In my view many people today largely believe three false things about democracy:
- That they know what it is;
- That they should want to live in one as currently experienced;
- That they do live in one.
We shouldn’t settle to live in a democracy as we currently experience it. It’s not a real democracy and emphasises all the negatives while diminishing many of the positives that ought to come out of living in a democracy. It would be better, instead, to live in a Republic, but I’ll come on to that. Some people might say I’m splitting hairs and I’m happy to accept that, but I do think it matters.
Around 400 BC Plato rejected the Athenian manifestation of democracy because he believed it to be anarchic, lacking in unity, deferring to the impulses and whims of citizens, and run by fools. On virtually all of those points, if he said them today, he would be right.
According to Plato democracy mistakes anarchy (his use of the word) for freedom, and must degenerate into tyranny or mob rule (which I would argue is just another kind of tyranny).
In context – Plato was a statist, preferring rule by ‘philosopher kings’, a rare or mythical few who are wise but unwilling or lacking the ambition to rule over others. It is against this locus of power that he compares democracy and so we can understand why Plato called democracy anarchic – lacking a central plan and purpose and leader to ‘get the job done’. Perhaps if such wise and benevolent people Plato believed in could always be found, he might be on to something, unfortunately world history from ancient to modern times shows that such people are rare, and rarer still in positions of power. Instead the ‘man who can’ ends up being incompetent or a dictator. In most cases give someone a little power, as they suppose, and they immediately begin to exercise it badly to the harm of others.
It seems we can choose the tyranny of an all-powerful single ruler in a king or dictator, or the tyranny of mob rule in a modern unchecked democracy.
To highlight the inherent flaws in an un-checked democracy James Madison, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA, said this:
“…there is nothing [in democracy] to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” (James Madison, Federalist Papers Nos. 10 and 51)
According to him, if you want protection for weaker people, or people who think or believe differently, or who are outspoken, and if you want personal security, or to defend your property rights, you won’t get any of that certain in a democracy.
And he’s right, isn’t he? The form of democracy we live in hasn’t protected your property rights, has at various times and in various ways punished or coerced those who believe differently, or wish to live differently, to the great mass of people.
Here’s the thing, unchecked democracy allows people, you, me, our neighbours, our work colleagues, ordinary people, to use state power to do things to us that they couldn’t otherwise do. Things they wouldn’t dream of doing on an individual basis. None of your neighbours would dream of stealing money from your wallet every night to pay for their gym membership. But more than you realise think its OK to vote for higher taxes so you can fund the local leisure centre which you don’t use but they do.
Do you see what I mean?
Through democracy what is to stop your neighbours from voting higher taxes that rob you of your earnings? Or passing laws to tax the size of your garden until you have to sell up because you can’t afford to keep your own property? Or to ban things you like? Or coerce you to do things you don’t like? Where are the limits on this tyranny of mob rule?
There are none. And here is why.
Because the only limit on democratic mob rule comes through a limit on State power.
Because the result of democratic activity is enacted by state power. Limit the state, and you limit democratic mob rule or “collective force”. Instead of mob rule we might use the term “collective force”, it’s the same thing.
Because without any limits democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.
It is precisely for this reason that the Founding Fathers of the USA sought to address the criticism of James Madison, that “…such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property…”, by combining democracy with a republic (which is a State in which supreme power is held by the people, and flows up from the people to their elected representatives and elected President – rather than a monarch).
Within the republic framework, the Founding Fathers placed limits on State power within a written constitution. And this is important. Because where a government is limited, so is the opportunity for democracy to become tyrannical mob rule or of “collective force” likewise limited.
And we do want to limit that. Because without any limits democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. James Madison made that point very clear.
So, to use the two wolves and a sheep analogy, a government limited by a written constitution would not, for instance, have the power to kill the sheep to feed the wolves. It wouldn’t matter if it was two wolves voting against one sheep, or two hundred thousand wolves voting against one sheep, the government wouldn’t be allowed to do it, and so such a vote would be invalid, and have no effect.
And that’s really important for democracy, that’s how minorities, the weak, the outspoken, the ‘different’, you, your family, your freedom and your property are protected. Through a constitution that limits government, and which says government can’t hurt these people no matter how many people vote for it.
Bastiat, the French political philosopher, said the legitimate role government should be limited to as one that defends each person (their life), their liberty, and their property. The Law should be nothing more, and nothing less, than this. To him there is no place for “collective force” other than in defence of these three rights.
Such a government is indeed the aim of libertarians worldwide.
That’s what we want, right? We want to be protected. We don’t want to have to worry each election that this time we’re going to be the sheep being fed to the majority wolves. Right?
We don’t have such a limited government here.
According to Bastiat, in his essay “The Law”, governments as he experienced them, and it’s no less true for us today, governments have perverted the law. Bastiat says:
“…unfortunately, law by no means confines itself to its proper functions. …it has acted in direct opposition to its own purpose. …to limiting and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect. The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others. It has converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it has converted lawful defense into a crime, in order to punish lawful defense.” (Bastiat, The Law)
And we will recognise the behaviour of our neighbours, and even ourselves, at the ballot box when we read some of his further explanations.
