Sunday I joined some Bay Area libertarians for dinner and conversation at a Chinese restaurant in Berkeley. I had been invited as a result of one reading my chapter on libertarianism in Uncivil Liberties: Deconstructing Libertarianism. At his request I had also written a post on this blog giving a more positive version of the same arguments.
The conversation was usually pleasant, always interesting, and only occasionally heated, and then only with one who was present. Sadly most had not read the chapter that sparked my invitation, settling instead for the much shorter piece on this blog. I had been led to believe they were going to read the chapter. Even so, the discussion was illuminating and helpful to me, for it was the first time in many years knowledgeable libertarians had agreed to discuss and respond to my arguments.
Two issues repeatedly emerged during the conversation. One was what I consider the unwillingness or incapacity of some libertarians to appreciate the social dimension of who we are. The other concerned need for a better understanding of “democracy,” a word we all use without thinking much about what it really means.
Regarding the social dimension there is little to say. When someone tells me parents should have no legal obligation to feed their children, they are in such an alien moral atmosphere so as to essentially terminate the conversation. Either the person’s heart has atrophied, isolating them from among the most basic human relationships, or they have become so blinded by their ideology that their normal human emotions have been overridden by a mobius strip of endless abstractions blinding them to what is obvious to the rest of us. Either way, they are unreachable until something opens their heart.
The democracy issue is more interesting. I argue if theirs were a coherent philosophy, libertarians would see themselves as one variety of democratic theory. Most present had difficulties understanding what I meant because they viewed democracy as majority rule, rule as inherently coercive, and democracies as simply states. This view weaves a web of confusions preventing clear understanding, but except for the moral conclusions libertarians generally draw, it is a view shared by many who are not libertarians at all.
In this post, and in some posts to follow, I discuss a number of propositions, most previously covered by me in a book or in refereed articles. Here I have boiled them down into shorter statements people can respond to without having to read the longer discussions. Perhaps some who were present at that dinner will appreciate them and challenge me if they disagree. Hopefully other people will as well. The blog format makes this way of presenting my case more appropriate than a long paper. For those willing to read a longer paper covering many but not all these issues, as well as some I will not discuss here, download my Spontaneous Order and Liberalism’s Complex Relation to Democracy that appeared in the Fall, 2011 issue of Independent Review.
The theses are
1. Democracies are not states
2. Democracies cannot be coherently understood as based on majority rule
3. Democracies are spontaneous orders in F. A. Hayek’s sense
4. Democracies are better compared with cooperatives than with states
5. Democracies unlike states do not go to war with one another
6. The real problem with democracies, as with all spontaneous orders, is the tensions between them and the organizations that exist within them.
I will devote a blog post to each thesis.
Democracies are not states
There is some debate over whether Louis XIV of France explicitly said “L’état, c’est moi” (The state is me.) but there is no debate over it being something he could have said. He was an absolute monarch and all organs of government were, in theory, subject to his will. In England the front piece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was of a giant figure made up of many people with a giant head wearing a crown. In studies of international relations states are consistently described as having interests, acting for reasons, and being better or worse at achieving them. In short, the state is traditionally conceived as a focal point of will, plans, and power.
In modern terms, the state is an engine of rule, an organization that controls and acquires resources to achieve its goals and impose its purposes on those who are opposed. Its clearest modern examples are dictatorships. The state is an organization, and as an organization can be judged coherently in terms of its power and efficiency. “Failed states” lack the power and efficiency to control their territories adequately.
Mine is an institutional rather than legalistic definition of a state. It focuses on what states are as human entities, not on how they are labeled.
In the Federalist Papers James Madison observed that the framers were hindered in making their case for the new government because all available terms failed to capture what they were trying to achieve. Later, the term “representative democracy” was first applied to the US by a French author describing the new government. It entered into English with Thomas Jefferson’s translation of his work. Years after his Federalist writings, James Madison contended
Much of the error in expounding the Constitution has its origin in the use made of the species of sovereignty implied in the nature of Government. The specified powers vested in Congress, it is said, are sovereign powers, and that as such they carry with them an unlimited discretion as to the means of executing them. It may surely be remarked that a limited government may be limited in its sovereignty as well with respect to the means as to the objects of its powers; and that to give an extent to the former, superseding the limits of the latter, is in effect to convert a limited into an unlimited Government. (361–62)
Under the constitution government, national and state alike, is not sovereign. The people are superior to the government, and what it can do depends on popular decisions. This claim reflects the Declaration of Independence’s argument that legitimate government must be by consent of the governed.
