The Quietist’s Case

“The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration.” J.M. Coetzee

The word “quietism” has been used to characterize a number of distinct but related phenomena. Perhaps its oldest use refers to a heretical stream within Catholicism that emphasizes self-sufficiency, mysticism, and a withdrawal from worldly affairs. Quietist tendencies have been identified in other religions such as the Islam, Jainism, Buddhism, and ultra-orthodox Judaism to identify a conscious separation from social and political engagement. In a more general sense, quietism is often used to characterize those individuals or schools of thought that (passively) accept existing political arrangements and/or refrain from political engagement. When used in this manner, the word quietism usually has a negative connotation. For example, in her take-down of philosopher Judith Butler, Marta Nussbaum repeatedly claims that Butler’s positions can give rise to a passive or hip “quietism.”

In fact, one cannot escape the impression that to some observers the type of quietism that aspires to withdrawal from political engagement is perceived to be as bad, or even worse, as someone fighting for the wrong cause. Especially in an era where social and political engagement is emphasized greatly, quietism is  seen as insensitive, immoral, or elitist – a pastime only available to the privileged.

Can a more positive case be made for political quietism? What would this entail? And how might a quietest respond to the negative perception of such a stance?

A number of secular arguments for political quietism can be identified:

1. Political quietism as a consequence of moral nihilism. If there is no objective justification for any kind of normative ethics over another, the case for advancing a particular political ideology is weakened and an individual may decide to simply withdraw from political engagement of any kind. Such an individual may respond to the political engagement of others with incomprehension, amusement, or sadness, depending on temperament.

2. Political quietism as a consequence of the recognition of the futility of political engagement. This position would extend the orthodox economic argument about the negligible effect of one’s individual vote in a democracy to political engagement in general. He can still have a preference for certain social and political arrangements but has resigned himself to the fact that, as a general rule, he has little influence over it.

3. Political quietism as a response to the irrationality associated with the practice of politics. This position emphasizes the ways in which politics triggers all kinds of ancient tribal instincts, group-think, anger, and violence. This position is well described by Joseph Schumpeter:

“The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes primitive again.”

This aversion to politics may not necessarily translate into political quietism and can also give rise to “political” efforts to replace political decision making with some kind of market-based decision making in which participants actually have “skin in the game.” If one considers politics to be a fundamental and unalterable part of life, however, an alternative response would be to withdraw from it altogether.

4. Political quietism as an aesthetic response. In this form of quietism, what is most objected to in politics is its vulgarity. To such a political quietist debating, organizing, marching, and shouting slogans debases the person involved. As Michael Oakshott wrote, “Political action involves mental vulgarity, not merely because it entails the occurrence and support of those who are mentally vulgar, but because of the simplification of human life implied in even the best of it purposes.”  He might still prefer one social arrangements over another but they would need to be achieved through education, individual virtuous behavior, and silent (non) consent. This kind of response to politics would expected to be even stronger if politics is also considered to be arbitrary, stupid, and ineffective.

5. Political quietism as a response to political alienation. An individual (or group of individuals) may decide that the political environment of their era is so fundamentally opposed to their own political outlook that any kind of political engagement would be pathetic, painful, and meaningless. This form of quietism is distinct from the general economic argument about the utility of political action and specific to time and place. A nationalist-socialist in post-war Germany, an advocate of a hereditary monarchy in the United States, a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism during most of the 20th century, etc.

Is political quietism possible? One might object that the “personal is political” and removal from politics is impossible in principle. That not to participate in politics is itself a political act. An obvious rejoinder is that this response does not leave much conceptual space between personal morality and collective action. For political quietism to have meaning, politics must refer to something beyond the rather obvious recognition that each person’s actions (or lack thereof) has effects on others. The “political” in political quietism discussed here refers to the (conscious) shaping and influencing the structures that enforce norms, collective decision making, laws, government, i.e. the “supra-individual” realm.

