The Achilles Heel of Democracy

By Rev Dr John Williams

    First, may I thank the committee of the Adam Smith Club for their invitation to be present and address you here this evening. Let me parade the modest credentials that emboldened me to accept their invitation. It was my study during my undergraduate years of Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and my subsequent reading of his An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Lectures on Jurisprudence and much of his correspondence, particularly with David Hume, that first led to my rediscovery of the Classical Liberal tradition, a tradition largely dismissed or ignored by most political philosophers during my undergraduate years. That rediscovery softened the blow of the collapse of my adolescent love affair with Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg et al and my 'on-the-rebound', mercifully short-lived infatuation with such thinkers of the then 'New Left' as Marcuse, Gramsci and Althusser, and such self-styled 'Democratic Socialists' as the Americans Sweezy, Harrington and even Galbraith and the anonymous UK authors hiding behind the name 'Socialist Union', the writings of whom were published by Penguin Books. In an attempt to satisfy what had become a voracious appetite, I hired a staff member of the French Department to translate for me the largely neglected writings of such French Classical Liberals as Adolphe Blanqui, Charles Dunoyer, Francois Guizot and Augustin Thierry. By 1974 an impassioned defender of Classical Liberalism. I thus all but burst into a spirited rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus when, in that year, Robert Nozick's now classic work Anarchy, State and Utopia was published and all but forced political philosophers again to take Classical Liberalism seriously. My espousal of and enthusiasm for the vision of the 'good life' and the 'good society' informing Classical Liberalism in turn led me to venture into the world of the allegedly dismal science that is Economics. I conclude this detailing of my credentials, such as they are, for accepting your committee's invitation by adding that one of the highlights of my life was attending, in Chicago, a celebration honouring the birthday of Adam Smith. arranged by the late Professor George Stigler

Second, let me indicate "where I am coming from", as my nephews and nieces have taught me to say. By training I am a philosopher - I prefer to say 'student of Philosophy' - who cut his teeth on Wittgenstein and so-called 'Analytical Philosophy', but whose doctoral thesis unfashionably involved a comparison of the respective philosophical stances of Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, joint authors of the seminal work, Principia Mathematica. In spite of the focus of said thesis - said 'dissertation' as our American cousins would have it - my primary areas of philosophical interest and limited expertise have become so-called modal logic, political philosophy and the philosophy of religion. Whilst, incidentally, my religious stance is or should be irrelevant to what I shall be arguing, I am a so-called religious liberal, regarding supernaturalism as untenable and established, authoritarian religions with scepticism. I deplore the cult of 'political correctness' endemic in my and not a few other Christian denominations, find most contemporary chatter about 'social' and 'economic' justice vacuous, and regard actual and intending 'social engineers' - be they fervently secular or devoutly religious - willing and anxious coercively to impose via government their vision of the 'good life' upon their fellow-citizens, as all but demonic. My sympathies, when it comes to Economics, are with so-called Austrian and neo-Austrian economists. I am suspicious of the neo-classical economic theoretical model dominating the thinking and published writings of many - perhaps most - contemporary academic economists. So whilst I tend to regard most labels as libels, I accept, as already indicated, the label 'Classical Liberal': the unqualified word 'Liberal' is, sadly, typically used today in its debased American sense, and the label 'Libertarian', quite apart from its being confused by some with 'Libertine', frequently designates a cluster of political and economic stances ignoring or treating as insignificant institutional structures I regard as the sine qua non of a free and open society the economic activities of whose members are coordinated by essentially unfettered markets. On the nature and vital importance of such institutions I would urge you to read the latest volume of Richard Epstein, the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School, Skepticism and Freedom: A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism.
Belatedly, to taws.

Those of you who, like me, when filling out forms have to tick the box marked 'sixty years or more', might recall a volume entitled, 1066 And All That. The book took its readers on a Cook's Tour of British History. It sorted the events constituting that history under the headings 'Good Things' and 'Bad Things'. The Constitutio Libertatis that is Magna Charta was a 'Good Thing'. All things considered, the rule of Oliver Cromwell and his colleagues was a 'Bad Thing'. You all get, I trust, the whimsical idea.

