Democracy, Human Nature, and America’s Future

Like many (most?) persons of a libertarian stripe, I see democracy as an enemy of liberty. Democracy is popularly thought of as

a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

There are two things wrong with this view. First, the “supreme power” isn’t just exercised by elected agents but, with their blessing, it is exercised mainly by unelected agents: judges, law-enforcement personnel, regulators of myriad economic activities at all levels of government, and on and on. Many of these appointed functionaries write the very rules that they and others enforce — rules that often are barely recognizable as deriving from ordinances and statutes enacted by elected agents.

In sum, what is called democracy in America can reasonably be called fascism, in the proper meaning of the word. It isn’t called that mainly because neither “the people” nor the elite purveyors of fascism are willing to face facts. And then there are the many (far too many) Americans who don’t seem to object to an intrusive state.

Here’s the second problem with the popular view of democracy: It implies that a majority of voters — or a majority of their elected agents — should have unlimited power to meddle in everyone’s personal and business affairs. The implication has become fact, with the sweeping aside of constitutional checks on the powers of the legislative and executive branches, with the connivance of the judicial branch. The elected agents of “the people” — and those agents’ appointed functionaries — have acquired unlimited power by pandering to “the people,” by appealing to their envy, greed, and deluded faith in central planning.

What all of this illustrates is something that was obvious to the Framers of the Constitution: Even if there were (or could be) such a thing as political equality, democracy is dangerous because it can’t be constrained. Why would anyone expect “the people” or their elected representatives or their appointed functionaries to limit the power of the state to the defense of citizens? “The people” believe — wrongly, in most cases — that the state’s unlimited power makes them better off. In fact, the true beneficiaries of the state’s power are elected officials, appointed functionaries, and their pseudo-capitalist cronies.

True believers will retort that the problem isn’t with democracy, it’s with the way that democracy has been put into practice. They are indulging in the nirvana fallacy, the tendency to believe in “more perfect” systems that can somehow be attained despite human nature. In short, true believers substitute “ought to be” (in their view) for “what can be.”

They are no different than the true believers in socialism, who maintain — despite all evidence to the contrary — that “true socialism” is possible but hasn’t yet been put into practice. It would be possible only if socialism (like democracy) didn’t involve human beings. No system that involves human beings can rise above the tendencies of human nature, among which, as noted above, are envy and greed.

Then, there is power-lust. This may be less prevalent than envy and greed, but it is more dangerous because it exploits envy and greed, and amplifies their effects. Almost no politician, regardless of his rhetoric, is driven by a pure desire to “do good”; he is almost certainly driven by a desire to use his power to do what he thinks of — or rationalizes — as “good.”

And use his power he will, for he believes that it is his right and duty to make rules for others to obey. This is always done in the name of “good,” but is really done in the service of cronies and constituents who enable the politician to remain in power. In short, the last person to trust with high office is a person who seeks it. That is why elections usually come down to a choice among the lesser of evils.

What is to be done about democracy in America? Nothing like the revocation of near-universal suffrage, of course. The natives (of all hues, creeds, genders, and origins) wouldn’t stand for it. The only viable reform is constitutional, that is, a constant chipping-away at the power of the state.

And how is that to be accomplished, inasmuch as the GOP has proved to be an unreliable ally in the fight against statism? Perhaps the GOP would be less faint-hearted if it were to control the White House and Congress. And perhaps the best thing to come of that control would be the replacement of a Ruth Bader Ginsburg by another Clarence Thomas. (I hold little hope for courageous action on entitlements and regulatory excesses.) But, given the electorate’s fickleness, it wouldn’t be many years before an Antonin Scalia is replaced by a reincarnated William O. Douglas. In sum, I hold little hope that the Supreme Court will rescue liberty from democracy.

It’s also possible that GOP control might result in an Article V convention:

…[O]n the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, [Congress] shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which … shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress….

But what would be the thrust of any proposed amendments that leap the high hurdle of ratification, “The Constitution says this, and we mean it”? The Constitution already says this, and it’s ignored.

What’s needed is real action, not the mere placement of words on paper. Thus the best (and perhaps only) hope for a permanent withdrawal from the precipice of totalitarianism is de facto secession:

This has begun in a small way, with State-level legalization of marijuana, which has happened in spite of the central government’s de jure power to criminalize it. It is therefore imaginable that GOP control of the White House and Congress would embolden some GOP-controlled States to openly flout federal laws, regulations, and judicial decrees about such matters as same-sex marriage, environmental emissions, and Obamacare — to name a few obvious targets. The result, if it came to pass, would be something like the kind of federalism envisioned by the Framers of the Constitution.

Beyond that, the only hope for liberty seems to lie in drastic (but unlikely) action.

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Related reading:
Hans-Hermann Hoppe, “Natural Elites, Intellectuals, and the State,” Mises Institute, July 31, 2006
Hans-Hermann Hoppe, A Short History of Man: Progress and Decline, Mises Institute, March 5, 2015
Hans von Spakovsky, “Book Review: Mike Lee on the 6 ‘Lost’ Provisions of the Constitution,” The Daily Signal, April 8, 2015
Myron Magnet, “The Dead Constitution,” City Journal, April 10, 2015

Related posts:
The State of Nature
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Fascism and the Future of America
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
Our Perfect, Perfect Constitution
Restoring Constitutional Government: The Way Ahead
“We the People” and Big Government
How Libertarians Ought to Think about the Constitution
An Agenda for the GOP
The States and the Constitution
No Wonder Liberty Is Disappearing