If we examine our constitution we find traditional state functions in the executive and judicial branches. It is here that coercive power is exercised in the pursuit of specific goals. But the legislative branch does not enforce the laws. It has no bureaucratic agencies making regulations over the rest of us. Instead it makes the laws and, more crucially, has the constitutional power to subordinate the other branches to it. It can remove judges and presidents alike, only it can fund the government, and it can pass legislation over executive vetoes.
Not only does each house of congress not have anything resembling a unified will, the House and Senate are elected in different ways by different constituencies and for different terms. In other words, they are designed not to have a unified will. They were to reflect the diversity of American society, and as Madison emphasized in Federalist 10, a large and diverse society would be better for preserving a free people than a smaller more homogeneous one because there could be no unified purpose on even typical legislation except on terms likely comfortable to all.
As an organization of administration and enforcement, the state was subordinated to civil society and so lost its sovereignty. No unified will existed by which laws could be made. They had to emerge from a process no one controlled.
This transformation was achieved in a manner analogous to the loss of monopoly status by long-established businesses and guilds in the growing market economy. Long dominant organizations were increasingly subordinated to market processes beyond their control. What emerged with the constitution was something fundamentally different from previous governments, and for which, as Madison recognized, traditional political theory and philosophy had no firm understanding.
This argument sets the stage for my second post, to appear soon: no coherent conception of democracy can arise from taking the doctrine of majority rule as necessary or sufficient to be one.
7 thoughts on “Understanding Democracy, part I: Democracies are not states”
One approach to dealing with the Rothbardian argument on kids is to have more supportive social structures that allow people to escape the confines of the family without getting kids killed. Single mothers who end up burdened getting social support is one example. The family as an institution can be profoundly conservative and limiting, so the social support of people who really do like being around children can be very helpful.
There are lots of ways to deal with the complete nonsense of Rothbard’s argument. That is one of them.
I don’t think I’ve read enough to fully understand spontaneous orders yet, so my ability to grapple with and grasp your arguments is still too limited, That having been said; I do have a question about your argument. How you do you conceptually distinguish between government and a state? From reading your wider body of work; I know you see some form of government as essential to markets or property rights. Democracies presumably still have government. Would the government be considered one institution or organization within the broader spontaneous order?
The basic distinction is that a state is a hierarchy of rule. The clearest examples are absolute monarchies and despotisms. The state enforces the will of the ruler. It is a ‘taxis’ in Hayekian terms.
In our constitution the equivalent is the executive branch. But it is subordinate to the legislative branch, as is the judiciary. They are not unified wills, as should be obvious right now. The legislature and the institutions that support it as well as the society that it reflects more or less well constitute the democracy, and is a spontaneous order.
In wartime when a unified will comes closest to existing in a democratic society the democracy acts most like a state. Interestingly, it is then that you have a overwhelming majority ‘will’ and the greatest depredations on democratic liberties which serve democracy as part of a discovery process. In wartime there are no discoveries to be made- the goal is obvious. That is why perpetual war is so destructive to democracies.
At first I suspected I would find myself agreeing with this post, as I tend to find many democratic institutions outside the state, such as worker cooperatives, spokes councils, and the wide range of decentralized democratic institutions people form to help manage common resources.
But frankly, it strikes me as bizarre to treat the US Congress as an example of “democracy.” As Noam Chomsky has argued many times, the US is not governed democratically. http://www.alternet.org/visions/chomsky-us-poses-number-threats-future-humanity-our-youll-never-hear-about-it-our-free-press While a democratic voting process operates within the legislature, legislators are largely beholden to perverse public choice incentives and wealthy campaign donors.
Moreover, when electing representatives, citizens are not engaged in democratic decision making about how their community or the government will operate. As Karl Hess puts it:
“In politics a person is not a citizen if the person’s only function is to vote. Voters choose people who, in turn, act like citizens. They argue. They establish the forms within which people live their lives. They make politics. The people who merely vote for them merely make politicians. People who argue for their positions in a town meeting are acting like citizens. People who simply drop scraps of paper in a box or pull a lever are not acting like citizens; they are acting like consumers picking between prepackaged items. They had nothing to do with the items. All they can do is pick what is. They cannot actively participate in making what should be.”
So, while Congress may be internally democratic, it rests largely on the broader public not exercising their democratic rights. In this sense, it is still very clearly a hierarchy of rule. It is simply a hierarchy of rule whose upper echelons contain a relatively large group that behave democratically among themselves while ruling over the public at large.
Nathan- Your interesting comments led to too long an answer for a format that does not allow paragraphs. So I have just reproduced your critique along with my reply in a new post.
Please carry on our discussion there if you want to pursue these issues further.