portrayed humans as fundamentally rational beings, whose rationality has a single universal structure and is capable of detaching itself from experience to grasp universal truths. Dewey instead puts forward a radically different view, in which knowledge is fallible, limited, social, embodied, and contextual. He argues against the “old notion that intelligence is a ready-made possession of individuals.” This view is a “purely individualistic notion of intelligence” that fails to recognize the social character of intelligence. Knowledge, for Dewey, is not primarily acquired and developed in detachment from social interactions, but is embodied in them. We live “in an environment in which the cumulative intelligence of a multitude of cooperating individuals is embodied.” This means that knowledge is much broader than the articulation of it found in the philosophical tradition. Dewey’s conception of knowledge, according to Posner, “includes tacit (‘how to’) knowledge as well as the articulate knowledge acquired by formal reasoning and systematic empirical methods, for both are useful.” Knowledge is not confined to the articulate and explicit, but includes the knowledge weaved into the emotions, common sense, know-how, and intuition. This broader sense of knowledge is not reducible to the articulate and explicit.
…Hayek’s vision of epistemology similarly deflates the pretensions of human rationality and broadens out our notion of knowledge to include those practical aspects of our know-how that remains unthematized (and possibly unthematizable). Hayek offers a distinction between two opposing conceptions of “the place which reason plays in human affairs.” There is the Enlightenment (and specifically Cartesian) view that “assumes that Reason, with a capital R, is always fully and equally available to all humans and that everything which man achieves is the direct result of, and therefore subject to, the control of individual reason.” In contrast to this rationalist epistemology, he offers what he refers to as his evolutionist, “antirationalist approach,” which “regards man not as a highly rational and intelligent but as a very irrational and fallible being, whose individual errors are corrected only the course of a social process, and which aims at making the best of a very imperfect material.” Human reason is able to provide the on-the-ground knowledge that helps to navigate particular contexts and situations – and this knowledge will be overwhelmingly what we might call “practical knowledge,” or know-how, which is not easy to formalize into know-that type information. It is false (and potentially dangerous) to view humans as beings that are specially equipped to access universal truth via universal reason; contrarily, we are creatures that can navigate certain kinds of situations via practical problem-solving. A great deal of this knowledge is “tacit, inarticulable, and therefore uncommunicable.” In this view, “man has achieved what he has in spite of the fact that he is only partly guided by reason, and that his individual reason is very limited and imperfect.” This rejection of Cartesian-inspired rationalism, and defense of an anti-rationalistic, fallibilist epistemology, is central to Hayek’s picture of the individual and the limits of knowledge.
Unlike Dewey, Hayek continually applies this critique of a hyper-inflated view of reason to government policy where Dewey stops short. Hayek’s point that our knowledge is inarticulate, incomplete, and fallible means that no man or group of men possess the knowledge to design an economy. Instead, we must rely on the decentralized decision making of the price system, on the spontaneous order of markets to allocate resources. Any attempts to design, plan, or control an economy are destined to fail due to this fundamental knowledge problem so closely linked to Hayek’s critique of Enlightenment rationalism that Dewey shares. Reynolds comments:
This assumption that socialist planning is possible and desirable relies, I argue, on the following moves on Dewey’s part: (1) Dewey throws out bad Enlightenment “Reason” and puts in its place the notion of “intelligence;” and (2) although “intelligence” does not harbor the pretenses of coming into contact with absolute truth like “Reason” does, it is still powerful enough to be capable of successfully planning and guiding the economy. While Hayek joins Dewey in step (1) (deflating the pretensions of Reason), Hayek would rightly be concerned with step (2). For Hayek, the shift from Enlightenment “Reason” to fallible “intelligence” should make us far more skeptical about the possibility and desirability of economic planning. If Deweyans took Hayek seriously, they might find themselves in agreement with Richard Rorty when he asks the Left to “stop talking about the ‘anticapitalist struggle,’” and content itself with “sticking to small experimental ways of alleviating misery and overcoming injustice.”
It is a little strange, however, that Dewey failed to anticipate this Hayekian challenge. He does acknowledge in Liberalism and Social Action does acknowledge the very Hayekian point that “society in general is served by the unplanned coincidence of the consequences of a vast multitude of efforts put forth by individuals without reference to any social end” as a “new formulation” in classical liberalism. Further, his criticisms of aristocracy and the progressive tendency to over-rely on technocratic experts for government administration come close to Hayekian knowledge problem critiques of socialism at times. However, Dewey’s excessive focus on the historical abuses of early industrial state capitalism blinded him to the potential for markets to be a spectacular coordinating mechanism.
