Mises Daily Articles
Inundated from early childhood with government propaganda in public schools and educational institutions by legions of publicly certified intellectual, most people mindlessly accept and repeat nonsense such as that democracy is self-rule and government is of, by, and for the people.
— Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy, The God That Failed
James Madison was not a democrat. He denounced popular rule as incompatible with personal security or the rights of property. Democracy, he observed, must be confined to a "small spot" (like Athens). Indeed, the Bush administration's deafening demagoguery notwithstanding, democratic majoritarianism is thoroughly un-American.
Madison and the other Founders attempted to forestall democracy by devising a republic, the hallmark of which was the preservation of individual liberty. To that end, they restricted the federal government to a handful of enumerated powers. Decentralization, devolution of authority, and the restrictions on government imposed by a Bill of Rights were to ensure that few issues were left to the adjudication of a national majority.
The essence of democracy, instantiated so perfectly in Bush's neoconservative administration, is Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "general will," a "national purpose" that ought to be implemented by an all-powerful state. Voltaire, a rather cleverer Frenchman, said that Rousseau is as to the philosopher as the ape is to man. Still, that ape's idea animated the blood-drenched French and Russian revolutions. And sadly, it wafted over the Atlantic, took root in the republic's soil, and flourished like kudzu.
Over time, this foreign weed began to choke the Founder's Republic. As Felix Morley observed in Freedom and Federalism, earlier Americans were undeniably influenced by Rousseau, harboring a considerable admiration for the manner in which the common democratic will found expression in revolutionary France. The later infestation of Marxist ideas completed Rousseau's work.
Were America still a republic, liberty would be guaranteed regardless of whom is elected on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November: the shifty-eyed Ewok (Bush) or the Wizard of Oz Scarecrow (Kerry). In democratic America, however, either of these demiurges will enjoy almost unlimited power. Marriage, marijuana, Microsoft, you name it — there is hardly an aspect of life from which these meddlers are barred. All are subject to the whims of the national majority, or, rather, of its ostensible representatives.
It is these representatives who triumph in this or any election, certainly not that fictitious entity "The People." While it seems obvious that the minority in a democracy is openly thwarted, the question is, do the elected representatives at least carry out the will of the majority?
The answer is No. The People's representatives have carte blanche to do exactly as they please. As Benjamin Barber wrote:
It is hard to find in all the daily activities of bureaucratic administration, judicial legislation, executive leadership, and paltry policy-making anything that resembles citizen engagement in the creation of civic communities and in the forging of public ends. Politics has become what politicians do; what citizens do (when they do anything) is to vote for politicians.
In Restoring the Lost Constitution, Randy E. Barnett further homes in on why the informed voter has little incentive to exercise his "democratic right":
If we vote for a candidate and she wins, we have consented to the laws she votes for, but we have also consented to the laws she has voted against.
If we vote against the candidate and she wins, we have consented to the laws she votes for or against.
And if we do not vote at all, we have consented to the outcome of the process whatever it may be.
This "rigged contest" Barnett describes as, "'Heads' you consent, 'tails' you consent, 'didn't flip the coin,' guess what? You consent as well.'"
The Supreme Court-mediated election of 2000 has resulted in a close examination of the mechanics of voting (electronic machines vs. chads — hanging or pregnant). The democratic myth has remained undisturbed. Not so in Norway, which has taken the lead in examining the mechanics of the system. Ascribe it, perhaps, to the capacity for radical self-knowledge bequeathed by Ibsen, but for whatever reason, the Norwegian Study of Power and Democracy (NSPD) is one of the most comprehensive inquiries ever undertaken in the social sciences.
The NSPD's brief was to trace the chain of command that supposedly ensures politicians enact the will of the people. To say that the study raises grave reservations about the rule of the many — the demos — would be an understatement. It concludes, "A structure of links between the people and their representatives is falling apart, and what remains is the people on one side of the field, their representatives on the other side, and a void between them." Far from being free from the "grave defects and irrationalities" that characterized "earlier forms of government," as Francis Fukuyama rhapsodized, the NSPD found that democracy is riddled with them.
