Democracy as virtual Civil War


The main idea: in terms of avoiding civil unrest, mass democracy is at the very most the fourth-best option available, and clearly underperforms systems that could quite easily be implemented tomorrow, even without doing away with the state.

Democracy, gentlemen

Democracy, gentlemen

1. High pretensions

1.1 Anarcho-capitalists are left unimpressed, if not frightened or even disgusted, by the depths of the modern worship of democracy. A host of moral and ethical arguments disprove the notion that by topping the bureaucratic apparatus with an elected echelon we make our government less of an aggressor against personal property.

1.2 An interesting debate though, starts once we accept, for the time being the existence of a government: does democracy still count a second-best alternative to a Free Society? I will try to explore the two arguments for democracy that appear to be more than poetry: that democracy avoids civil unrest and that it provides a crowdsourced second best algorithm for approaching just laws.

2. Starship Troopers

2.1 Ludwig von Mises was no friend of omnipotent governments. His ideal world seemed to have been composed of a myriad of small, democratic, ethnically homogeneous and (what we’d consider today) minimal states bound by the Rule of Law. His firm belief in the democratic method was not due to any ideological love, but rather sprung out of the conviction that any political system but democracy would ultimately produce civil unrest, disrupting the division of labor upon which any advanced urbanized society depends.

2.2 The best –known answer to this position came from Murray Rothbard who, in his Power and the Market (see chapter 5.5) notes how the modern democratic process is far from what we’d expect had it been designed to avoid turmoil. Rothbard proposes several ‘improvements’ aimed at bringing the result of an election closer to what would result from a civil conflict: voting to be made difficult, public and time-consuming, no voting rights for women and elders, multiple votes to individuals with military training, and so on.

Democracy indeed

Democracy indeed

2.3 Rothbard relies on the reaction that these tongue-in-cheek proposals cause in most readers to show that, since almost no one would like such a democracy, than the purpose of democracy is not really to avoid civil conflict. This conclusion may not follow, though.

2.4 Current mass democracy can still meaningfully lower the frequency and/or severity of civil unrest even if it has not been consciously optimized for that purpose. Knowing our Hayek, we will not deny that the democratic ideal may have risen due to a thousand reasons, none of which may have had anything to do with the Misesian analysis, and yet thrive precisely due to its effect on civil strife.

2.5 Though very few may have felt  inspired by democracy 2.0 as ‘proposed’ by Rothbard (still I suspect that Sean Gabb’s analysis   of Starship Troopers could change a few minds), our uneasiness does not mean that such a system wouldn’t necessarily  be better at preventing civil unrest. Those who’d stand to lose form such a shift will surely not like any such proposal and most of those who’d gain would still vote it down. But none of this means that, should it be implemented, a voting process specifically designed to simulate civil war wouldn’t confer an additional advantage to any society adopting it.

3.  Back to the aristocratic republic

3.1 We can follow Rothbard’s path further. That mass democracy is not as good as it could be in preventing civil unrest becomes clear if we take into account several facts.

3.2 First, few would contest that Western European governments are anything but fully democratic. Still European capitals have often been rocked by violent riots. Second, judging from the ease with which military coups have been staged to replace democratic governments, one can easily see that votes do not translate well into bullets. Even when such military juntas fall, they would seem to quit rather than be thrown out.

Note to others, never quit

Note to others, never quit

3.3 Third, political scientists debating different electoral systems and/or government structures remind one that a country can go very far indeed in distorting pure popular opinion (for example, by adopting a pure majority system or electing a strong President) without suffering any noticeable increase in civil violence. If anything, the strongest civil violence would seem to erupt in countries with more representative political systems. Thatcher may have had to play English Civil War with the unions, but nothing remotely violent as 1969 in France or Italy ever happened in the Isles.

3.4 All these inconsistencies with the theory that ballots replace bullets can be smoothed once we see that voting, as currently practiced, allows one to express one’s opinion but not the intensity of one’s opinion. Unions or ‘civil servants’ may indeed be a numerical minority in most (many, at least?) countries, but they are often quite ready to go through a lot of trouble to have their way, while most other voters may only have a nominal interest in the issues at hand: how else to explain the silly turnout rates one sees in most elections?

