Democracy and Liberty

In an update to yesterday’s post, “A Prediction,” I quote Arnold Kling, who quotes Peter Thiel, who says (among other things) that he “no longer believe[s] that democracy and freedom are compatible.”

I have said, for years, that democracy is an enemy of liberty. You could read the ten posts to that effect at my old blog (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). But I will save you the trouble of doing that by restating, here, the core of my argument against democracy. (What would I replace it with? I’ll answer that question in a future post.)


Where better to begin that with Friedrich Hayek? Fritz Machlup wrote this summary of a 1961 article (in German) by Friedrich Hayek:

[Hayek] asks why it is that personal liberty is in continual jeopardy and why the trend is toward its being increasingly restricted. The cause of liberty, he finds, rests on our awareness that our knowledge is inevitably limited. The purpose of liberty is to afford us an opportunity to obtain something unforeseeable; since it cannot be known what individuals will make of their freedom, it is all the more important to grant freedom to everybody…. Liberty can endure only if it is defended not just when it is recognized to be useful in particular instances but rather continuously as a fundamental principle which may not be breached for the sake of any definite advantages obtainable at the cost of its suspension…. It is not easy to convince the masses that they should sacrifice foreseeable benefits for unforeseeable ones. [From “Hayek’s Contribution to Economics,” in Essays on Hayek (1976), p. 41.]

James Surowiecki makes a related point in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, which is a flawed masterpiece. Surowiecki seems to understand how unregulated markets make people better off, but in the end he succumbs to the notion that we can regulate our way to “the common good” through democracy. Surowiecki nevertheless gets it right when he says this:

[A] group of people…is far more likely to come up with a good decision if the people i the group are independent of each other….

Independence is important to intelligent decision making for two reasons. First, it keeps the mistakes that people make from becoming correlated. Errors in individual judgment won’t wreck the group’s collective judgment as long as those errors aren’t pointing systematically in the same direction….Second, independent individuals are more likely to have new information rather than the same old data everyone is already familiar with. The smartest groups, then, are made up of people with diverse perspectives who are able to stay independent of each other. Independence doesn’t imply rationality or impartiality, though. You can be biased and irrational, but as long as you’re independent, you won’t make the group any dumber.

If only Surowiecki had stopped there, on page 41. The point he makes (which he seems to ignore later in the book) is simple but profound: Democracy undoes independence. It imposes on everyone the mistakes and mistaken beliefs of a controlling faction. It defeats learning. It defeats the sublime rationality of markets, which enable independent individuals to benefit each other through the pursuit of self-interest.

What should be private, such as the voluntary exchange of goods and services for mutual gain, democracy has made public by insisting (with help from interested parties) on the burdensome regulation of almost every aspect of commerce. Such massive intervention undermines the general good on the pretext of serving the general good.

All would be well if voters were rational when it comes to voting, but they aren’t.


It is well understood that voters, by and large, vote irrationally, that is, emotionally, on the basis of “buzz” instead of facts, and inconsistently. (See this, this, and this, for example.) Voters are prone to vote against their own long-run interests because they do not understand the consequences of the sound-bite policies advocated by politicians (nor do politicians, for that matter). American democracy, by indiscriminately granting the franchise — as opposed to limiting it to, say, married property owners over the age of 30 who have children — empowers the run-of-the-mill politician who seeks office (for the sake of prestige, power, and perks) by pandering to the standard, irrational voter.

Rationality is the application of sound reasoning and pertinent facts to the pursuit of a realistic objective (one that does not contradict the laws of nature or human nature). I daresay that most voters are guilty of voting irrationally because they believe in such claptrap as peace through diplomacy, “social justice” through high marginal tax rates, or better health care through government regulation.

To be perfectly clear, the irrationality lies not in favoring peace, “social justice” (whatever that is), health care, and the like. The irrationality lies in uninformed beliefs in such contradictions as peace through unpreparedness for war, “social justice” through soak-the-rich schemes, better health care through greater government control of medicine, etc., etc., etc. Voters whose objectives incorporate such beliefs simply haven’t taken the relatively little time it requires to process what they may already know or have experienced about history, human nature, and social and economic realities.

