Liberty & Democracy
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that I was being slightly hyperbolic when I suggested that libertarians dislike democracy; let’s also shuffle aside the Michael Lind article I linked to and the various quotations from famous dead libertarians like Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek. All that aside, we can move forward with more clarity.
I believe that most of contemporary libertarians believe that democracy is the least bad option among many. Most contemporary liberals believe that democracy is basically good but agree with libertarians that there are appropriate limits. The difference comes when we begin dissecting those limits.
Various rights frameworks are conceptualized by both camps, including differing notions of property rights. On net, I’d say that libertarians prefer a good deal less democracy than most contemporary liberals and progressives; most contemporary liberals prefer less democracy than most socialists; and that even the socialists of modern times prefer less democracy than socialists of past eras.
In other words, we all view the balance between individual rights and democracy as just that: a balancing act that at once allows for peaceful democratic consensus and the protection of basic civil and economic freedoms from the whim of the majority. When someone like yours truly makes a case for democracy then, I’m not making a case for blunt majority rule. Similarly, when Jason makes a case against (that thing we call) democracy he’s not making a case for autocracy. What we’re really doing is skirting around the question of balance. We differ on the particulars, largely because we have somewhat different values and perspectives on the world. In many other areas, we see very much eye to eye.
The state is a coercive entity. We craft a balance of powers, of democracy and legal constraints on democracy, and then find ways to pay for the apparatus of the state. This is typically done through some form of taxation. Many though not all libertarians hold strict views of property rights – which I think they value more, at least in the abstract, than they do democracy – and view taxation as a form of coercion. Some are more radical in this belief; others are merely wary enough of the state that they view taxation as bad whether or not it’s a coercive act, or whether or not that matters. But for the most part, coercion looms very large in libertarian thought, often for good reason.
Still, coercion is inevitable, and the point of my initial piece was not so much that libertarians dislike democracy but rather that any attempt to limit democracy is going to require some use of force or coercion. The constitutional limits on democracy in this country are coercive, enforced by the rule of law.
I talk about end-goals in my initial post because I think our conception of the ideal society is important. I do believe that most libertarians, if they could start from scratch, would go much further toward limiting democracy in order to expand and better enforce property rights than what is on offer in our current system. I don’t think this assertion is being contested. And I believe, regardless of the merits of this, that it would require anti-democratic coercion in order for it to work.
Now the point of all of this is simply that any discussion of coercion, then, like any discussion of democracy, is not a discussion of whether or not there will be coercive acts of the state but really what form said coercion will take. Depending on the things you value, how that balance is struck may appear more or less coercive or invasive. For me, I don’t view taxes as a very coercive act or a particularly important aspect of property rights. I believe in things like the social contract and in the need for society to work collectively to tackle big problems like access to healthcare. I believe the accumulation of wealth is largely due to the fact of society and collective well-being and so redistritibution of wealth strikes me as necessary and just. I also think that if we’re talking about striking a balance of power it’s important to talk about domination of the non-state variety: workplace coercion, the accidental coercion of hunger, poverty, and crime, and so forth.
In other words, everything we’re talking about here sits on some sort of grand, gaudy sliding scale. The abacus of democracy and liberty. We all have to determine what our collective vision of the good society will be. Even the coercion required to implement a less democratic state is a collectively decided upon act. The libertarian agenda would still need to be decided by society at large, and enforced either through consensus or through strict limitations on democratic politics.
Coercion is inevitable. The question is what kind of coercion do we find acceptable. Nobody has cornered the market on freedom. We all simply have different ideas about what makes us free and which chains are the most fearsome.