These gloomy findings are surprising (to some, at least). Norway has all the attributes necessary for an ideal democracy. It is small, Western, homogenous (although this is changing), stable and rich. Yet Norwegian membership in political parties declines precipitously. Moreover, the politically active grow progressively more alienated. The populist (anti-statist, anti-immigration) Progress Party won 21 percent of the vote in 2001. This, coupled with Norway's decision to reject the European Union, suggests a simmering and underestimated particularism and nationalism.
In Norway, one of the first casualties of the illiberal centralization of power characteristic of democracy has been the loss of local autonomy. Much like the states in the American republican scheme, Norway's 400 or so municipalities once commanded considerable responsibilities and powers. No longer. Municipalities have been stripped of their powers while, at the same time, being saddled with ever-increasing responsibilities. As Stein Ringen commented of the NSPD study in the Times Literary Supplement, "There is less power in local government because central government has usurped it."
The parallels with democratic America are obvious. To give one egregious example, by federal fiat, American state schools and hospitals for instance, must bear the costs of teaching and treating illegal aliens but cannot expel them because of federally granted rights.
Autonomy does not stop flowing upward once it has reached Oslo. Norwegian sovereignty is constrained by the EU and its burgeoning jurisdiction, and by international covenants and bodies such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. Under the crag of global government, however, lies a perfectly constitutional transfer of powers. Article 93 of Norway's (democratic) Constitution allows the Norwegian government to place Norwegians under the control of the EU and its democratically deficient European Commission, the latter not subjected to limits imposed by the Storting (the Norwegian parliament) or the courts.
Washington, like Oslo, may also cede the rights of Americans to global governors. Specifically, the "Supremacy Clause" in Article VI of the Constitution states that all treaties made by the federal government shall be "the supreme Law of the Land," and shall usurp state law. True, judicial review was to curb congress and restrain the executive. Alas, the federal trinity — the judicial, legislative, and executive — has simply formed an unholy alliance in sundering the 10th Amendment. Restoring the people's "unalienable rights" may well lie in Jeffersonian interposition and nullification, whereby states beat back the federal occupier by voiding unconstitutional federal laws.
As ethicist Tibor Machan reminds us, "The task of political theory is, in part, to identify those areas of public life that should be subject to democratic decision making and those that should be permanently and irremediably exempt from it." Yet doctrinaire democrats don't seem to give a tinker's toss about placing limits on what a legislature (local or global) can divvy or decide. If Americans have confined their critique of democracy to the "Lucky-7 Lottery" flavor of the Florida electoral fracas, the Norwegians' quarrel is purely with the unelected nature of their usurpers. Nowhere in the NSPD's proposed solutions is the suggestion that assorted supranational structures be dismantled or their powers drastically curtailed. Loss of sovereignty per se is not what vexes, but rather the shortage of ballots. Clearly, Norwegian insights go only so far.
But the true mandate of democracy, openly affirmed by the NSPD, and in the promises made by the Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber of the American presidential race, is to enforce egalitarianism. Good democracy is said to be commensurate with class, wealth, and occupational convergence. The Norwegian scholars lament that less-than-perfect democracy has been achieved in Norwegian private life, where women and minorities have failed to achieve aggregate economic parity. Although when it comes to their presence in education, political life, and public-sector employment, politically imposed affirmative action and quotas have done the trick. In other words, democracy is optimized in spheres where the state is most active. Since natural inequalities are part of the human condition, egalitarianism requires concerted acts of government force. Democratic social structure is a product of the systematic use of political power. In as much as democracy's aim is the achievement of equality, it is inimical to liberty.
So we see that the road to serfdom — in both Norway and America — is no coincidental detour, but rather a well-charted destiny. As Hans-Herman Hoppe has observed, the failure of democracy is rooted in its very nature. Coercive majoritarianism, nominal ownership of property, a highly centralized and authoritarian state with ever-expanding distributive and other powers, over whose decisions "The People" exert little control — these have inevitable consequences.
The Founding Fathers warned against this. But instead of Madison, we chose to follow that ape, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.