‘Democracy can’t be fixed. It’s inherently broken’

An Interview with ‘Beyond Democracy’ Co-Author Frank Karsten

1. What specifically motivated you to write this book?

As far as Karel, my co-author, and I knew there was no easy to read, structured, and concise book showing the inherent weaknesses and dynamics of democracy from a freedom loving perspective. Of course many libertarians have written on the subject and we are indebted to them, especially Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s ‘Democracy, The God that failed’. But Hoppe’s book is a collection of academic essays and touches on things we don’t and vice versa. Our book is for the average person but I also think seasoned libertarians can learn lots from it.

Many people still believe democracy equals freedom. And many libertarians still believe the proper road to more freedom is through the democratic process. Many non-libertarians are convinced democracy needs fixing but find no problem with the fundamental democratic principles themselves. Our book refutes those notions. Democracy is the opposite of freedom, almost inherent to the democratic process is that it tends towards less liberty instead of more, and democracy is not something to be fixed. Democracy is inherently broken, just like socialism. The only way to fix it is to break it up. You couldn’t fix socialism by replacing Lenin for Trotsky or the Russians for Cubans. And you can’t fix democracy by legally restricting payments to presidential candidates, by barring felons from voting, changing the voting age, or replacing Bush Jr. with Obama, et cetera.

Another reason for the book is that writing structures your thoughts and thereby brings you to new ones. While writing we came upon new insights that we of course included in the book. Fifteen years ago I was an ignorant proponent of democracy, ten years ago I thought it had serious drawbacks, and after writing the book I think it’s much worse than that.

To be clear, we don’t want to withhold democracy from people and we don’t begrudge others a democracy. Also, we don’t claim that democracy is worse or better than dictatorship and neither that the problems we describe in the book are exclusive of democracy.

2. The first myth about democracy that you seek to debunk is the idea that voting in an election empowers the individual. But even many libertarians vote. How do you explain this?

There are several reasons I think. First, as a libertarian, you want to advance liberty and voting seems a way to do it. Although I generally consider voting immoral, voting for the least bad option can be a good thing. Note that generally such a vote is rather impossible to cast since many self-declared freedom loving candidates end up robbing you of liberty too when in power. As the late Harry Browne has pointed out, voting for the least bad party can be counterproductive since they know freedom loving people have no other option than to vote for them and therefore these parties have little incentive to improve their political goals towards more liberty.

Secondly, even when your libertarian-leaning candidate seems totally unlikely to rise to power or to have any significant political influence, getting him or her in a parliamentary seat will provide a serious stage to gain media coverage. Ron Paul certainly achieved that and through his candidacies many people were confronted with libertarian ideas, or at least with the term libertarian. I am a great fan of Ron Paul and if I were an American citizen I would probably vote for him, mostly symbolically, but such candidates are extremely rare. But still, spending hours, days or even months  studying politics and finally casting your vote in the voting booth is a big investment for such an astronomically small influence.

Thirdly, many libertarians still see the democratic process as a way to gain more freedom. But this is a fallacy. The democratic process almost inevitably leads to less freedom.

3. You claim that democracy is not politically neutral. What kind of political ideology is embodied in democracy?

It’s clearly collectivism, the idea that we need to decide upon things collectively – note that this could really be anything – and the outcome of these processes need to be followed by everyone, also those who don’t favor it.

In a democracy every voter is inclined to collectivise his personal goals. And politicians want more power and money and collectivisation of society offers that. Civil servants, as the great economist Ludwig von Mises pointed out, tend to vote pro-state and this is a self-reinforcing mechanism. It leads to ever more people being dependent on the State and thereby favorable of it. The same applies to the welfare system into which ever more people are drawn. History has shown this. All democracies suffer from it.

A good way to look at politics is to view politicians and the State as human farmers and citizens as the livestock. The human farmers (i.e. the Republican and Democratic Parties) do indeed have opposing interests but not towards the livestock, as the latter seems to think. They both are in the business of exploiting citizens but disagree strongly on who should collect the billions or trillions in proceeds. Both Republicans and Democrats have greatly expanded taxes, expenditures, debts and government meddling in the lives of companies and individuals while both have regularly claimed to reduce government.

