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Liberty and Democracy
By Tibor R. Machan
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2002 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
Default and Dynamic Democracy
Loren E. Lomasky
1989 WAS SIGNIFICANT for the iconography of politics. Coincidentally, two of its memorable moments involved walls. One, the Berlin Wall, which for a generation stood as an ugly gash across the center of Europe, came down amidst joyous celebration and an outpouring of long-deferred optimism for the future. The other, the Democracy Wall, went up in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, with similar optimism. Both wall and optimism proved short-lived, however — the tanks and troops of the gerontocracy soon pounded it into bits even smaller than those to which its Berlin cousin had been reduced. Distinct outcomes, but the aspiration common to both was democracy.
The American presidential election of 2000 afforded other memorable images. It was the year that the term chad conspicuously entered the national vocabulary, usually modified by hanging or pregnant. Florida voters in remarkable number showed themselves flummoxed by two-column ballots the design of which was less complicated than the golf scorecards they easily maintain. Editorialists pontificated concerning whether what really should matter were votes as cast or the votes that people believed they were casting. Spokespersons for the two candidates formulated transparently self-serving moral and legal rationales as to why their man should be the next president. Selection of the administration that would govern the world's most powerful nation hinged on accident, confusion, and happenstance, displaying all the randomness of a Lucky-7 lottery drawing. This, too, is a recognizable image of democracy.
The contrast suggests numerous questions. Howmuchmoral weight is borne by occasional trips to the polls of citizens who can barely distinguish among the candidates and issues? If, as has been said, war is politics by other means, then is not majority rule essentially a way of carrying out that struggle by counting noses rather than casualties? What, after all, is so special about democracy?
The great liberal thinkers of the tradition offer precious little help. John Locke in The Second Treatise of Government was the first to issue the pivotal announcement that all human beings possess basic rights to life, liberty, and property and that governments are instituted to vindicate those rights. But as social life does not admit of the precision of mathematics, difficulties in governance will arise that do not admit of algorithmic decision procedures. Because practical quandaries demand some resolution or other, there is need for a means to cut through uncertainties and disagreement. That is why the citizenry creates a legislative body to deliberate on its behalf, after which it says yea or nay. Because the ship of state must move in one direction or the other, it is only reasonable, claims Locke, that it should incline toward the larger number.
The only thing special about majorities is that they are not minorities. To them, crucially, is imputed no greater share of virtue or deputation to act as God's viceroy on Earth. On the contrary, their edicts are to be tightly constrained by attention to the antecedent rights of individuals and by procedures that separate powers and otherwise put various stumbling blocks in the way of potentially tyrannous usurpations. These Lockean themes were taken up by his successors. On this side of the Atlantic, they include the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Within this tradition, liberty is primary, democracy distinctly secondary. What this potted history leaves unexplained, however, is democracy's capacity to serve as an ideal prompting celebration at one extreme and martyrdom at the other. The aim of this essay is to make some progress toward supplying an answer.
Section 1 briefly examines contemporary descendants of Lockean majoritarianism. They are found to be serviceable enough but without much resonance in the political imagination. Section 2 introduces the chief rival conception of democracy, one tracing back to Jean Jacques Rousseau. There's no denying it is laden with romance, but its credentials as a practical basis for collective decision making are suspect. The contrast suggests that democrats can have their realism or have their idealism but not both. Section 3 opposes that suggestion with a model featuring individuals who are every bit as hard-headed when donning the persona of citizen as they are in their capacity as economic agents, yet who respond to different motivations as they move from market to voting booth. Section 4 draws out some implications for the normative status of democratic institutions.
I. DEFAULT DEMOCRACY
Democracy is, definitionally, rule of the demos, the people, the many. Spelling out how that is supposed to work is problematic. An alternative approach proceeds by noting what democracy is not. Specifically, it is not the exercise of governance by one authoritative monarch, ruling class, committee of oligarches, or clerisy. Holding periodic elections for the purpose of shuffling out the old occupants of parliaments and presidential suites and replacing them with a new crowd does not guarantee steady moral improvement, let alone wise rule by a statesmanlike elite. But what it usually does manage to achieve is some check to ambition. Even if replacements of officeholders were entirely at random, the fact of alteration by itself stands in the way of erecting and indefinitely maintaining potentially tyrannous fiefdoms. What is important in this conception is not so much who rules, although it need not be denied that the character of officeholders can make an appreciable difference for political outcomes, but that governance is shaken up at irregular intervals.
