Monday, October 4, 2010

Democracy and Freedom

A Response to "What Kind of Person Runs for Public Office?"

A Talk From Doug French
Mises Daily: Monday, October 04, 2010 by Doug French

This argument, it seems to me, is not so dissimilar from the usual Classical Liberal position of government. Both acknowledge, axiomatically, "something" ill-tending in the human condition. Likewise, both acknowledge that it ought to be counter-balanced. The Classical Liberal thinks the ill-tending aspects which damage "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are counterbalanced by permanent mandates in law applicable to all. The anarchist position is that even such initially sensible a mandate will give way to more and more coercion. Also, enshrining anything in permanent law invariably binds one person to the will of another. Thus private law, between consenting individuals, is thought ideal since, by nature, it only involves consenting parties. This seems sensible but also seems to me to create three problems: 1) How do you prevent the rise of a state, and 2) on what grounds without implicating others and placing them under your private law. Also, 3) how does one address the problem of third parties, for example how would you punish a breach of contract? Of course ideally you would spell it out ahead of time but people being fallible, there will be vagaries, differences of opinion, and omissions. Arbitration seems a plausible solution, but how would you compel him to arbitration?

Of course over time there could be conventions and procedures which, while nonbinding, might be able to smooth private dealings. This brings us to Mr. French's points, via Hayek, about democracy, which seems to me to be novel. Heretofore I have understood the nature of government to be the central issue to the anarcho-capitalists, i.e. that its coercive monopoly of the law is the their primary complaint. Yet French cites three additional problems of a democratic nature which Hayek, who was not an anarchist, outlined in The Road to Serfdom.
  1. People of higher intelligence have different tastes and views. So, as Hayek writes, "we have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive instincts prevail," to have uniformity of opinion.
  2. Second, those on top must "gain the support of the docile and gullible," who are ready to accept whatever values and ideology is drummed into them. Totalitarians depend upon those who are guided by their passions and emotions rather than by critical thinking.
  3. Finally, leaders don't promote a positive agenda, but a negative one of hating an enemy and envy of the wealthy.
These are cited axiomatically and I shall take them as such, not endeavoring to prove them. Let us keep this discussion theoretical. Now these features are those of a democratic state, let us say. Yet in an anarchist society, one free of coercion, these forces would be just as free to play out as they would in a democracy. The intelligent would have to seek a way to appeal to the foolish, perhaps condescending to "primitive instincts," and they would be free to promote a negative agenda. Thus it is possible for such undesirable things to occur in both anarchist and democratic societies. What difference would there be? First, not everyone would be implicated. If you didn't want to follow you wouldn't have to. Second, unlike in a democracy which implicitly relies on a sanction of majoritarianism, in an anarchist society what they did would not have any particular sanction except 1) that the parties involved gave their permission, and 2) that only parties who gave their permission were involved. This sounds like a significant improvement. But what if the majority wanted your land? To what authority or counterbalance of force would you appeal? I don't think anyone would suggest such an example of theft would not occur simply because it was illegal. It could of course happen quite suddenly: the Athenians famously voted to execute all the adult men of the island of Melos during the Peloponnesian War.

Now let us also assume Hoppe's statement is true also, that the best naturally rise to the top, that is if the law is not rigged against them and/or in favor of others. French continues:

On the other hand, democracy affords the opportunity for anyone to pursue politics as a career. There is no need for the masses to recognize a person as "wise" or "successful," as Hoppe's natural order would require. Nor does one have to be born into the ruling family, as in the case of monarchy.
This does not seem to follow, to me. French attributes as unique to democracy a feature which is not a feature of government but of public life in a free society and thus one which is common also to an anarchist society. A fool can get up in a democratic or anarchist assembly and speak. Is he more likely to be accepted in one of these forms than the other? Why? It does not seem one is more likely than the other. Also, it is not a question of incompetence. Rather it is a question of the ill-tending we spoke of earlier. Indeed unless government jobs are apportioned at random in the democracy there is equal incentive for competence, the question is what else is there incentive for? One may be highly proficient at his job and still be a criminal and use his position for great evil. One might also say competence is not the greatest prerequisite for a position. There are in fact other characteristics which people, even rational people, prize, such as charisma. Famously and lamentably, brilliant men have been taken in by charismatic leaders.

French also quotes approvingly of Hoppe's notion that "natural elites" have some better quality than "democratic elites," i.e. elites voted to be elites by a majority. French goes on to write:
On the other hand, in democracy politicians demand attention, seeking acclaim for anything they do, continually taking credit for policies they say have made our lives better when in fact these interventions make our lives worse. There is no need to list the names of politicians who have committed crimes or ethics violations — it would take all day. The point is made.