The word 'democracy' and its cognates as today used are widely regarded as referring to unambiguously desirable states of human affairs. President Bush justifies his administration's foreign policy by referring to an allegedly divine mission of the USA not simply to defend existing democracies but to increase their number. Quotations galore could be cited, but one will suffice. On November 6, 2003, President Bush had it that, "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution", and went on to stress that the United States was not only preaching democracy in Iraq but also attempting to build there a model for other nations to follow. In a nationally televised press conference on April 13 of this year, the president argued that the spread of democracy was crucial in the struggle against terrorism because, and I quote, "democratic governments do not shelter terrorist camps". Simply, 'democracy' is a "Good Thing". Bluntly, I do not share this conviction. "Oh 'democracy', what sins - actual and potential - are committed in thy name", is my cry. Hence the title and theme of my address this evening: The Achilles' Heel of Democracy.

When preparing the first draft of this paper I 'carried on' at inordinate - nay, impossible! - length about the history of the word 'democracy' and its cognates. Suffice it to say that, initially, the word 'democracy' - which etymologically speaking signifies 'rule by the Demos, the people' - was most decidedly not regarded by most significant thinkers until approximately two centuries ago as signifying a 'Good Thing', a desirable state of political affairs. The 'left-wing' scholar C. B. McPherson, in his 1966 book The Real World of Democracy , correctly notes that the word 'democracy' and its cognates signified in what one might call 'Western thought' an undesirable state of political affairs until the mid-19th century. To jump a couple of millennia, Plato identified 'rule by the people' with 'mob rule', as rule by the least able and least admirable members of a Polis, a city-state, and not surprisingly deplored such rule.. Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were profoundly distrustful of 'democracy', as is surely obvious to anyone who reads the debates at the convention that framed The Constitution of the United States of America, records of the ratifying State conventions, and, of course, The Federalist Papers. Indeed, one has but carefully to read The Constitution of the United States of America itself. That Constitution is a cluster of compromises, designed to frustrate what radical Whig thinkers - 'classical liberal' thinkers - saw (and in my opinion rightly saw) as the ever-present dangers of unconstrained democracy, namely the seeds of anarchy or, perhaps worse, rule by factions, rule by special interest groups.

Allow me an explanatory, perhaps apologetic, aside. I have already referred and shall continue to refer, to our American cousins' all but sacred documents, The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States of America and the 'founding fathers' primarily responsible for these documents and the writings of these men. I make no apologies for so doing. In my opinion, Classical Liberalism found, in these documents, writings and admittedly partial realisation of the vision therein contained, its most complete expression to date.

An American friend of mind, Dr Forrest Church, in a recently published volume, lauds the uniqueness of the 'American Revolution' and the originality of the minds behind that revolution. I agree with him as to the uniqueness of that revolution. The American Revolution was not simply a social upheaval. Whilst it did not initially fully realise in practice the ideas and ideals it incarnated, it did not, like so many other social revolutions, end as a terror or tyranny or result in Napoleonic empire. (If perchance you believe that, today, President Bush's America is exercising its unintended global hegemony in tyrannical or imperialistic ways - a proposition with which I neither entirely agree nor entirely disagree - I am prepared to argue that a lamentable departure during the very late 19th and the 20th century from the Classical Liberal principles of the USA's 'founding fathers' is to be held responsible for such a state of affairs.) Simply, I maintain that most social revolutions - unlike the American Revolution - have proved to be not 'revolutions' but 'counter-revolutions', reversions to despotisms of many kinds. The essence of the American Revolution challenged at its beginning, and potentially continues to challenge, all dominations and tyrannies, all bigotries and superstitions, all predatory institutions debasing and enslaving the lives of human beings.

