Libertarianism and Democracy

Will Wilkinson has a fantastic post on the anti-democratic tendencies of libertarians. Will says many things I agree with, and some I disagree with.

Which brings us to Theil’s boneheaded quip about women’s suffrage. Extending the franchise to women is, in my estimation, one of the great triumphs of the American classical liberal tradition. Like the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage was rooted in the rejection a shameful tradition of paternalism that held that some classes of people are less than fully able to govern themselves. I cannot see how anyone who accepts basic liberal assumptions about freedom and equality can see the establishment of equal political rights as anything but an unequivocal good… unless he rejects the legitimacy of politics in principle. I think this is were Theil was coming from.

But if politics is in-principle illegitimate, it was illegitimate before women got the vote, so why bring it up?

I certainly agree that women’s suffrage was a great victory for libertarian ideals: political equality is a core liberal value and any political system which denies some people a voice in political decision-making based on anything as superficial as genitalia is indeed shamefully illiberal. As I’ve said, I do think Thiel’s words were poorly chosen, but I don’t see anything illiberal about him pointing out that female suffrage did in fact lead to policies libertarians disagree with. I’m not sure why he brought it up (it was a throwaway remark, and wasn’t at all central to his argument), but I don’t think he deserves the large helping of scorn he has received from those who incorrectly inferred he wished to return to the good old days of male-only suffrage. To point out a negative consequence of something is not to condemn it in its entirety. I see Will’s point, but I think he’s being too harsh.

Will continues:

By bringing it up as a reason why democratic progress is hopeless, Theil does make it sound like he the problem’s not democratic politics per se, but democratic politics without good prospect of producing the right answer. But liberalism starts from the recognition that free and equal people don’t agree about the right answer but need to find a way to live together anyway. The secessionist instinct does seem illiberal insofar as it’s based in the frustration that resonable pluralism fails to generate consensus on the right answer — even when the content of the right answer is a radical version of liberalism. And Theil’s comment seemed to imply that political recognition of the fundamental equality of persons is not only tangential to the right answer, but might even get in the way at arriving at it, which is just screwed up.

Liberalism does start from the recognition of reasonable disagreement and the need to avoid the conflict this could potentially cause. If you’re not an anarchist (which I’m not), you think that some collective decisions are required. The results of these decisions can be better or worse from a libertarian perspective, but we need to be mindful of the procedural justice of the decision-making rule. Male-only suffrage is horribly unjust, even if it produces our desired result on other issues.

Any reasonable conception of liberalism, though, should also aim to ensure that when reasonable disagreement is allowed to persist without being the object of collective decision whenever possible. Nobody thinks we should vote on what type of shirt we should wear and all be bound by the result of the collective decision. Libertarians don’t think we should vote, for example, on how we should educate our kids or what substances we ingest for recreational reasons. The question is not how collective decisions should be made – I certainly want them made by some sort of democratic procedure – but what decisions should be made collectively.

One problem with democracy is that is that the scope of collective choice is endogenous. New issues can be brought to the agenda and voted upon. This is a big problem if, like me, you think that political behaviour is more about signalling what values you hold and what sort of person you are than it is about rationally and impartially deciding on what things should be subject to government intervention. Skilled political entrepreneurs can win votes by politicizing issues people care about. Don’t want your kids taking drugs? Let’s ban them altogether! What better way to show your disapproval?

I tend to say a lot of nasty things about democracy. In my own case, this is partly because most people say so many moronically nice things it. It may be the best system we’ve ever tried. It may even be the best system we’re ever going to have. This does nothing to alter the fact that an immoral act does not become moral just because 50% + 1 of voters are in favour of it. The tyranny of the majority can, and frequently does, severely fuck over minorities.  The fact that a decision was democratically reached is not a trump which puts it beyond moral questioning.

A democratic system constrained by proper constitutional limits could potentially solve these problems. Unfortunately, it’s not clear whether government can be prevented from performing acts which a majority of people demand in the voting booth. This is why people like Thiel want to escape politics altogether: democracy may be the best government we can hope for, but it is still pretty bad. I completely understand this desire.

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