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Austin Cline

Libertarianism is Incompatible with Democracy

By November 6, 2011

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I suspect that most people would argue that liberty and democracy are tightly bound together -- that if you lack democracy, then liberty is in trouble at best and before long, it will be lost. Well, lost for all except those in the most powerful and privileged positions. Curiously, this seems to be what's at the heart of some libertarians' beliefs: that democracy is so bad that liberty must be "protected" from it.

We can see hints of some of this when libertarians promote illiberal and unfree states simply because they have or had lower taxes than contemporary America -- for example, when the Confederate government is lauded. Some openly and proudly argue that democracy is a "failed" experiment that should be abandoned. There's no question about where they stand and no mistakes of interpretation.

The libertarian movement has been conspicuously absent from the campaigns for civil rights for nonwhites, women, gays and lesbians. Most, if not all, libertarians support sexual and reproductive freedom (though Rand Paul has expressed doubts about federal civil rights legislation). But civil libertarian activists are found overwhelmingly on the left. Their right-wing brethren have been concerned with issues more important than civil rights, voting rights, abuses by police and the military, and the subordination of politics to religion -- issues like the campaign to expand human freedom by turning highways over to toll-extracting private corporations and the crusade to funnel money from Social Security to Wall Street brokerage firms.

While progressives betray their principles when they apologize for autocracy, libertarians do not. Today's libertarians claim to be the heirs of the classical liberals of the 19th century. Without exception the great thinkers of classical liberalism, like Benjamin Constant, Thomas Babington Macaulay and John Stuart Mill, viewed universal suffrage democracy as a threat to property rights and capitalism. Mill favored educational qualifications for voters, like the "literacy tests" used to disfranchise most blacks and many whites in the South before the 1960s. After the Civil War, Lord Acton wrote to Robert E. Lee, commiserating with him on the defeat of the Confederacy. ...

The history of democratic nation-states since the 19th century proves that Macaulay, and von Mises, and Hayek, as well as lesser lights like Patri Friedman, have been right to argue that democracy is incompatible with libertarianism. Every modern, advanced democracy, including the United States, devotes between a third and half of its GDP to government, in both direct spending on public services like defense and transfer payments. Given the power to vote, most populations will not only vote for some system of government-backed social insurance, but also for all sorts of interventions in individual behavior that libertarians object to, from laws banning nudity in public to laws mandating that people support their children, do not torture or neglect their pets and water their lawns during droughts according to scheduled rationing.

Unfortunately for libertarians who, like Hayek, prefer libertarian dictatorships to welfare-state democracies, even modern authoritarians reject the small-government creed. The most successful authoritarian capitalist regimes, such as today's China and South Korea and Taiwan before their recent transitions to democracy, have been highly interventionist in economics, promoting economic growth by means of state-controlled banking, state-owned enterprises, government promotion of cartels, suppression of wages and consumption, tariffs and nontariff barriers to imports, toleration of intellectual piracy, massive infrastructure projects to help industry, and subsidies to manufacturers in the form of artificially cheap raw materials, energy and land.

Source: Salon

The libertarians who at least consider democracy suspect, if not outright reject it, are not a few marginal and irrelevant voices. The anti-democracy strand of thinking may not dominate with every libertarian thinker, but it plays a real role in the thinking and behavior of quite a few prominent libertarians. What's more, anti-democratic thinking has been accepted as legitimate by libertarian institutions like Cato. So this is an issue that's relevant and needs to be dealt with -- especially by libertarians themselves.

There is, perhaps, an easy test to apply. It was first suggested by David Boaz, a vice-president of Cato (which means that it can't be simply dismissed). He could no longer hold his tongue at the extent to which the Confederacy and Jefferson Davis were being praised by libertarians and he wrote an essay for Reason magazine in 2010 to explain that the Confederacy was not a free society and this shouldn't be considered more important than the fact that it had lower taxation.

Boaz asked a very direct and pointed question of fellow libertarians: "If you had to choose, would you rather live in a country with a department of labor and even an income tax or a Dred Scott decision and a Fugitive Slave Act?" This question apparently created some controversy among libertarians, which already tells us something. We can perhaps simplify the question a bit: "would you sacrifice democracy and even some liberty for unpopular minorities in exchange for very low taxes, very low tariffs, and a very small government?"

That the question even needs to be asked, and that the answer is in doubt, is already a problem.

Comments
November 6, 2011 at 5:14 pm
(1) Tige Gibson says:

Pure democracy is a license for the majority to oppress the minority. Pure libertarianism is complete independence from the “votes” of others whenever it conflicts with your own wishes and is essentially a euphemism for anarchy.

