Vox populi, vox dei

I’ve been thinking over Erik’s post about libertarians and democracy, and I’ve been taking the opportunity to think over my own attitudes toward democracy, and how compatible with libertarianism I think democracy is.

First off there’s a question of democracy per se i.e. should society be governed by popular sentiment either directly or through representatives?  This would be as distinct from rule by some narrow subset of society (oligarchy), the desires of a single person (dictatorship) or by not having any collective decision-making body at all (anarchy).  On that question I answer yes: democracy is the best collective decision-making rule we have (sorry anarchists, but I do think collective decision-making is sometimes necessary, and when it is we’re going to need voting of some kind).  I don’t think there are that many libertarians that disagree with me on that point.  Take a typical minarchist and ask them who should be in charge of their night-watchman state, and I think a large majority of them would say that some form of democratic control would be appropriate (either elected representative or rule by plebiscite).

But that’s not really that interesting a question, because how many people advocate oligarchy or dictatorship these days?  For me, the real question is: “Given that democracy is society’s collective decision-making rule, what questions should be the subject of collective decision-making?”  This is where liberals and libertarians disagree (and where conservatives and liberals disagree and where libertarians and conservatives disagree), what should society (however we’re defining society) decide, what should a given subset of society decide, and what should be excluded from collective decision-making altogether?  The essential characteristic of libertarians is that we think the realm of legitimate collective decision-making should be narrowly contained, while democracy may be the best collective decision-making rule we have it’s still a terrible decision-making rule, look at the 2008 election: Obama got 53% of the popular vote, so 47% of voters were dissatisfied, and that’s not counting the Obama voters who wanted someone else to be President (be it another Democrat or some else entirely), and the portion of non-voters who didn’t vote because they supported someone with no chance of winning.  It seems quite likely that more people disliked the election result than liked it.  By contrast most markets offer diverse options so most (in some cases nearly all) people get the thing they want.  The lesson is clear: don’t decide things collectively unless you really need to.

But that lesson doesn’t really get us anywhere – I believe nearly all liberals would agree with me that collective decision-making should be left to essential cases, we just disagree about what is essential.  And this is what our real disagreement is, not about the merits of democracy per se.  Plenty of liberals like the idea of restraining the voting public from making laws they think are outside the scope of legitimate collective decision-making, that’s what the 1st amendment does.  No you can’t order Catholics burned at the stake, even if the majority of voters think it’s a good idea.  Does a person who supports the 1st amendment oppose democracy?  Not democracy per se, but they do oppose democracy for some decisions.  In this liberals and libertarians are different in degree, not kind.  Anyone who opposes constitutionally limited government is of course different in kind, and not just degree but I don’t think that’s the argument we’re having.

That’s why I feel Lind’s argument is a bit dishonest.  For one thing he’s conflating opposition to democracy in some spheres with opposition to democracy per se, and then using the strong positive affect attached to democracy per se in the West to carry the rhetorical force of his argument.  Sure you’ll get the occasional libertarian mooning over Pinochet, no matter how inadvisable that it, but that’s just the natural sense of romance some people get when they see someone implementing ideas they like against popular opposition.  It’s not right, but it’s not a uniquely libertarian vice, and its not a reflection of libertarian philosophy.  Just about every non-anarchist libertarian want government to be restrained by popular sentiment or (slightly more feasibly) constitutional limits.  In that sense we’re no different to liberals.  One person’s democracy is another’s tyranny of the majority.

Now it may not be that democracy will always be the best rule we have, after all democracy was newly-invented once and I don’t believe in an End of History.  But right now, the only alternative I can see that looks at all promising is Futarchy, and there’s a big difference between “somewhat promising”, and “let’s go for it”.  But in the meanwhile democracy is the best we’ve got and we should stick with it in those situations where we need a collective decision-making rule.

I’ll just touch on the question of subsidiarity because this post is already getting quite long enough.  I’m not actually a huge fan of subsidiarity, but then my instincts are built with a country of 4 million people in mind, doubtless bigger countries have different needs for subsidiary government.  One thought I’ll throw in is that many people complain about the difficulty the US government has operating effectively.  The term “ungovernable” pops up occasionally.  Have look at the US’s position on this list of countries, ranked by population.  Note its neighbours and how effective they are generally considered to be on the governance front.  Now scroll down the list until you find the next relatively well-governed country.  Opinions will vary, but I get Germany: population 82m, a bit over 1/4 of the US population.  The only country above Japan I consider arguable is Japan at 128m, but their government isn’t exactly widely praised for its ability to get things done either.  Now maybe this means nothing, I’m always cautioning people to be careful of international comparisons and that applies in spades here.  But it makes me curious – is there a feasible upper a limit to a functional state, given existing information and institutional technology, and if so how big is it?  Maybe some countries would be better off breaking themselves up or at least delegating their decisions down a bit so as to avoid clogging up the system.  Maybe I should run a regression analysis of population size against the corruption index (probably a decent proxy for quality of governance) some time.

