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.

*     *     *

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

Signature

I Want My Country Back

When a Tea Partier says something like “I want my county back,” leftists reliably label the sentiment as racist, sexist, homophobic, mean-spirited, and a lot of other things that are meant to be uncomplimentary. Well, I’m not an active member of the Tea Party movement, but I am sympathetic to it. And if I were to say “I want my country back,” here’s what I would mean by it:

Let’s start with the unlawfulness of government. The Constitution of the United States creates a “national” government of limited and enumerated powers, to act on behalf of the States and their citizens in certain matters. This “national” government has nevertheless blatantly and persistently exceeded its rightful powers. Moreover, much of what is done by all governments — not just the “national” government — is in fact unlawful at its core. There is a fundamental tenet of law — one that precedes and informs the Constitution — which is that “law” is law only when it serves the general welfare, regardless of its official status as an legislative, executive, or judicial act. Therefore, it is truly unlawful for the  “national” government or any other government in the United States to interfere with the lives, liberty, or property of Americans for the purpose of promoting special interests, however laudable those interests may seem. And yet, the “laws” under which Americans labor are, in the main, enactments that serve special interests and the power-lust of politicians, bureaucrats, and judges. In sum, I want my country (and its various parts) to return to the true “rule of law,” which is to promote the general welfare by

  • protecting all Americans from their enemies within and without
  • ensuring the free movement of all Americans
  • ensuring the free exchange of goods and services
  • and nothing more.

One of the most insidious ways in which government interferes with our liberty is by exercising a subtle but powerful form of thought control. It  is not the business of government to tell us what to believe or how we must arrive at our beliefs. But government — which puts it imprimatur on the vast majority of educational institutions and much of the “factual” information in many fields of endeavor — does all of those things. Thus, contrary to the intentions of the Founders, we have become a nation imbued with official beliefs about matters ranging from the origins of the universe to the goodness of our enemies to the climatic effects of (puny) human endeavors.

One of the key beliefs instilled by government — directly and through those who are in its thrall — is its beneficent role in our economic and social affairs. It never seems to occur to the proponents of governmental interference — or to its relatively few of its opponents — that there is a living, breathing case study which disproves the beneficence of economic meddling. When government spending and regulation played a tiny role in the economic affairs of the United States — from the 1790s to around 1900 — GDP grew at an annual rate of 4.2 percent. Now, with the regulatory-welfare state fully upon us, GDP grows at an annual rate of 3.1 percent (and falling). The difference between those two rates — when compounded over a generation, a lifetime, or a century —  ranges from significantly large to enormous. The road to economic lassitude is paved by the good intentions of regulation and spending by government. Liberty — part of which is the right to make mistakes and benefit from the resulting lessons — is a collateral victim of regulatory zeal. Liberty is a victim of government spending, as well, because it deprives individuals of some portion of the rewards for their labor and capital, and the full enjoyment of those rewards.

With respect to social matters, there is only one way to put it: Government is an enemy of society. Its main mission, when you think about it for more than a minute, is to supplant voluntary and beneficial social arrangements with schemes hatched in the vacuum of intellectualism. It is as if there were nothing to the eons-long learning that is expressed in the Ten Commandments and Golden Rule, and embodied in churches, clubs, and other voluntary, private associations. We must, instead, take our social marching orders from elites, who have their own peculiar views of what is right and just: serial polygamy, pederasty, and infanticide, to name just a few things. The social engineering favored by intellectualoids arises not from the wisdom of tradition, which fosters stable, trusting, and supportive social relationships, but from idle theorizing and a large dose of adolescent and post-adolescent rebellion.

Now, after a more than a century of “progressive” destruction of the Constitution and its restraints on government, Americans no longer enjoy the protection of government and the self-policing restraints of social custom. Instead, Americans suffer the fads and whims of the self-anointed, whose legacy lingers after their departure from the scene.

Now, after more than a century of “progressive” interference in the economic affairs of Americans, our progeny face unaffordable financial commitments, which they will be expected to honor even as their standard of living withers under the assault of taxation and regulation.

Now, after more than a century of social experimentation in which anti-social behavior has been exalted and long-standing voluntary social arrangements and institutions have been stripped of their authority, too many of our progeny are hooked on hard drugs, casual sex, and gratuitous violence as forms of “entertainment” and as “lifestyles.”

I want my country back.

Experts and the Economy

In “Socialist Calculation and the Turing Test,” I wrote about the

suggestion … that one can emulate the outcomes that would be produced by competitive markets — if not something “better” — by writing rules that, if followed, would mimic the behavior of competitive markets.The problem with that suggestion … is that someone outside the system must make the rules to be followed by those inside the system.

And that’s precisely where socialist planning and regulation always fail. At some point not very far down the road, the rules will not yield the outcomes that spontaneous behavior would yield. Why? Because better rules cannot emerge spontaneously from rule-driven behavior….

Where, for instance, is there room in the socialist or regulatory calculus for a rule that allows for unregulated monopoly? Yet such an “undesirable” phenomenon can yield desirable results by creating “exorbitant” profits that invite competition (sometimes from substitutes) and entice innovation. (By “unregulated” I don’t mean that a monopoly should be immune from laws against force and fraud, which must apply to all economic actors.)

I suppose exogenous rules are all right if you want economic outcomes that accord with those rules. But such rules aren’t all right if you want economic outcomes that actually reflect the wants of consumers….

Of course, the whole point of socialist planning is to produce outcomes that are desired by planners. Those desires reflect planners’ preferences, as influenced by their perceptions of the outcomes desired by certain subsets of the populace. The immediate result may be to make some of those subsets happier, but at a great cost to everyone else and, in the end, to the favored subsets as well. A hampered economy produces less for everyone.

Socialism — a.k.a. “liberalism” — is all about reliance on experts. As Don Boudreaux says,

modern “liberalism’s” ideas are about replacing an unimaginably large multitude of diverse and competing ideas – each one individually chosen, practiced, assessed, and modified in light of what F.A. Hayek called “the particular circumstances of time and place” – with a relatively paltry set of ‘Big Ideas’ that are politically selected, centrally imposed, and enforced not by the natural give, take, and compromise of the everyday interactions of millions of people but, rather, by guns wielded by those whose overriding ‘idea’ is among the most simple-minded and antediluvian notions in history, namely, that those with the power of the sword are anointed to lord it over the rest of us.

Megan McArdle puts it this way:

So we get [from central planning] what most interests wordsmiths:  a succession of enormous plans (health care exchanges! privatize social security!), most of which fail….
But all this makes me very skeptical of handing elites more power, particularly when they are given that power in order to reduce the autonomy of some other group.  (And somehow, that usually is what it’s for–you haven’t seen much lobbying for better regulation of university professor quality, even though a bad idea is probably more dangerous than a bad apple.)
J.M. Keynes — the experts’ expert — said that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Keynes is the quintessential defunct economist, and mindless politicians (among others) are his slaves.