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.