March 2007 -- Back when I was writing the annual “Lands of Liberty” survey for the magazine Navigator, I would always include in the introduction a justification for evaluating the degree of democratic freedom in a country. My explanation ran along the following lines:
To call a system democratic is to say only that its citizens determine the actions of its government, directly or through representatives. While this says nothing about the scope of that government, still, democratic mechanisms are an important part of a free society. The fundamental principle of liberty, after all, is that a person ought to be in charge of his life, in every aspect. Since government is the means by which people carry out the extremely important activity of defending themselves against coercion, it follows that they ought to be in charge of that aspect of their lives. If we had our rights protected by a benevolent monarch, we would be like children let out on our own—but within a yard fenced off by our parents.
This view of democracy was challenged last November at the website “Cato Unbound,” when George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan launched a debate about democracy by updating Plato’s argument for a philosopher-king. He began his case by observing that voters’ mistaken beliefs (for example, about the dangers of immigration) produce bad political policies. And the reason voters have mistaken beliefs, he said, is not merely ignorance but irrationality. Holding irrational beliefs is emotionally rewarding, and people persist in holding such beliefs because they are not likely to be harmed by doing so. However, Caplan argued, trouble does arise when millions of people who vote all hold the same irrational beliefs, for they then elect representatives who pass irrational laws.
To solve this problem, he recommended four reforms. The first was simply to take many issues out of the political arena, as we do with freedom of speech and religion. But he then went on to propose (in Platonic fashion) that the Council of Economic Advisers might be given powers similar to those of the Supreme Court and be allowed to invalidate legislation that it deemed “uneconomic.” He also suggested that college graduates (because they tend to hold more sensible beliefs about economics and other things) might be given an extra vote. Alas, he said, the majority of people are not going to vote away their power to experts or to a minority. So, in the end, he simply urged economists and other experts who address broader audiences to present a united front to the public, stressing those ideas that experts agree upon and that the average voter wrongly believes to be false.
Three other scholars responded to Caplan: David Estlund, a political philosopher at Brown University; Loren Lomasky, a philosopher at the University of Virginia; and Jeffrey Friedman, editor of Critical Review.
How can we make democracy the guarantor of freedom and not its enemy?
Estlund’s stand was that “there is no entitlement to rule others based simply on the fact that you know what is best.” Caplan replied that “because I know best” seems at least as good a claim to rule as “because there are more of us.” Lomasky observed that, in a representative democracy, it is legislators who pass laws, and they have access to all the expertise they need to avoid irrational policies. Caplan retorted that legislators do not have much freedom to differ from their constituents’ wishes, for they must always be wary of losing that marginal voter who cares passionately about an issue, even if the legislator knows that marginal voter’s views are irrational. Friedman was skeptical that elites and the college-educated could be counted on to hold more sensible views than the general public, and he cited the dominance of anti-market views among economists from the 1930s to the 1970s. But Caplan rejoined that, as far as he could see, even during those times economists were relatively more pro-market than the average American.
This question of democracy versus rule by experts was analyzed memorably in G.K. Chesterton’s splendid 1908 book Orthodoxy. “The democratic contention,” he wrote, “is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.”
It is a fine sentiment, but is it a wise one? We can afford to let a man write his own love-letters and blow his own nose, for no great harm will come to society if he does these things badly. But helping to rule the tribe is perhaps a little more like playing the church organ. There is, after all, an extremely important purpose to it, as the fundamental document of America’s creed states: “To secure these rights [of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], governments are instituted among men….” Whether the tribe is ruled well or badly can mean the difference between freedom and slavery.
Yet even as we acknowledge that, I think, we must simultaneously hold onto the truth I began with: to have our rights protected by a benevolent monarch would be as paternalistic and infantilizing as any welfare state. Democracy is no less a part of free government than individual rights. How, then, can we make democracy the guarantor of freedom and not its enemy? That was the challenge the Founding Fathers addressed with a combination of social morality and political structures.
Obviously, in addressing this issue, I cannot claim the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, except in the reductive sense that I can borrow from their wisdom. But drawing on that wisdom suggests five reforms in our society and politics that might help to curb the damage that ignorant and irrational voters now perpetrate.
1. Rehabilitate Civil Society. Caplan avers—and he is quite right—that the first and best solution to the problem of misgovernment is to remove a large number of issues from legislature purview. My first reform states the solution in reverse. We need to have a civil society that reclaims many of the functions now performed by government. Libertarian proposals that would make an individual responsible for his own unemployment insurance, his own provisions for old age, his own medical care, and so on, frighten people who have known only the welfare state, and of course leftist scare-mongers work incessantly on such fears. The message of David Beito’s From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State and David Kelley’s Unrugged Individualism is that our choice need not lie between dependence on government and dependence on atomistic individuals. The institutions of civil society—fraternal organizations, corporations, churches, and so forth—can also be a source of private mechanisms for coping with life’s travails.
