Libertarians have long harbored reservations about democracy, and some of their concerns have lately won mainstream attention amid an ongoing crisis of democratic confidence.
Now, it could be that libertarians just don’t like losing elections. It’s never quite proper, though, to ask about an arguer’s hidden motives when a genuine argument is afoot. And at least some libertarians have mounted a substantive critique of democracy, one that goes well beyond sour grapes.
I will begin by summarizing the libertarian case against democracy. I will agree with many of this argument’s claims, but I will dissent from its conclusion. Democracy should still command a high degree of respect despite the truth of nearly everything that libertarians have said against it.
The libertarian case against democracy refutes a bad argument for democracy, albeit a very common one. It neglects a stronger and less common argument for democracy, one that I will recommend both to libertarians like myself and to others. Democracy is a key part of the liberal heritage, and all those who claim to be the guardians of that heritage ought to defend it proudly.
The libertarian argument against democracy begins with voter ignorance. Said ignorance is impossible to deny. Law professor Ilya Somin has noted that, among other things, most voters in a set of recent surveys did not recognize the name of Representative Paul Ryan before he was selected to be the Republican Party’s Vice Presidential nominee in 2012. Most also did not know he was a member of the House of Representatives. Most did not know that President Barack Obama pledged to raise income taxes for persons earning over $250,000 per year. Most did not know what the tax rates even were for earners in this group. Voters commonly don’t know the names of their senators and representatives, and almost none of them can name even a single U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Findings like these are common in all eras for which we have polling data, and they appear to be common across all topics that one might think were important for voters to know. Yet without such knowledge, it is hard to understand how voting can be performed responsibly. It is also perhaps hard to understand why we permit demonstrably ignorant people to vote at all. As political philosopher and author of Against Democracy Jason Brennan writes:
About almost any topic inside or outside of politics, some people have superior judgment to others … I justifiably believe my surgeon brother-in-law has superior medical judgment than I do. I justifiably believe my IT tech brother has superior judgment about computers than I do. I justifiably believe my plumber has superior judgment about pipefitting than I do … And … I—a chaired professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at an elite research university, with a Ph.D. from the top-ranked political philosophy program in the English-speaking world, and with a strong record of peer-reviewed publications in top journals and academic presses—have superior political judgment on a great many political matters to many of my fellow citizens, including to many large groups of them. If I didn’t believe that about myself, I’d feel like a fraud every time I teach a political economy course.
Shouldn’t those with superior public policy judgment make public policy decisions? We find nothing wrong with letting trained pipefitters do our plumbing for us, and we would be horrified if any but a trained surgeon were to perform surgery. Yet politics has consequences too—sometimes dire ones—and we let everyone vote. Indeed, we insist on it.
Brennan suggests that we make this unusual exception because voting is a high-status activity, and because the judgment that one is unfit to vote has been closely associated with the judgment that the person deprived of the vote is not the equal in human worth and dignity to the voter. Being deprived of the vote is akin to, and a marker of, an impaired humanity.
But, Brennan asks, why should this be? Neither he nor I are competent to perform surgery, and yet we do not think ourselves the social or moral inferiors of the surgeon. Nor should we. Perhaps what needs to give way here is an improper equivalence that we have been making between a generic respect for others and giving them the franchise.
Brennan urges us to remember that there is nothing incompatible between human dignity and ignorance in nearly any other particular subject. Most of us are ignorant of pipefitting and surgery alike, and yet we don’t identify human dignity with either of them. It’s enough that our society has some capable pipefitters and surgeons, and we let the market and the division of labor do the rest. Politics should be more like that, Brennan says.
Not only are voters ignorant, they are also irrational. This matters because ignorance all by itself might not be so terrible: if ignorant voters’ conclusions were distributed more or less at random, the votes cast in ignorance would tend to cancel one another out, while sophisticated votes would tend to converge on better choices. But that’s not what happens, as economist Bryan Caplan has ably observed. It turns out that voters are systematically irrational about their choices. Their biases aren’t well explained by random chance, and they aren’t well supported by expert consensus either. They are demonstrably wrong in specific and predictable ways.
It gets worse: at least in the real world, adding more information to voters tends to make their opinions more partisan—and therefore worse. One might expect rational voters to follow expert consensus in fields like economics, wherever such consensus existed. But that’s not what they do. Rather they tend to follow, and vote with, partisan sources of information that are apt to lead them astray. And these partisan sources perpetuate—or generate—mistaken opinions that have bad consequences for public policy.
This is no mere matter of failing to conform to the radical libertarian program that Caplan would prefer: among economists, there is no widespread consensus about privatizing roads, but a widespread consensus does exist in support of free international trade. This free trade consensus the voters cheerfully reject. A better government, though not a completely libertarian one, might result if voters tended to support candidates and measures that followed the economists’ consensus. But they don’t do that. Irrationality wins the day.
