Weasel Stomping Day
“Do we live in a democracy?” asked the Cynic.
“What do you mean, ‘in’ a democracy?” answered the Stoic. “Democracy is a procedure of rulership. It’s not a place you live in. Saying you live ‘in’ a democracy is like saying you live ‘in’ a trial by jury.”
“But if anything,” said the Epicurean, “it’s even less appealing, because there’s no escape. It’s voting as a way of life. In a jury trial, only a few things are up for a vote.”
“Democracy perhaps beats the alternatives,” said the Cynic. “Churchill thought so, anyway. Now, I know that that’s faint praise, but at least we don’t pass all the big questions to a guy with a bunch of dead weasels around his neck. That’s something, isn’t it?”
“It’s so much the better for the weasels,” said the Malthusian.
“And on so many levels,” said the Cynic.
“At least things are orderly here, and possibly slower, and a bit more peaceful,” said the Capitalist. “I’d rather live in a democracy than in the year zero.”
“Your friend Hayek appears to praise democracy,” said the Academic, who opened a book and read. “‘[I]f democratic government were really bound to what the masses agree upon there would be little to object to.’ That’s from Law, Legislation, and Liberty, volume III.”
“Volume III is the runt of the litter, as any Hayek scholar will tell you,” said the Capitalist. “I think what Hayek meant here was that generality produces good legislation, and not that democracy does. Consider: ‘If a guy with dead weasels around his neck were really bound to what the masses agree upon, there would be little to object to.’ Much like monarchy, democracy doesn’t equal generality, because democracy doesn’t perfectly distill the — ”
” — the General Will?” asked the Cynic.
A comment the Capitalist thought best to ignore. “A genuine agreement on principles is harder to reach than most cheerleaders for democracy care to admit. The masses have no time and scant information, and we don’t hold national plebiscites anyway. We elect representatives to legislate full-time, and even they don’t read the bills.
“Do you know what’s in them? I’ll tell you: a lot of rulemaking power delegated to the executive. And even God himself doesn’t read the Federal Register. Yet we call it a democracy, and by ‘democracy’ we mean ‘a general assent to everything.’”
“You’re a man after my own heart,” said the Cynic.
“I presume,” said the Epicurean, “that what Hayek meant was that everyone has their particular interest. Make one of them dictator, and he would vote for his interest alone. I’d vote for wine, women, and song. Who wouldn’t? And I’d give subsidies to my particular industry, because it’s so important.”
“What exactly is your industry?” asked the Malthusian. “Because the other day I saw a panhandler, and his sign read: ‘SURF GEAR STOLEN, PLEASE HELP.’ I thought of you.”
“Oh, it’s worse than you think,” said the Epicurean. “I work in public policy.”
“It happens,” said the Cynic, “that the other day, I saw a proposal from a professor of management, specialized in nonprofit organizations. He wanted the government to start licensing the boards of directors of nonprofit organizations. Want to sit on a board? Get a license. Want a license? Go see… him! A scheme that makes the surfer look virtuous.”
“But,” said the Stoic, “if the system somehow forced us to arrive at general principles — an agreement we strive constantly to evade — then we would, by way of compromise, hit upon a firmer, more consistent enactment of those universal rules of law without which we could not have a society together. Such rules are all around us, but they’re not in the best of shape. Mending them would be honest work.”
“Perhaps,” said the Cynic, “but that’s asking a lot, both of the system and of its participants. Give a true democracy five short minutes, and it would do unfathomable mischief. Not that I can necessarily intuit the Law any better than anyone else. But still.”
“If we don’t live in a democracy, what do we live in?” asked the Epicurean.
“I think we live in a market,” said the Capitalist.
“You would,” said the Academic. “It’s perfectly dismal, but at least we won’t starve.”
“Don’t be so sure,” said the Malthusian.
“So what does that mean, ‘we live in a market’?” asked the Epicurean.
“It means,” said the Capitalist, “that our values do not hold us together. The market order does so, and it exists independently of our feelings. Conservatives often talk as if society depended on freely — or unfreely — chosen values. Some of these values are said to be so important that they alone permit society to trundle along at all. But — here’s the kicker — we don’t quite know which ones these are. What if the really important values disappeared? Society would disappear too.
“Classical liberals, however, say that the division of labor holds us together, and I tend to agree.”
“The words themselves don’t to point to unity,” said the Cynic. “Division of labor is still a division, isn’t it?”
“A misnomer,” said the Capitalist. “David Hume might have called it the coordination of labor, which he also understood it to be. The coordination of labor means that we all depend on one another, because we each severally can do so little of what society does as a whole. Coordination of labor overcomes our individual limits, because each individual can trade up, as it were, for a share of the social product.
“Voting, meanwhile, doesn’t create economic value, and it certainly doesn’t make anyone tolerate their neighbors any better. In a society where no one shows even a basic toleration for out-groups, democracy is a dangerous thing.”
“Bring them a market,” said the Cynic, “and each will ignore his petty quarrels in the pursuit of filthy, evil, horrible lucre. We can’t have that, can we?”
“Think of it this way,” said the Capitalist. “If everyone were economically self-sufficient, then we’d damn well better have some common values. Otherwise we’d flounce off to our separate corners, and suddenly there’s no society left.”
“What of the state?” asked the Academic.
“Floor sweepings,” said the Cynic.
“There’s no need for euphemism here,” said the Capitalist. “Why don’t you just say ‘shit’?”
“Oh no,” said the Cynic. “Shit is useful. You can grow flowers in shit. The state is floor sweepings. It’s the leftovers that we don’t know what to do with by any decent means. We heap them all up in a corner — brute force, extortion, public goods, externalities, people who make us think sad thoughts.”
“One of these things is not like the other,” said the Academic.
“It hardly matters,” said the Cynic. “All those problems where we have no better answer than a panopticon or a lead-induced brain hemorrhage — those are the state. Like Zeus reaching for his thunderbolts, to reach for the state is to admit that you’ve failed.”
“Some of course reach for the state a lot more cheerfully than others,” said the Stoic.
“It must be wonderful to have such fortitude in failure,” said the Cynic. “I salute them.”