A milder variant of this critique is to state that you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. It seems indeed rather obvious that if a quietist position on politics is conjoined with ignorance about the political process and social-political and cultural trends in general, all kinds of unexpected, bad, things can happen in one’s life. This would be a kind of ignorant quietism – one that is mostly associated with the kind of religious quietism that categorically avoid knowledge of, and participation in, the modern world. A more secular quietism does not need to have this characteristic and can incorporate knowledge of social-economic- and cultural trends to make rational individual decisions. One  might even argue that a response that confines itself to what we can meaningfully influence actually empowers the person.

Is political quietism “ethical” (immoral, wrong, etc.)? To a political quietist of a nihilist persuasion this question is nonsensical because  it assumes the very thing that needs to be established: that there is an objective set of normative guidelines that humans can and should translate into political action. As for the other variants of political quietism, a plethora of rejoinders are available to its adherents as well. Is abstaining from futile acts wrong? How can it be wrong to withdraw from the stupidity, violence, and ugliness that is intrinsic to political activity?  The political quietist may not have an iron-clad case, but his position can draw from a wide variety of metaphysical, religious, existential, psychological, economical, and cultural-aesthetic traditions.

Does the political quietist even has to “make” or “defend” his case? There is a type of political quietism that follows from the recognition that society does not have a “goal” or “purpose” that political action should bring about (or maintain). The quietist may consider this kind of “teleological” thinking about society naive, quasi-religious, and restrictive. It is often this kind of quietism that upsets people the most because this quietist refuses to “play the game” at all.

David Gauthier revisits Morals by Agreement

“The prohibition on bettering by worsening seems to me to lie at the core of any adequate social morality.” David Gauthier, 2013

In may 2011, the York University in Toronto organized a conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of David Gauthier’s Morals by Agreement. Gauthier’s own contribution to the conference, “Twenty-Five On,” was published in the July 2013 issue of Ethics. Since Gauthier has only sporadically published since the start of this millennium, his article provides a valuable resource to understand how Gauthier’s views have changed since the publication of Morals by Agreement.

Gauthier identifies his contractarian approach as an alternative to both “Kantianism or utilitarianism” and contrasts the maximization paradigm of classical game theory with Pareto-optimization:

“Instead of supposing that an action is rational only if it maximizes the agent’s payoff given the actions of the other agents, I am proposing that a set of actions, one for each agent, is fully rational only if it yields a Pareto-optimal outcome….To the maximizer’s charge that it cannot be rational for a person to take less than he can get, the Pareto-optimizer replies that it cannot be rational for each of a group of persons to take less than, acting together, each can get.”

Gauthier’s rational cooperators (the updated version of his “constrained maximizers”) do do not “bargain” and interact on a maximizing basis but seek agreement using the principle of “maximin proportionate gain” (previously called “maximin relative benefit”). Unlike in Morals by Agreement, Gauthier does not really discuss under which conditions these issues are relevant, but perhaps they comes into play in the production of “public goods.” After all, as has been argued by philosophers such as Jan Narveson, without such an argument, Gauthier’s Lockean proviso can do all the important work without having to consider the distribution of goods arising from public action. As Anthony de Jasay has written:

“Output is distributed while it is produced. Wage earners get some of it as wages in exchange for their efforts; owners of capital get some of it as interest and rent in exchange for past saving. Entrepreneurs get the residual as profit in exchange for organization and risk bearing. By the time the cake is “baked,” it is also sliced and those who played a part in baking it have all got their slices. No distributive decision is missing, left over for “society” to take.”

Interestingly enough, Gauthier has strengthened the role of his revised Lockean proviso:

“The proviso is not the whole of morality or even the last word, but it is, I believe, the first word. It provides a default condition that may be appealed to set a baseline for social interaction.”