Getting off the topic of economics and back to democracy, it is clear that political democracy’s tendency to centralize everything and apply a one-size-fits-all approach to social problems based off of majority rule are at odds with the social epistemology of Deweyan philosophical democracy.
The final reason why political democracy fails to meet the end of philosophical democracy is it undermines the democratic faith in the dignity of humans, and deliberative discussion and hermeneutical openness to opposing opinions necessary for such a faith. Turn on cable news while covering a political issue or read the comments of the majority of internet political forums and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any examples of people respecting the dignity of “the other side.” Indeed, Jonathan Haidt notes in The Righteous Mind that political discussion tends to go ugly do to the way our minds process morality. Michael Huemer notes just how irrational political discourse in modern democracies can so often get. This bodes ill for any political project that seeks to use outright public debate (as opposed to dialogue) to be “deliberative,” especially pragmatist democracy.
Yet there’s another sense in which modern political democracy completely undermines the dignity of the human person. Modern democracies lead to a false identification of the state with “the will of the people,” a false identification Dewey himself bought in his earlier writings though repudiated after the rise of totalitarianism. Any individual who goes against the state, then, is going against “the people,” all of humanity. Often times, these people are written off with such labels as “unpatriotic,” “irrational,” “anti-democratic” (in the first sense as a meaningless insult) and the sort. That seems completely contrary to respecting the dignity of each individual, and to openness in dialogue and deliberation with other opinions that Dewey wants to embrace.
As we have seen, on almost every aspect political democracy fails to deliver the promises of philosophical democracy extolled by the pragmatists. Dewey himself did acknowledge in a later essay entitled “I Believe” that “democratic institutions are no guarantee for the existence no guarantee for the existence of democratic individuals.” Further, he insists that democratic institutions are a means to the philosophical ends and “are to be judged on the basis of their contribution to end[.]” It seems that it is not inconsistent, in light of recent evidence from public choice theory and experience, to oppose political democracy from a pragmatist perspective yet still embrace Dewey’s broadly “democratic” philosophical commitments.
Of course, Dewey would reject completely separating the means of democracy from the intended ends. As he wrote in an essay called “Democracy is Radical,” “The fundamental principle of democracy is that the ends of freedom and individuality for all can be attained only by the means that accord with those ends.” Further, he was immensely critical of Trotsky and revolutionary radicals for their attitude that the means justify the ends.
What is needed, then, is an alternative set of political institutions to democracy that can approximate the pragmatist philosophical aspirations of humanism, pluralism, open dialogue and serious scientific inquiry that are also consistent with individuality and liberty. In the next post, I will argue that this set of institutions can likely be found in market anarchism with a polycentric legal system.
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.
Sometimes, I feel that some authors simply evolve separately from all those who might be critical of their opinions. I feel that this hurts the discipline of economics since it is better to confront potentially discomforting opinions. And discomforting opinions are never found in intellectually homogeneous groups. However, a recent paper in the American Economic Review by Alan Blinder and Mark Watson suffers exactly from this issue.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the article is highly interesting and provides numerous factoids worth considering when debating economic policy and politics. Basically, the article considers the differences in economic performance under different presidents (and their party affiliation). Overall, it seems that Democrats have a slight edge – but in large part because of “luck” (roughly speaking).
However, no where in the list of references do we find an article to the public choice theory literature. And its not as if that field had nothing to say. There are tons of papers on policy decisions and the form of government. In the AER paper, this can be best seen when Blinder and Watson ask if it was Congress, instead of the president, that caused the differences in performance. That is a correct robustness check, but it is still a mis-specification. There is a strong literature on “divided government” in the field of public choice.
In the case of the United States, this would be presidents and congresses (or even different chambers of congress) of different party affiliation. Generally, government spending is found to grow much more slowly (even relative to GDP) when congress and the White House are held by different parties. Why not extend that conclusion to economic growth? I would not be surprised that lagged values of divided government (mixed partisanships in t minus one) would have a positive on non-lagged growth rates (growth in t-zero).
Now, this criticism is not sufficient to render uninteresting the Blinder-Watson paper. However, it shows that some points fall flat when two fields fail to link together. Public choice theory, in spite of the wide fame of James Buchanan (Nobel 1986), Gordon Tullock and affiliates (or off-spawns) like Elinor Ostrom (Nobel 2009), is still clearly unknown to some in the mainstream.
And that is a disappointment…