3.5 Once we see how mass democracy equates the vote of a determined supporter of liberty with the vote of a meek supporter of statism (or the other way around), we can easily see how deviations form mass democracy must not necessarily lead to civil unrest, or that a pious practice of the democratic religion may not necessarily shield one form such occurrences.

3.6 The intensity of one’s opinion may very easily be factored into the democratic process by a simple reform: making the ballot tradeable. If, a month or so after the last election, every eligible voter was issued with a transferable ballot, good for casting a single vote in the next elections, and allowed to do what he pleased with such a ballot, including selling, gifting, tearing it up, the intensity of the voter’s opinion would easily and readily be measured.

3.7 Indeed, one can expect turnout rates of near 99% in such a system (why withhold one’s vote if it can fetch a price on the open market?), the disappearance of much ‘noise’ caused by all but the most determined voters (all others would prefer to get some money instead of voting) and, quite probably, the death of politics as we know it: why waste millions in electoral campaigns and party machines if one can simply purchase enough votes to elect one’s self?

3.8 Indeed, the whole dirty underbelly of modern politics would come out clean: lobby groups would simply pay to buy votes instead of stalking the shady corridors of power, letting everyone get a good, clear look at the real face of politics. The actual oligarchic nature of power would show itself, and gain much in efficiency along the way.

3.9 Transferable votes would also give us something closer to efficient laws, as the voting process would mimic the competition between Friedmanite protection agencies. Of course, this could not be much more than mimicking, since in a Free Society one could still chose a given law for himself without imposing it on everyone else. But a step in the right direction it would be anyway.

3.10 It should be noted that, once votes are transferable, the importance of almost any other aspect of the electoral process would plummet. The electoral result would be impacted far less by who gets to receive the initial votes. Changing district boundaries, voter qualifications (even a la Rothbard) and even the whole political system would probably yield very similar results in the end, since those who value the vote most would, in any case, get to vote.

3.11 Of course the distribution of the monetary benefit of selling votes would change dramatically if we meddle with electoral rules, but that would be of secondary importance to anyone thinking about protecting the division of labor.

3.12 Thus, we can say that tweaking the electoral rules to simulate the result of civil war would only get us so far, and at a large cost. It would be far easier to simply make votes transferable, and receive e series of other benefits in the process.

4. City states, again

4.1 But even an assembly elected by transferable votes would not be the second-best system to anarchy, but only the third-best. A setup that would limit civil unrest even more, take into account the strength of opinion and provide for multiple (though not infinite) solutions exists, and libertarians have been lauding it for quite some time: a world of city states.

4.2 It has been remarked that revolutions are a public goods, and are thus underproduced. Indeed, going from personal dissatisfaction with one’s government to a full-blown revolution is so complex that it rarely happens. But the citizen of a city state has an option to vent his anger in an almost costless way to himself: leave. The smaller a country is, the easier is it to flee, and the more realistic ‘exit’ becomes as opposed to either ‘voice’ or ‘fight’.

4.3 Indeed, we can note that most current micro-states and city states are much more authoritarian than larger states: Monaco can afford not to take into account the stated opinions of its citizens as they’d rather flee than try, at great risk to themselves, overthrowing the government. If France where to do the same, it would face much, much more resistance.

4.4 If ‘benign dictatorship’ even had any chance of materializing, this could only have happened in private businesses and small states, in both cases due to the ease of exit. Professor Hoppe’s monarch can only reign in Lichtenstein as, should he try his luck in France (as many decent monarchs did), or even in my own smallish country, the point will come when the enlightened monarch’s opinion of good policy will differ from that of vocal and determined minorities, eventually resulting in a violent overthrow. It does little good to provide an incentive for the government to behave, if that government cannot behave as it wants to for fear of violence.

Isn’t that right?

Isn’t that right?

4.5 To conclude, we must heavily qualify Mises’ belief in democracy as the only alternative to civil unrest: if one must have a state (and one may, for the time being), and if one must have large states (and one must not) than we still must at least prefer a transferable vote system to today’s mass democracies which are running Western Societies to the ground.

4.6 Mass democracy, at the very most, comes up to a distant fourth-best option (I myself would cede that spot to military dictatorship, but let us indulge our fellow citizens). Of course, no one should be counting that much down the line.

(Part 2 to follow)

One thought on “Democracy as virtual Civil War

  1. […] previous post tried to analyze the claim that mass (i.e. representative) democracy is the only realistic […]

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