4. You quote the American economist Walter Williams who observed that many people firmly resist democratic decision making in the areas they personally care about. Is advocacy of democracy a mass exercise of hypocrisy?

I do not see it that way, whereby I define hypocrisy as ‘Rules for others, exceptions for myself.’ People have been given the idea that things need to be decided upon democratically, they don’t necessarily agree with the outcome but do agree with the process. And also, many things democratically decided upon seem free because the State will pay for it, and the State raises many taxes stealthily. So people are inclined to let the State run sectors like education, health care, social welfare, et cetera. It’s apparently free and individuals can conveniently delegate their personal responsibility.

Another reason is that people think they will belong to the majority and therefore want to decide democratically on certain matters.

It might not be hypocrisy but more like selfishness. Democracy is a system whereby one can legally exploit others, you just need the majority vote.

But there’s lots of hypocrisy I think when people vote. They vote for stuff like wars or Third World aid, but would never spend a dime on it personally. They are in favor of allowing asylum seekers and vote accordingly but would certainly not like to have them in their own neighbourhood.

5. One of the arguments in favor of democracy is that it permits the “peaceful transfer of political power.” What do you make of this argument?

This is indeed one of the few advantages of democracy, in that way mankind has grown and rulers, like during the Roman empire, are rarely killed anymore during a power change. Also no wars are fought over it. But it is a peaceful transfer of tyranny. Democracy is like a war against the minority, and actually against the people itself since many things happen in a democracy that very few citizens want, but special interest groups do.

The business model we propose in the book, a market for governance, will very likely also result in a peaceful transfer of power, without minorities being oppressed. Corporations normally don’t change power through killing the CEO and some members of the Board of Directors.

6. In your book you also identify the growing centralization of power as problematic. Do you think political democracy and centralization are related?

Yes I do. Like I explained earlier, democracy leads to everyone trying to collectivise personal goals, thereby centralizing power.

In a free market companies have a tendency to form cartels and monopolies since they aim for profit maximization. But this hardly poses a problem since every individual has the right to start competing businesses and challenge the cartels. This essential safety valve lacks in governance, resulting in continuously growing governments.

7. Are you just seeking to change people’s minds or do you think there are successful strategies to limit the power of democratic governments?

Ideas generally come before actions so these have to change first. Von Mises once said that ideas are more powerful than armies and I think truth will always win in the long run, so I am optimistic. But it’s very hard because democracy is the largest faith on earth, only eleven countries in the world do not claim be be democracies, and these ideas are so ingrained in people’s minds, even freedom loving individuals.

I know not of successful strategies for limiting government power except by escaping government through secession or citizens or corporations moving to other countries.

The problems of democracy are inherent. It’s like having dinner with a million people and deciding up front the bill will be split evenly. Everyone has a strong incentive to order more than he would individually, resulting in a huge bill that everyone deplores but no individual could do anything about. Democracy therefore has a very limited self-cleansing capability. Our politicians have a natural short-term outlook since they are only temporarily in office. They will overspend, overtax and overborrow knowing their successors will have to deal with the negative consequences. Besides that, they spend other people’s money anyhow.

Beyond Democracy

One of the remarkable features of democracy is that no major political ideology is comfortable with it. Modern liberals insist upon a long list of “rights” that limit the scope of democratic decision making. Conservatives have traditionally been wary about excessive involvement of the (uneducated) masses in political decision making. Classical liberals (or libertarians) want to limit the scope of government to such a degree that there is little room left for democratic decision making, if anything at all (in the case of anarcho-capitalism). In fact, classical liberalism can be conceptualized as a rejection of collective non-unanimous decision making. Despite the fact that a rejection of political democracy is implied in a strict interpretation of liberalism, it is only quite recently that a firm rejection of democracy has become an important theme in classical liberal scholarship.

