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Democracy is Coercive

February 16, 2000

Tags Political TheoryOther Schools of ThoughtPhilosophy and Methodology

"The liberals of the eighteenth century
were filled with a boundless optimism. Mankind is rational, which permits the right
opinion to emerge in the end. Light will replace darkness… Democracy with its
freedom of thought, speech and press assures the success of the right doctrine. Let the
masses decide; they will choose wisely…Nobody would now accept such

and Recollections

are, to be sure, free spirits in the world, but their freedom, in the last analysis, is
not much greater than that of a canary in a cage. They may leap from perch to perch; they
may bathe and guzzle at their will; they may flap their wings and sing. But they are
still in the cage…Democracy provides swarms of such men."

H.L. MENCKEN, A Mencken Chrestomathy

Mises wrote those words
in 1940, when the world was engulfed war and the cloak of statism smothered the spirit of
classical liberalism in the popular battle of ideas. Mencken was expressing his
characteristic "distaste for democracy," which he called the "dominant religious system
of the world" and "incomparably idiotic." Bluntly stating his opinion of democracy,
Mencken wrote "Democracy does not promote liberty; it diminishes and destroys liberty."
Mencken was not only vitriolic in his criticism of democracy; his larger target was
government itself.

The world at the close
of the 20th century is much different from that which Mencken and Mises doubted. But
still there is, perhaps stronger than before, an ever-present gushing faith in democracy
itself. The close of the 20th century has brought with it much praise for that form of
government called democracy. An example representative of this praise was Gerald
Seib’s recent Wall Street Journal article, in which he called the spead of
democracy "the most important development of the past centur."

Seib cites a recent
report by Freedom House that found that 62% of the world’s sovereign states are
"genuine democracies," with universal suffrage and multi-party elections. Mixed in the
millennial swirl, the dominant criticism leveled against so-called "anti-government
ideologies" is that it misses the fact that democratic governments can intervene in ways
that expand individual liberties. According to these critics, government in a democratic
nation has the capacity to improve society without oppressing us. In his New Year’s
eve speech, President Clinton also cited the spread of democracy as one of the great
achievements of the 20th century and praised it for its alleged ability to expand

Suffice to say that the
number of paeans for democracy far surpasses those trenchant criticisms and analyses of a
Mises or a Mencken.

The praise for democracy
misses the crucial nature of democracy and liberty. More than a matter of ideological
difference, such indiscriminate uncritical love of democracy is a threat to liberty
itself. As F.A. Harper wrote in his book Liberty: A Path to its Recovery,
"Probably no other belief is now so much a threat to liberty in the United States and in
much of the rest of the world as the one that democracy, by itself alone, guarantees

Why might this be? Why
would Harper, Mises, Mencken and others rail against the 20th century’s golden
child, democracy?

Democracy Still
Rests on Coercion

To answer some critics
who rise in defense of democracy, one can say that "anti-government ideology" does not
miss the fact that governments can expand freedoms. It only recognizes that
government’s expansion of these freedoms must mean unjust coercion somewhere, and
that the only true freedoms government can expand is to give back freedoms it has already
taken from the people. The only improvements that government can make involve a secession
of itself from society.

undemocratic nations may be the more oppressive governments, but that may only be because
the autocratic form of government is more specially suited to the task. Whatever the
empirical findings with regards to democracies versus other forms of government, it is
certainly clear that democracies can be oppressive.

In fact, it should seem
self-evident that, even in a democracy, a majority necessarily oppresses a minority. The
minority, of whatever size, cedes its opinion of what is right to the majority. At
bottom, this is a reincarnation of the doctrine that might makes right. The majority
rules because it is stronger. This reveals what may be the key problem of political
philosophy, the knotty problem of man’s just relation with other men. Proponents of
democracy assert to have solved the problem by creating a government with the "consent of
the governed."

