Mises Daily Articles
The Trouble with Democracy: Maslow Meets Hoppe
[Chapter 24 from Property, Freedom, and Society: Essays in Honor of Hans-Hermann Hoppe.]
H.L. Mencken described politicians as "men who, at some time or other, have compromised with their honour, either by swallowing their convictions or by whooping for what they believe to be untrue." "Vanity remains to him," Mencken wrote, "but not pride."2
The Sage of Baltimore had it correct, that to be elected and stay elected in American politics to any full-time position requires the suspension of any ethics or good sense a person may possess. Even those who begin political careers with the best intentions and have measurable abilities that would make them successful in any field soon realize that the skills required to succeed in politics are not those required outside politics.
Lew Rockwell explains that, while competition in the marketplace improves quality, competition in politics does just the opposite:
The only improvements take place in the process of doing bad things: lying, cheating, manipulating, stealing, and killing. The price of political services is constantly increasing, whether in tax dollars paid or in the bribes owed for protection (also known as campaign contributions). There is no obsolescence, planned or otherwise. And as Hayek famously argued, in politics, the worst get on top. And there is no accountability: the higher the office, the more criminal wrongdoing a person can get away with.3
Thus it becomes "a psychic impossibility for a gentleman to hold office under the Federal Union," wrote Mencken.4 Democracy makes it possible for the demagogue to inflame the childish imagination of the masses, "by virtue of his talent for nonsense."5 The king can do the same thing in a monarchy but only by virtue of his birth.
In stark contrast, in the natural order, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe explains in his monumental work, Democracy: The God that Failed, it is "private property, production, and voluntary exchange that are the ultimate sources of human civilization."6 This natural order, Hoppe notes, must be maintained by a natural elite, which would come by these positions of "natural authority" not by election as in the case of democracy, or birth as in the case of monarchy, but by their "superior achievements, of wealth, wisdom, bravery or a combination thereof."7 This is just the opposite of what Mencken and Rockwell describe as a characteristic of democracy.
Instead, democracy affords the opportunity for anyone to pursue politics as a career. There is no need for the masses to recognize a person as "wise" or "successful," as Hoppe's natural order would require. Nor does one have to be born into the ruling family, as in the case of monarchy. As the great American comedian Bob Hope, who was actually born in England, once quipped, "I left England at the age of four when I found out I couldn't be king." Maybe because he knows he can never have Prince Charles's job, Sir Richard Branson — knighted for "services to entrepreneurship" — sticks to business and reportedly owns 360 companies.
But, as Hoppe explains, democracies have expanded, and since World War I have been viewed as the only legitimate form of government. In turn, more people who have been successful at other pursuits are running for political office or becoming politically active. For instance, more and more wealthy billionaires are entering the political arena. While the wealthy tycoons of a previous generation were private and tended to covet seclusion, today's captains of industry such as Ross Perot, Michael Bloomberg, and Jon Corzine are running for office.
And while Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and George Soros haven't sought public office personally, they spend millions of dollars on political contributions and are visible in trying to sway the public debate on political issues, when their time would obviously be more productively spent (both for them and everyone else) on other, wealth-creating endeavors. Plus, a quarter of all House members and a third of all members of the Senate are millionaires.8
There may be politicians that pursue elected office for the money, but many elected officials are already wealthy by most people's standards. What makes the wealthy and otherwise successful want to hold office? Is it, as Charles Derber describes in The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life, that politicians since "Caesar and Napoleon have been driven by overweening egos and an insatiable hunger for public adulation"?9
The work of psychologist Abraham Maslow may provide an understanding as to why even successful entrepreneurs would seek public office. Maslow is famous for his "hierarchy of needs" theory that is taught in most management classes in American universities.
The theory is generally presented visually as a pyramid, with the lowest or most basic human need — physiological need — shown as a layer along the base of the pyramid. Maslow's view was that the basic human needs — thirst, hunger, breathing — must be satisfied before humans could accomplish or worry about anything else. The next tranche within the pyramid, shown on top of the physiological need, is the safety need. After satisfying thirst and hunger, humans are concerned about their continued survival. If a man is constantly worried about being eaten by a tiger, he doesn't concern himself with much else.