All of this matters because democratic theorists have long touted democracy’s ability to uncover hidden knowledge and reach wise decisions. These qualities, they have been wont to claim, are the reasons why we have democracy: democracy aggregates what the public knows, and, through the wisdom of crowds, it reaches better decisions.
Yet this claimed discovery of knowledge through the democratic process owes much more to Hegel than to Hayek. As law professor David R. Upham describes it,
First, a supra-rational Spirit moves; this spirit unfolds, expresses itself, through both the people and the elites, but in very different ways. The people act subrationally in giving voice to the spirit via demands, feelings, and wants, evidenced by “demonstrations” and other forms of “expression.” The people engage not in rational “causes” but in sub-rational “movements.” The credentialed elites, in contrast, provide the rational implementation of these movements and expressions. As a twist on Madison, the passions of the people, sublated into the reason of the few, should govern.
As in all Hegelian philosophy, the truth unfolds through a series real-world conflicts, animated by a World Spirit that guides us toward the Absolute through a wisdom that surpasses human understanding.
That’s a lot of metaphysical baggage for a system of government to carry. What’s key to notice here is that the leading argument saying “democracy is a knowledge aggregator” looks absolutely nothing like the leading argument saying the market is a knowledge aggregator. The two claims are quite independent, and there is little about their specific processes that might lead us to liken them: in markets, people take risks with their own capital, and they are directly rewarded or punished as a result. The feedback mechanism is direct and relatively sure, and it leads them to bring forth and act on any unique and valuable knowledge that they may have, while forbearing about matters on which they are ignorant; if they do not forbear, the market punishes them. In democratic governance, meanwhile, people take risks with the capital of others, and they are almost never rewarded or punished directly for how they voted. Ignorance doesn’t get punished; it gets rewarded when it pleases the partisan machines. The feedback mechanism that converges on truth consists, apparently, of Hegelian fairy dust.
Now, Hegel himself was no champion of democracy, but democratic Hegelianism explains a great deal about American civic life all the same. The Hegelian tradition birthed modern progressivism. Hegel’s idea of an unfolding and constantly changing truth is also how we got our living constitutionalism, and it explains (but does not justify) why certain freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution have aged better than others: we must tolerate free expression, because it is a part of the sacred process of truth discovery. And yet we must always presume that Democracy knows precisely what it’s doing whenever it regulates the economy.
Rather than arguing tediously about metaphysics, though, we ought to view the foregoing as a set of testable empirical claims: Does democracy discover truth? Does it perform well at such discovery? Can we quantify it? Is it better than some hypothetical non-democracy, like—for example—the rule of experts?
The critiques offered by Somin, Brennan, and Caplan suddenly have a great deal of purchase, because if there is a Hegelian World Spirit, then that Spirit seems to be a blind idiot god indeed. Democracies aggregate prejudices, not truth; the results are predictably and measurably bad. Democracies intensify and codify the errors that already existed, and they appear to be pretty good at inventing new ones. To add insult to injury, democracy also leads us to sing its own praises, which perhaps we ought not to do.
Faced with the libertarian critique of democracy’s ability to discover knowledge, democratic theorists often ask for a weaker standard of evidence. Perhaps democracy doesn’t realize truth directly, but the mediating actions of parties and activists could bring truth anyway. This is an empirical question, to which the answer is no. Or maybe single-issue voters know their own issue the best, and that’s enough to make the whole thing work out well anyway. No again. Or maybe voters aren’t wise about choosing good leaders prospectively, but at least they can retrospectively punish bad leadership such that it all works out okay. Once again no. Chapter four of Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance is particularly strong on rebutting these claims, and readers would do well to consult it. What the Spirit proposes, the evidence just doesn’t support. Lower your expectations, and democracy still lets you down. Lower them still further, and democracy will find totally new and even more exciting ways to disappoint you.
What, though, does democracy do for us? What is it good at? Indeed, how has it managed to survive at all? I will now suggest an answer, which is perhaps just one of many.
A problem well solved tends to become invisible. I think that’s happening here.
On January 1, 193 AD, Pertinax was acclaimed Emperor of Rome. He’d won the job following the assassination of Commodus, the previous Emperor. Just 187 days later, the Praetorian Guard assassinated Pertinax. The Guard immediately held an auction; the winner, Didius Julianus, became Emperor.
For all the good it did him: Just nine weeks later, Didius Julianus would be murdered as well.