However, the only
"consent" that is meaningful and just must mean the explicit individual consent of each
and every member that is to be governed (as Lysander Spooner, for one, asserted). It is
plain that no government can be said to rest on the consent of the governed in this

But apart from this, let
us dispel of a myth often thought to distinguish democracy from other forms of
government. Democracy is not unique in resting on the consent of even the majority
governed, as is often supposed. All governments exist because, for whatever reason, the
bulk of the people under its rule acquiesce. This was the critical insight of libertarian
political philosopher Etienne de la Boetie.

Writing in the sixteenth
century, in his The Politics of Obedience, de la Boetie forged his fundamental
insight two centuries before David Hume. Hume’s more famous exposition says that
government is founded on opinion, and that "this maxim extends to the most despotic and
military governments, as well as the most free and most

Mises also subscribed to
this thesis, writing in Human Action "...rulers, who are
always a minority, cannot lastingly remain in office if not supported by the consent of
the majority of those ruled. Whatever the system of government may be, the foundation
upon which it is built and rests is always the opinion of those ruled..." Mises added
that, "in the long run there is no such thing as an unpopular government." Thus, even the
most oppressive states had broad support. The Soviet Union existed for over seventy years
and it too, had the consent of the majority governed. The Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro,
has had this consent for many years.

Simply because one is
elected in one of Freedom House’s "genuine democracies" this does not automatically
confer a more moral sanction to wield authority than the claim of the dictator. The
popular acquiescence to "majority rule" is a modern day version of the popular older
belief in the "divine right of kings." Both are equally arbitrary and provide no
safeguard for the minority, be they a minority of thousands or of

As Mises saw it, "The
preferability of democracy consists in the fact that it facilitates a peaceful adjustment
of the system of government and government personnel to the wishes of public opinion."
(Notes and Recollections). Democracy provides a mechanism whereby government officials
can be changed peacefully, compared to the violent revolutions often required to
overthrow a dictatorship. This mechanism of peaceful change is an important distinction,
but does not absolve democracy of its shortfalls.

There is in a democracy,
or in any government, an entrenched civil bureaucracy that makes numerous rules and
regulations and enforces them without being directly answerable to the people. In large
part, these civil bureaucracies are immune to the superficial change in government that
may take place after an election.

The market is sometimes
compared to a democracy, where every consumer has a vote. The democracy of the market,
however, is far superior to political democracy. In the market, the wants of the minority
are better served. The market produces goods of a wide variety to suit many different
tastes and preferences. Automobiles range from inexpensive small cars to expensive luxury
cars. These vehicles are suited for a variety of purposes. Some are practical, others fit
different wants or needs. There is no such catering in a political democracy. The
minority is forced to abide by the majority’s decision of what is

Government and
True Liberty

Democracy is still
government, or to use Mencken’s analogy, it is still a cage. And government, as
Rothbard wrote, is a "criminal band." Rothbard’s criticism was aimed at all
governments, "All states everywhere, whether democratic, dictatorial, or monarchical,
whether red, white, blue or brown." Democracy is as incompatible with true liberty as a

What is true liberty? It
is grounded in the non-aggression axiom, that one shall not initiate force against
another human being. It is rooted in the Lockean notion of self-ownership and property
rights. Democracy routinely violates these rights under the sanction of the majority. It
is still a democracy that uses it military forces to bully those it does not agree with,
it is still a democracy that coercively levies taxation, punishing success and

How is this compatible
with liberty? As F.A. Harper noted, "Strange is a concept of liberty which allows you to
be forced to pay the costs of promoting acts of which you disapprove or ideas with which
you disagree, or which forces you to subsidize that which you consider as slothfulness
and negligence."

The main point is not to
blur the distinction between form and substance. Democracy is a form of government.
Democracy does not in itself provide any assurance that liberty will flourish,
constitutions, paper declarations and bill of rights, notwithstanding. More important
than form is the degree of liberty the people actually enjoy.

And that is not often
discussed. To quote again from F.A. Harper, "The test of whether or not a government is
defending liberty is to be found in what it does, not in the mechanics of its operation.
The test is whether or not the officials in any government, as well as the content of the
laws and regulations, are in harmony or in conflict with the requirements of liberty."
The world’s existing governments, democratic or otherwise, invariably fail this

Christopher Mayer is an MBA student at the University of

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