Going through my morning news feeds, one Washington Post headline caught my eye. E.J. Dionne Jr., proposed that “Fighting for Democracy is the key” to reboot President Joe Biden’s popularity. However, as is common to such commentary, he holds up political democracy as the ideal. Yet in truth, it is a seriously flawed ideal. In fact, as F.A. Hayek noted years ago, “all the inherited limitations on government power are breaking down before … unlimited democracy … the problem today.”
Perhaps the most blatant evidence against the idea that moving toward more democracy must be an improvement is the frequency with which policies and candidates claiming majority support advance coercive measures that take from some to give to others. Biden has certainly done far more than his share of that already. But that is robbery, which violates universal moral and ethical condemnations, making it less than an ideal.
Political democracy comes up short as an ideal in many ways. An ideal would avoid violating individuals’ established rights. It would be responsive; people’s choices would have to matter. It would give people incentives to become well-informed and think carefully about policies. It would require powerful incentives to deter dishonesty and misrepresentation. It would have to be limited in scope, to keep every choice from being subject to majority determination.
It is hard to think of government policies that do not violate some people’s rights. Such violations are, in fact, often the main driver of policy (e.g., price controls), even though they violate the central function of a government advancing its citizens’ well-being – defending existing rights.
In contrast to democracy-extolling rhetoric, virtually no one’s vote changes electoral results, so “democratic” results are not responsive to individuals’ preferences.
Voters also typically face binary votes on initiatives or “electable” candidates, who represent bundles of policies and promises, some of which the vast majority of even those who voted for them object to. That is a long way from giving voters power to effectively exercise their desires. The least harmful option, not the most preferred, is frequently chosen.
Voters also face very limited incentives to think carefully about policies, illustrated by vast numbers who don’t even know their political representatives’ names. That is largely because individuals’ market votes with their dollars changes their outcomes – better matching their circumstances and preference – while public policy voting does not.
Politics also imposes fewer effective constraints on dishonesty and misrepresentation than market arrangements. Beyond greater “customer” ignorance, politics has no truth-in-advertising laws, money-back guarantees or effective warranties.
Politicians’ wares are not easily evaluated, either, since they are promises about candidates’ future intentions, rather than products that can be evaluated. Further, many of them have no possibility of coming to fruition, guaranteeing that policies will be very different than promises. And even then, they will finesse objections to that fact by claiming they got the best deal that was actually possible, even though it was different than promised.
In 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. Individuals’ dollar votes change their outcomes, even when their preferences are not the majority’s preferences, making them far better informed than they are about politics. There also are more mechanisms providing honesty and accountability.m
Holding democracy out as an ideal overlooks the question of whether market democracy or political democracy better serves citizens. And if that is the end in view, a superior form of democracy is to remove virtually all decisions and policies we need not share in common – almost all of them, beyond the mutual protection of our property rights from government dictation – even if it is “democratic,” and let people exercise self-government through their own voluntary arrangements, protected by their inalienable rights.
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.