Another way to put it is this: Voters too often are rationally irrational. They make their voting decisions “rationally,” in a formal sense (i.e., not “wasting” time in order to make correct judgments). But those decisions are irrational because they are intended to advance perverse objectives (e.g., peace through unpreparedness for war).

Voters of the kind I describe are guilty of suboptimization, which is “optimizing some chosen objective which is an integral part of a broader objective; usually the broad objective and lower-level objective are different.”

I will come back to suboptimal voting. But, first, this about optimization: If you aren’t familiar with the concept, here’s good non-technical definition: “to do things best under the given circumstances.” To optimize, then, is to achieve the best result one can, given a constraint or constraints. On a personal level, for example, a rational person tries to be as happy as he can be, given his present income and prospects for future income. (Note that I do not define happiness as the maximization of wealth.) A person is not rational who allows, say, his alcoholism to destroy his happiness (if not also the income that contributes to it). He is suboptimizing on his addiction instead of optimizing on his happiness.

By the same token, a person who votes irrationally also suboptimizes. A vote may “make sense” at the moment (just as another drink “makes sense” to an alcoholic), but it is an irrational vote if the voter does not (a) vote as if he were willing to live by the consequences if his vote were decisive and/or (b) take the time to understand those consequences.

In some cases, a voter’s irrationality is signaled by the voter’s (inner) reason for voting; for example: to feel smug about having voted, to “protest” or to “send a message” (without being able to explain coherently the purpose of the protest or message), or simply to reinforce unexamined biases by voting for someone who seems to share them. More common (I suspect) are the irrational votes that are cast deliberately for candidates who espouse the kinds of perverse objectives that I cite above (e.g., peace without preparedness for war).


Why is voters’ irrationality important? Does voting really matter? Well, it’s easy to say that an individual’s vote makes very little difference. But those individual votes add up. Every vote cast for a winning political candidate enhances his supposed mandate, which usually is (in his mind) some scheme (or a lot of them) to regulated our lives more than they are already regulated.

That is to say, voters (not to mention those who profess to understand voters) overlook the slippery slope effects of voting for those who promise to “deliver” certain benefits. It is true that the benefits, if delivered, would temporarily increase the well-being of certain voters. But if one group of voters reaps benefits, then another group of voters also must reap them. Why? Because votes are not won, nor offices held, by placating a particular class of voter; many other classes of them must be placated as well.

The “benefits” sought by voters (and delivered by politicians) are regulatory as well as monetary. Many voters (especially wealthy, paternalistic ones) are more interested in controlling others than they are in reaping government handouts (though they don’t object to that either). And if one group of voters reaps certain regulatory benefits, it follows (as night from day) that other groups also will seek (and reap) regulatory benefits. (Must one be a trained economist to understand this? Obviously not, because most trained economists don’t seem to understand it.)

And then there is the “peaceat-any-priceone-worldcrowd, which is hard to distinguish from the crowd that demands (and delivers) monetary and regulatory “benefits.”

So, here we are:

  • Many particular benefits are bestowed and many regulations are imposed, to the detriment of investors, entrepreneurs, innovators, inventors, and people who simply are willing to work hard to advance themselves. And it is they who are responsible for the economic growth that bestows (or would bestow) more jobs and higher incomes on everyone, from the poorest to the richest.
  • A generation from now, the average American will “enjoy” about one-fourth the real output that would be his absent the advent of the regulatory-welfare state about a century ago.


Americans have, since 1932, voted heavily against their own economic and security interests, and the economic and security interests of their progeny. But what else can you expect when — for those same 77 years — voters have been manipulated into voting against their own interests by politicians, media, “educators,” and “intelligentsia”? What else can you expect when the courts have all too often ratified the malfeasance of those same politicians?

If this is democracy, give me monarchy.