It does not seem Gauthier has substantially revised his interpretation of the Lockean proviso. In a nutshell, the proviso forbids bettering oneself at the expense of another person. As such, the proviso can be “sharpened as a weapon of reason against parasitism.” As Gauthier appears to recognize in his discussion of “Robin Hood,” the proviso does not seem to leave much room for coerced income re-distribution where one party is worsened for the benefit of another (provided the proviso was not violated prior to this action). In his final remarks in an online discussion that his paper triggered, he writes:

“Any form of redistribution may involve a proviso violation, and so is prima facie wrong. Whether the violation is actually justified depends on (among other considerations) whether it rectifies an earlier wrong.”

While Gauthier has often followed John Rawls in characterizing society as a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage,” he now prefers the phrase “mutual fulfillment” because mutual advantage puts too much emphasis on “competitive or positional orientation” and is too restrictive. This change of wording, however, does not fundamentally change the contractarian framework that Gauthier advocates. In fact, one could argue that the word “contractarianism” suffers from a similar defect in characterizing his approach to morality.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this paper is where Gauthier reflects on the nature of his contractarian enterprise. In Gauthier’s opinion, absent a plausible justification of Kantian and utilitarian approaches, the Hobbesian contractarian approach is the only credible road to construct a modern, rational, approach to morality. As evidenced by his emphasis on the Lockean proviso, Gauthier’s contractarianism is not aimed at conferring legitimacy on whatever outcome results from markets and bargaining because this would privilege conditions that reflect prior violations of the provis. As such, his contractarianism is not an exclusive forward-looking approach using the status quo as a starting point. He writes:

“The key idea is that the best justification we can offer for any expectation or requirement is that it could be agreed to, or follow from what could be agreed to, by the persons subject to it, were they to be choosing, ex ante, together with their fellows, the terms of their (subsequent) cooperation. The hypothetical nature of the justification is clear—if, per impossible, you were to be choosing, together with your fellow humans, the terms on which you would interact with them, then what terms would you accept? Those are the terms of rational acceptance, the terms that you, as a cooperator, have good reason to accept given that others have like reason. “

In reality this requirement can, of course, produce vigorous discussion because it is rather challenging to objectively demonstrate who has unjustly benefited from violations of the proviso/contractarian approach and to what degree. This challenge is further exacerbated by the fact that over time groups that were deprived of their liberties have now been granted special privileges by governments to offset such events. It also not clear how the individualist assumption embodied in Gauthier’s contractarianism can be squared with compensating victims (ranging from taxpayers to minority groups) by any other person than the specific individual(s) who engaged in behavior that violated the proviso.

Gauthier discusses three different objections to his contractarian approach.

The first is the objection that only actual contracts are binding. Gauthier replies that “actual agreement would not show that the terms agreed to were rational, since it privileges existing circumstances. The contractarian test, in taking the ex ante perspective, removes that privilege.” This perspective may sound overly optimistic because it requires that people who think about ex-ante agreement reach a specific determinate result (see below). In response to Gauthier, however, one could argue that there is an interesting asymmetry here. While the existence of a contract does not necessarily reflect (non-coerced) rational agreement, a person who denies and can demonstrate not having agreed to a certain obligation (as is the case with most government obligations) provides reasonably good evidence that the contractarian test has failed.

A second objection to the contractarian framework is that it is redundant. If it is rational to act in a certain way, than the appeal of a social contract is superfluous. Gauthier answers that this misses the point because individual rational behavior will not tell us what it would be rational to agree under “suitably constrained circumstances.” As with the first objection, it is clear that Gauthier, like Rawls, wants to push the reset button on existing circumstances to allow for a social agreement that does not privilege existing conditions. What is really important for Gauthier is to show that a rejection of existing conditions as a starting point does not follow from an (arbitrary) moral conviction but is required by his contractarian framework, a non-trivial challenge.

The third objection, and in my opinion the strongest, is that an appeal to ex-ante agreement does not yield a sufficiently determined result. One might even go further and argue that the substance of hypothetical agreements cannot be established in a meaningful fashion.