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36 thoughts on “Vox populi, vox dei

  1. For me, the real question is: “Given that democracy is society’s collective decision-making rule, what questions should be the subject of collective decision-making?”

    I think this is, roughly, the same question with which Mill begins On Liberty, his answer being only when the end of society’s decisions is self-protection. Of course, people will always claim the goal is self-protection, which is probably why he spends most of the text laying out all the instances in which society should have no say.

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    • Or maybe we should say that society has no say to say that any member has no say. :)

      In a sense, what I think Mill was getting at, to put it very crudely, is that there are all sorts of areas in which the majority should have no vote, so to speak, because human flourishing and social progress demands that they keep their damn mitts off and stop meddling. The reason for that is a majority opinion can still be false and assuming otherwise is to assume infallibility on their part and on our own. Any student of history will be struck by the fact that societies can easily, and frequently are, fervent believers in nonsense. We’re no exception.

      What’s so striking about this current populist regime of public opinion polls is that it the question is seldom asked, “is it wise to decide this question by public opinion in the first place?” So, for example, we constantly hear that a majority of the public “supports” the death penalty, and one has to ask so what? If we removed the ability to put prisoners to death would that cause them direct and immediate harm? If not, of what importance is public opinion, aside from measuring feelings?

      This isn’t to say that ‘democracy’ is “bad” or “good”, but that it has an appropriately bounded sphere which is much smaller than we might like, but is limited by a humble and sane understanding of human capacities and weaknesses. One could make the same argument about ‘the market’ incidentally.

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  2. This is a good summary of the ideas and differences we share. I don’t think anybody on the liberal side is advocating for complete majoritarian rule. Majorities have to be limited and minorities have rights. The conversations turns to poo when its moved away from ” is this a thing the gov should be involved in?” to diffuse philo terms that are devoid of context and specificity.

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  3. You said: “The lesson is clear: don’t decide things collectively unless you really need to.” This comes back to an argument I’ve found myself making very frequently: that rather than viewing ‘markets’ or whatever as the default social arrangement, we should view a fully collectivized government as the default arrangement and treat markets as a particular innovation that governments use to solve specific problems (More here: http://goo.gl/anmIa). From this frame of reference, everything is decided collectively, but sometimes the collective decision is to decide things through markets. I find this approach much more satisfying because it makes us morally responsible for the outcomes of markets, and demands that we (collectively) abolish them in certain areas if they produce results that are adverse to the general welfare.

    Secondly, one’s place on the liberal/conservative axis seems to me to be highly correlated with what you think of the Constitution as a whole — that is, is it principally negative, in that the government should not have any unenumerated powers, or is it principally positive, in that the government should have all powers except those it is denied? For a liberal, the question is of course answered by the Necessary and Proper clause and the Commerce Clause – that is, Congress is explicitly given the power to regulate any and all economic activity by whatever means it deems necessary and proper – to fill in the gaps of a ‘negative’ Constitution.

    This gives rise to what I still conceive of as a ‘rights-based’ approach. Negative powers are presented as limits on the government, but they are done so in a manner such as ‘Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of x’ – in other words, by recognizing a ‘right’ or ‘freedom’ that is prior even to the guiding social contract. It is this approach that serves to protect minority groups without relying on awkward formal mechanisms of power-balancing.

    From these two foundations – ‘default collectivism’ and ‘rights-based majoritarianism’ – I think there is a strong case to be made for a much more streamlined ‘liberal’ democracy of a kind we don’t actually see very much of. This would mean something like more accurately proportional representation accompanied by the creation of a sacrosanct ‘right to vote’ – ideals that should lead to better representation on the whole without tilting the process towards any particular ideological outcome.

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      • Yes, that’s the one view. The other (which happens to be law):

        “If no other motive for its insertion can be suggested, a sufficient one is found in the desire to remove all doubts respecting the right to legislate on that vast mass of incidental powers which must be involved in the Constitution if that instrument be not a splendid bauble.

