Freedom and Democracy: Oil and Water

Democracy Most western states have some type of a democratic republican form of a government.  These types of governments rely on democratic elections to appoint the leaders of the republic.  Few people take the time to weigh the benefits and costs of such a system.  However, if we are to live in a system such as this, it is of the upmost importance to understand the efficiency and effects of such a system.

First, let’s look at the supposed benefits of a purely democratic system.  Power is dispersed among the entirety of the population.  The larger the population, the less power any one person has over everyone else.  Furthermore, this system allows each person to have some minute say in how the state governs their lives.  A democratic republic is slightly different.  Here, each person has an equal say, should they choose to vote, in electing a group of people who run the government.  Therefore, the power to choose these individuals is dispersed among the entire population.  However, these elected “officials,” are far less constrained in “serving” the “needs” of the public.  This is a very basic outline of the common arguments in favor of such a system.  However, there are some very glaring problems that must be addressed.

The first problem of such a system is economic in nature.  It produces a phenomenon known as rational ignorance.  In other words, a democratic system dis-incentivizes citizens from researching and being informed about both the political system and the issues that are to be addressed through this system.  Rational ignorance springs forth from the fact that time is scarce.  Every hour, every minute, every second is constrained by scarcity.  People do not have an infinite amount of time and since time is scarce, individuals must economize their time in ways that best serves their personal interests.  The problem with any democratic system is what is commonly perceived as its main benefit.  The dispersal of power means that no one person has any real say in the outcome of an election.  Rational people, people looking to economize their scarce resources, will employ their resources only if they think that doing so can accomplish a goal or task.  Taking the ten minutes to vote can certainly fall within the purview of rational people.  It is very little time and it fulfills that nationalistic desire that “good” citizens and brought up with.  However, they are much less likely to take the time to research every issue, every topic, and every political matter that their vote weighs in on.  After all, one vote among millions is statistically insignificant.  Because each individual has a scarce amount of time and an insignificant contribution to the democratic process, they don’t reap any benefits from spending the necessary time needed to become informed on the very issue they are voting on.  In other words, the rational individual in a democratic society is the individual who disregards politics altogether in order to spend his or her time on actions that can actually affect his or her life.  The result of rational ignorance is that bad laws and incompetent leaders infect the democratic system.

The second problem with democracy has to do with how individuals treat and perceive each other.  The one defining feature of every government is coercion.  Every government claims a monopoly on the production of law and how that law is to be enforced.  To clarify, coercion is the instrument through which the state establishes and maintains the laws that it produces.  This is no different in a democratic system of government.  Because of this defining feature, voters are attempting to enforce their political views on every person that falls within the territory of the state.  Interpersonal relationships are not affected by certain political views that individuals hold and vote on.  Certainly, you’d be hard pressed to find opposition to the outlawing of murder.  However, most political topics are little more than divisive opinions.  Topics such as the minimum wage, war policy, foreign policy, budgets, health care, and civil liberties are all issues with multiple sides.  Because coercion is the instrument by which political change is enacted, all democratically decided policies are enforced on everyone.  To elaborate, let’s look at the vitriol that Democrats and Republicans have for each other.  Each party vehemently opposes the other and rightfully so.  After all, each party is attempting to force the other party to live in their ideal government.  Another example is the typical Facebook feed, littered with conservatives trashing liberals and their positions, and liberals ridiculing conservatives and their positions.  There is this great myth that democracy is the process that brings together a diverse populace to collectively decide the laws of society.  In reality, it only polarizes and divides the society it pretends to bring together.  There already is a process for bringing diverse groups of people together.  It is called the market.  Even the bitterest enemies might be brought together through trade, each person only trying to make themselves better off.  The difference between the market and democracy is the decisions of democracy are coercively imposed whereas the decisions on the market occur through voluntary trade and agreement.

What are the implications of such conclusions?  If a society is to live under democratic rule, it must do so with extreme caution.  Every time an individual has a chance to vote to bring another good or service out of the market and into the power of the state, they must ask themselves if they are ready for that good or service to suffer the lower quality that will result from rational ignorance and if they are ready for the bitterness that will spring forth from the individuals opposed to the newly coerced measure.

- Will Shanahan, Contributing Editor, the Humane Condition

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2 thoughts on “Freedom and Democracy: Oil and Water

  1. I agree with every point you make here, Will. I have one question. Assuming everything in the first few paragraphs is correct, would that make the situation you described in the final paragraph impossible to reach? I think so, and this demonstrates the futility of democracy in an effective way. Thanks for writing!

  2. Will, You would benefit from reading a little Burke. The whole point of small “c” conservatism is that the mediating social institutions standing between the individual and government are where these tensions are properly worked out. Libertarians tend to view the world as homo economicus vs. the world, and progressives tend to see it as “the anointed” (read Thomas Sowell for the reference) running society on our behalves. But neither of these visions represent how human beings actually organize social arrangements, Especially those of us who are fortunate to have inherited the western patrimony. Burke’s “little platoons” are where most of the important stuff happens.

    The single biggest structural problem we face today is that the central government (state and federal) run by progressives have pretty much decimated these little platoons. Churches, schools, fraternal organizations,benevolent societies..all have had their core social missions largely absorbed by the state.

    All current political parties are held hostage to this reality. The Progressive movement has succeeded created a political model in which all the cards are in the government’s hands. The urgent need is to begin devolving this power as quickly as possible. Some to the states, some to individuals, a lot of it to the mediating institutions.

    …Uncle Patrick

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