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Democracy (Deep End)

According to Matt Lewis in the Week, “something weird is happening on the American Right.” Presumably, he means weirder than usual, which takes some doing. Nevertheless he would appear to have a point – because some prominent conservative and libertarian thinkers are entertaining some particularly odd ideas:

“Something weird is happening on the American Right. Over at Politico Magazine, Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has penned a column titled “America Needs a King.”

“Had Auslin’s strange desire not come on the heels of Pat Buchanan’s paean to Vladimir Putin, or an anti-democracy movement being championed by tech libertarians one might see this as merely an example of an academic being intellectually provocative. In other words, ‘trolling’ us.”

Can they be serious? In particular, how can a libertarian not believe in democracy? Lewis attempts an explanation:

“This is complex, and opinions vary, so I’ll try my best to summarize those who espouse this view without misrepresenting them. Though sometimes referred to as monarchists, ‘neoreactionary’ seems to be the preferred watchword. That’s not to say that some in this camp don’t really advocate monarchy, but ‘monarchy-fetishism’ might be more appropriate.

They would argue that democracy is a form of government where citizens employ coercion. As the oft-repeated aphorism goes, they believe that ‘a democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury.’ (Interestingly, they lump democracy in with communism, arguing that both are flawed, inasmuch as they ‘rule in the name of the people.’)”

Certainly, there’s no denying that electorates are capable of voting for collectivist – and therefore anti-libertarian – governments. In the 20th century, democratically-elected socialists nationalised private property and constructed welfare states across the free world. They were only stopped in their tracks when a growing middle class worked out they had more to lose than gain from the onward march of the state.

More latterly we’ve seen a different kind of socialism – one based not on the expropriation of the moneyed classes, but of future generations through unsustainable borrowing. Then there’s the special case of the Eurozone, in which, under pressure from restless electorates, member states plot and manouevre to expropriate one another.

Things were different in the ‘good old days’:

“Consider this from the neoreactionary glossary: ‘Monarchies are relatively libertarian by current standards, in the sense that the government generally consumes 2 to 5 percent of GDP, unlike modern social democracies which consume 40 to 80 percent of GDP. Legally speaking, monarchies tend to have fewer laws, but enforce them more strictly, following Tacitus’s dictum: The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.’”

It’s an interesting comparison, but a silly one. Most people would rather have a share in 60 per cent of a fortune than 98 per cent of a pittance. Furthermore, in many countries the share of wealth owned by the richest individuals is growing.

It should be said that these radical thinkers don’t actually want to overthrow democracy, but to leave it behind:

“Many of these techno-libertarians call it monarchy, but what they are really envisioning is… a system where states consist of voting markets and a sort of shareholder republic model where monarchs might compete for citizens (who are free to come and go as they please.)”

For the super-rich this is already how the world works – a choice of jurisdictions competing to offer them the lowest taxes and lightest regulations. The libertarian dream is to see this freedom extended to a much wider range of people.

For this dream to come true we would need to see a move away from national and supra-national forms of government to something more like the city-state model, in which every major urban centre has a high degree of economic independence. As with many of the world’s current city-states – such as Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore – democracy would play a limited or non-existent role. Instead of the liberty of voting at the ballot box, people would be free to vote with their feet – though quite where this would leave the old and the sick is anyone’s guess.

27 comments for: Are libertarians a threat to democracy – or is democracy a threat to libertarians?

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