Democracy and Coercion
Reader “Liberal with an Attitude” (or more recently self-proclaimed to be “Liberal with Cojones”) thinks democracy is not coercion. He makes a very persuasive argument, too:
So you get angry at being portrayed as a caricature, and your notion of dispelling that image is to say “Democracy is coercion”?
OK, maybe not so persuasive, in that his response contains no actual logic, only the implication that believing “democracy is coercion” makes one an extremist libertarian.
Let’s explore that implication.
Weber: The Democratic State Is Based on Physical Force
I’ve cited Max Weber’s definition of government frequently here, because after a century it remains the most influential definition (and the essay it’s in, “Politics as a Vocation,” to me remains one of the most thought-provoking essays in political theory). Note that in the following, Weber uses the term “state,” rather than government, but this is in the context of talking about the leadership of the political association we call the state. Specifically, Weber is talking about leadership in democratic states, so his definition here is a definition that he is purposefully applying to democracy.
What is a ‘state’? Sociologically, the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends. There is scarcely any task that some political association has not taken in hand, and there is no task that one could say has always been exclusive and peculiar to those associations which are designated as political ones: today the state, or historically, those associations which have been the predecessors of the modern state. Ultimately, one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force.
‘Every state is founded on force,’ said Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk. That is indeed right. If no social institutions existed which knew the use of violence, then the concept of ‘state’ would be eliminated, and a condition would emerge that could be designated as ‘anarchy,’ in the specific sense of this word…Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory…
So according to Weber, democracy is rooted in the use of physical force. Legitimate force, to be sure, but he did not shy away from recognizing that even legitimate force is still force.
Weber, however, was not a libertarian. His essay is a paean to charismatic leadership of the type that most libertarians would despise. Further, libertarians would surely think Weber was a bit too cavalier in assuming legitimacy in physical force. Whether or not they are right about that, though, is not what matter here–what matters is that Weber was no libertarian, nor are his writings particularly compatible with libertarian thought. (I find him challenging: as a political scientist I find his arguments empirically compelling, but as a libertarian I find them normatively incautious.)
James Madison: Democracy and Faction
In Federalist 10, James Madison gave a strong warning against pure majoritarian democracy. His concern was to constrain “factions,” defined as
a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
Chew on that a moment. A group “actuated,” or as we might say today, motivated, to be “adversed to the rights of other citizens.” Madison goes on to note the danger of these factions in democracy.
When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government…enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.
The purpose, in Madison’s view, of bringing more power to a central government, away from the states, was to limit democracy, because the closer the system was to pure democracy, the less protection there was for the minority, who would be sacrificed to the passions of the majority.
Now Madison’s minority of concern was the propertied class, so we could–as did Charles Beard, sneer at his entrenchment of economic interest. But that’s beside the point. His argument extends as easily–in fact more easily–to less influential minorities. But that’s also beside the point at this moment.
The point is, James Madison believed democracy was inherently coercive, so much so that he justified the U.S. Constitution on the grounds that it would constrain democracy and limit the abuses of democracy’s coercive power.
Was Madison a libertarian? No. Libertarians tend to like him, and consider him a part of their intellectual heritage, because like him they tend to distrust unconstrained democracy, but of course Madison predates libertarianism as a distinct political philosophy by more than a century. And at least one strain of libertarianism treats the Constitution as a sort of betrayal–the state governments tended to be fairly weak because of frequent elections,* and created competing political institutions, whereas the Constitution consolidated and centralized power. In fact Madison’s original proposal went so far as to give Congress a veto over all state laws, a greater centralization of power than most of the other delegates to the convention were willing to accept.
But even if we were to treat Madison as a sort of proto-libertarian, there is no intellectually respectable way we could get to a position where we defined him as the type of “caricature” of libertarianism that LWA thinks is necessary to believe democracy is coercion.
John Adams: Tyranny of the Majority
Madison’s Federalist 10 is generally understood as referencing the idea of the tyranny of the majority, although the phrase does not appear therein. The phrase does appear in John Adams’ A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, published the following year.
But in a single sovereign assembly, each member, at the end of his year, is only responsible to his constituents; and the majority of members who have been of one party, and carried all before them, are to be responsible only to their constituents, not to the constituents of the minority who have been overborne, injured, and plundered… And who are these constituents to whom the majority are accountable? Those very persons, to gratify whom they have prostituted the honors, rewards, wealth, and justice of the state. These, instead of punishing, will applaud; instead of discarding, will reëlect, with still greater eclat, and a more numerous majority; for the losing cause will be deserted by numbers. And this will be done in hopes of having still more injustice done, still more honors and profits divided among themselves, to the exclusion and mortification of the minority…
There is, in short, no possible way of defending the minority, in such a government, from the tyranny of the majority, but by giving the former a negative on the latter,—the most absurd institution that ever took place among men.
Adams’ bluntness is notable. In his hands, Madison’s academically dry “adversed to the rights of” becomes “overborne, injured, and plundered.” Democracy, Adams seems to suggest, is not just coercion, but abusive coercion, even illegitimate coercion.
Was Adams an extremist libertarian? The president who signed the Alien and Sedition acts? No, when libertarians start mooning dreamily over founding fathers, it’s Jefferson whose name they tend to coo first; Madison, to some extent. Perhaps Patrick Henry, of the famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. Adams tends to be admired for his intelligence and pragmatism, but not for any libertarian ideals.
De Toqueville Against Democracy
From, of course, Democracy in America:
In my opinion the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their overpowering strength; and I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the very inadequate securities which exist against tyranny.
When an individual or a party is wronged in the United States, to whom can he apply for redress? If to public opinion, public opinion constitutes the majority; if to the legislature, it represents the majority, and implicitly obeys its injunctions; if to the executive power, it is appointed by the majority, and remains a passive tool in its hands; the public troops consist of the majority under arms; the jury is the majority invested with the right of hearing judicial cases; and in certain States even the judges are elected by the majority. However iniquitous or absurd the evil of which you complain may be, you must submit to it as well as you can.
Does that really need further explication?
There are two related questions twining through this post. The first is whether democracy is coercion. The second is whether only extremist libertarians–the type the caricature is based on–could believe that democracy is coercion. I have only directly addressed the second question here. Of the four political theorists I have referenced, Weber, Madison, Hamilton, and de Tocqueville, not one can be said to be a true libertarian, much less an extremist one. LWA’s implication that “democracy is coercion” is an extreme libertarian position is demolished.
I have not directly addressed the first question, of whether these theorists are in fact right about democracy being coercive. There is much more I could say about that, were I to let this post run on to even more absurd lengths. But I’ll leave it at this: Weber, Madison, Adams, and de Tocqueville are all respected political thinkers whose works are still read and admired after one or two centuries. They weren’t fools. I didn’t reach out to obscure, marginal, or off-beat thinkers.
Is it conceivable that LWA has a better insight into the issue than they do? If so, I invite him to clearly explain where these four theorists went wrong. I’ll even ensure him a guest post if he wants equal time.
*I disagree with this line of libertarian thought. While it’s true that the state legislatures tended to be weak, this simply created a vacuum of power that tended to be filled by state governors. I see the substitution of executive power for legislative power as a very bad tradeoff from a libertarian perspective.