There are at least three reasons for this: (1) the growing recognition that democracy is not politically neutral but, given some realistic assumptions about human nature, will produce a sharp increase in government spending and regulation; (2) the emerging discipline of public choice (the economic study of politics), which is elucidating the microfoundations behind political failure and waste; and (3) the recognition that in a society without government the question of the proper form of government can be sidestepped altogether.

Beyond Democracy: Why democracy does not lead to solidarity, prosperity and liberty but to social conflict, runaway spending and a tyrannical government, a recent publication by Dutch libertarian authors Frank Karsten and Karel Beckman, distinguishes itself  from other recent classical-liberal publications about democracy in that it aims to bring all the major criticism of political democracy together in a well-written, highly quotable little  book. There are a lot of complicated issues in political philosophy and classical liberal scholarship but making the case against political democracy is not one of them. One could argue that many defects of democracy can be attributed to the joint effect of the irrationality of voting and Milton Friedman’s classic observation that spending someone else’s money on someone else is the worst way to make spending decisions. In Beyond Democracy Karsten and Beckman take aim at 13 myths about democracy:

  • Myth 1 – Every vote counts
  • Myth 2 – The people rule in a democracy
  • Myth 3 – The majority is right
  • Myth 4 – Democracy is politically neutral
  • Myth 5 – Democracy leads to prosperity
  • Myth 6 – Democracy is necessary to ensure a fair distribution of wealth and help the poor
  • Myth 7 – Democracy is necessary to live together in harmony
  • Myth 8 – Democracy is indispensable to a sense of community
  • Myth 9 – Democracy equals freedom and tolerance
  • Myth 10 – Democracy promotes peace and helps to fight corruption
  • Myth 11 – People get what they want in a democracy
  • Myth 12 – We are all democrats
  • Myth 13 – There is no (better) alternative

Beyond Democracy is first and foremost a popular work written to educate the reader. There are a number of passages that could be more effective but because they can be restated without substantially modifying the core claims about the flaws of democracy I will confine myself to a number of comments and suggestions for improvement.

Despite the occasional study that purports to claim that high income earners benefit the most from (subsidized) government services, democracy is usually a poor deal for them. They cannot be blamed for wondering if they would have been better off in the “state of nature” instead of submitting to a social “contract” that extracts more money from them than they would ever spend on these services if they were sold on the free market, including protection of their wealth. One of the most misleading ways to look at how the rich fare in a democracy is to look at their tax rates. Warren Buffet’s secretary may pay a higher rate than her employer but Buffet indisputably sends a lot more money to the government. Such a practice would not be possible in a free market because companies that would price their products and services as a percentage of the consumer’s income would quickly lose customers to a competitor.  The outcomes of democracy may be a bad deal for almost everyone, but the one person, one-vote rule renders the wealthiest people defenseless by definition.

Moving to another topic, there is something to the “myth” that democracy fosters peace. Steven Pinker makes a reasonably strong empirical case for this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Of course, since most modern democracies are also connected by trade, it is hard to tell what it is more important; commerce or democracy. Pinker admits that there is one distinct advantage of commerce:

The pacifying effects of commerce…appear to be even more robust than the pacifying effects of democracy. A democratic peace strongly kicks in only when both members of a pair of countries are democratic, but the effects of commerce are demonstrable when either member of the pair has a market economy.

One might also add that commerce itself is a peaceful activity, something which cannot be said about the operation of (democratic) government.

In modern democratic countries it can be safely assumed that government will seek to abolish conventional forms of money and establish a fiat currency. Karsten and Beckman’s discussion of this topic is generally sound but suffers somewhat from the Austrian bias to highlight examples of governments causing economic recessions and depressions by increasing the money supply (or manipulating interest rates). But as economists such as Milton Friedman and today’s market monetarists make clear, government can also create problems by not responding to an increased demand for money. In a free market with competing currencies, banks ensure the neutrality of money by bringing the demand and supply for money into equilibrium. Increasing or decreasing the money supply is not wrong as such, but only relative to the demand for money.