What we see today are people who just don’t want to be responsible for doing anything they don’t want to do. The underlying reason for this is cowardice. They feel that their survival is threatened by having to exert any effort whatsoever for anyone else. These people would be quite happy for all the less fortunate than themselves to die in a fire. It is only a vain effort to avoid hypocrisy that they deny that the more fortunate need to help them either.

Most people have essentially been running from the failures of the “conservatives”/Republicans lately to hide in the forest of libertarianism and the so-called “tea party”. They do not understand the political philosophy one way or the other. Understanding would require some familiarity with the facts which they demonstrably don’t possess.

November 6, 2011 at 5:55 pm
(2) Eric O says:

I think the most praiseworthy aspect of democracy is that it’s a method for making peaceful changes (for good or for ill) to society. It eliminates the need for a bloody revolution every time there’s a disagreement between the ruling class and the masses about how society should be run. I can understand why some people might be frustrated with such a system: idealists of every political stripe have a vision for a better society, and the only way to achieve it within a democratic system is to get the support of their fellow citizens. It’s a slow process, even if the proposed change is a good idea. If it’s an obviously stupid idea, the idealists won’t stand a chance of getting their proposed change in place. This is why autocracy is so appealing to some: it’s like mercantilism in the marketplace of (political) ideas.

Democracy may not be a libertarian principle, but libertarians who dismiss it are doing themselves a disservice. They’re tacitly admitting that their ideas can’t possibly gain any sort of substantial popular support or survive on reason alone.

November 7, 2011 at 2:29 pm
(3) Dean Smith says:

When I joined the LP, back in 1998, it was very appealing on paper. My experience with other libertarians, however, has been that they are very lopsided in balancing economic and social liberty. It’s almost like the LP is dominated by people with Asperger’s syndrome who are intellectually ‘civil liberties good’ but are only really capable of relating to numbers. The LP has had a tension between the ‘Idealist’ faction (economic theorists) and the ‘Pragmatist’ faction (happy to work within the system, more concerned with outcomes than purity of means) as long as it has existed. It has also picked up a lot of disaffected Republicans, and my experience is that I have stayed the same while the LP has moved to my right. I wish I could say there’s no substance to Austin’s criticism.

November 8, 2011 at 5:07 pm
(4) Faisal says:

There’s no way that any proponent of such extreme politics (anarcho-capitalism, utopian socialism or anarcho-communism etc.) can maintain any sort of ideological consistency; because in our world; money is needed to fund any of your values – regardless of what they might be.

Far rightists want people to have only what they “earn” while far leftists want people to have only what they “need” (almost always under very tendentious use of those two words) and any of that will lead inevitably to oppression, which is exactly what rational human beings are supposed to be fighting in the first place.

November 12, 2011 at 10:08 pm
(5) Aaron says:

Of course Libertarianism is incompatible with Democracy, but since America is not a democracy but rather a Republic (a Jeffersonian Democratic Republic to be precise) Libertarianism can and does work well in America. The OP demonstrates a common ignorance as to the nature of the founding principles of American government. Now it’s true that today we don’t practice a pure form of a Jeffersonian Democratic Republic due to the introduction of Progressive ideals and legislation into the American governmental system, but America is still a Republic and is governed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights and the Libertarian movement is all about adherence to the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

November 13, 2011 at 8:18 am
(6) Austin Cline says:

since America is not a democracy but rather a Republic

It is a democratic Republic, as you acknowledge, which means that democracy is at the heart of the American political system. Thus if libertarianism is incompatible with democracy, it’s incompatible with a defining, essential feature of American politics.

If you think that libertarianism’s incompatibility with democracy is a good thing, or at least something neutral, why do libertarians not promote knowledge of this more widely? Why not shout it from the rooftops? Surely it’s not something that libertarians are ashamed of, right?

I notice that you didn’t answer David Boaz’s question. Interesting.

November 13, 2011 at 4:35 pm
(7) Dave Y. says:

Libertarianism has been a code word for Fascism for the past twenty years!
the fact that they believe in corporation/government conglomerate says it all folks, then you just have to look who backs them in Europe, and that would be the Catholic Church, and to put it real simple, anything the catholic church thinks is a good form of government is completely suspect since they were the backers of Fascism in world war II and their backing of Dictators since their beginnings!

Fascism by any other name is nothing but Fascism!

January 20, 2013 at 9:59 am
(8) Jimmy Page says:

How is this discussion even related to Atheism?

January 21, 2013 at 9:25 pm
(9) Austin Cline says:

How is this discussion even related to Atheism?

It’s related to atheism because of the extensive popularity of libertarianism among atheists.

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