TGIF: Autocracy — Boo! Democracy — Hiss!

by | Feb 2, 2024

TGIF: Autocracy — Boo! Democracy — Hiss!

by | Feb 2, 2024

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Here’s why democracy is a dubious idea. Government decisions are high stakes. It decides matters of war and peace, prosperity and poverty, freedom or oppression. Yet we let incompetent people steer the ship of state. Most voters are ignorant and process what little information they have in biased and irrational ways. They fall prey to propaganda and demagogues. They are conformists and don’t even try to vote their interests. Democracy is the political equivalent of drunk driving.

Jason Brennan, Democracy: A Guided Tour

Well, we’re into another out-of-control presidential election year. I’m sure everyone is thinking what I’m thinking: someone wake me when it’s over.

This will not be my idea of fun. For good political news, we’ll have to look to Javier Milei in Argentina (fingers crossed), assuming dethroned cronies and so-called labor leaders don’t run him out of Buenos Aires on a rail.

Unless lightning strikes, the presidential race will be dominated by the execrable Biden and Trump — and what could be more depressing than that? Thank goodness my one vote wouldn’t count. Biden has been a blowhard weathervane since he was a whiz-kid senator. (In another life I was a newspaper reporter in Delaware.) Trump won’t shut up until someone gives him a shot of sodium pentothal. Both are ethically challenged, and neither understands a whit about individual freedom.

Between the tribalism of party politics and the predictably woeful condition of monopoly governance, does anyone need any further demonstration that democracy stinks? What would it take? Why do people put up with it? I know why. Because they think the only alternative to democracy is autocracy. That’s drummed into them in the government schools. Everyone learned that Churchill said democracy is the worst system — except for the rest. But he rigged the competition. “The rest” did not include the only real alternative: the system of consent, cooperation, and contract. That’s the free market, rooted in individual — not collective or national — self-ownership,  private property, free exchange, and free enterprise. There’s the winner, Winnie.

Democracy is a scam perpetuated by rulers who want to deflect blame and anger by persuading the people that since they rule, they must be at fault for any shortcomings. It long ago morphed into a cult with articles of faith like “Every vote counts.” It can’t withstand scrutiny.

Most people wouldn’t want to live in a pure direct democracy where they voted on all legislation. For one thing, they know the time demand would drive them crazy. But just as important, most of them know that they are not qualified. The government today has its tentacles in virtually every part of life. No one can be well-informed about, much less expert in, virtually everything. But that’s what would be called for. Sure, people could consult experts. Um, which experts? (Other moral and epistemological objections, such as coercion and tacit knowledge, also apply.)

Representative democracy is supposed to address that problem, but it just kicks the can down the road. Instead of knowing everything about everything (or even a lot about a lot), the people only have to know which candidate fills the bill. That theory doesn’t even look good on paper.

To make things even more absurd, legislators theoretically represent large groups of people. Does that mean they should solicit their constituents’ opinions? We’ve already seen that the constituents are unqualified. The alternative is for representatives to act on behalf of what they believe their diverse and largely ignorant constituents should want. No problem there, right? Wrong.

Of course, while people speak solemnly about their responsibility as citizens, everyone knows his or her single vote won’t make a difference in the election outcome. So where is the incentive to educate oneself in light of the huge costs if it is to be done correctly? People don’t normally perform futile acts at great expense.

Think of the most serious-minded officeholder that you know of. Do you really believe that person is qualified to fulfill the de facto job description — to, in Jason Bennan’s words, “decide matters of war and peace, prosperity and poverty, freedom or oppression”? That’s why most people vote for candidates who wear the same color cap and jersey as they do. How did they choose that color? In most cases, through a collection of social and economic biases.

I know: a constitution is supposed to protect basic rights from the legislature by placing them off limits. But how has that worked out since 1789?

As for the market alternative, what about negative spillovers from market transactions, like pollution? We must always ask: compared to what? Does democracy have no spillovers? Those who vote for the winning candidates are not the only ones who bear the burdens of their choices. Others do too. Many other people who didn’t vote for the winners will pay higher taxes, suffer unemployment from the minimum wage, go without unaffordable homes in desirable places because of regulation, and die or see loved ones die in foreign wars. At least the market contains powerful profit incentives to “internalize the externalities.” You cannot say that about the government. (I recommend once again David Friedman’s essay “Do We Need Government?” Here’s my take.)

About Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.

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