Another part of the book that has an Austro-libertarian flavor to it are claims about the (ultimate) unsustainability of the modern welfare state. Many libertarian authors have a tendency to look at the growth of government as a downward spiral, culminating in ‘fascism’, followed by debt-default and collapse. A different perspective, however, is that modern democracies simply stabilize around an equilibrium where around 50% of GDP is being re-distributed and episodes of excessive regulation and taxation are followed by (transient) episodes of some deregulation and small tax decreases (‘neoliberalism’). Absent a cultural change about how people think about the merits of collective choice, a more likely scenario may be Anthony de Jasay’s “churning society” in which income is pushed around in so many ways that most people cannot have the slightest idea whether they are gaining or losing from this wasteful spectacle.

In case the reader had not noticed, the authors end their book by emphasizing that their perspective is informed by libertarianism. I suspect, however, that the strongest arguments against political democracy are not ideological in nature but can simply be derived from decision theory and an evolutionary perspective. A single vote has a negligible effect on the outcome of an election, regardless of whether one is a socialist, liberal, conservative, or a Ron Paul supporter. As the authors write, “voting is the illusion of influence in exchange for the loss of freedom.”

Then why do people vote? The most plausible explanation is that humans have participated for a very long time in small groups where “political” participation did make sense. Whenever we are placed in a situation where we are at the receiving end of a collective decision our first impulse is to participate and not approach the issue from a probabilistic perspective.  The authors propose a “new political ideal” but in future editions of this book they might consider restating their aim as a depoliticized society. One of the “root causes” that makes people support democracy is to expect benefits from classifying an individual problem as a collective choice challenge. For the average person, regardless of political persuasion, this is not an effective way of solving problems, especially when the number of people subject to government keeps increasing by further centralization.

To promote their case against democracy the authors have launched a website at beyonddemocracy.net. Frank Karsten also agreed to an interview for this website.

Against Politics: 15 book recommendations

One of the best ways to communicate the general outlook of a website is to recommend a set of books that embody its perspectives on a variety of topics. Since its inception in 2000 the outlook of Against Politics has undergone some changes but there are a number of core interests that have remained the same: empiricism, non-cognitivism in ethics, an interest in (Hobbesian) contractarianism, philosophical anarchism, sociobiology, and a critical perspective on (electoral) politics. The following books reflect these topics and can command the recommendation of the writer of this website.

1. Hans Reichenbach – The Rise of Scientific Philosophy

Hans Reichenbach was one of the greatest 20th century empiricist philosophers and his brand of empiricism is distinguished by a greater emphasis on the probabilistic nature of knowledge and pragmatism. A more rigorous statement of his views can be found in his seminal scholarly work Experience and Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations and the Structure of Knowledge.

2. Nassim N. Taleb – Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

Nassim N. Taleb is mostly known for his writings on Black Swan events, but of broader interest is his general skeptical outlook. In Fooled by Randomness Taleb documents how poorly we are equipped to deal with the probabilistic nature of the world and how our thirst for certainty and our tendency to see patterns everywhere leads us astray.

3. Edward Osborne Wilson – Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Edward Osborne Wilson is the godfather of sociobiology and in this work (review here) he aims to bridge the gap between the biological and social sciences and seeks to resuscitate a project held dear by the early logical empiricists; the unification of science. Wilson is not trained in philosophy or philosophy of science but this “disadvantage” is mostly offset by his sane outlook on human nature.

4. Paul H. Rubin – Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom 

‘Ought’ implies ‘can’ and Paul Rubin’s excellent book Darwinian Politics treats the topic of what we can reasonably expect in political and economic affairs based on our knowledge of human evolutionary biology.  Humans are poorly equipped to recognize the non-zero sum nature of capitalism and the futile nature of (electoral) politics.

5. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending – The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution

In this book (review here) Gregory Cochran & Henry Harpending drive another nail in the coffin of the idea that modern humans have not undergone meaningful genetic change. There is no reason to expect a “psychic unity of mankind” and social scientists who still embrace such notions do so at the cost of understanding human nature and human biodiversity. Also recommended is Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (review here) who treats the deep history of humanity from a similar perspective.