The next layer presented within Maslow's pyramid is the belonging need, which lies just above safety need. After the satisfaction of the two lower needs — physiological and safety — a person seeks love, friendships, companionship, and community. Once this need is satisfied, according to Maslow, humans seek esteem. These first four needs were considered deficit needs. If a person is lacking, there is a motivation to fill that need. Once the particular need is filled, the motivation abates. This makes these needs different than the need at the top of Maslow's pyramid, the need for self-actualization. The need for self-actualization is never satisfied, and Maslow referred to it as a being need — be all you can be.
Thus, humans continually strive to satisfy their needs, and as the more basic needs are satisfied, humans move up the pyramid, if you will, to satisfy higher-level needs. Of course, different humans achieve different levels, and it was Maslow's view that only two percent of humans become self-actualizing.
Maslow studied some famous people along with a dozen not-so-famous folks and developed some personality traits that were consistent with people he judged to be self-actualizing. Besides being creative and inventive, self-actualizers have strong ethics, a self-deprecating sense of humor, humility and respect for others, resistance to enculturation, enjoyment of autonomy and solitude instead of shallow relationships with many people. They believe the ends don't necessarily justify the means and that the means can be ends in themselves.
One readily sees that Maslow's self-actualizers have nothing in common with politicians in a democracy, but closely fit the profile that Hoppe describes of the natural elite that would lead a natural order.
But a step down from the top of the hierarchy-of-needs pyramid is the need for esteem. Maslow described two types of esteem needs according to Maslow expert Dr. C. George Boeree: a lower-esteem need and a higher one. And while the higher form of esteem calls for healthy attributes such as freedom, independence, confidence, and achievement, the lower form "is the need for the respect of others, the need for status, fame, glory, recognition, attention, reputation, appreciation, dignity, even dominance."
"The negative version of these needs is low self-esteem and inferiority complexes," Dr. Boeree writes. "Maslow felt [Alfred] Adler was really onto something when he proposed that these were at the roots of many, if not most, of our psychological problems."10
Now we see the qualities displayed by virtually all politicians in democracy: the constant need for status and recognition. The ends — compensating for an inferiority complex — justify whatever Machiavellian means.
Because democracy is open to any and all who can get elected — either through connections, personality, or personal wealth — it is a social system where leadership positions become a hotbed for sociopaths. Maslow's self-actualizing man won't have an interest in politics. But those stuck on the need for esteem are drawn to it like flies to dung.
With leadership in such dysfunctional hands, it is no wonder. "In comparison to the nineteenth century, the cognitive prowess of the political and intellectual elites and the quality of public education have declined," Hoppe writes in Democracy.11 "And the rates of crime, structural unemployment, welfare dependency, parasitism, negligence, recklessness, incivility, psychopathy, and hedonism have increased."12
So while the electorate recognizes that they are electing at best incompetents and at worst crooks, the constant, naïve, prodemocracy mantra is that "we just need to elect the right people."
But the "right people" aren't (and won't be) running for office. Instead, we will continue to have "the average American legislator [who] is not only an ass," as Mencken wrote, "but also an oblique, sinister, depraved and knavish fellow."13
- 2. Ibid., p. 115.
- 3. Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., "Two Kinds of Competition," LewRockwell.com (August 12, 2004).
- 4. Mencken, Notes on Democracy, p. 115.
- 5. Mencken, The Gist of Mencken: Quotations from America's Critic, Mayo DuBasky, ed. (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1990), p. 352; originally from Mencken, "Off Again, On Again," Smart Set (March 1922), p. 50.
- 6. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy: The God that Failed: The Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy, and Natural Order (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2001), p. 71.
- 7. Ibid.
- 8. See "Net Worth, 2007," OpenSecrets.org (accessed December 15, 2008); also "Millionaires Fill US Congress Halls," Agence France Presse (June 30, 2004); Sean Loughlin and Robert Yoon, "Millionaires Populate U.S. Senate," CNN.com (June 13, 2003).
- 9. Charles Derber, The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. xxii.
- 10. C. George Boeree, "Abraham Maslow," (accessed December 15, 2008).
- 11. Hoppe, Democracy, p. 42.
- 12. Ibid., p. 43.
- 13. The Gist of Mencken, p. 423; originally from H.L. Mencken, "The Free Lance," Baltimore Evening Sun (January 10, 1913).