We might imagine that 193 wasn’t a good year for Emperors, but the reality is that most Roman Emperors were either assassinated or deposed; only a minority ended their reign with a death by natural causes. The Byzantine branch of the Empire added the endearing practice of blinding, castrating, or otherwise mutilating would-be Emperors so that they could never sire heirs, lead an army, or make another attempt on power.
In a word, the Roman Empire suffered from problems of stability. Even the Romans’ exceptionally strong, long-lasting, and almost universal conviction that there should be a Roman Empire couldn’t guarantee an orderly transfer of power.
The whole mess was constantly unstable, and everyone knew it. The Byzantines mutilated their failed Emperors not from cruelty, but from an earnest attempt at culling the pack of possible rivals. They knew that rivals would always make trouble if they weren’t stopped … somehow. When compared to death, blindness was almost a Christian mercy.
It may be tempting to classify these events as aberrations from the normal course of government. Certainly we would think of them that way in our own polity. Yet there is a real sense in which murder and mutilation are not so alien to the business of government at all: government itself is violence, as libertarians are fond of observing, and they are correct to do so. The violence of government can be deployed to various ends, whether good or bad. But whatever the ends may be, a government’s means is always violence or the persuasive threat thereof. And thus the freelance violence occasionally used to seize the empire was not so different in kind from the public violence that was always used to administer it.
As the saying goes: if only there were a better way. But there was a better way. Here’s 17th-century absolutist political theorist Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet describing why the French system of his own day—pure patrilineal succession no matter what, at all costs—was better than what Rome had done:
Sulla … did all too much against his fatherland, in that his tyrannical dictatorship reduced it to slavery. He could indeed voluntarily step down from sovereign power; but he could not prevent the effects of his bad example. [After him] everyone wanted to dominate …
[Hereditary monarchy] is the most opposed to the division that is the most essential evil of states, and the most certain cause of their ruin … When we form states, we seek to unite ourselves together, and we are never more united than when we are under a single chief. Never are we stronger, either, because all is done in harmony.
Following the late-Republican dictator Sulla’s example, any ambitious man could aspire to mastery of the world. All too many of them did. The talents and the lives of the most ambitious Romans were wasted on harmful infighting, rather than being directed to some more productive use.
Under an absolute monarch, all men would know the limits of their ambition; they could be great, but they could never be king. This allowed ambition to be spent on projects that would bring the country greatness rather than ruin. Absolutism defended itself most ably when it cast itself, in contrast to the Roman Empire, as a stable system that kept successionary violence to a minimum.
In the 18th century Edward Gibbon would agree:
Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy seems to present the fairest scope for ridicule … but our more serious thoughts will respect a useful prejudice, that establishes a rule of succession, independent of the passions of mankind; and we shall cheerfully acquiesce in any expedient which deprives the multitude of the dangerous, and indeed the ideal, power of giving themselves a master … The superior prerogative of birth, when it has obtained the sanction of time and popular opinion, is the plainest and least invidious of all distinctions among mankind. The acknowledged right extinguishes the hopes of faction, and the conscious security disarms the cruelty of the monarch. To the firm establishment of this idea we owe the peaceful succession and mild administration of European monarchies.
As would David Hume:
[After Tiberius] it was afterwards [the Romans’] misfortune, that there never was, in one family, any long regular succession; but that their line of princes was continually broken, either by private assassinations or public rebellions … The condition of the people … was to be lamented, not because the choice of the emperor was never left to them; for that was impracticable: but because they never fell under any succession of masters, who might regularly follow each other.
Hereditary monarchy harmonized competing social ambitions by anchoring them to a single family line. Admittedly—and this is no small concession—absolutist political theory bit the bullet when it came to an incompetent or malevolent ruler. Bossuet and others held that such rulers were to be endured with patience; the stability of the system itself depended on preserving them. As terrible as a bad king could be, history itself showed that the Year of Four Emperors was worse, to say nothing of the Year of Five Emperors, or the Year of Six.
Hereditary monarchies had a clear process for choosing a successor, and it was a process to which all could pledge loyalty. But the process’s determinations did not always command public assent in the aftermath. Duly chosen rulers could become corrupt over time. They could become tyrants. They could go mad or senile. They could even retain all their faculties and yet grow out of step with the national sentiment, which came to matter more and more as literacy grew in the early modern era and political opinions about national topics came to be increasingly matters of public discussion. Absolute monarchies could and did get captured by a particular faction in a climate of divided public opinion. The Fronde and the wars of religion in France had seen the monarchy come to be identified with only a part of the nation, and in those times, stability vanished.