Even if we take the dichotomy as axiomatic, this contrast is not persuasive. There is just too much assumed here: does the demand for attention translate into something more tangibly and demonstrably bad? Is the intervention in question actually worse? Plenty of people, government officials and private citizens alike, commit crimes and ethics violations. Also, sometimes members of both groups get off without just punishment. The question is about the nature of power and whether someone with authority will misuse it. Earlier this year we examined this question and saw that Hobbes, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin had, quite appropriately, ask the question too.[1] Simply put, who is more likely to be corrupted by power (and toward what kind of corruption would he tend), a rich man or a poor man?

French, paying due credit to Judge Andrew Napolitano for the insight, appropriately quotes Augustine's conception of libido domini — the lust for domination — which "entices men towards waging wars and committing all manner of violence." If I may speculate, French and also many anarchists would suggest that the state is what enables people with such desires to dominate. Eliminate the state, and you will eliminate the domination. Eliminate the means and you prevent the end. Yet, and we return to what we asked before, how do you eliminate the state and moreover how do you prevent it from coming into being? Moreover, how do you prevent it from coming it being without coercion and without creating public mandates, i.e. common law? Additionally, what would become of the desire? It would undoubtedly persist, and is it not possible for a demagogue to gain a willing majority in any population of people in a free society?

Regarding Maslow's "morality pyramid" it certainly seems as if any successful person would fit the characteristics of a "self-actualizer." Since I don't know how Maslow defines morality I cannot comment on it, but even tyrannical leaders would fit his bill insofar as they undoubtedly think they are moral. Yet French's point is that these people desire fame, which brings us back to our observation from the previous paragraph: what's stopping them from acting on this desire in an anarchist society? French seems to assume that such power-hungry people are incompetent and thus a free market would mean they would fail in competition with the non-power-hungry leaders who are competent. In contrast, power-hungry people are often quite competent and indeed they are often the most effective, for good or ill, in the long term.

Mr. French via Maslow, has already said only 2 percent of people are self-actualizing: we might wonder then, what percent of people know that when they see it?

The question any student of politics asks, and which everyone from Plato and Aristotle has asked is, how does a society get the people who are good at doing something doing that thing they are good at? It is another, though closely related, question as to how to deal with the human desire to control. It seems to me Mr. French's argument interpolates these questions and such is why the result is ultimately not persuasive. Undoubtedly the similarities to the Classical Liberal position demonstrate why the two groups are often in the same camp on issues. Untangling the two positions is surprisingly difficult work and probably seems like hairsplitting to firm statists.

It would seem though, that if one assumes what we have discussed about human nature to be true, some state is inevitable even if it is not wholly desirable. Liberalism presents all liberals with a problem, since what destroys it is not the state or a particular ideology (though the means of repression is the state and it is concentrated in certain ideologies) but in human nature. The liberal paradox is that freedom exists naturally and is destroyed naturally, or if not naturally cyclically. (Might one say what is cyclical is natural?)

I agree with Mr. French that many ardently pro-democracy people lose sight of freedom and some do offer the mantra that "we just need to elect the right people." Yet this essentially the same question as "how does a society get the people who are good at doing something doing that thing they are good at?" Yet doing the good always requires people who can do the good. There does not seem to be any guarantee to me of having such people. It is unjust to force people and people can be quite irrational and unreasonable, and unpredictably so. Now I'm not saying a government cannot be inherently unjust. They most certainly can be, often are, and often governments turn unjust.

French continues:
. . .it can safely be predicted that the democratic welfare state will collapse, according to Hoppe, and what is necessary besides a crisis is ideas — correct ideas — and men capable of understanding and implementing these ideas once the opportunity arises.
Well why haven't they yet implemented such ideas or attempted to? Perhaps because the government has a monopoly on the law. Yet Mr. French's points have all been about democracy, in particular points which cannot be undone without force. Likewise he writes, "So the natural elites have an obligation to make sure the truth is spread." Perhaps it would be more useful to suggest they become the democratic elites. Unless, of course and in the paradigm of Hayek, whatever is popular is "of lower immoral standards." But that observation is much wider implications as one might notice. One must be wary of casually uttering maxims. Nonetheless Mr. French ought to be lauded for suggesting people personally support people they think are doing good.

At the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin said that even good government "is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall be come so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other."

Maybe that's so, maybe it's not, but it seems more plausible than endlessly fingering the state either as the cause or solution to all problems.

[1]See Part II of Thoughts on the American Executive.

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