6. L.A. Rollins – The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays

L.A. Rollins’ devastating critique of natural rights exposes the careless reasoning that has been employed by libertarians who argue that people have “rights” prior to any agreement or contract. As such, The Myth of Natural Rights (review here) is a sad reminder of how much time and effort libertarians (and conservatives) have wasted by arguing for nonsensical positions.

7. David Gauthier – Morals By Agreement

In what may constitute the most rigorous work in moral philosophy to date, David Gauthier uses decision- and game theory to develop a Hobbesian account of moral contractarianism. To prevent appeals to intuition and circular reasoning, Gauthier seeks to derive morality from a minimalist (instrumental) conception of rationality and shows how self-interested individuals seeking mutual advantage will accept moral constraints on their conduct.

8. Jan Narveson – The Libertarian Idea

Jan Narveson takes Occam’s razor to David Gauthier’s  moral contractarianism and aims to show that a general agreement to respect each other’s (negative) liberty is the only kind of agreement that can command general endorsement. Such an agreement excludes coercive income redistribution and raises questions about the legitimacy of government itself. This work presents the best introduction to libertarian philosophy that neither pursues natural rights nor utilitarianism.

9. Anthony de Jasay – Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy and Order

Anthony de Jasay is the most important social philosopher of our time and all his writings are highly recommended. Against Politics is a collection of essays on a variety of topics such as political contractarianism, constitutionalism, income redistribution, and the economics of ordered anarchy. One of the great virtues of Jasay’s writings is his ability to reconcile academic rigor and common sense.

10. Bryan Caplan – The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

In The Myth of the Rational Voter economist Bryan Caplan employs economic reasoning and empirical evidence to explain why democracy leads to poor public policy. The average voter has a strong incentive to be rationally irrational about politics and the economic ignorance of elected politicians is evidence of this. This book provides no less than the microfoundations of political failure. Also recommended is Randall Holcombe’s From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of American Government. Holcombe uses a public choice perspective to show how the rise of democracy leads to a decline of liberty.

11. David Friedman – The Machinery of Freedom: A Guide to a Radical Capitalism

David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom is a fine example of modern anarcho-capitalism. This informally written book presents classic economic arguments to argue that the market does not just excel in the production of ordinary consumer goods but that the market should be expected to excel in providing justice, police, and defense as well. David Friedman’s article A Positive Account of Property Rights is highly recommended, too.

12. Edward Stringham (ed.) – Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice

Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice is an ambitious collection of classic articles on anarcho-capitalism, public goods, polycentric law, and criticism of minimal government.

13. Gregory Clark – A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World

Gregory Clark’s book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World is a Darwinian perspective on the rise of modern capitalism and the persistence of economic inequality between nations. The industrial revolution and rising living standards in the West are not explained by favorable geography or institutions but by natural selection (“survival of the richest”). An interview with Gregory Clark about his work is available here.

14. George A. Selgin – Less Than Zero: The Case for a Falling Price Level in a Growing Economy

George Selgin is one of the most interesting economists working in the classical liberal tradition and his small book Less than Zero (PDF) outlines the case for a productivity norm that permits prices to respond to rising productivity or negative supply shocks as a superior alternative to zero-inflation or positive-inflation norms. Selgin’s discussion of  monetary disequilibrium and nominal income targeting has also contributed to the rise of market monetarism. His treatment of free banking can be found in another great work,  The Theory of Free Banking: Money Supply under Competitive Note Issue.

15. Steven Pinker – The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

One of the most ambitious contributions to social science ever written. Pinker makes a persuasive case that the rise of commerce, classical liberalism, and secular reason have greatly contributed to the decline in violence. Among the weaker points in the book are his treatment of the feasibility of ordered anarchy and his rather blasé attitude towards the violence and coercion that is associated with the normal operation of government. An extensive review essay of this book by this author is available here.