Enter modern representative democracy. Understood in the context of the systems that went before it, representative democracy was a new attempt to solve an ancient problem, and to improve on the solution given by hereditary monarchy. Under democracy, not only was the act of removing a ruler not an act of treason, but one might say that it was the very cornerstone of the system itself.1 We owe our truest allegiance never to a person, and never to a family, but only to an impersonal method of choosing, one that we resolve to undertake at regular intervals, and not only when an officeholder happens to die.
Representative democracy as it is practiced today is the reason why so many countries can enjoy mass political participation without mass political violence. Given that the modern world makes people literate and connects them to communities much larger than traditional agricultural villages, it’s probably inevitable that modern people will have clashing political opinions and will want to act upon them. Democracy avoids not only top-down violence, as seen constantly in the Roman Empire, but mostly it avoids bottom-up violence as well (not that Rome lacked bottom-up civil unrest either).
Many of the best inventions in political history have a defensive character, in that they defend people from what would otherwise be the ordinary consequences of politics itself. I suggest that democracy is one such invention, and apparently a particularly necessary one in the modern world.
One may object that ignorant voters can’t reliably recognize a bad ruler, and there is certainly some truth to this. Majorities sometimes empower bad people and remove good ones. Yet if we take it as a given that rulers will change—and that they will change even in the absence of authoritative knowledge—it seems clearly better to have a mechanism agreed upon by which changes can happen, and by which these changes can command assent without violence. If sooner or later one ruler must give way to another in any case, how shall it be done? By a bloody and opportunistic palace coup? By the rising of an angry mob? Or by counting a stack of papers on a duly appointed day? This shouldn’t be a hard call to make.
If only all aspects of the administration of justice could be as peaceful and as orderly as holding an election! Is this not an aspect of the great goal that libertarians claim to be working toward? Democracy has all but banished violence from our choice of government personnel; perhaps we can continue to diminish the inherent violence of the state in its other aspects as well. And when we have done so, will we not have won something like the libertarian ideal? Understood in its historical context, democracy has contributed mightily to banishing violence from our social life, and for this it should be praised—above all by libertarians.
When we collectively agree to practice democracy, and when we agree to recognize all (and only) our democratic determinations as legitimate, we win for ourselves a modicum of peace at precisely the time when our governments would otherwise be most apt to cause civil disorder. It matters relatively little whether the specific choice of rulers is wise or foolish. What matters is that its implementation is orderly and that justice can still be administered thereafter.
Anthropologically speaking, voting is a ritual of intensification. Such rituals are undertaken during times of stress for the community—as when the political leadership might change—and they signal collective loyalty to the system so that all may see it and be comforted by it. We may demur that our preferred candidate did not win, or even that our preferred candidate never wins (and mine never does), but winning or losing is not the deeper point here. Rather, the exercise of democracy reaffirms the public commitment to a constant and orderly pattern of social life, and it does so in a way that inherently delegitimizes violence. Democracy may be of the state, but properly understood it is also a rebuke to the state, at least in the worst of its aspects.
Democracy does its good work—the work of keeping civil peace in a presumptive time of stress and danger—without depending at all on voters’ knowledge. Rituals of intensification don’t require a respectable scientific basis, or even a respectable metaphysics. Rituals of intensification work among peoples whom we might otherwise dismiss as superstitious, and they work among us, too, and they work for all of us because of our common evolutionary psychology. We are signaling creatures, and as such sometimes we find it necessary to signal to one another. And what better thing to signal than “Our social life, and our justice, must continue”?
On this view, one might object that democracy represents merely a psychological trick that we play on ourselves, like eating a full meal before we go grocery shopping. But look at the results: democracies are indeed more stable than other forms of government. They are more prosperous. They wage fewer wars against one another. They enjoy more liberty. And all of this begins, plausibly, with the social stability that democracies achieve at the dangerous moment when power changes hands. As Hume once again observed, good government begins with the regular administration of justice, “without which there can be no peace … nor safety, nor mutual intercourse.”
In opposing democracy, many libertarians seem to have embraced a bad reasons fallacy: they have more or less correctly refuted a bad argument for a good conclusion. But it is wrong to reject a good conclusion just because some—progressive Hegelians, of all people!—have defended it for bad reasons.
It may be a measure of human frailty that we cannot do better than democracy, but if some system is ever to replace it, that system will have to prove that it is superior not at aggregating knowledge, but at effecting an orderly, nonviolent change in government officials while the administration of justice continues unabated and with broad public assent. It is not unreasonable to test alternate systems in this regard, but we must be clear about what they need to accomplish, and why.
 I write here of democracy considered only as a method for choosing government officials. I take it for granted that any good government’s powers must be limited as a matter of constitutional design, and that the rights of citizens are not to be infringed upon by a vote. The nature of government powers and of individuals rights in a free society are both topics best considered elsewhere.