In Defense of Democracy

In perusing the Seasteading Institute’s website, I came across a blog ecosystem challenging democracy (including democratic republicanism). Interesting stuff, but I find the suggested alternatives – monarchy, dictatorship, colonialism – to be rather unsettling. At times these systems do work better than democracy, but their failure modes can be most catastrophic. Indeed, even in equilibrium such governments can be very unpleasant. I’ll take W. Bush or Barack Obama over a shogun or pharaoh any time.

Democracy is not great, but it is not horrible. Democracy is mediocrity – by definition. At least, democracy represents the median when it works. Actual implementations can diverge from the median, sometimes catastrophically. But these are not failures of democracy per se; these are failures of particular implementations. Many implementations of democracy could use some serious reengineering. Even the U.S. system could use significant fixes, though it is more stable than most parliamentary forms.

In a deeply divided society, however, the median has little support. In such cases tribal anarchy, empire, or a redrawing of boundaries might be preferable to countrywide democracy. Such are not the conditions in the United States nor in most other First World countries. To suggest a “reboot” or “reaction” is typical libertarian wishful thinking, in the tradition of Atlas Shrugging or the unmasking of the Rockefeller/Rothschild axis. (Seasteading and Free State migration are considerably more realistic options.)

Given that at least one writer on this website has taken part in this attack on democracy, I decided to join this community in order to enter the discussion. For this is a very interesting discussion, much more so than the eternal quibbles among LP partisans. Mencius Moldbug, in particular, is a most entertaining writer.

So, let us consider some of the failure modes of democracy:

  1. The masses vote themselves a free lunch.
  2. Special interests vote for special privileges.
  3. The civil service becomes independent of its democratically elected bosses.
  4. The elected chief executive uses his executive powers to become tyrant. (Huey Long, innumerable El Presidentes.)
  5. Warring tribes use the democratic central government to smash rivals.
  6. The dominant religious faction uses the government to persecute rival religions.
  7. A radical faction (Nazi, communist) seizes control using the democratic process to get a foothold.
  8. Losing factions give up on the process and start a civil war. (U.S. Confederacy, and the near breakdown after the Florida recount.)
  9. Rotation in office results in a churning, contradictory legal system. (U.S. tax code.)
  10. Vote buying results in perpetual deficits, eventually bankrupting the government. (Our current looming crisis.)
  11. Two-party systems lead to one-dimensional thinking. (Particularly bad in the U.S.)

Most of these problems can be fixed – incrementally. We can get there from here; no reboot necessary.

Of course, “there” is not libertarian paradise. Democracy is mediocrity. But mediocre government is good enough to live a good life. And if the laws are relatively stable, the people can adapt to the laws, even bad laws.

And for those willing to work for something better, there is always separation. If the median is libertarian, then even democracy will result in a libertarian government. But to achieve such separation, it still behooves freedom lovers to make the U.S. government less bad. Currently, it is broke and aggressive, unlikely to tolerate seasteads or free states.

To this end, I will address possible fixes in future posts.

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In my humble opinion ...

... you owe an apology to every victim of democratic government. And there are hundreds of millions.

Fixing problems

In order to implement a Constitutional Republic, I have to convince a large majority (nominally 50% + 1, but in practical terms large enough to overcome established political machines) to convert the monopoly government for the entire continent to a form it has not resembled for hundreds of years. In addition, Constitutional Republics are empirically unstable--less than five years passed between the ratification of the US Constitution and the imposition of martial law in America (in response to the Whiskey Rebellion).

By contrast, if I want to live under anarcho-capitalism, I merely deny legitimacy to any initiation of force. Criminals still exist in the world, but anarcho-capitalism makes no claim that they will not. It merely denies that there is any legitimate excuse to commit a crime. Once I identify criminals as such, I can decide how best to protect myself against them--whether by confrontation, avoidance, or appeasement--according to the practical situation at hand. The conversion is entirely within my own power.

Limited government appears to be a Utopian ideal that is as easy to achieve as Sisyphus balancing his rock on the peak of his hill.

That having been said, I whole-heartedly support any non-criminal attempt to control the beast of tyranny. Welcome to the discussion!

Responses

@Cynical in CA:

Democratic governments have killed many. But compared to the alternatives, are they worse or better?

@Mark:

Thanks for the welcome. Limited government is indeed hard. This applies to anarchy as well as for democratic republics! Most government abolitions are followed within days or less by civil war, tribalism, conquest or (best case) replacement with a new government. Factor these in the mix and anarchy is much less stable than democracy.