Gauthier disagrees and refers the reader to his paper on “Political Contractarianism,” where he outlines which kind of society would pass the contractarian test. Most readers read some kind of (moderate) libertarianism in his political writings (he also wrote a back cover endorsement of Jan Narveson’s “The Libertarian Idea”) so it would seem that in Gauthier’s view rational agreement produces classical liberalism, perhaps with some allowance for a very limited welfare state based on mutual insurance arguments (Gauthier’s own writings are not particularly clear here).

Gauthier may not sufficiently recognize that his emphasis on voluntary association, the Lockean proviso, and rejection of parasitism puts him at odds with many other philosophers and people. In particular, his position that there is a morally relevant distinction between “harming” and “failing to help” is a core libertarian belief that is not shared by many. When most people think about a (hypothetical) social contract they do not think about the terms of interaction (like Robert Nozick’s side constraints) but about specific conditions they would like society to conform to such as equality of opportunity or equality of income. Absent these conditions, they will “reject’ the society they live in, regardless of whether such conditions can occur without worsening the position of anyone. Similarly, Gauthier’s writings strongly reflect the perspective that non-zero sum interactions between people prevail in markets that pass the contractarian test, a position that does not seem to resonate with many people yet.

Both Gauthier’s approach to morality and his view of society as a cooperative venture for mutual fulfillment is far removed from the democratic “churning society” that we live in today. Gauthier seems to be very much a philosopher of the future, or of a society with people of high intelligence. This would be consistent with Steven Pinker’s perspective, who writes in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” that the General Social Survey, which tracks the characteristics of society in the United States, contains hints that “intelligence tracks classical liberalism more closely than left-liberalism” (p. 663).

Buddhism, science, and the political mind

One of the complaints about science is that it does not offer any moral guidance. It can describe reality and causal relationships but it does not tell us how we should behave. One can accept such a situation as a fact of life but most people are drawn towards belief systems that do offer such moral guidance. What is interesting about Buddhism, or at least its more (modern) secular versions, is that it both seeks to understand reality and to offer moral and “spiritual” guidance as well. This of course presents a problem. Science also seeks to understand reality but the consensus is that if there is anything we are learning about reality it is that life has no objective meaning and the idea of objective, person-independent morality is an illusion.

One of the perplexing things about Buddhism is the assumption that gaining a correct understanding of Reality (typically written with a capital R) will trigger a corresponding change in our moral outlook. For example, when a person comes to realize that the “self” is an illusion, a lot of moral misconduct will disappear. Unfortunately, getting rid of such “illusions” about the self is neither sufficient nor necessary for moral progress. Great moral progress has been made in countries where people are firm believers in the existence of an unchanging self and many moral defects have been identified in countries where a belief in the illusion of the self is encouraged. In fact, the belief in a self is interesting because it has been both praised as a guard against nihilism and as an illusion that undermines morality.

Despite its appearance of being a secular open-minded belief system, Buddhism rests on a rather strong premise about the beneficial effects of seeing the “real” nature of reality. But contemporary science does not support such strong statements about reality. Like any other topic in science, our understanding of reality is subject to continuous revision. It might even be possible that we live in a computer simulation and “reality” outside of it is quite different from what Buddhists believe.

One of the most level-headed discussions of Buddhism and science is Donald S. Lopez’s Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed. This book is a detailed exposition of the history of discussions about the compatibility of Buddhism and science. The author recognizes that the position that Buddhism  is compatible with, or even supported by, science is as old as Buddhism itself and provides reasons why Buddhism more than any other “religion” is prone to such statements. In the end, however, Buddhism is recognized as a rather diverse and dynamic belief system and whether it is compatible with science depends on what is exactly meant by “science” and “Buddhism.” It is clear that a lot of historical expositions of Buddhism contain claims that are now known to be scientifically incorrect.  This raises the question how much of Buddhism can be rejected before it is no longer Buddhism.