Compared with classical models of political order, this one is not particularly lofty. Certainly it falls far short of the administration of Plato's Republic by philosopher-kings who know the common good, are reliably motivated by concern for it, and possess expertise sufficient to achieve it. Aristotle and Cicero offer somewhat more down-to-earth scenarios of rule by the wise and virtuous, but as in the story told by Plato, the regimes that secure their endorsements feature governance by the best and brightest for the sake of all. The stories these classical authors tell are indeed edifying, but one can't avoid the suspicion that their genre is at least as much fantasy as philosophy. If we had a reliable source of supply for philosopher-kings or benevolent despots, then the case for democracy would be much less persuasive. Practice reveals, however, that these are always in short supply. Those who most vociferously nominate themselves for such standing usually prove to be abject pretenders. Even if we were in possession of some reliable procedure for identifying those most fit to rule, preserving that fitness is a further and, arguably, intractable task. Lord Acton noted, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." To pick only one example from numerous contenders, the presidential pardons issued during the last hours of the Clinton administration indicate that the dawning of the twenty-first century has not rendered Acton's famous dictum any less salient. Philosopher-kings are more apt to become addicted to the appurtenances of kingly status than to remain devoted to the quiet charms of philosophical reflection; the autocrat's despotism is likely to outlive his benevolence.
So for democracy to win the political prize, its credentials need not be altogether glittering if the various competitors have each been disqualified. This must be what Churchill had in mind when he famously quipped that democracy is the worst of political systems — except for all the others. I shall refer to this understanding as democracy by default.
The picture sketched to this point has been entirely negative. It is sufficient for exhibiting the undesirability of politburos and censorious ayatollahs, but it does not answer the question, "Why government at all?" If less is more, then must anarchy not be the most? For better or worse, no. "If men were angels," observes Madison in Federalist 51, "no government would be necessary." Human nature being what it is, however, temptation to aggress against the rights of others is a constant companion to our endeavors. Some people are weak, and others, downright evil. Force is necessary to counter the threat of force, and that is where the state comes in. This is Locke's insight, and it is seconded by the entire liberal tradition.
We are secured in the enjoyment of our rights by the rule of law. Law and order is what the economists call a public good. This means that its enjoyment by some individuals will spill over to others. Moreover, one individual's possession of the good does not mean there is less to go around for others. Defense against potential foreign aggressors is an example of an even purer public good. The only or most effective way to protect some members of the population against either domestic or foreign rights violators is to extend that protection to all. One implication of publicness in this sense is that we will confront strategic bargaining problems in attempting to secure an adequate quantity through consensual means, such as market transactions. Individuals will be tempted to decline to contribute their own personal resources to its provision because whether or not they will reap the benefits depends mostly on the activities of others and only to a negligible extent on their own. The consequence is a generalized inclination to hold back. This is the notorious free-ridingproblem, and an enormous quantity of ink has been spilled by theorists aiming to ameliorate it through ingenious voluntary or quasi-voluntary means. Without in any wishing to impugn those efforts, I observe that in the liberal tradition, the free-riding problem has mostly been addressed by substituting collective, and thus coercive, choice for private, consensual decision making. Unlike dues- payingmembership in a fraternal organization, inclusion in civil society is mandatory.
Once it is conceded that procuring the public good law and order is a proper task of the state, then it is not a big leap to maintain that other public goods may also permissibly be secured via the state's power to legislate and tax. Although justice and defense are the primary and inescapable functions of the state, its reach appropriately extends, claims Adam Smith, to "erecting and maintaining those publick institutions and those publick works, which though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society are, however, of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expence to any individual or small number of individuals, and which it, therefore, cannot be expected that any individual or small number of individuals should erect or maintain." Although contemporary libertarians vociferously debate whether and how these activities may successfully be weaned away from the bounteous breast of government, it must be conceded that virtually the entire tradition of liberal thought from Locke through Milton Friedman has acknowledged the need for a greater or lesser measure of political provision. This function is a major preoccupation of all existing developed states, democratic or otherwise. However, democratic regimes may be thought to have an advantage over all others with regard to public goods provision in that the citizenry will support those activities that afford them good value for tax money spent and will punish via electoral ostracism those who squander common funds.