Voting anarchists

One of the longest ongoing debates in anarchism concerns the morality of voting. Thomas Woods has weighed in and not only believes that it is not immoral to vote, but that there are good reasons to vote for a candidate such as Ron Paul. He writes:

If you were stuck in a prison camp, and the guards let you vote on whether you were to have gruel or prime rib for dinner, would you be “consenting to the system” to vote for prime rib, or would you simply be doing the best you could under the circumstances to improve your material condition?

It is not clear in Woods’ example if anyone else is voting so it does not address the most obvious reason why many people in mass democracies do not vote; the recognition that there is an extremely small probability that your vote will decide the outcome, and therefore is quite a futile exercise.

Austrian economists define rationality as purposive behavior. This makes it harder to adapt the framework in which it can be hypothesized that it is irrational to vote. As a consequence, Austrians are not able to launch a research program to investigate the implications and consequences of this phenomenon for public policy. In contrast, classical economists like Bryan Caplan, who are not burdened by such a vacuous definition of rationality, have made useful contributions to the microfoundations of political failure.

One implication of the statement that not voting for Ron Paul “hurts the cause of the free society” is that it posits a “free society” as a goal that should be pursued by rational individuals. This approach reinforces the politicization of individual decision making and implies that a free society is the product instead of the absence of politics.

Much of what we call political behavior is most likely a remnant of our ancestral past where one person’s opinion and behavior mattered a lot more and the relationship between people could be characterized as a zero-sum game.

As Patri Friedman has observed at Overcoming Bias:

In the ancestral environment, pulling together to help the tribe in a time of crisis was the best way for an individual to survive.  In our modern environment, however, we are often led to identify with an entire nation as our “tribe”, and it turns out that this is an inefficiently large group for most types of collective action.  We evaluate the prospect of unity with ancient mental modules optimized for Dunbarian tribes, and that sphexishness leads us into disastrous collective ventures…Anytime you get excited about collective actions in supra-Dunbarian groups, you should be suspicious that you may be in monkey-mode… anytime you are arguing about politics as if you can do anything about them, then unless you are very wealthy or powerful, you are probably in monkey-mode.

In contemporary society the ancestral mindset still dominates, but it is hard to see how the cause for a “free society” will be strengthened by reinforcing it.

In August 2011, Stefan Molyneux (for this views on voting, listen to this) released a video aimed at addressing arguments by libertarian economist Walter Block about libertarian anarchists such as Wendy McElroy and Molyneux himself who do not support Ron Paul’s political campaign. Stefan objects to Ron Paul’s incoherent “constitutionalism,” discusses the costs and benefits of political action, presents anarchism as a multi-generational effort, and also gives a Burkean perspective on what might happen if a libertarian President would attempt to roll back the state in a country where libertarianism is a minority outlook (social unrest and violence).

If you think of a libertarian society as an emergent outcome that arises from evolving social interaction between rational individuals instead of an “ideology” that requires people to conform to categorical imperatives like the non-aggression principle, a lot of the debate about the morality of voting is not useful. Stefan’s treatment of Block’s arguments is not confined to such a moralist perspective; he also discusses what Wendy McElroy calls”non-ideological objections to electoral politics,” such as the effectiveness of changing things that are within individual control versus participating in collective action. He seems to recognize that one of the consequences of advocating people to vote and campaign for Ron Paul is to induce them to adopt a rigid and politicized framework for thinking about personal liberty.

Anarchist economists routinely contrast the operation of a free market with collective choice but many of them do not recognize that the postulates about individual decision making and value in their economic theories present major challenges for traditional thinking about morality, collective action, and (electoral) politics. In an older post on this topic Wendy McElroy quotes Sunni Maravillosa to contrast her individualist perspective with that of the voting anarchists:”What happened to the understanding that liberty is, first and foremost, an individualistic idea and pursuit? How did it happen that to achieve liberty we must all unite and act as one, pulling the great lever for The One Man Fit to Rule Us All.