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Illiberal Belief #17: Democracy is a Cure-All – Article by Bradley Doucet

Illiberal Belief #17: Democracy is a Cure-All – Article by Bradley Doucet

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
May 14, 2013
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I know it is sacrilege, but that is all the more reason to say it, and say it loud: Democracy is not the be-all, end-all, Holy Grail of politics that many imagine it to be. It is one, but only one, of the ingredients that make for good societies, and it is far from the most important one. Why point this out? If democracy is a good thing, why stir controversy by questioning just how good? Because the widespread, quasi-religious devotion to democracy in evidence today has some very nasty consequences. Democracy means “rule by the people.” The people usually rule by electing representatives, a process which is called, simply enough, representative democracy. Sometimes, as in the case of a referendum on a specific question, the people rule more directly, and this is known as direct democracy. Actually, though, “rule by the people” is a bit misleading, since “the people” are never unanimous on any given question, and neither are their chosen representatives. In practice, democracy is rule by majority (i.e., 50% + 1), or even mere plurality (i.e., more than any one other candidate but less than half) when three or more candidates compete.
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Long before any nation had experienced anything even approaching universal suffrage, people concerned with human liberty—thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill—expressed concerns that the fading tyranny of kings might merely be replaced by a “tyranny of the majority.” They worried that majorities might vote away minorities’ hard-won rights to property, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement. Majorities with a hate on for certain minorities might even vote away their very right to life.

History has given these worries ample justification. Democracy by itself is no guarantee of peace and freedom. Adolf Hitler’s victory in democratic 1930s Germany is only the most glaring example of popular support for an illiberal, anti-human regime. The people of Latin America have a long and hallowed tradition of rallying behind populist strongmen who repay their fealty by grinding them (or sometimes their neighbours) beneath their boot heels, all the while running their economies into the ground. Their counterparts in post-colonial Africa and certain parts of Asia have shown similarly stellar political acumen.

As writers like Fareed Zakaria (The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad) point out, in those parts of the world that have successfully achieved a respectable degree of freedom and prosperity (basically Europe, the Anglosphere, and Japan and the Asian Tigers), sheer democracy has been supplemented—and preceded—by institutions like the rule of law, including an independent judiciary; secure property rights; the separation of church and state; freedom of the press; and an educated middle class. Indeed, instead of supplementing democracy, it is more accurate to say that these institutions limit the things over which the people can rule. It is enshrined in law and tradition that neither the people nor their representatives shall be above the law, violate the lives or property of others, impose their religious beliefs on others, or censor the freedom of the press. These checks on the power of the people have created, in the most successful parts of the world, not just democracies but liberal democracies.

According to Zakaria, societies that democratize before having built up these liberal institutions and the prosperity they engender are practically doomed to see their situations deteriorate instead of improve, often to the detriment of neighbouring countries, too. Liberty is simply more important than democracy, and must come first. We who are fortunate enough to live in liberal democracies would do well to remember this when judging other nations, like China, and urging them to democratize faster.

We would do well to remember it when thinking about our own societies, too. Thinkers like economist Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, argue that even in the most liberal countries, democracy often works against liberty. Economists have been saying for a few decades now that political ignorance is an intractable problem that undermines the beneficial effects of democracy. The argument is that since a single vote has practically no chance of affecting the outcome of an election (or a referendum), the average voter has no incentive to become informed. Defenders of democracy have replied that ignorance doesn’t matter, since the ignorant essentially vote randomly, and random ignorant votes in one direction will be cancelled out by random ignorant votes in the opposite direction, leaving the well-informed in the driver’s seat.

Caplan agrees that if average voters were merely ignorant, their votes would cancel each other out, and the well-informed would be in charge and make good decisions. His central insight, though, is that voters are not merely ignorant, but irrational to boot. Voters have systematically biased beliefs, to which they are deeply attached, and those biases do not cancel each other out. Specifically, the average voter underestimates how well markets work; underestimates the benefits of dealing with foreigners; focuses on the short-term pain of job losses instead of the long-term gain of productivity increases; and tends at any given time to be overly pessimistic about the economy. These biases lead voters to support candidates and policies that undermine their own best interests.

