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Democracy in America 2004

It barely exists.

by James Leroy Wilson
April 8, 2004

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Democracy in America 2004_James Leroy Wilson-It Barely Exists

I have written some critical words about democracy over the past year. Following the work of Hans Hermann Hoppe in Democracy: the God that Failed, I have concluded that Frederic Bastiat was right: "The State is the great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everybody else." Democracy has the allure of taking from the rich to help the rest of us. It has the added allure of providing for a "higher calling" of bonding the people together for public service and sacrifice - Democracy is the first refuge of those liberals who detest traditional religion. And it appeals to a sense of fairness - "one person, one vote."

And actually, it is not democracy itself that is the problem, it is the great Modern plague of nationalism - the centralization of power. As Lord Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The more power is transferred from local to national government, and the more responsibilities the national government seeks to provide (charity, health care, wage and price controls, banking), the more powerful and corrupting it becomes. Democracy on such a large scale is inherently corrupt - it corrupts politicians sacrificing honesty for votes, and it corrupts the people who now believe they are entitled with their votes to control the wealth, lives, and customs of strangers in distant states for their selfish economic well-being or moral satisfaction. No campaign finance law or other "reform" can possibly fix this.

This national democracy isn't even real, for it is based on the false pretense that anyone could be well-informed about national affairs. The United States as a whole is just too large in area and population for anyone to really know what's going on or what ought to be done. Particularly, national democracy places too much trust in "the people" acting through the national government to manage the economy. Here, ignorance is so vast that people tend to agree with whatever economic "solutions" would be most personally satisfying. You'd think that the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 would establish the fact that governments are unable to manage economies.

If the people aren't well-informed, then whatever their votes may say, the outcome can't possibly be "democracy." How can people give their consent to something about which they are unable to comprehend?

For democracy to genuinely exist, then, it must be on a small, local scale, acting on indiviudals directly. Laws involving property, the environment, crime, and culture must be as local as possible. Many things in the global and national economy may directly affect the individual, but the "economy" can not be controlled politically. Where the individual can exercise some knowledgeable and direct democratic control is in his own community - something he is well-informed about.

Local democracy is not only a better-informed democracy, it is more democratic in and of itself. In the federal system, one vote is among several hundred thousand to determine a Congressman, one of millions to determine a Senator, and one of a hundred million to determine a President. But it doesn't take many votes to determine the election of local boards and local officials. If more power devolved to the states of the Union, and further devolved from the states to counties, municipalities, townships, and even neighborhoods, the more democratic our nation would really be.

But I think there are additional pre-conditions for democracy to truly exist. Democracy is not the "poor and huddled masses" seeking economic justice. Likewise, democracy is impossible if the people are not free. The purpose of democracy and of civil government should be to determine property rights and the rules for community life. Three requirements - the requirements for freedom - must exist for there to be genuine democracy instead of mere voting:

1. The right to keep and bear arms. In the antebellum South, slaves were not allowed to own guns. It is no accident that they were then denied the fruits of their labor - instead getting "cradle to grave" care. (It is also no accident that modern liberals who favor high income taxes and the welfare state are hostile to the right to bear arms.) The right to protect yourself - the right to life - is necessary to freedom. If the people are not free, then their votes are not genuinely democratic but rather a striving for personal security or advantage.

2. The right to move - to "vote with your feet." No one must be compelled to live under laws he finds inhospitable to his interests. Life is unfair to everyone, and therefore people make trade-offs. They might live with small local injustices than make the sacrifice to move elsewhere, or do the opposite. But no democracy ever built a Berlin Wall. Mass migration from a locality would be evidence that taxes were too high and/or laws unjust and oppressive, and/or "public" services were inadequate. If people are free to move, then local governments would serve, rather than exploit, their local populations.

3.Respect for property rights. If majority rule or police powers can arbitarily take from one to give to another because somebody persuaded the majority that this is "just," then no one really has any property rights - everything is subject to the tyranny of a majority.

Democracy must be local for it to be well-informed. But even in those conditions, the people must have the right to life and self-defense, the liberty to leave, and the protection of property from arbitrary control. If they are not genuinely free - if government is the master rather than the servant of the people - then there is no democracy at all.

Democracy might create many laws outsiders might find tyrannical - from Sunday-closing laws to obsenity laws, to laws regarding sexual conduct. to laws prohibiting smoking in private restaurants, to excessive taxes. But when these laws are confined to local communities, at least dissenters are free to leave, to "vote with their feet."

There are three types of civil government:

1. That which protects life and property, but then leaves us free to do as we please (my preference);

2. Government which reflects the values of the local community;

3. Government which is the master of the entire country.

It is ironic how advocates of "social democracy" and "neo-conservativism" advocate #3, even though nothing is less democratic or conservative than forcing top-down national social policies throughout the nation

Comments (3)


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Jonathan Wilson from Chicago writes:
April 8, 2004
James Leroy Wilson for President! Or, um, governor, or mayor, or school-board. Anyway, thank you for an excellent and educational article.

Marc B. from Harlan, IA writes:
April 8, 2004
Great article. There is a man running for president in 2004 that asks, Do you want government to be your master, or your servant? That man is Aaron Russo of the Libertarian party.

PaulM from Somewhere in Florida writes:
April 15, 2004
Tired arguments...

So democracy is sloppy. Is that big news? It's a work in progress, not a lofty ideal.

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