One of the most uncomfortable claims in Buddhism concern the origin and nature of the universe. As Lopez writes, “all of the religions of the world asserted that the world is flat. This belief, in turn, was held so tenaciously that when it was first suggested that the world is not flat, those who made such a suggestion were executed.” Most secular Buddhists would not mind claiming that the Buddha was wrong about this and that these beliefs are not the essential doctrines of Buddhism, but as Lopez writes, “yet once the process of demythologizing begins, once the process of deciding between the essential and inessential is under way, it often difficult to know where to stop.” Which raises, once more, the question of why not to reject Buddhism completely and embrace a thorough scientific, empiricist perspective on life.

A counter argument is that Buddhism offers things that science cannot offer such as deeper metaphysical insights into the nature of reality and ethical truths. But the modern scientific mind is exactly distinguished by claiming that no objective truths should be expected here. In particular, there is no credible method, to deduce such ethical truths from metaphysical “facts.” There are not many rigorous analytic philosophical treatments of Buddhism but those that exist, such as Mark Siderits’ Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction, have identified several problems and challenges. If Buddhism (even in its most modern, secular, form) is subjected to the kind of scrutiny that has been applied to thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Carnap, and Kant it is not likely that it can survive in its current form. At best it will be just another philosophical “school.”

A very sympathetic account of Buddhism, and its relation to contemporary (neuro)science and philosophy is Owen Flanagan’s The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. Flanagan goes out of his way to give the most charitable reading of modern secular Buddhism but in the end he confesses, “I still do not see, despite trying to see for many years, why understanding the impermanence of everything including myself makes a life of maximal compassion more rational than a life of hedonism.” Perhaps this is because there simply is no necessary, logical, connection between recognizing the nature of Reality and specific moral and lifestyle choices. While Buddhists usually do not like being accused of being negative and pessimistic it can hardly be denied that more cheerful, care-free, implications of the idea of impermanence can be imagined (and have been imagined).

How would Buddhism look like if it really would be serious about making adjustments to its (core) beliefs based on science? For starters, it would treat each belief as an hypothesis that is calibrated when new evidence becomes available. But how many Buddhist publications are really serious about this? Such work is typically done by sympathetic outsiders but the result never produces a full endorsement of core Buddhist beliefs. Although Buddhism seems to be able to survive in a modern secular society it still has its share of ex-Buddhists who feel that it is still too dogmatic and unscientific. In his article “Why I ditched Buddhism” John Horgan writes:

“All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d’être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science’s disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.”

There is one element in Buddhist thinking, however, that can throw an interesting light on the “political mind.” Buddhism is not explicitly political although some followers have made attempts to politicize it, culminating in a rather artificial movement called “Engaged Buddhism.” Buddhism teaches that nothing in reality is permanent and emphasizes the continuous birth, transformation, and rebirth of things. What sets the political mind apart is that it looks at society as a whole and wants it to conform to an arbitrary idea about political justice or efficiency. While this aim can be even perceived as unrealistic and delusional for a small group, it borders on insanity for a world composed of billions of people. When political activists recognize that the world cannot be easily manipulated in such a fashion, or run into the unintended consequences of their policies, frustration, anger, and violence often ensue. This “thirst” for control of the external world has often been ridiculed by Zen Buddhist monks and this kind of “suffering” can be successfully eliminated if the ever-changing nature of reality is recognized.

There is a growing literature about the psychology and even neuroscience of political beliefs but much of this work does not examine the most basic questions. What exactly is a political belief (or ideology)? Why do some people choose political engagement and others seek to make less grandiose changes to their personal lives and environment? Can political ideals be satisfied or does the ever-changing nature of reality (and slight deviations from any ideal) suggest that politically engaged people chase an illusion and political happiness will be brief at best. To my knowledge, there have not been many publications in which Buddhist premises have been employed to argue against the idea of political ideology and “activism”, although it seems an interesting connection to make. Such a Buddhist argument would solely emphasize personal kindness instead of the (futile) desire to make the world conform to a specific idea (and the ensuing “suffering” if reality does not want to conform).

‘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.