The alternative to democracy, Caplan emphasizes, is not dictatorship, but markets. The market is not perfect, but it works a lot better than politics, because in my daily life as a producer and a consumer, I have an obvious incentive to be rational: my pocketbook. This incentive is lacking when it comes time to go to the polls, because of the aforementioned near-impossibility that my vote will determine the outcome. Given this asymmetry, we should favour markets over politics whenever possible. For those things that must be decided collectively, democracy may be the best we can do, but we should strive to decide as many things as possible privately, resorting to politics only when no other option is feasible. In other words, we should recapture the wisdom of the American Founding Fathers, rediscover the genius of constitutionally limited democracy, and reclaim some of the liberty previous generations fought so valiantly to secure. If we don’t, it might not be too much longer, in the grand scheme of things, before the Western world ceases to be a model worth emulating.

Bradley Doucet is Le Quebecois Libré‘s English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.
A Republic, Not a Democracy – Article by Ron Paul

A Republic, Not a Democracy – Article by Ron Paul

The New Renaissance Hat
Ron Paul
September 23, 2012
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Early September 2012 marked the conclusion of the grand taxpayer-funded spectacles known as the national party conventions.  It is perhaps very telling that while $18 million in tax dollars was granted to each party for these lavish ordeals, an additional $50 million each was needed for security in anticipation of the inevitable protests at each event.  This amounts to a total of $136 million in taxpayer funds for strictly partisan activities – a drop in the bucket relative to our disastrous fiscal situation, but disgraceful nonetheless.  Parties should fund their own parties, not the taxpayer.

At these conventions, leaders determined, or pretended to determine, who they wished to govern the nation for the next four years amidst inevitable, endless exaltations of democracy.  Yet we are not a democracy.  In fact, the founding fathers found the concept of democracy very dangerous.

Democracy is majority rule at the expense of the minority.  Our system has certain democratic elements, but the founders never mentioned democracy in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the Declaration of Independence.  In fact, our most important protections are decidedly undemocratic.  For example, the First Amendment protects free speech.  It doesn’t – or shouldn’t – matter if that speech is abhorrent to 51% or even 99% of the people.  Speech is not subject to majority approval.  Under our republican form of government, the individual, the smallest of minorities, is protected from the mob.

Sadly, the constitution and its protections are respected less and less as we have quietly allowed our constitutional republic to devolve into a militarist, corporatist social democracy.  Laws are broken, quietly changed and ignored when inconvenient to those in power, while others in positions to check and balance do nothing.  The protections the founders put in place are more and more just an illusion.

This is why increasing importance is placed on the beliefs and views of the president.  The very narrow limitations on government power are clearly laid out in Article, 1 Section 8, of the Constitution.  Nowhere is there any reference to being able to force Americans to buy health insurance or face a tax/penalty, for example.  Yet this power has been claimed by the executive and astonishingly affirmed by Congress and the Supreme Court.  Because we are a constitutional republic, the mere popularity of a policy should not matter.  If it is in clear violation of the limits of government and the people still want it, a Constitutional amendment is the only appropriate way to proceed.  However, rather than going through this arduous process, the Constitution was in effect, ignored and the insurance mandate was allowed anyway.

This demonstrates how there is now a great deal of unhindered flexibility in the Oval Office to impose personal views and preferences on the country, so long as 51% of the people can be convinced to vote a certain way.  The other 49% on the other hand have much to be angry about and protest under this system.

We should not tolerate the fact that we have become a nation ruled by men, their whims and the mood of the day, and not laws.  It cannot be emphasized enough that we are a republic, not a democracy and, as such, we should insist that the framework of the Constitution be respected and boundaries set by law are not crossed by our leaders.  These legal limitations on government assure that other men do not impose their will over the individual, rather, the individual is able to govern himself.   When government is restrained, liberty thrives.

Representative Ron Paul (R – TX), MD, was a three-time Republican candidate for U. S. President. See his Congressional webpage and his official campaign website

This article has been released by Dr. Paul into the public domain and may be republished by anyone in any manner.