For all that, such men as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and their supporters were not original thinkers They articulated and defended no propositions that had not been carefully expressed, painstakingly elaborated and passionately and intelligently advocated by countless men and women upon whose shoulders they stood. They were indebted, and acknowledged that indebtedness, to a heritage that went back to Graeco-Roman insights as to the nature of law, went back to Hebrew seers who proclaimed that all people were subject to moral imperatives that transcended and applied to all men and women, rulers and ruled alike, went back to the rigorous thinking of a John Locke, the impassioned prose of a John Milton, the agonised cry of countless religious minorities for religious liberty (initially for themselves but in time for all). I can find nothing in the writings of those who provided the reasoned basis for the American Revolution that I cannot find in the writings of those who gave birth to, nurtured and defended the defining tenets of Classical Liberalism. Yet for arguably the first time in human history, a nation was in truth "conceived in liberty".

But for how long would the realised vision of the founding fathers of the United States of America survive? "We have given you a Republic," asserted James Madison - but ominously added, "for as long as you can keep it!". Madison perceived that what he and his like-minded thinkers and activists had achieved was fragile and very vulnerable, wide open to attack, defeat and collapse. The attack and defeat he so feared would emanate, he affirmed, from 'democracy'. The fatal flaw of 'democracy' was that what he called 'factions' would emerge and all but irresistably tempt legislators elected by 'the majority' to utilise their 'political power' in a manner incompatible with the 'liberty' in which the United States of America was conceived.

I do not intend to labour the obvious: namely, that 'democracy' with its alleged attendant 'majority rule' can mutate into 'majoritarianism' and thus into what Jefferson called an "elected despotism", into - as the cliched expression has it - "the tyranny of the majority". That a majority of the populace, and thus an allegedly 'democratically' elected government, can support and effect a curtailing of the liberties of minorities, including a minority set containing one member, is too obvious a point to merit protracted discussion.

I note, however, that for many people today the word 'democracy' designates primarily rule by men and women elected to office by, more or less, the majority of a nation's populace. The term connotes in the minds of many simply regular and basically fair elections and widespread if not universal suffrage. It designates a political order enabling a peaceful transfer of political power. But whilst providing an answer to the question, "Who shall exercise political power?" - the answer being, "Routinely elected representatives of the majority" - the concept indicates nothing whatsoever as to the proper extent of such political power, unless that extent is identified with whatsoever exercises of political power are acceptable to a majority of the populace.

I deem it important in this context to stress the defining characteristic of political power. Civilisation is, I maintain, possible if and only if human beings largely govern their behaviour by rules. Such rules are legion. Think, for example, of the rules we call manners, the rules we call morals and the rules obtaining in voluntary associations such as sporting clubs and religious communities. All these and countless other rules are backed by sanctions, sanctions ranging from mild disapproval to having one's membership of a given voluntary association terminated. There exists, however, a set of rules the sanctions backing which are sui generis, one of a kind. The sanctions backing those rules we call "laws of the land" involve the legitimised - legitimised - initiation of actual or threatened violence.

The noun 'violence' troubles many. But consider. The forcible expropriation of a person's legally acquired goods - and that is what a fine is - is surely an act of violence. The incarceration of a person against his or her will - and that is what imprisonment is - is surely an act of violence. Assaulting or killing a person - and that is what corporal or capital punishment are - are paradigmatically acts of violence. There is something to be said for calling a spade a spade! 'Simply, the State enjoys a monopoly when it comes to the legitimised initiation of actual or threatened violence. The essence of political power is that it is exercised by rules backed by sanctions involving the legitimised initiation of actual or threatened violence.

I am not, for my purposes this evening, interested in whether and if so how this initiation of such actual or threatened violence can be 'legitimised'. For what it's worth, I hold that a rational defence of this 'State monopoly' can be elaborated and defended. I am not, alas, sufficiently idealistic to be an 'anarchist'! I am merely concerned to underscore that the noun 'democracy', unqualified, indicates nothing whatsoever as to the morally defensible purposes for which political power - legitimised violence - can be employed. The word 'democracy' and its cognates refer to who exercises political power, not the acceptable extent of such power.

Back to 'factions' - or as we today would usually say, 'special interest groups'.

Let me commence my discussion of factions this way. Imagine an electorate of 100 voting members. Four sub-sets of that set, each containing 15 members, exist. Each sub-set is well organised and, as we are taught today to say, 'information-rich'. Unimaginatively, let us designate the sub-sets of the total set of voting members A, B, C and D.