        We admit, as all must admit, that the powers of the Government are limited, and that its limits are not to be transcended. But we think the sound construction of the Constitution must allow to the national legislature that discretion with respect to the means by which the powers it confers are to be carried into execution which will enable that body to perform the high duties assigned to it in the manner most beneficial to the people. Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, are Constitutional.”

        – John Marshall, in McCulloch v. Maryland

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        • Good retort, Mr. Daniels, but does not justify your argument that

          we should view a fully collectivized government as the default arrangement and treat markets as a particular innovation that governments use to solve specific problems

          for even Marshall admits

          We admit, as all must admit, that the powers of the Government are limited, and that its limits are not to be transcended.

          You have outrun your evidence. The “default” is not a “fully collectivized government.”

          Although in 21st century practice, I fear you are correct.

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          • Marshall’s statement is not an admission of collective limitation. It is an explicit acknowledgement that the collective has *decided* to limit the powers of this government in a specific way – and that that limitation is in itself a positive action by the full collective.

            Without that perspective, where do the limits on government come from? Remember, I’m not arguing that government should be unlimited, just pointing out that collectivism is the default and any formal government it creates has only the collectively-agreed powers and limitations. From my perspective, the powers are informed by a broad mandate for ‘general Welfare’, and the limitations are ‘rights’ as I described earlier, both arising from constitutional approval by the collective.

            I’d love to engage with an alternative theory that moves towards your conclusions, so do please respond with that if you are so inclined.

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            • Again, an ace rebuttal, Mr. Daniels. The reply is the 10th Amendment, that

              The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

              and per federalism, Madison:

              “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”

              Again, federalism is in tatters in the 21st century, but the idea was that the states and the people ran their everyday lives, not Leviathan. It was a good idea.

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              • The frequent fall back of many on States = good and Fed Gov= Leviathan appears so arbitrary and silly. Not that i don’t see the point of federalism, that is a good point. But that you pick the level of gov you like and declare it good and another is all that is evil is more convenience then meaningful.

                Quote mining can be fun i’m sure. But there are all sorts of quotes and they don’t take the place of everything else in democracy or the courts or how the future has moved on.

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              • Neither of those replies holds water. The 10th Amendment argument is a residual, in that it is wholly determined by the outcome of the disagreement over what powers are given to the federal government. Then you consider that the powers delegated to the United States include everything “necessary and proper” to “regulate commerce” for the “general welfare,” it seems like a very small residual indeed.

                Then, Madison’s personal perspective on the Constitution is overruled by Marshall’s legal precedent, as the latter holds the force of law.

                But as for the last part, I mostly agree! I think federalism is very sensible, but I also think it’s alive and well. Massachusetts has implemented a highly progressive health policy; Vermont is on the cusp of state single-payer. More conservative states are experimenting with illegal-immigration measures, like Texas’ in-state tuition support for undocumented students; and others are testing public opinion about government unions. California, among others, has decriminalized possession of marijuana; some have legalized same-sex marriage. When the federal government picks up the ideas that work and passes them on to the whole system, that seems a sensible application of the ‘laboratories of democracy’ concept that federalism was intended for originally.

                And anyway, all you have really said is that *some* government should have every power – which seems in broad philosophical terms to basically agree with my position. Whether it’s a federal or a state power is a specific question of American implementation, and I think the laws as I have cited them answers that question quite clearly.

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                • OK, I’ll take yes for an answer, Mr. Daniels. Agree w/the above exc the immigration problem, which has a federal dimension. However, McCulloch isn’t carte blanche, although I admit that’s where we are in 2011.

                  To Mr. Gregniak: “Quote-mining” is an accurate charge when it doesn’t represent the canon of the quotee’s thought. There is plenty from Madison along these lines. So pls, brother, keep it clean.

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  4. I don’t think there are that many libertarians that disagree with me on that point

    Not many, but then I say here I am.

    I think we should be lot more sceptical about democracy than we actually are. Its not clear why some kind of libertarian oligarchy or dictatorship is not better. Even given certain kinds of idealisations, public choice theory tells us that democracy is vulnerable to certain kinds of instabilities that would disqualify it from consideration in a Rawlsian framework.

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    • There are two issues I have with non-democratic collective decision-making rules:
      1) They misweight collective preferences. Now, a lot of preferences could be supplanted by technocratic thinking, but there will be some irreducibly subjective questions, and for those public opinion really is the best way to go. That’s why I’m intrigued by futarchy, it focuses voting on the parts of the political question where public opinion is called for.
      2) Bad incentives. Singapore is an obvious counter-example (yes Singapore is a democracy but not a very democratic one), but it is unique. In practice, dictatorships turn out badly for everyone, and that’s enough reason to steer clear of them.

