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Posts Tagged ‘Majoritarianism’

A pure democracy, where 51 percent of the people have the right to do anything they want, is not a desirable form of government. It means tyranny of the majority.

That’s why America’s Founding Fathers instead created a constitutional republic, not only because they wanted to limit the power of the central government but also because they wanted certain rights to be inalienable – i.e., guaranteed and protected even if 99 percent of the population feel otherwise.

Some pundits and some lawmakers in Washington either don’t understand this part of American history or they want to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Fortunately, Senator Lee of Utah is not one of those people, as illustrated by this recent tweet.

This elementary observation rubbed some people the wrong way.

Indeed, it even generated a hostile article by Nathaniel Zelinsky in the Bulwark, an anti-Trump site operated by former Republicans.

This message fits a growing and disturbing trend. Among the conservative intelligentsia, especially in certain legal circles, it has become stylish to view self-governance as nothing more than a means to a very particular set of ends. And should “conservative” policies lose out in the democratic process, then liberal democracy itself should go. …Among Federalist Society members, a group once defined by a commitment to judicial restraint to protect democracy, one today hears about “active judging”—the notion that life-tenured jurists shouldn’t hesitate to strike down popularly enacted legislation. …these tendencies share a common endpoint: Upset the delicate bargain of American democracy and impose a narrow set of preferences on the rest of us. And it’s exactly this vein of illiberalism that Senator Lee tapped into. …Yes, the Founders crafted a constitutional structure that prevents the majority from easily imposing itself on a minority and places some hard limits on the government’s powers. But Senator Lee’s attack on “rank democracy”…leaves little room for…collective self-government.

At the risk of understatement, Mr. Zelinsky’s attack on Senator Lee is completely incoherent.

The Utah Senator was celebrating the “classical liberalism” of America’s founding principles. Senator Lee was extolling a system that protects individual rights.

That’s the opposite of “illiberalism.”

To be sure, there are some folks on the right who don’t embrace those values. But Senator Lee isn’t one of them.

This isn’t a new controversy, by the way. Writing last year for the U.K.-based Guardian, Quinn Slobodian accused “neoliberals” of favoring economic freedom over democracy (in Europe, they often use “neoliberal” as a term for libertarians).

The ideal world described by these indexes is one where property rights and security of contract are the highest values, inflation is the chief enemy of liberty, capital flight is a human right and democratic elections may work actively against the maintenance of economic freedom. …The definition of freedom they used meant that democracy was a moot point, monetary stability was paramount and any expansion of social services would lead to a fall in the rankings. Taxation was theft, pure and simple, and austerity was the only path to the top. …Pinochet, Thatcher and Reagan may be dead. But economic freedom indexes carry the neoliberal banner by deeming the goals of social justice forever illegitimate…the indexes help perpetuate the idea that economics must be protected from the excesses of politics – to the point that an authoritarian government that protects free markets is preferable to a democratic one that redesigns them.

Unlike the Zelinsky piece, Slobodian’s column is actually coherent.

He wants untrammeled majoritarianism, at least when he thinks it will result in bigger government.

And he’s correct that classical liberals reject that approach.

But we have good reasons for that skepticism. Writing earlier this year for the Foundation for Economic Education, Professor Gary Galles explained why it’s better to rely on “market democracy” rather than “political democracy.”

In a political democracy, a majority can also force its preferences on others in any issue. That is why our founders adopted constraints on majority abuse, such as limited, delegated powers and the Bill of Rights. However, those constraints have largely been undermined. In contrast to political democracy, free-market capitalism, which reflects democratic self-government, represents a far better ideal. Its system of exclusively voluntary cooperation based on self-ownership requires that property rights be respected; no majority can violate owners’ rights. …a superior form of democracy is to remove virtually all decisions and policies that we need not share in common (almost all of them, beyond the mutual protection of our property rights) from government dictation, even if they are “democratic,” and let people exercise self-government through their own voluntary arrangements, protected by their inalienable rights.

Amen. Professor Galles is correct.

Pure democracy is simply another way of saying untrammeled majoritarianism.

And that system of government is a threat the rights of minorities – whether you’re talking about religious minorities, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, political minorities, or any other subset of the population that may be unpopular at some point with mass opinion.

