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


No Wonder Liberty Is Disappearing

I just took the Freedom Scenarios Inventory at, the producers of which include the estimable Jonathan Haidt. I was shocked by the result — not my result, but my result in comparison with the results obtained by other users.

Before you look at the result, you should read this description of the test:

The scale is a measure of the degree to which people consider different freedom issues to be morally relevant. As you may have noticed, this inventory does not include perennially contentious freedom-related issues like abortion or gun rights. These issues were deliberately excluded from this scale, because we are interested in what drives people to be concerned with freedom issues in general. On the other hand, people’s stances on well worn political issues like abortion and gun control are likely to be influenced more by their political beliefs rather than their freedom concerns.

The idea behind the scale is to determine how various individual difference variables relate to people’s moral freedom concerns. Throughout the world, calls for freedom and liberty are growing louder. We want to begin to investigate what is driving this heightened concern for freedom. Surprisingly little research has investigated the antecedents of freedom concerns. In the past, our group has investigated clusters of characteristics associated with groups of people who are more concerned with liberty (i.e., libertarians), but this type of investigation differs from the current investigation in that we are now interested more in individual differences in freedom concerns – not group differences…. It seems that many psychologists assume that many types of freedom concerns are driven by a lack of empathy for others, but we think the truth is more complicated than this.

The test-taker is asked to rate each of 14 scenarios on the following scale:

0 – Not at all morally bad
1 – Barely morally bad
2 – Slightly morally bad
3 – Somewhat morally bad
4 – Morally bad
5 – Very morally bad
6 – Extremely morally bad
7 – Extraordinarily morally bad
8 – Nothing could be more morally bad

Here are the 14 scenarios, which I’ve numbered for ease of reference:

1. You are no longer free to eat your favorite delicious but unhealthy meal due to the government’s dietary restrictions.

2. You are no longer free to always spend your money in the way you want.

3. You are not always free to wear whatever you want to wear. Some clothes are illegal.

4. Your favorite source of entertainment is made illegal.

5. Your favorite hobby is made illegal.

6.. You are not free to live where you want to live.

7. By law, you must sleep one hour less each day than you would like.

8. You are no longer free to eat your favorite dessert food (because the government has deemed it unhealthy).

9. You are no longer allowed to kill innocent people . [Obviously thrown in to see if you’re paying attention.]

10. You are no longer free to spend as much time as you want watching television/movies/video clips due to government restrictions.

11, You are no longer free to drink your favorite beverage, because the government considers it unhealthy.

12. You are no longer free to drive whenever you want for however long you want due to driving restrictions.

13. You are no longer free to go to your favorite internet site.

14. You are no longer free to go to any internet site you choose to go to.

I didn’t expect to be unusual in my views about freedom. But it seems that I am:

Moral profile-freedom concern

A lot of people — too many — are willing to let government push them around. Why? Because Big Brother knows best? Because freedom isn’t worth fighting for? Because of the illusion of security and prosperity created by the regulatory-welfare state? Whatever the reason, the evident willingness of test-takers to accede to infringements of their liberty is frightening.

The result confirms my view that democracy is an enemy of liberty.

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Related posts:
Something Controversial
More about Democracy and Liberty
Yet Another Look at Democracy
Democracy and the Irrational Voter
The Ruinous Despotism of Democracy
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
About Democracy


About Democracy

I want to be clear about this: Yesterday’s post was a criticism of the left’s hypocrisy and authoritarianism (and viciousness). It was not a defense of democracy.

I have written many times about the insidious effect of democracy on liberty. This is may be my best effort (from part VI of my series on practical libertarianism):

[Americans] have been following [a] piecemeal route to serfdom — adding link to link and chain to chain — in spite of the Framers’ best intentions and careful drafting. Why? Because the governed — or dominant coalitions of them — have donned willingly the chains that they have implored their governors to forge. Their bondage is voluntary, though certainly not informed. But their bondage is everyone’s bondage…

[B]ecause we have undone the work of the Framers … , we have descended to tyranny by the majority, where the majority is a loose but potent coalition of interest- and belief-groups bent on imposing its aims on everyone.

Unchecked democracy undermines liberty and its blessings. Unchecked democracy imposes on everyone the mistakes and mistaken beliefs of the controlling faction. It defeats learning. It undoes the social fabric that underlies civility. It defeats the sublime rationality of free markets, which enable independent individuals to benefit each other through the pursuit of self-interest. As “anonymous” says, with brutal accuracy, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on lunch.”

