I was out of town at our first “Cosmos and Taxis” conference in Vancouver, BC. Now that I am back I am picking up my series of mini-essays on what democracies are and why so many do not understand them.
Since well before our country’s founding people have criticized democracies as inevitably tending towards tyranny of the majority. Yet modern representative democracies have almost never done so, and when they have it is either because of a real or alleged national emergency or directed against a minority already denied democratic rights. The latter case raises issues as to how democratic that tyranny was in the first place. Otherwise the democratic record does not resemble the worries of the critics.
In addition, critics have worried about “big government” and “class war.” Yet by nearly every measure beyond the idiotic, democracies investing the most resources in social programs for their citizens as a whole, and having higher taxes as well, rank higher in happiness and enjoy more secure freedom than the United States. Further, their economies tend to be strong and prosperous.
Finally, as discussed in my previous post,democracies are commonly but confusedly described as systems of majority rule. The main problem with this description is that it is almost never true. More accurately, a democracy is a political system with universal adult citizenship, every one of whom has equal political status at some point in determining leaders and/or laws. However, there is almost never a coherent majority or any unified will able to “rule.”
Why are the critics’ claims so rarely supported by the data?
The reason is a basic category mistake.
The logic people apply to describe democracies originated to describe undemocratic states. It does not apply to democracies except in wartime or other times of national crisis when there is an identifiable national will focusing on a clear task and desiring a specific outcome. Ironically, it is at such times that democracies act most undemocratically and override the political and other liberties for which they are known.
Economist F. A. Hayek famously distinguished spontaneous orders from organizations. We easily recognize organizations because they reflect our personal experience in seeking goals. We create organizations to help us, and their variety is about as great as the purposes people seek with the help of others. They vary in size from a neighborhood club or organizing a weekend outing for oneself and some friends to the Catholic Church and the Defense Department.
Spontaneous orders generate frameworks assisting us in pursuing many of these organizational goals, but do not pursue any of their own. While spontaneous orders are not entirely value free, people legitimately pursue mutually exclusive goals within them because no person’s goal takes precedence over another’s. In markets people pursue contradictory goals, all guided by prices signaling resources’ relative availability but leaving to each person how to interpret them. No one decides what overall prices should be or when they might change, yet prices constantly adjust themselves to the collective expectations of buyers and sellers, crucially assisting many to succeed while limiting the damage of failures. Analogous patterns exist in other such orders.
Because these system-wide adjustments arise out of fragmentary private knowledge unavailable to any central source, knowledge assisted by systemic feedback from prices, the market as a whole incorporates more complexity and reacts more quickly than any person or group ever could deliberately manage. This is why Hayek and others argued correctly that centralized economic planning could never perform as well as markets.
Central to such processes is that everyone is subject to the same rules and makes independent decisions as to how to apply them. By contrast, organizations arrange us in a hierarchy shaped by our capacity to help them attain an end. Spontaneous orders lack this kind of hierarchy, enabling everyone to choose their own projects.
Markets are not the only spontaneous order. Science, language, and democracy are three others. Confusions about democracies are often rooted in the error of thinking about them as organizations rather than spontaneous orders. In democracies people are subject to the same rules while free to apply those rules as they choose while seeking political goals.
Democracy and public values
Markets pursue individually chosen values within a framework of contractual property rights. But how are property rights defined? They must apply equally to all and there are many ways to define them. Property rights are not individual values, they are public values, values that hold for everyone in a society. They only work when they are universally recognized among those seeking to use the resources they represent.
Public values are complex because they do not define themselves. They must be discovered and sometimes rediscovered by citizens within a constantly changing world. Some are very stable, such as the constitutional rules determining the framework within which more specific public values will be discovered and implemented. Others are less stable, such as investments in roads or ports. Some are in-between, as with many property rights which need to be stable to be useful but which sometimes also need revisions, as when something once harmless becomes harmful because of increases in scale.
A public value is not the same as a public good in the economist’s sense. The value of a public good cannot be denied to those who do not pay for it. The classical case is national defense, which to be effective must exist for all. By contrast, we could well have toll roads and private ports. However, as a rule citizens usually prefer them to be provided to all equally, as public values. One of the greatest ironies in libertarian thinking is that the market can only begin once the public values of property rights have been determined, and yet most libertarians deny the legitimacy of such values.
Usually there is disagreement among people as to what public values that need to be pursued. This disagreement is good. When agreement exists we can organize their provision and so set democratic procedures aside, as so often happens in war. This is why war is as destructive to democratic values as it is to human lives. The contemporary debate over NSA spying and subsequent lying to Congress demonstrates that an eternal ‘warfare state’ is ultimately incompatible with democracy because its goals trump democratic procedures, subordinating them to organizational hierarchies.