P.S. Here’s an amusing Michael Ramirez cartoon about Obama and the Constitution.

P.P.S. On the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Calvin Coolidge correctly summarized the meaning of the American experiment.

P.P.P.S. If you want a horrifying example of majoritarianism in action, see Venezuela.

P.P.P.P.S. To be fair, Switzerland is a very successful example of a nation based not only on majoritarianism, but also direct democracy (my two cents is that the nation’s decentralization is the real reason for its success).

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Like many supporters of individual liberty, I’m an anti-majoritarian. I don’t want my freedom to be at the mercy of 51 percent of the population. For all intents and purposes, I want the Supreme Court to protect the country from democracy.

So, based solely on the title, I was automatically disposed to like 10% Less Democracy, a book authored by Professor Garett Jones of George Mason University.

But Garett’s book isn’t a manifesto about the American Constitution and its (sadly neglected) provisions designed to protect economic liberty. It doesn’t even mention my favorite part, Article 1, Section 8, which lists the few and limited powers of the central government.

Instead, his book focuses on a different topic. He’s arguing that we will get better outcomes if ordinary people have less influence on public policy.

And he’s not subtle about that point. The full title of his book is 10% Less Democracy: Why you should trust elites a little more and the masses a little less.

All of a sudden, I was less instinctively favorable to the book.

Simply stated, there are too many cases where the elite tends to be on the wrong side.

When someone says we should trust the elite, I envision people like Mitt Romney and Michael Bloomberg deciding everything from how much tax we pay to what food we’re allowed to eat.

To be sure, people like that would produce a much better outcome when compared to having a lunatic like Bernie Sanders in charge of the government, but I’d like to have a government filled with people who are more likely to leave me alone, such as Calvin Coolidge, Grover Cleveland, and Ronald Reagan.

But you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. And that means you shouldn’t judge it by its subtitle, either.

So I took the bold step of actually reading the book (unlike, for instance, when I wrote about Nancy MacLean’s smear job against James Buchanan).

And I liked it. A lot. It’s well written, avoids needless jargon (you don’t need to be a trained economist to understand his points), and touches on many important issues.

And Garett does a great job of dispassionately providing evidence. So even when he made points that rubbed me the wrong way, I was forced to wonder whether I was thinking with my heart rather than my head.

Here’s a small sampling of why you should buy – and read – the book.

In Chapter 1, you’ll learn that there’s very little evidence that democracies produce better economic results, but you will learn that they’re less likely to produce famine and mass killings.

In Chapter 2, you’ll learn how Congress is a “favor factory” and read Garett’s hypothesis that politicians will be more likely to support good policies such as free trade if they have longer terms.

In Chapter 3, you’ll learn that independent central banks work better (yes, feel free to criticize the Federal Reserve, but nations such as Argentina show it’s always possible to get worse outcomes).

In Chapter 4, you’ll learn from state evidence that independent judges also generate better results, at least when compared to judges that are directly elected by voters.

In Chapter 5, you’ll learn that not all voters are created equal.

In Chapter 6, you’ll learn that public policy might improve if bondholders had a bigger say in government policy, an insight from Alexander Hamilton.

In Chapter 7, you’ll learn some “public choice” insights about getting things done in Washington (whether that’s a good idea is an entirely different discussion).

In Chapter 8, you’ll learn that joining the anti-democratic European Union is the right choice for some nations, but also that the United Kingdom had good reasons for Brexit.

In Chapter 9, you’ll learn how Singapore is a huge success story with “50% less democracy.”

Garett concludes with some analysis on how to get the right amount of democracy.

His basic hypothesis is that we have too much input from the masses and he even put together his own version of the Laffer Curve to show that we would get better outcomes with less democracy.

By the way, I can’t resist pointing out that you want to be at the peak of Garett’s Laffer Curve.

With the original Laffer Curve, however, that’s not the right outcome.

P.S. Garett’s book does suffer from one sin of omission. I would have appreciated a chapter on the anomaly of Switzerland. It’s a very successful, very well-governed nation, yet it has an extremely high level of not just democracy, but direct democracy. Voters directly decide all sorts of major policy issues.