A legislated measure which specially advantages members of Faction A obviously is attractive to members of that faction. Since the faction is well organised and information-rich, its members know that the measure does advance their interests. A political representative or candidate voting or promising to vote for the measure can advance his or her interests - re-election or election - by supporting the measure. He or she will by so doing win the votes of all or most members of the faction.

If a political representative or candidate supports or promises to support four legislated measures, specific measures advantaging Faction A, B, C and D, he or she is 'homed and hosed'. He or she is assured of 60% of votes cast by the electorate. It well may be that members of Faction A do not approve of legislated measures specially advantaging the members of Factions B, C and D, but the cost of these measures to each member of Faction A is less than the benefit accrued by the 'legislated measure advantaging Faction A'. After all, members of Faction A will share the cost of the measures advantaging Factions B, C and D with the 40 members of the set of non-factionalised voters.

Simply, a given legislated measure advantaging a faction - a special interest group - may in truth enjoy not majority support but support by a mere 15% of a voting population. If such measures are 'politically permissible', it becomes at the very least dubious that the legislated edicts, edicts backed by actual or threatened violence, of a 'democratically elected government' represent the 'will of the people', enjoy the sanction of 'the majority'.

As most - probably all - of you will realise, I'm drawing upon so-called Public Choice Theory. As David Sharp reminded me, James Buchanan, one of the 'founding fathers' of contemporary Public Choice Theory, freely acknowledges that what he and his colleagues are, in a very sophisticated way, arguing is 'all there' in Madison. Professor Buchanan once stated as much to me: I was sufficiently fortunate to attend, during the last year of Gorbachov's reign, a conference in Moscow jointly hosted by the then USSR Academy of Science and the CATO Institute, Washington DC. Again, I was sufficiently fortunate at that conference to converse at length with Professor Buchanan - and, for that matter, with not a few Russian Economists and Historians. I can, alas, only paraphrase a statement Professor Buchanan uttered during my conversation with him. Said he, "I wish that I had something truly original, but in truth I have said nothing that cannot be found in The Federalist Papers."

Let me leap, in a manner that would bring envy to the heart of the shade of Rudolf Nureyev, from one Nobel Prize Winner to another. I am a great admirer or Mancur Olson. His volume, The Logic of Collective Action, made a seminal contribution to the study of such action. His second major work, The Rise and Decline of Nations, is likewise invaluable, cogently arguing, as it does, that a seemingly stable, 'democratic' regime all but inevitably suffers from 'sclerosis' as an increasing number of special interest groups organise and successfully lobby for legislated measures that promote their own interests but at the bottom line diminish the efficiency and dynamism of a nation's economy. His posthumously published - Olson died in 1998 - work, Power and Prosperity, delighted many a Libertarian and not a few Classical Liberals, in that Olson suggested that a useful starting point for understanding 'government' is to liken it to a protection racket - in his terminology, a "stationary bandit".

Mancur Olson's primary thesis, however, was simply that in a 'democracy' organised, information-rich minorities enjoy an advantage in lobbying for and securing via the political process specific collective goods at the expensive - to the cost - of larger, unorganised sets of citizens such as taxpayers and consumers. Successful 'politicking' thus corresponds with the now-familiar shibboleth of Public Choice Theory, "concentrated benefits, diffused costs".

Let me, whilst I am overtly drawing upon the conclusions of contemporary Public Choice Theorists, take a slightly different tack.

Assume the truth of the defining hypothesis of Public Choice Theory. What empirically testable outcomes would one predict? One such prediction would be that, in a democracy characterised by two major political parties, both parties would tend to adopt social and especially economic policies that would differ only marginally. They will do so not because members of the political parties think alike or share the same ideological preferences, but because their top priority is to gain political power - simply, to win elections and hold office.