However, this understanding of democracy as an efficient generator of public goods has been subjected to an increasingly sophisticated critique in recent years by social scientists bringing the tools of economic analysis to collective choice processes. Their explorations constitute the discipline of public choice theory, and its results have not been heartening for democracy enthusiasts. Even supposing that some goods must be funded through tax money if we are to have them at all (antimissile defense? epidemic disease control? NASA explorations?), collective provision carries many overt and hidden costs. First, it is of the one-size-fits-all variety. For example, as a taxpayer you "purchase" your pro rata share of national defense, or whatever, even though as a pacifist or Manifest Destiny jingoist you believe that to be too much/too little. Second, not all votes and voices are equal in determining what shall be procured. Concentrated special interests enjoy notoriously better access to the ears of politicians than does the general public. Thus, third, allocations often amount to blatant transfers from one segment of the population to another rather than, in any meaningful sense, to service of a common good. Fourth, mutual back-scratching and logrolling generate total budgets higher than any of the individual parties might wish. Fifth, even arguably worthwhile public works will typically be delivered at inflated prices because incentives to minimize economic costs are less powerful than incentives to maximize political gains. That isn't to say that democracies do a poor job of supplying public goods; the crucial question is "Compared with what?" Our own siphoners of funds from the common fisc begin to look rather benign when compared with, say, Zaire's late megakleptocrat Mobuto or Argentina's Juan Perón. Nonetheless, it is a clear implication of public choice theory that democratic determinations fall short of market provision in terms of both efficacy and equity.
Public choice theory affords us the most realistic understanding we have yet achieved concerning the inner workings of default democracy. Yet, in at least three respects, it is deficient. First, it fails to explain why what is essentially an economic activity (in which votes substitute for dollars) should be surrounded by a rhetoric of public-spiritedness. Politicians invest a great deal of time and financial resources in projecting images of personal virtue and concern for the general well-being. Even if offered only as camouflage for acts of private predation, under a conception of politics as entirely self-serving, how could these displays fool anyone? Second, why should rational economic actors bother to secure political information and haul themselves off to the polls every couple years? One vote among millions of others is, for all practical purposes, invisible; a person is more likely to be hit by a bus on the way to the ballot box than to tip the balance once he gets there. Because economic man won't bestir himself to vote but tens of millions of our compatriots do, the purely economic theory seems to defeat itself. Third, if democratic determinations are merely a less perfect analog of buying and selling on the market, it is impossible to explain how democracy could have assumed the status of an icon, indeed, the most luminous social ideal of our time. Surely there must be more to democratic enthusiasm than this.
2. DYNAMIC DEMOCRACY
For Locke and his successors, the value of democratic procedures is instrumental: They are the best (or least bad) means for achieving ends such as civil peace, respect for rights, and a measure of commodious living. Running a long side the Lockean tradition, however, is an understanding of democratic activity not as merely the distasteful medicine one must swallow in order to secure the health of the body politic but rather as intrinsically valuable. The antecedents of this belief in the value of political activity extend back to Aristotle, to whom engagement in affairs of state was, after the philosophical life, the most elevated calling to which one could aspire. The concept finds its preeminent modern expression in the works of Rousseau.
Whether Rousseau is to be located within the liberal tradition is a question much labored by political theorists. Here, though, it is enough to observe that there are powerful forces in his work pulling him toward as well as away from the successors of Locke. In the opening chapter of The Social Contract, he announces the paradox, "Man is born free and is everywhere in chains." The fundamental problem of social design then becomes how individuals may be forged into a political community while they simultaneously reclaim some measure of the autonomy of primordial freedom.
At first blush, the puzzle seems insoluble. Politics is the realm of authority, of imperatives, and subjects are not allowed to simply opt out of dictates they happen to find disagreeable. The state pronounces, and those who neither flee nor fight must obey. Even were the state's prescriptions to be devised by exceptionally benevolent and enlightened social engineers, there would nonetheless be a morally fundamental split between rulers and the ruled. However content the latter may be with their lot, they are not self-determining agents but rather beings who are acted upon by others who thus possess the status of superiors. It seems, then, that we confront a dilemma: either the anarchy of each man doing that which is right in his own eyes (decried in Judges 21:25) or the servitude of subjects to their kings.
Excerpted from Liberty and Democracy by Tibor R. Machan. Copyright © 2002 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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