2. Restore Party Loyalty. Even in a free society, though, no one could possibly evaluate a single legislator’s positions on the major issues facing the country. All that the average American can do—and all that he should be required to do—is to choose between two different tendencies toward governing a free society—basically, the Whig approach and the Tory approach. In the American context, that means voting for a party and letting elected officials determine what policy best accords with the party’s fundamental premises.
We need to have a civil society that reclaims many of the functions now performed by government.
Unfortunately, political parties today represent nothing more than a few platitudes, and they thus command little loyalty. In the nineteenth century, by contrast, party affiliation was a significant part of a man’s identity, and the party club was a major center of social life. It was not just a debating society. It was an organization that offered people a night out, an opportunity to hear the party’s leading thinkers and orators, an excuse for excessive drinking, a chance to stage parades of party pride, and the occasion for fraternizing across class lines with like-minded people. Participating in these party activities was so much a feature of American civic life that the railroad magnate J.J. Hill became a leading figure in Minnesota’s Democratic Party before he was a U.S. citizen.
3. Revitalize Local Government. Too often, the only question that concerns libertarians is whether an undertaking should be governmental or private. As a result, libertarians sometimes seem to prefer the central government to local governments, because the former is a truer embodiment of their hated “state.” But it is easy for voters to cling to irrational beliefs about what “Washington” should do; it is less easy for them to cling to irrational beliefs about what is good for their neighborhood.
It would therefore be useful to strengthen the multiple political levels in this country—states, counties, cities and towns, boroughs and villages, and neighborhood organizations. This could be done by giving the governments of smaller bodies some power in selecting our representatives to larger political bodies. In that way, the smaller units could effectively demand the downward flow of responsibility. And, yes, that means repealing the Seventeenth Amendment to bring back the state legislatures’ election of U.S. senators. Likewise, we could reinvigorate and localize the Electoral College, so that each voter need choose only one local presidential elector. With such reforms, every voter would have a fair chance of knowing personally, or at least by local reputation, every person for whom he was ever asked to vote.
4. Reinstitute Property Qualifications. Caplan says that his proposals—creating a kind of Supreme Court comprised of economists and granting extra votes to college graduates—are impractical because the majority will not cede its power to experts or to a minority. He seems to have overlooked the possibility that we might persuade a majority of the majority to disenfranchise a particularly incompetent minority, thus strengthening their own power and, incidentally, raising the average competence of the typical voter. What sort of disenfranchisement? Well, I believe it was the estimable Henry Hazlitt who proposed that people on welfare should not be eligible to vote. To give that proposal a more American tenor, we might say: No representation without taxation! And those who oppose all taxation on principle may substitute the requirement of a voluntary “citizenship fee.”
5. Bring Back Republicanism. Broad participation in the legitimate functions of government was a fundamental element in the Founding Fathers’ creed and a key part of their heritage from the republics of Greece and Rome. At present, the only such public service that most citizens perform is jury duty, and that they do only because it is compulsory. Worse still, whenever politicians envision schemes for greater “public service,” they typically think of activities like teaching and working in hospitals, which properly belong to the economic or nonprofit sector, not to government at all.
But if citizens were offered numerous ways to assist with the legitimate functions of government—establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense—I believe that many people would be happy to volunteer for a few hours a month. Apart from the benefits in the form of improved government service, the result would be a citizenry more familiar with the responsibilities and methods of government. And if such participation became sufficiently widespread, voters might consider making it—like paying taxes—another prerequisite of full citizenship rights.
Bryan Caplan’s solutions to the dangers of democracy are typically professorial: give power to the wise, or have the wise teach the ignorant. But of course that raises the question: Who are the wise? Personally, I tend to agree with Jeffrey Friedman that elites are not always wiser than the general populace. As William F. Buckley Jr. famously remarked: “I would rather live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University.”
Yet even if we concede the existence of identifiable wise men, Estlund’s point remains: “because I know better” is not a sufficient claim to rule. People are entitled by right to control their lives, and therefore they are entitled to control the governments they use to guard their rights. That means democracy. It is a Greco-Roman truth that Caplan apparently cannot see: participating in government decisions is a form of self-rule, even when one’s preferred decisions are not chosen.
Still, this right to control government is not absolute. People are entitled to control their own mode of transportation, but they have no right to drive a car before demonstrating that their driving is not a danger to other people. And even then, we are entitled to structure and simplify the formal and informal rules of driving so that mere children are capable of carrying it on safely. Precisely because we trust most people to provide their own transportation, we have a right to ensure that it is not dependent upon finely honed driving skills.
By the same token, if we wish to protect freedom from democracy, we need to structure society and politics so that most ordinary adults, with all their faults and foibles, are able to steer their governments competently. The personal morality and public spirit that our Founding Fathers bequeathed us, along with their original political structures, would go a long way to achieving that goal. If we now fear democracy, it is largely because we have abandoned their bequest to us. And we have abandoned it—political Platonists take heed—because we thought ourselves wiser than they.