Vox populi, vox dei
I’ve been thinking over Erik’s post about libertarians and democracy, and I’ve been taking the opportunity to think over my own attitudes toward democracy, and how compatible with libertarianism I think democracy is.
First off there’s a question of democracy per se i.e. should society be governed by popular sentiment either directly or through representatives? This would be as distinct from rule by some narrow subset of society (oligarchy), the desires of a single person (dictatorship) or by not having any collective decision-making body at all (anarchy). On that question I answer yes: democracy is the best collective decision-making rule we have (sorry anarchists, but I do think collective decision-making is sometimes necessary, and when it is we’re going to need voting of some kind). I don’t think there are that many libertarians that disagree with me on that point. Take a typical minarchist and ask them who should be in charge of their night-watchman state, and I think a large majority of them would say that some form of democratic control would be appropriate (either elected representative or rule by plebiscite).
But that’s not really that interesting a question, because how many people advocate oligarchy or dictatorship these days? For me, the real question is: “Given that democracy is society’s collective decision-making rule, what questions should be the subject of collective decision-making?” This is where liberals and libertarians disagree (and where conservatives and liberals disagree and where libertarians and conservatives disagree), what should society (however we’re defining society) decide, what should a given subset of society decide, and what should be excluded from collective decision-making altogether? The essential characteristic of libertarians is that we think the realm of legitimate collective decision-making should be narrowly contained, while democracy may be the best collective decision-making rule we have it’s still a terrible decision-making rule, look at the 2008 election: Obama got 53% of the popular vote, so 47% of voters were dissatisfied, and that’s not counting the Obama voters who wanted someone else to be President (be it another Democrat or some else entirely), and the portion of non-voters who didn’t vote because they supported someone with no chance of winning. It seems quite likely that more people disliked the election result than liked it. By contrast most markets offer diverse options so most (in some cases nearly all) people get the thing they want. The lesson is clear: don’t decide things collectively unless you really need to.
But that lesson doesn’t really get us anywhere – I believe nearly all liberals would agree with me that collective decision-making should be left to essential cases, we just disagree about what is essential. And this is what our real disagreement is, not about the merits of democracy per se. Plenty of liberals like the idea of restraining the voting public from making laws they think are outside the scope of legitimate collective decision-making, that’s what the 1st amendment does. No you can’t order Catholics burned at the stake, even if the majority of voters think it’s a good idea. Does a person who supports the 1st amendment oppose democracy? Not democracy per se, but they do oppose democracy for some decisions. In this liberals and libertarians are different in degree, not kind. Anyone who opposes constitutionally limited government is of course different in kind, and not just degree but I don’t think that’s the argument we’re having.
That’s why I feel Lind’s argument is a bit dishonest. For one thing he’s conflating opposition to democracy in some spheres with opposition to democracy per se, and then using the strong positive affect attached to democracy per se in the West to carry the rhetorical force of his argument. Sure you’ll get the occasional libertarian mooning over Pinochet, no matter how inadvisable that it, but that’s just the natural sense of romance some people get when they see someone implementing ideas they like against popular opposition. It’s not right, but it’s not a uniquely libertarian vice, and its not a reflection of libertarian philosophy. Just about every non-anarchist libertarian want government to be restrained by popular sentiment or (slightly more feasibly) constitutional limits. In that sense we’re no different to liberals. One person’s democracy is another’s tyranny of the majority.
Now it may not be that democracy will always be the best rule we have, after all democracy was newly-invented once and I don’t believe in an End of History. But right now, the only alternative I can see that looks at all promising is Futarchy, and there’s a big difference between “somewhat promising”, and “let’s go for it”. But in the meanwhile democracy is the best we’ve got and we should stick with it in those situations where we need a collective decision-making rule.
I’ll just touch on the question of subsidiarity because this post is already getting quite long enough. I’m not actually a huge fan of subsidiarity, but then my instincts are built with a country of 4 million people in mind, doubtless bigger countries have different needs for subsidiary government. One thought I’ll throw in is that many people complain about the difficulty the US government has operating effectively. The term “ungovernable” pops up occasionally. Have look at the US’s position on this list of countries, ranked by population. Note its neighbours and how effective they are generally considered to be on the governance front. Now scroll down the list until you find the next relatively well-governed country. Opinions will vary, but I get Germany: population 82m, a bit over 1/4 of the US population. The only country above Japan I consider arguable is Japan at 128m, but their government isn’t exactly widely praised for its ability to get things done either. Now maybe this means nothing, I’m always cautioning people to be careful of international comparisons and that applies in spades here. But it makes me curious – is there a feasible upper a limit to a functional state, given existing information and institutional technology, and if so how big is it? Maybe some countries would be better off breaking themselves up or at least delegating their decisions down a bit so as to avoid clogging up the system. Maybe I should run a regression analysis of population size against the corruption index (probably a decent proxy for quality of governance) some time.