I am a conditional anarchist; The Machinery of Freedom is one of my favorite non-fiction books. If anarchy works better to protect liberty than democracy, then I'm for anarchy. If democracy works better, I'm for democracy. To date, democracy has a better record for civilized nations. Iceland had borderline anarchy (with a bit of democracy!) but it was an island with a homogeneous culture. And it still got conquered. Medieval Ireland had what Rothbard considered to be an example of anarchy. The Irish under this system got conquered by the English and were subsequently oppressed for how many centuries? 8 I think. The Irish might have been freer in the long run under a fascist dictatorship.

Mencius Moldbug makes an interesting defense of monarchy and colonialism, but his case involves some dishonest accounting as well. Native Americans did not fare too well under European rule. And the later, more benevolent European empires included local rulers along with colonial bureaucrats. Moldbug thus undercounts the true number of government workers. Local princes, tribal chieftans, and their underlings were part of colonial government.

Anyway, I conceded many of the problems with actual democratic implementations in the main article. And I did not claim that optimum democracy is optimum government. I only claim mediocrity -- which is better than many empires or dictatorships can claim. As for multiple overlapping legal systems in the same geographic area, I'll believe it works when I see it. In the meantime I'll push for federalism at home and I'll send positive vibes -- and maybe cash -- to those doing experiments elsewhere.

As for democracy per se vs. current implementations, there are some interesting ideas out there worth pursuing. Current implementations of democracy are unstable; they fail at consistent mediocrity.

Durability of Anarchy

I'm with Butler Shaffer on this issue. Anarchy has endured in America since humans set foot here 13,000 years ago. So long as any two people dealt with each other with mutual respect for life, liberty, and property, there was an example of an anarcho-capitalist transaction. Anarcho-capitalism does not claim to make coercion impossible, so there was almost certainly criminal predation occurring at the same time. Advocates of government try to claim it has a special monopoly over human activity (as the sole legitimate initiator of force), but advocates of anarcho-capitalism do not make any similar claim that the existence of peaceful interactions makes violent interactions impossible.

You can become a practicing anarcho-capitalist in the next 15 seconds if you are convinced that it is never legitimate to violate the life, liberty, or property of another, and if you strive to live up to your conviction to the greatest extent possible.

Slippery Definition of Anarchy

So what did you like about America before the current government: the continuuous warfare? The mandatory military service for all heterosexual males? The brutal initiation rites? The torture of military captives? The long meetings smoking pipes?

Tribalism has its advantages and its disadvantages. The life of an Amerindian warrior was generally better than that of a European serf. But tribalism is not the Rothbardian ideal of no government or shop for your desired government.

---

You can be a practicing pacifist under the protective umbrella of the the U.S. government (cf. the Amish). That's doesn't prove that pacifism is a viable response to bad people unless you are cool with being robbed and/or enslaved.

What I like

So what did you like about America before the current government ... ?

You misunderstand. I did not say that, in aggregate, society was better off before the US Constitution. I suggested that at all times and under all forms of government, most people deal with each other through voluntary cooperation. I further suggest that at all times and under all forms of government, some people use coercion. Various governments promise protection against criminals or invasion (or sickness, or boredom, or bad weather, or anything else imaginable), but the evidence that they can deliver on their promises is not good.

The crucial distinction is whether we need a coercive organization to protect us against coercion. If you can show me that I should tolerate a little coercion in the form of taxes in order to protect myself against some greater coercion (such as robbery or enslavement), then that is probably the best argument you can make for government. But so long as government demands a territorial monopoly, we are not allowed to make the choice. It is imposed upon us.

You can be a practicing pacifist under the protective umbrella of the the U.S. government ...

I am not a pacifist. For the past twenty years or so, there have been few occasions when I have not had the means of deadly force within arm's reach, so I obviously feel that there are situations where it is legitimate to use it in response to an attack. What I am claiming is that, consistent with anarcho-capitalist ideas, it is never legitimate to initiate force. I also have lived abroad for much of my adult life, and when I did live within the territory claimed by the US government, federal agents were far, far away from me most of the time, so I'm not sure what protection they gave me. The IRS has maintained throughout that time, though, that they are entitled to whatever portion of my income they wish.

I believe that what you and I have in common is a love of liberty--the idea that you are entitled to enjoy your life to the fullest however you choose, so long as you don't trespass against another. Where we differ is that I want to defend that liberty through non-coercive means--through private contracts, insurance to pool risk, registries to help me identify trustworthy trading partners, or any other idea some entrepreneur comes up with. You, on the other hand, think that some level of theft or fraud or slavery is legitimate and that the monopoly organization that uses it can be sufficiently controlled so that it stays within its legitimate bounds.