“…Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor; by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources. This process is the origin of property.
“But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by seizing and consuming the products of the labor of others. This process is the origin of plunder.”
“…when plunder is organized by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter — by peaceful or revolutionary means — into the making of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: Either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.” (Ibid.)
This is what happens when government perverts law away from defence of life, liberty and property.
Ezra Taft Benson, former secretary for Agriculture under Eisenhower, had this to say about legalized plunder:
“Once government steps over this clear line between the protective or negative role into the aggressive role of redistributing the wealth through taxation and providing so-called “benefits” for some of its citizens, it becomes a means for legalized plunder. It becomes a lever of unlimited power that is the sought-after prize of unscrupulous individuals and pressure groups, each seeking to control the machine to fatten his own pockets or to benefit his favorite charity, all with the other fellow’s money, of course. … With each group out to get its share of the spoils, such governments historically have mushroomed into total welfare states. Once the process begins, once the principle of the protective function of government gives way to the aggressive or redistributive function, then forces are set in motion that drive the nation toward totalitarianism.” (Benson, Former Secretary for Agriculture under Eisenhower)
The answer, says Bastiat, is to restrict the law… or, in our words – limited government.
Well, we want it, but we don’t have it.
Because in the UK, there are no such limits on government. There is no written constitution stating what those limits are. The limits are legislation which can be changed at any time. We’re living in such a time now, the Coronavirus Act, as it’s known, imposes some of the most tyrannical restrictions we’ve ever encountered – and you and I weren’t asked for our consent. Let that sink in. The right to assembly, freedom of association, freedom of religion, even the ability to work was stripped away just like that! We can argue about whether it was justified – but my point is that it happened without any reference to your views on the matter. This is unlimited government in action. (We found ourselves in the EU in the same kind of way, with no reference to us – bear that in mind too.)
In the USA, at least in principle they are a republic, and any and all powers not specifically granted to the Federal government a retained in the individual states, and then it’s down to the constitutions of each state after that. Texas is an example of a republic in the republic. But in the UK, we’re not a republic of any kind. The courts recently ruled, among all the fighting over Brexit, that Parliament is sovereign – not you, and not me.
In my view that is something that needs to change.
But even in the parliament is sovereign ruling we’re neither a republic nor what I would call a democracy.
Think about what happens in elections? You vote, for a person. Then they do whatever they do until the next election. How much voice do you actually have? You only get a referendum when Parliament decides to give you one. The whole Brexit campaign, that’s still going on by the way, showed exactly how little democracy we actually have on one hand. But then the spending promises in an effort to buy your votes with your money and your neighbour’s money show how much we do have on the other hand. We have just enough democracy for those in power to legitimise and maintain their power – not much more, and probably less.
I put to you another definition of democracy, one which we don’t enjoy now, but which I prefer. It’s much closer to pure republicanism, and it’s certainly libertarian…
How about we let each individual in the country make their own choices for themselves? Millions of little votes each day, manifested by the actions they take, in the direction they prefer. What, for instance, is more democratic than the free market – instead of cronyism and subsidy, each business transaction is a real-time vote in favour of a product or service, those who serve their customers best – they succeed, those who don’t – they fail. There is no coercion in this, no state or government picking winners and losers, there is just millions of individuals voting by choosing to do business or not. That to me is the ultimate democracy. Each represents themselves, making choices they believe will help them meet their individual objectives in life.
We can have this. We can even have it here in the UK.
To achieve it we need to elect MPs who believe in this and are willing to start undoing things that have been done in the past. We need to shrink the size and reach and power of the state. Then, with all the state meddling gone, with all the trappings of former democratic decisions that represent people imposing their views on their neighbours in things that were none of their business, gone! Then we can have this.
To get it we need more people to understand the true nature of democracy, how in its really vital form it naturally exists when people are free in all of their free choices as sovereign individuals while protected in their life, liberty and property.
The unlimited government we currently experience robs people of these freedoms, ultimately limiting naturally occurring democracy to whatever Parliament permits while it overreaches and perverts the true purpose of law away from the defence of life, liberty, and property to maintaining and growing its own power.
On that basis, back to the question. No. We don’t live in a democracy. We must not be fooled by the fact we get to vote every so often. This is all theatre. What we currently experience as democracy is the activated perversion of the law, in which the power of the state increases as electors fight between themselves via the ballot box, who will be the next victim of the next perversion of the law.
I choose individual sovereignty and individual freedom – that is where real democracy is manifest, and nowhere else. Until we have that, we don’t live in a democracy.
(This article is adapted from my 20th June 2020 speech to the online Mercia Libertarians debate night, in response to the question “Do we live in a democracy”, available here: https://youtu.be/Pi1IVzM-SJI)