Unchecked democracy has led to what Tocqueville called “soft despotism.”  As I say in “Fascism and the Future of America,”\

Soft despotism is “soft” only in that citizens aren’t dragged from their houses at night and executed for imaginary crimes against the state — though they are hauled into court for not wearing seatbelts, for smoking in bars, and for various other niggling offenses to the sensibilities of nanny-staters.

Despite the absence of arbitrary physical punishment, soft despotism is despotism, period. It can be nothing but despotism when the state holds sway over your paycheck, your retirement plan, your medical care, your choice of associates, and thousands of other details of your life — from the drugs you may not buy to the kind of car you can’t drive, from where you can build a house to the features that your house must include.

“Soft despotism,” in other words, is too soft a term for the regime under which we live. I therefore agree with Tom Smith: “Fascism” is a good descriptor of our present condition, so I’ll continue to use it.

How has America come to its present state, where Americans are hostage to the very regulatory-welfare state that so many expected to bestow liberty and prosperity on the land? I chalk it up to what I call, in “Liberty and Federalism,” the Framers’ fatal error:

The Framers underestimated the will to power that animates office-holders. The Constitution’s wonderful design — horizontal and vertical separation of powers — which worked rather well until the late 1800s, cracked under the strain of populism, as the central government began to impose national economic regulation at the behest of muckrakers and do-gooders. The Framers’ design then broke under the burden of the Great Depression, as the Supreme Court of the 1930s (and since) has enabled the central government to impose its will at will. The Framers’ fundamental error can be found in Madison’s Federalist No. 51. Madison was correct in this:

…It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure….

But Madison then made the error of assuming that, under a central government, liberty is guarded by a diversity of interests:

[One method] of providing against this evil [is] … by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable…. [This] method will be exemplified in the federal republic of the United States. Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.

In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government. This view of the subject must particularly recommend a proper federal system to all the sincere and considerate friends of republican government, since it shows that in exact proportion as the territory of the Union may be formed into more circumscribed Confederacies, or States oppressive combinations of a majority will be facilitated: the best security, under the republican forms, for the rights of every class of citizens, will be diminished: and consequently the stability and independence of some member of the government, the only other security, must be proportionately increased….

Madison then went on to contradict what he said in Federalist No. 46 about the States being a bulwark of liberty:

It can be little doubted that if the State of Rhode Island was separated from the Confederacy and left to itself, the insecurity of rights under the popular form of government within such narrow limits would be displayed by such reiterated oppressions of factious majorities that some power altogether independent of the people would soon be called for by the voice of the very factions whose misrule had proved the necessity of it. In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good; whilst there being thus less danger to a minor from the will of a major party, there must be less pretext, also, to provide for the security of the former, by introducing into the government a will not dependent on the latter, or, in other words, a will independent of the society itself. It is no less certain than it is important, notwithstanding the contrary opinions which have been entertained, that the larger the society, provided it lie within a practical sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government. And happily for the REPUBLICAN CAUSE, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent, by a judicious modification and mixture of the FEDERAL PRINCIPLE.

Madison understood that a majority can tyrannize a minority. He understood that the States are better able to prevent the rise of tyranny if the powers of the central government are circumscribed. But he then assumed … that the States themselves could not resist tyranny within their own borders. Madison overlooked the importance of exit as the ultimate check on tyranny. He assumed (or asserted) that, in creating a new central government with powers greatly exceeding those of the Confederacy, a majority of States would not tyrannize the minority and that minorities with overlapping interests would not concert to tyrannize the majority. Madison was so anxious to see the Constitution ratified that he oversold himself (possibly) and the States’ ratifying conventions (certainly) on the ability of the central government to hold itself in check. Thus the Constitution was lamentably silent on nullification and secession.

What has been done by presidents, Congresses, and courts will be very hard to undo. Too many interests are vested in the regulatory-welfare state that has usurped the Framers’ noble vision. Democracy (that is, vote-selling) and log-rolling are more powerful than words on paper. Even a Supreme Court majority of “strict constructionists” probably would decline to roll back the New Deal and most of what has come in its wake.

Thus does democracy destroy liberty.