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  5. James K,

    An excellent post. I have threeresponses, but they’re not intended as attacks on your overall argument.

    The lesson is clear: don’t decide things collectively unless you really need to.
    That lesson actually supports the argument for subsidiarity. There will be issues that “really need” a collective decision in one area of a country, but not necessarily across the whole country. Or others may need a collective decision in all parts of the country, but not need to be the same decision in each area. The larger and more diverse the country, the more each of these is likely to hold. New Zealand is rather fortunate, governance-wise, in that it is both relatively small and relatively homogenous, so subsidiarity there is less valuable.

    I believe nearly all liberals would agree with me that collective decision-making should be left to essential cases, we just disagree about what is essential.
    I am dubious about this. I think libertarians emphasize “essential,” because it is so limiting, where as liberals want less limits. I think it would be more accurate to say they favor, or at least accept with few qualms, collective decision-making except in the cases where it is essential that we not do it (e.g., free speech, sexual autonomy, etc.).

    while democracy may be the best collective decision-making rule we have it’s still a terrible decision-making rule…But that lesson doesn’t really get us anywhere
    Actually, for some I think this is the crux of the issue. The virulence of liberal attacks on libertarians who critique democracy seems to me to come from (those particular*) liberals’ desire to defend democracy from the claim that it’s a terrible decision-making rule. They’re not familiar with Condorcet’s Pardox, Arrow’s impossibility theorem, or the public choice literature in general, so they tend to have what you and I might consider a romanticized view of democracy.

    ______________
    *This doesn’t apply to all liberals, of course. Many liberals recognize democracies flaws, but think it still better than other alternatives, not just authoritarian ones, but also more market-based approaches. I also know some liberals who are wholly unimpressed with democracy because the wrong people win too often, and would sincerely prefer a less democratic government filled with the “right kind” of people.

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    • With regard to the libertarian emphasis on ‘essential’, I would like to cite Marshall again:

      “Is it true that this is the sense in which the word “necessary” is always used? Does it always import an absolute physical necessity so strong that one thing to which another may be termed necessary cannot exist without that other? We think it does not. If reference be had to its use in the common affairs of the world or in approved authors, we find that it frequently imports no more than that one thing is convenient, or useful, or essential to another. To employ the means necessary to an end is generally understood as employing any means calculated to produce the end, and not as being confined to those single means without which the end would be entirely unattainable. Such is the character of human language that no word conveys to the mind in all situations one single definite idea, and nothing is more common than to use words in a figurative sense. Almost all compositions contain words which, taken in a their rigorous sense, would convey a meaning different from that which is obviously intended. It is essential to just construction that many words which import something excessive should be understood in a more mitigated sense — in that sense which common usage justifies. The word “necessary” is of this description. It has not a fixed character peculiar to itself. It admits of all degrees of comparison, and is often connected with other words which increase or diminish the impression the mind receives of the urgency it imports. A thing may be necessary, very necessary, absolutely or indispensably necessary. To no mind would the same idea be conveyed by these several phrases.”

      I don’t think you get away from this logic just by changing ‘necessary’ to ‘essential’. But then, I’m a liberal, and I offer just one correction to your description: I don’t think of myself as ‘favoring’ collective decision-making; I see everything as a collective decision, even if the collective decision is to relegate decisions to individuals. See my comment above for more detail on this.

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      • Benjamin,

        As much as I agree with your argument further above, I don’t think it works here. My point is that libertarians will take a strong stance on determining what is “essential” or “necessary,” but that liberals don’t. I don’t see that what Marshall says in interpreting the Constitution has any bearing on the differing preferences of contemporary liberals or libertarians.

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        • Sorry, I understood you as saying that libertarians focus on ‘essential’ because it puts a definite restriction on the powers of government. As far as preferences go, I think the distinction between negative and positive enumerations covers a lot of that ground, but again, Marshall at least covers the guiding law of the United States, although it is by no means automatic that every government be constructed this way. You could in principle agree to a government that was explicitly restricted to a few powers (as we did under the Articles of Confederation) and I wouldn’t object to it on philosophical grounds, only practical ones.

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          • Wait, I’m confused. I did mean that libertarians focus on limiting democracies to ruling only on those things it is essential/necessary that they rule on. Which does create definite restrictions on democracy and government.

