Today’s two major contenders for political power seem to be elitists and populists. Funnily enough, both types are present in each of the big tribes known as progressive/liberal and conservatism, left and right, or Democratic and Republican. (Here’s the lowdown on paleoconservative elitists.)
However, the elitist/populist framework should leave everyone dissatisfied. It omits too many details. Namely, it presents a contest apparently over who should rule: an anointed elite or “the people,” which is not always well-defined. I put the term in quotes because the whole people cannot possibly rule.
The common framework ignores the far more fundamental question: which rules? In other words, what are the rulers, whoever they are, proposing to do? Exactly which orders are to be enacted as legislation and imposed by force? Are there to be limits on this rule? By what means? What happens if the limits are breached, as they have been constantly over the years?
That’s what libertarians care about first: the rules. Who rules comes second. But everyone should care about this. Under certain rules, it wouldn’t matter who was “in charge.” Imagine a rule against anyone — even “rulers” — initiating force in any way against anyone else.
The problem is that the rules typically administered by the state, including representative democracies, shouldn’t exist. We shouldn’t want anyone enforcing those rules because they are bad rules. They may constitute legislation, but, as F. A. Hayek and others have taught, they are not (natural) law.
We cannot assume that populist, or unfiltered democratic, rule would be preferable in all circumstances to elitist rule. I think of the self-styled “extreme libertarian” H. L. Mencken’s famous observation, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Take the Federal Reserve System — please! If a gun were held on me, I’d choose the current system over a Fed run by Congress or by plebiscite. I’m not sure that’s a tough call, but I’m marking on a steep curve. (Ron Paul wanted to end the Fed, not hand it over to “the people.”)
In The Myth of the Rational Voter, libertarian economist Bryan Caplan reports that surveys consistently indicate that better-educated individuals tend to give more sensible answers on economic-policy questions than the general, less-educated population do and thus are less, say, anti-trade and anti-foreign. What might that mean for trade, immigration, and even monetary policies? Of course there shouldn’t be trade, immigration, and monetary policies. They override individual freedom, cooperation, and spontaneous order.
Look across the Atlantic and consider Brexit. With good reason, a majority of Britons didn’t like policies being made by distant and largely unaccountable politicians and bureaucrats. Most voters chose to exit, that is, they opted for decentralization. At the same time they favored nationalism and national sovereignty, that is, immigration control and protectionism.
Notice what wasn’t on the ballot: individual sovereignty — not just for Britons but for everyone. In the Brexit case, decentralization coincided with more national government power over the freedom to trade and to deal with would-be migrants. That’s hardly a win if the standard is individual liberty. (Decentralization has a potential advantage: it lowers the cost of voting with one’s feet.)
It’s not that “the people” are stupid — far from it. While most of us are reasonably competent in normal life, in the political realm we face special incentives and disincentives that make us act stupid. When one vote is impotent, why would most individuals spend scarce time and money studying complicated subjects to investigate whether to vote for Smith or Jones? They might as well vote their feelings and biases. Besides, most individual voters will bear a only microscopic fraction of the total expense that the winning candidate will help to impose. Bad incentives all around.
Admittedly, democracy as a way to pick officeholders is certainly preferable to violence in the streets, but that is faint praise. We can do better.
But we don’t want an elite to rule either. Elitism’s track record here and elsewhere is nothing to brag about. It includes war, depression, and other lamentable political maladies. Of course, the rejection of elitism doesn’t mean the wholesale rejection of expertise, as some people seem to think. That would be irrational. Who doesn’t consult a doctor when ill? No, what must be avoided is endowing select experts with access to political power. The damage can be seen in the recent pandemic.
The alternative to elitism isn’t more democracy, which would trade one form of authoritarianism for another. The alternative is individual liberty in markets and civil society, and that calls for the strictest limitation on — as we work for the elimination of — all coercive political power. The objective is to free all peaceful relations from government. Instead of elitism and populism, let’s have individual liberty and cooperation.