We now get to a crucial distinction.
Democracies are not states
Historically states emerged when some people conquered others, setting up hierarchies of rule and domination. The terminology we apply to states, such as their having interests and reasons, are terminologies appropriate to organizations. When there are no overwhelming national crises such terminology does not apply to democracies, which are continually criticized for being changeable and ‘inefficient.’ But they are changeable in the way a free society is changeable: constitutional rules are stable and how people act within them is varied and unpredictable.
The details of the American constitution reflect the reality that citizens had to be convinced to join. Non-citizens – Indians and later Mexicans and Hawaiians, were conquered through war. They experienced our government as a pure state. But once they became citizens the same rules applied to them as apply to any other American. Being citiens does not mean they were better off or treated justly, but it does signal a change in their status and so their ability to influence society. In a sense their situation is analogous to that of citizens of European democracies which ultimately subordinated state rule to democratic procedures. Today some conquered regions are seeking greater autonomy or even independence. Unlike states, democracies tend to accept such changes. Norway left Sweden, Slovakia split from the Czechs, and soon there will even be a vote in Scotland over whether or not to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Neither the US nor any other historical democracy is perfect. Far from it. But a different set of relationships exists when a polity is comprised of legal equals as compared to one defined by a legal hierarchy of rule and subordination.
How do we think about democracies?
If democracies are not states when they are being procedurally democratic, and act least democratically when clear majorities support strong national hierarchies of goals, how might we think more coherently about them?
My suggestion is to think of them as like a self-governing residential co-operative. In such a co-operative the residents own the land on which they live, work, and play, but they own it in common and make the basic rules governing residency. This model is easiest to imagine in cities, but it is conceptually possible at any scale, from a neighborhood to a city.
A residential cooperative is not normally understandable as an organization, although in a major crisis residents might subordinate many of their private interests to the cooperative’s. But it does not sell goods to others nor normally seek to pursue some specific goal. Rather it “sells” its “goods” to itself, setting the basic rules which establish public values its members value. Not even the most rigid libertarian would object if a cooperative provided universal amenities for its members as advantages of their membership, values ranging from parks and celebrations to education and health insurance. If members disagreed strongly enough they could either leave or seek to persuade other members to change the policy.
The same logic holds for democracies. To be sure there is “private property” in land, but in most cases it is subject to zoning determining the specific rights that can be used or forbidden. This is remarkably analogous to a co-operative. I think my alternative framework explains why democracies providing the most amenities, such as the Scandinavian countries, are almost universally regarded as unusually successful, and also quite free.
If we could stop at this point all might seem idyllic. But ‘idyllic’ is not the word for American democracy. However, our most basic problems are common to all spontaneous orders.
Every spontaneous order contains organizations that arose and flourish within them. At the same time, once in existence, these organizations are threatened by those same systemic characteristics that enabled them to arise. Successful companies can be put out of business by new competitors. Successful schools of scientific thought are always subject to displacement by new ones. Successful political parties are always threatened with loss at the ballot box.
At the same time, successful organizations possess many resources to try and change or manipulate the rules in their favor. Successful businesses can seek to influence how property rights are defined in order to benefit themselves, as when Disney got copyright laws rewritten to perpetuate its monopolies. Successful schools of scientific thought give precedence to adherent of their outlook when hiring or providing grants, and often ignore critics as long as possible. As any free market advocate should know, Chicago does not hire Austrian economists but Austrians get preferred treatment at George Mason. Successful political parties gerrymander districts and shape election laws to make it harder for some to vote, all to try and ensure the final vote is in their favor. Today Republicans even want to manipulate the Electoral College to guarantee a win for their candidate.
As a result spontaneous orders are always threatened by successful organizations within them seeking to turn them into organizations of domination with themselves at the top. Nowhere is this more true than with democracies.
This tension, between spontaneous orders and organizations, is the real problem facing us today in the economy and in government. Libertarians who instead say it is between “the state” and “the market” literally do not know what they are talking about. When their examples are good ones, such as threats to civil liberties, they are able to be better explained in the framework I am suggesting. Other times they contribute to the threat rather than helping offset it, as when arguing any rules to reign in big business threaten “freedom.”
The issue facing those of us valuing democracies over other governments is how to preserve and strengthen their independence from the organizations that seek to control them, be they political parties, private interest groups, or political bureaucracies. But simply condemning everything democracies seek to do as an invasion of ‘freedom’ betrays a deep misunderstanding of democracies, self-governance, and even of freedom itself. Today that misunderstanding is objectively, if not always intentionally, in favor of war and oligarchy.