A frequent complaint during the build-up to the October 9 election was that the major candidates "all sound alike" or "it doesn't seem to make any difference who wins". Such complaints were merely evidence that political competition works out precisely as Public Choice Theory predicts. Actually, the more accurate information political candidates receive through more sophisticated polling techniques and computerisation, the more similar their 'platforms' will become. If the ridiculous ideal of neo-classical economists - namely, 'perfect knowledge' - were to be realised, the policies of a democracy's two major political parties would be identical.

"It doesn't matter what politician is elected!", sigh not a few disenchanted voters in a democracy. Spot on! Just what one might predict! In the final analysis - according to Public Choice Theory - the personalities, ethics, motives and characters of the men and women holding political office matter little if at all. What ultimately matters is the "winning platform". What ultimately matters is the realising or promising of sufficient legislated measures advantaging the voting members of a sufficient number of factions to get over the finish line first That a given cluster of measures is not self-consistent, one measure presupposing the truth of an economic proposition or value judgement defied by another measure, does not matter. The 'winning platform' is all.

Let me go further. Unconstrained democracy - the absolute rule of 'the majority' - gives birth to class warfare. Now I know that talk of a 'class war' is typically ascribed to Karl Marx and his less able imitators. Interestingly, however, Marx claimed no originality when it came to his emphasis upon class warfare. In a letter written in 1852 to Joseph Weydemeyer, Marx's first disciple in the United States of America, Marx wrote:
"No credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economics the economic anatomy of the classes."

The two most prominent so-called "bourgeois historians" he names are the French Classical Liberal thinkers Francois Guizon and Augustin Thierry. Two years later in a letter to Engels Marx referred to Thierry as "the father of the 'class struggle' in French historiography". This bourgeois lineage of Marx's theory of class struggle was freely conceded in later years by Engels and the Marxists of the period of the Second International, such as Plekhanov, Mehring and Lenin.

Yet Marx either deliberately transformed or misunderstood the concept of 'class warfare' elaborated by the bourgeois historians and economists to whom he refers. The 'class war' posited by Marx relates to his ludicrous and discredited analysis of the so-called 'capitalist mode of production'. Simply put, it is a war, a zero-sum game, between those owning - and thus determining the use and disposal of - capital and those with only their labour to sell. Marx's acknowledged intellectual predecessors on the issue of 'class war' perceived matters differently.

Let me quote from the writings of Blanqui :
"In one country, it is through taxes that the fruit of the labourer's toil is wrested from him, under pretence of the good of the State; in another, it is by legislated privilege, labour being declared a royal concession, and making a person pay dearly for the right to devote himself to it. The same wicked abuse is reproduced under more indirect, but no less oppressive, forms, when, by means of custom-duties, the State shares with the privileged industries the benefits of the taxes imposed on all those who are not privileged."

I could cite - and in my initial draft of this paper did cite - numerous similar passages. Simply, the 'class war' referred to and lamented by Classical Liberal historians and economists - Marx's admired "bourgeois" historians and economists - was a war between those who, by exercising actual or threatened violence, secured the goods and services requisite for life and a good life at that, and those who produced, by their own labours, physical and intellectual, and voluntary exchange with other similar producers, such goods and services as were requisite for survival and a 'good life'.

Let me 'up-date'. A 'zero-sum' game today obtains between net tax payers and net tax beneficiaries. It's as simple as that! If the material lot of a person who acquires the goods and services he or she needs to survive and even thrive by the political means is to be bettered, the material lot of those who actually by their labours - physical and intellectual - create these goods and services has to be worsened.

A 'war' - a zero-sum game - between net tax recipients and net tax payers. That's the class war that matters! And believe you me, that war, like all wars, escalates, to the point - at least in theory - of devastating destructiveness. I saw it, some three decades ago, in Sweden. I asked my host to translate for me some graffiti atypically adorning a Swedish building. My host did as requested. "Kill the oldies!", read the message. "They're too heavy a burden for us youngies to carry!"

So you and I enjoy a mysterious 'right' to a so-called 'decent standard of living' - and that means adequate clothing, shelter, food, medical care and Lord knows what! Who, pray tell, is somehow obligated to produce, surrender and thus provide this clothing, shelter, food, medical care, a so on ad infinitum? From whence this mysterious obligation, enforced in a Welfare State by actual or threatened violence?