At some level, I have already lost the argument. I believe the government is a gang of thieves, and yet I cannot find enough protection in the private, non-coercive market to protect me against it at all times and places. But you have also lost it, because you cannot show me a government that has successfully limited itself to protect against more coercion than it causes. So it is merely a question of where we invest our time and capital in order to better defend our liberty.

I wish us both success!

That is the real question

OK, now we are talking on the same wavelength. Do we need coercive government to prevent more coercion? That's the trillion dollar question! I have great respect for those practicing anarchists who are attempting experiments to answer that question. OTOH, I do tend to pick fights with the a priori anarchists who invoke ceritas paribus and shut their minds off to practical questions.

With my post I am not attempting to stifle attempts at something better than democracy. I do, however, question Moldbug's plan for reaction. (Though reading his plots is most entertaining!) I am suggesting that democracy can be made less bad, and that doing so is a worthwhile enterprise for those who are too hedonistic or gurly-mannish to go live on a seastead, mix it up with Somali tribesmen, or take on a sitting government as an act of self-defense.

I don't expect any government will ever achieve the full libertarian ideal. I don't expect any anarchistic arrangement to do so either. And I cannot get my flying carpet to work darn it! However, better (less bad) government is possible, and experiments to push the envelope are worthwhile.

Though anarchy in the Rothbard mold has rarely [never?] succeeded to date, that doesn't mean it can never work. This is an engineering problem -- one for which a proven prototype does not yet exist. My gripe with the a priori anarchists is that they vilify minarchists for working with what already sort of works without providing a viable alternative. Their name-calling parallels that of an environmentalist demanding that we all switch over to electric cars, while at the same time banning coal and nuclear electric plants.

But we do have some prototypes that have some of the desirable features of the Rothbardian ideal. Radical federalism has been successfully implemented. While shopping for legal codes in a single geographic area is problematic, having different codes in different areas is quite feasible. Reimplementing that ideal here in the U.S. is theoretically possible. But to do so here requires making smaller scale democracy work, as principalities are not allowed under our constitution.

Abolition

Most government abolitions are followed within days or less by civil war, tribalism, conquest or (best case) replacement with a new government.

For what it's worth, I am with you on this point. I don't want to actively try to abolish the government--the US Federal government is doing a better job of self-destruction than any outside party could. I simply want to protect myself against the crimes it commits against me.

And, with history as a guide, I expect it could be even more difficult to protect myself against the crimes of the government that replaces it.

I think the government will

I think the government will tolerate Seasteads. Nationalism is old hat. The Florida recount was NOTHING like the civil war era (corrupt bargain might be a better analogy).

I argued recently at Unqualified Reservations that the example of Canada proves that a democratic welfare state can shrink the government. More evidence for my assertion here and here. However, I think Megan McArdle has a point that the U.S political system seems especially unable to live within its means.

Civil War

I agree that the acrimony surrounding the recount did not reach that surrounding Lincoln's election by minority. That's why I wrote "near breakdown." I sacrificed clarity in favor of terseness; my bad.

The rhetoric and attitude surrounding the recount was of a similar quality to that surrounding Lincoln's election and that surrounding elections in many unstable third world attempts at democracy. We got a president with questioned legitimacy. Al Gore, to his credit, didn't push his case as hard as he could have; he and the saner members of his faction realized the danger.

There was similarity of quality, but the intensity was obviously much higher surrounding the Lincoln election.

Canada

The more "Change" happens in the US, the more I think it a good idea to move to Canada. I live in Michigan, Southern Ontario would not be that much different, eh?

Democracy

I basically agree with your view. As long as a sizeable portion of the population has its head on straight, democracy is safe mediocrity. You won't end up living in a cage.

Having said that, once a big chunk of the population loses its way, you very well might end up living in a cage (Weimar).

In general, I think democracy is way overrated by the average person. In addition to the flaws you listed above, there are more.

As a filtering mechanism, it selects for ignorance rather than truth (the opposite of markets), and it sanctifies actions which we wouldn't dare approve in our friends.

It shouldn't have anything to do with discovery, but it does. Just as we shouldn't vote on which theory of physics best describes natural phenomena, we shouldn't vote on which policy creates the most wealth.

Agreed

I'll write about Weimar and other catastrophic failures of democracy in future posts. Democracy per se is mediocrity, but actual implementations often fail even that weak ideal.

Democracy is indeed vastly overrated! Such is one of the most pernicious teachings of the public schools. The LP's line about the "cult of the omnipotent state" is my favorite part of its Statement of Principles. With explanation, it is defensible even middle America. Government is a [possibly necessary] kludge, not a reflection of the General Will or such rot.

How to get there?

We can get there from here; no reboot necessary.

No, we got here from there, particularly numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, and 11.

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