            And my point about liberals is that they tend to focus at the other end, on what it is essential that democracy not be allowed to decide on, while allowing it for all other things. That’s a bit over-stated, but I think the general distinction holds. Of course that also creates some definite restrictions on democracy and government, just using a standard that differs very substantially from the one libertarians use.

            Unfortunately, we seem to not, either of us, be quite clear what the other person is saying. So I’m not quite sure what else to say!

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      • Well, you’re clearly getting less ethnically homogenous (and could easily do so more quickly than the U.S. on account of a smaller base). But what about regional, ideological, and religious diversity? (I mean, I could be wrong, of course, so I ask honestly.)

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        • On the religious question we’re pretty diverse, our Christians are probably more homogeneous (lots of Anglicans), but we get a lot of immigration (for our size) from China and India. All in all it’s probably a wash.

          As for regional diversity, you’re clearly ahead of us there.

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  6. 1) This article and its predecessor seem to assume there is some sort of philosophically perfect end state that can be reasoned out and then brought into reality. There will always be people complaining about what they see as government overreach simply because they were born into a system they did not create. Even in Minarchtopia some will be denouncing the coercion of having to pay a night watchman (or whatever).

    2) Also thinking that a system that precludes your specific, desired outcomes is unfair is ridiculous. Every form of government, ever, has had changes it could evolve towards easily, changes it could evolve toward that would require more concerted pressure, and changes that would never happen without total revolution. People who philosophize about things in category 3 (things like, oh I don’t know, getting rid of democracy) should look in the mirror and say “Too bad for me, if I really want this I will need a lot more allies.”

    3) Related to this is the lament that Obama only got 53% of the vote. If you voted for him, like me and 60 million of my friends did, this seems like a great deal! Maybe next time, McCain-Palin voters. You didn’t vote and/or your candidate had no chance of winning? Too bad, better luck next time.

    4) I read the Futarchy page which says:

    Futarchy seems promising if we accept the following three assumptions:

    [assumptions 1 and 2] Betting markets are our best known institution for aggregating information.

    Hahahahahaha!

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    • 1) I was merely responding the to suggestion / accusation that libertarians are fundamentally opposed to democracy. My point is that that’s not really what liberals and libertarians disagree about. Naturally a post about the philosophical premises of different ideologies will be fairly ethereal in subject matter.

      2) I’m sure what this point has in relation to anything I wrote. Could you elaborate?

      3) I’m not a US citizen so I didn’t vote in your elections, had I, I would have voted for Obama over McCain since Sarah Plain a VP to a septuagenarian who was once tortured doesn’t strike me as a good idea. I had low expectations of him, and yet I have been disappointed. In any event, my point was merely to point out that democracy resulted in at most barely more than half of people getting what they wanted (in reality I suspect less than half were satisfied, for the reasons I gave in my post). That’s way worse than markets manage in nearly all circumstances.

      4) His assumption is backed up by evidence. There aren’t any good ways of predicting the future, but prediction markets are the best. The fact you find it ridiculous doesn’t make it any less true.

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  7. If the question is “collective decision making, yay or nay?”, then I lean more towards Yay than Nay.

    Here’s where the conflict comes in: I consider the above a different level of question than consideration of government. A state is a particular form of decision making body, which in the collective sense even when “representative” is a delegation of power to a select few. With the inherent separation from the populace they’re alleged to be acting on behalf of, I don’t see a reason for an honest self-proclaimed fan of democracy to defend this arrangement: this is not Us making the calls, but Them.

    An array of decentralized, small-scale direct democracies (note the plural)? Possibly. Right of voice and right of exit would both exist about as accurately as could be managed with that. Once you start saying “so’n’so gets the power to use force and claim it’s for us”, you’re just giving a ruling class a blank check.

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    • I’m not fond of direct democracy, I’ve read about ancient Athens and it didn’t really work that well, decision-making was still controlled by elites reminiscent of modern politicians, they just maintained their control by swaying the populace rather than through being formally delegated powers by the polity. It matters less than you’d think. As it is I think most decisions governments make are heavily influenced by popular sentiment.

      As for your point on scale, that’s subsidiarity which I didn’t really cover. On the one hand, local democracy allows communities to vary their policies to reflect local preferences. On the other hand this can easily collapse to a series of tiny tyrannies where your neighbours try to run your life in minute detail. At least in a larger state people are too busy arguing amongst themselves at to what rules to impose for them to be able to impose ones that are overly stringent (with any luck at least).

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