At times I am tempted to regard all talk of 'rights' (and their attendant, legally enforced obligations) as nothing but noise, a person asserting that folk enjoy a 'right' to something or other being nothing but a person asserting that he or she would like to see folk enjoying a given good or service and thumping the lectern when making that utterance. Yet I think that I can give meaningful content to what some philosophers call 'negative rights' and their correlative obligations.

My 'right' not to be assaulted or murdered or kidnapped or stolen from generates merely your obligation not to assault or murder of kidnap or steal from me. Leave me alone! Don't initiate violence against me in my primary property - my person - or my legally acquired goods! The 'rights' of all, so understood, are 'compossible'. They are fully realised if all agree not to initiate actual or threatened violence against anyone else! Yet move into 'positive rights' - say an intuited 'right' to a decent standard of living - and correlative positive obligations obtain. Someone, somewhere, somehow, is obligated to produce, surrender and provide the goods and services making up a 'decent standard of living'. Two classes. The provided for and the providers! The plunderers and the producers! On and on it goes. No logical stopping point obtains. Does my 'decent standard of living', in the final analysis dependent upon the enforced, slavish labours of my neighbours, include a telephone, television set, caviar - you name it! If not, why not?

Again referring to the first draft of this paper, I had much to say about what the great Classical Liberals meant when, in an attempt to limit the coercive power of government, they spoke of the 'rule of law'. 'Laws' properly understood, they affirmed, were not to be equated with any and every edict issuing from any particular source, say representatives in Parliament of the alleged majority electing these representatives. Again I - acutely conscious of temporal constraints! - hit my computer's 'Delete' control.

Let me on this vital matter simply quote two passages from the writings of Adam Smith in which he referred to 'laws' as he understood them, namely, "the laws of justice".

"Mere justice is, on most occasions, but a negative virtue, and only hinders us from hurting our neighbour. The man who barely abstains from violating either the person or the estate, or the reputation, of his neighbours, has surely very little positive merit. He fulfils, however, all the rules of what is peculiarly called justice, and does every thing which his equals can with propriety force him do, or which they can punish him for not doing. We may often fulfil all the laws of justice by sitting still and doing nothing."

Again:

"If there is any society among robbers and murderers, they must at least, according to the trite observations, abstain from robbing and murdering one another. Benevolence, therefore, is less essential to the existence of society than is justice. Society may subsist, though not in the most comfortable state, without beneficence; but the prevalence of injustice must utterly destroy it."

Unfettered democracy has done its work. The unbridled rule of the majority has progressively entrenched upon the liberty of individual men and women and voluntary associations of same to formulate their own peaceful visions of the 'good life' and initiate peaceful actions which, they believe, might further the realisation of their visions. A self-appointed 'anointed' successfully imposes upon us via government - that is, by actual or threatened violence - rules and regulations that are, it is alleged, "for our own good" and which we would eagerly support if sufficiently enlightened. Intuited 'visions' as to what state of economic affairs constitute a 'socially just' distribution of wealth and of incomes are, again via governmental edicts backed by actual or threatened violence, imposed upon the masses who would eagerly defend such edicts were their consciousness sufficiently raised by the 'anointed ones'.

Simply. 'democracy' per se gives us what we've got: the politics of manipulation, the politics which insists that principles, ideas, ideals and issues matter less than image, style and affability, the politics which views voters not as thinking, valuing, individual persons, but as faceless units in voting blocs who can be had for the price of a promised special privilege, a nudge, a wink and a smile, the politics of blurred images, professional spin, soft faces, follow forms and empty commitments.
That, I believe, is where unfettered democracy has led us. Yet whilst I mourn, I cling to the hem of hope. Maybe the sleep-walking, self-styled 'progressives' - the 'liberals' in the debased US sense of the word - who have led us and themselves to the sorry state of affairs will awaken, perceive where they have wandered and led - or bullied - their fellow-citizens, start thinking rather than devising alibis, and rediscover the heritage that in truth gave birth to the freedom and material abundance they for so long have taken for granted and have so mindlessly abused.


 

 
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