Democraphobia Goes Mainstream (Sort of)

This op-ed from Tapu Misa contains an odd mix of democraphobia (yay!) and statophilia (boo!). First the good:

The catalyst for the march was the Government daring to ignore the result of the recent ambiguously worded citizens-initiated referendum on the child discipline law.

Which means the Government is clearly undemocratic. “The people are the boss and the Government has to listen to them,” said Craig.

Well, yes and no.

The trouble with the might-is-right, majority rules brand of democracy has always been painfully obvious for those of us accustomed to occupying minority perches.

As Benjamin Franklin put it: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” In a straight-out numbers game, the lamb always loses.

I couldn’t agree more. She goes on, however, to defend a utopian version of representative democracy:

But representative democracy, as advanced by 18th century British MP Edmund Burke, promotes a higher ideal built on notions of the common good.

Burke felt MPs weren’t just delegates, elected to do their constituents’ every bidding. While “their wishes ought to have great weight”, he argued that an MP’s “unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience” ought not to be sacrificed in the process.

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

True to his convictions, Burke backed several unpopular causes during his time in Parliament, knowing that it would probably cost him his seat (which it did), but determined to show “that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong”.

He was right. Sometimes, the people can get it badly wrong.

Yes, they can. But so can those representatives they elect to lead. Afterall, they are elected by those same people who sometimes get it badly wrong. Representative democracy does have the capacity to mitigate the effects of moral panics and other short-term fluctuations in preferences. It does this by introducing some inefficiency into the transmission of preferences into policy, however, rather than by electing noble leaders.

There’s simply no justification for the assumption that politicians will be better than the rest of us. Sometimes politicians will make better decisions than the majority; sometimes worse. Representative democracy is still two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch, but with some slack in decision-making that may occasionally save the lamb when the wolves have only a fleeting craving.

As Crampton has argued, government implies a trade-off between the costs of populist democracy and self-serving politicians. When we give politicians more power in an attempt to reduce the mob-rule nature of democracy, we enable them to take advantage of the rest of us. As long as we have government, we can only ever strike a balance between these problems, never avoid both (unless we can elect wise and benevolent philosopher kings, of course, which seems to be the preferred option of many).

Still, it’s nice to see something other than democratic cheerleading from the MSM. I particularly like Misa’s conclusion:

As the philosopher and writer Ayn Rand observed, “Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by the majority (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).”

I find her proposed solution (and Rand’s, for that matter) hopelessly utopian, however. As long as we have government, there’s no way to navigate between the problems of mob rule and arbitrary power and have an acceptable degree of freedom.

Sounds like a good reason not to have government to me.

2 Responses

  1. But in this case, aren’t the Government really just protecting the rights of a powerless minority (i.e. children) from the preferences (smaking) of a powerful majority (uppity parents) as per your final quote?

    How would this issue be treated in a Market Anarchist society?

    • I wasn’t meaning to come out on either side of the smacking debate. I see smacking as a bad thing, but I’m not sure whether I think it’s something which should be stopped by force.

      I certainly think there are some cases where government does protect the vulnerable from the weak.
      The cases in which it fucks over a minority at the behest of the majority seem far more frequent, though.

      There are good theoretical reasons (expressive voting, status politics) for thinking democracy will produce bigoted policy, and history tends to confirm it. Eric and I found it remarkably hard to find examples of democratic politics actually helping an unpopular minority (compared to what they’d face under market-chosen law) to use in this paper.

      Anarchism, as any political system, is bound to leave some problems unsolved. We’re never going to live in utopia, and to compare institutions we need to think about which performs better in aggregate.

      If people in an anarchist society really objected to people smacking their kids, they could take steps to stop them. In the extreme case, they might pay their protection agency to enforce a no smacking rule.

      People generally seem pretty willing to help those in need and I’m sure you’d see action taken against extreme child-abusers, but anarchism does increase the costs of intervening in the domestic lives of others. That’s generally a good thing from a liberal perspective (it stops people from taxing your beer), but it will also lead to less intervention when intervention is justified.

      I see most smacking as a small problem at worst, and wouldn’t be too worried about it. Other things equal, you might see more outright child abuse by parents under anarchy, but it’s likely to remain uncommon and is offset by the other benefits of anarchy.

      If it makes us richer, which it should, we should also expect it to make us more “civilized,” which I expect would decrease the amount of child abuse.

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