Is Switzerland an exception to the rule? Are Swiss people simply more rational than their neighbors? Does the country’s federalism-based model lead to better choices? It would be fascinating to get Garett’s insights.

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While she’s mostly known for radical proposals such as confiscatory tax rates and the Green New Deal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also made waves with recent comments about imposing “democracy” on the economy.

In a discussion last year at Ponoma College in California, I explained why majoritarianism is misguided.

For all intents and purposes, unchecked democracy gives 51 percent of the people a right to rape and pillage 49 percent of the people.

Thankfully, America’s Founders realized that approach was incompatible with individual liberty.

They drafted a Constitution that explicitly limited the power of politicians (and thus also limited the power of people who vote for politicians).

Why? Because they understood history.

Professor Victor Davis Hanson explains how they recognized the dangers of majoritarianism.

The half-millennia success of the stable Roman republican system inspired later French and British Enlightenment thinkers. Their abstract tripartite system of constitutional government stirred the Founding Fathers to concrete action. Americans originally were terrified of what 51 percent of the people in an unchecked democracy might do on any given day—and knew that ancient democracies had always become more not less radical and thus more unstable. For all the squabbles between Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison, they agreed that a republic, not a direct democracy, was a far safer and stable choice of governance. …We often think that a Bill of Rights was designed to protect Americans from monarchs and dictators. It certainly was. But the Founders were just as terrified of what that the majority of elected representatives without restraint might legally do on any given day to an individual citizen. …All consensual governments are prone to scary wild swings of mob-like emotion—and to demagogues who can almost rein in or goad the dêmos. But the Founders sought to make American government immune to Athenian-style craziness through a system of checks and balances that vented popular frenzies without a great deal of damage.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Professor Gary Galles explains the difference between liberty and democracy.

…far too little attention seems to be given to the differences between democracy—the process by which we select members of government—and liberty—the key to good government. …our Constitution and Bill of Rights…put some things beyond majority determination… Unfortunately, democracy…is entirely consistent with choices that destroy liberty…the growing reach of government makes our exercise of democracy an increasing threat to liberty, defending that liberty requires understanding the limits of democratic determination.

George Will, citing the work of Professor Randy Barnett, explains that the fight is – or should be – between statist majoritarians and libertarian constitutionalists.

Regarding jurisprudence, Democrats are merely results-oriented, interested in…expanding government’s power… Republicans…have grown lazily comfortable with rhetorical boilerplate in praise of “judicial restraint.” …all progressives are Hobbesians in that they say America is dedicated to a process — majoritarian decision-making that legitimates the government power it endorses. Not all Lockeans are libertarians, but all libertarians are Lockeans in that they say America is dedicated to a condition — liberty. …Lockeans favor rigorous judicial protection of certain individual rights — especially private property and freedom of contract — that define and protect the zone of sovereignty within which people are free to act as they please. Hobbesians say the American principle is the right of the majority to have its way. …Lockeans say the Constitution, properly construed and enforced by the judiciary, circumscribes the majoritarian principle by protecting all rights that are crucial to individual sovereignty. …Barnett says, yes, the Constitution — “the law that governs those who govern us” — is libertarian. And a Lockean president would nominate justices who would capaciously define and vigorously defend, against abuses by majoritarian government.

You don’t have to be a Randian to heartily endorse and embrace this sentiment (h/t: Libertarian Reddit).

The most cogent warning about majoritarianism comes from the great Thomas Sowell.

To emphasize the dangers of majoritarianism, I’ll close by simply citing Brazil in the past and Venezuela today.

P.S. Though I must admit that the Swiss are an example of how majoritarianism can lead to good outcomes.

P.P.S. I strongly encourage you to read what Walter Williams wrote on this topic.

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If you want to go to a Presbyterian church instead of a Baptist church, should the government be able to interfere with that choice? Even if, for some bizarre reason, 95 percent of the population doesn’t like Presbyterians?

If you want to march up and down the sidewalk in front of City Hall with a sign that says the Mayor is an idiot, should the government be able to throw you in jail? Even if 95 percent of the population somehow has decided the Mayor is a genius?

