Mises Daily Articles
Is Democracy for the Demos?
Who benefits from democracy? To believe the standard reply, the masses — the demos — benefit from majority rule. I no longer accept that notion.
I recently finished Étienne de La Boétie's The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. The book is powerful, indeed. The essence of his argument is that the tyrant rules by the will of the people, as no other means exists for one man to control the fates of millions.
While the whole book is challenging and thought provoking — a truly wonderful read — it was a small section of Part III that pulled me in and launched me on a tangent.
La Boétie notes that the tyrant and his chiefs rarely live out their natural ends. No, they tend to die at the hands of those closest to them. What accounts for this state of affairs? It is the fear that one's supposed allies are real threats — they likely are. And it is this fear that drives the power-seeking toward nighttime adventures and assassinations.
Since power is ever and always intoxicating, is the order of government the issue? While it is true that, as power increases and becomes more centralized, violence and assassination become the likely means to transition from oppressor to oppressor, does it necessarily follow that democracy is a better arrangement?
Democracy has allowed for peaceful transitions from one ruling elite to another (or, between different factions of the same elite). It is likely the most suitable arrangement to transfer power without bloodshed. But what is the benefit of democracy to me, the common man? Is it to celebrate those rare occasions when the majority views the world as I do? For even a tyrant will occasionally rule in my favor.
Democracy is no benefit to those enfranchised. A man may cherish democracy during his time in the majority and worship it when his views are no longer in the majority. But is this freedom? Is liberty nothing more than accepting the majority at all times, under all costs?
Liberty requires the ability to use one's body and property in any manner, as long as those actions do not collide with the liberty of others. And when collisions occur, a judge or arbitrator decides each case based on property rights, and property rights only.
In a democracy, liberty is simply the right to cast a vote for or against an issue or candidate, and then to accept the decision of the majority under threat of the apparatus of coercion and compulsion. Here, in essence, the political die is cast, with the singular vote having no effect. The voter must abide by an outcome even though he disagrees, and will likely lose property and property rights in the end. This arrangement is no different from one where the voter casts a symbolic vote, a vote that remains uncounted, with the outcome already determined by the whims of the tyrant.
In either situation, the voter must accept the will of someone else. The right to vote, and the right to have that vote counted, changes nothing.
It would appear that democracy benefits the rulers, as democracy alone has provided the most consistent means for those formerly in power to sleep and die in peace.
And the same holds for the courtiers, nomenklatura, and apparatchiks. These sycophants need no longer dread midnight's knife and muffled cries, and the subsequent crowning of a new king. The elite and bureaucracy can retire to their farms and while away their passing years without fear — their riches and posterity intact.
As I see it now, democracy is not to the advantage of the demos, it is to the advantage of the power elite. Something to think about.