Most Americans instinctively understand that the answer to all these question is no. Not just no, a big emphatic NO!

That’s because certain rights are guaranteed by our Constitution, regardless of whether an overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens feel otherwise.

And that’s what makes us a republic rather than a democracy.

But the bad news is that many of our rights in the Constitution no longer are protected.

For instance, Article I, Section 8, specifically enumerates (what are supposed to be) the very limited powers of Congress.

Our Founding Fathers thought it was okay for Congress to have the power to create courts, to coin money, to fund an army, and to have the authority to do a few other things.

But here are some things that are not on that list of enumerated powers (and certainly not included in the list of presidential powers either):

And the list could go on for several pages. The point is that the entire modern Washington-based welfare state, with all its redistribution and so-called social insurance, is inconsistent with the limited-government republic created by America’s Founders.

These programs exist today because the Supreme Court put ideology above the Constitution during the New Deal and, at least in the economic sphere, turned the nation from a constitutional republic into a democracy based on unconstrained majoritarianism.

Here’s some of Walter Williams wrote on the topic.

Like the founders of our nation, I find democracy and majority rule a contemptible form of government. …James Madison, in Federalist Paper No. 10, said that in a pure democracy, “there is nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party or the obnoxious individual.” …John Adams said, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” …The word “democracy” appears nowhere in the two most fundamental documents of our nation — the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. …the Constitution’s First Amendment doesn’t say Congress shall grant us freedom of speech, the press and religion. It says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” …In a democracy, the majority rules either directly or through its elected representatives. …Laws do not represent reason. They represent force. The restraint is upon the individual instead of government. Unlike that envisioned under a republican form of government, rights are seen as privileges and permissions that are granted by government and can be rescinded by government. …ask yourself how many decisions in your life would you like to be made democratically. How about what car you drive, where you live, whom you marry, whether you have turkey or ham for Thanksgiving dinner?

And click here for a video that explains in greater detail why majoritarianism is a bad idea.

But perhaps these cartoons will make it even easier to understand why 51 percent of the population shouldn’t be allowed to rape and pillage 49 percent of the population.

We’ll start with this depiction of modern elections, which was featured on a friend’s Facebook page.

And here’s one that I’ve shared before.

It highlights the dangers of majoritarianism, particularly if you happen to be a minority.

P.S. George Will has explained that the Supreme Court’s job is to protect Americans from democracy.

P.P.S. Here’s more analysis of the issue from Walter Williams.

P.P.P.S. Some leftists are totally oblivious about America’s system of government.

P.P.P.P.S. Though Republicans also don’t really understand what the Constitution requires.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Looking at the mess in the Middle East, I’ve argued we would be in much better shape if we promoted liberty instead of democracy.

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Thomas Sowell, George Will, and Walter Williams have all explained that the Constitution imposes strict limits on the powers of the federal government. This means, for all intents and purposes, that it is a somewhat anti-democratic document.

And by anti-democratic, I mean the Constitution puts restrictions on democracy (not restrictions on the Democratic Party, though in this case…).

More specifically, it doesn’t matter if a majority of people want Obamacare or a Department of Education. We live in a constitutional republic, a system specifically designed to protect individual liberties from tyranny.

The Founding Fathers obviously didn’t want our freedoms to be subject to the whims of a king, but they also wanted to protect us from the tyranny of the majority.

This is one of the reasons why I’m so happy to share this short video from the folks at the Institute of Humane Studies. The Supreme Court may have wimped out in fulfilling its role of  protecting us against untrammeled majoritarianism, but at least we can understand why it’s a good idea to protect economic liberty.

I particularly like the fact that the video cites the Supreme Court’s horrific Kelo decision.

By the way, if you want to understand the other side of the debate (or if you want to enjoy a good laugh), you can peruse my post on E.J. Dionne’s failure to understand history and constitutional governance.

P.S. I applied the lessons of this video in my post about why the U.S. government should promote liberty rather than democracy in the Middle East.

P.P.S. They probably don’t realize it, but Republicans actually came out against marjoritarianism in their party platform.

P.P.P.S. There is at least one Republican who is against majoritarianism (and for the right reason). Click here for the answer.

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