Mises Wire

The Myth of the “Popular Will”

French voters are about to decide who will be president for the next five years, and it is always interesting to see how the electoral campaign is an excellent occasion for mainstream political commentators to remind us how crucial voting is and how it will supposedly allow people to take back control over their own lives. Citizens who denigrate the electoral process are seen as capricious children who are not able to see how lucky they are compared to human beings still living under barbaric, bellicose, and non-democratic regimes around the world.

Far from being the “worst form of government, except for all the others” according to Churchill, democracy is deified to such an extent that we see this regime as the quintessence of accomplished and peaceful civilizations.

American intellectual Murray Rothbard attributed this legitimization of democracy to a democratic regime’s ability to identify itself with society. He highlights however, this conflation of state and society is a usurpation to the extent it is based on a misleading fiction: democracy and universal suffrage maintain the illusion under which individuals confuse themselves with an organization — the state — which is unique because of its ability to infringe on people’s consent with legal impunity.

The Illusion Of The “Popular Will”

Thus, democracy is often to be feared because it allows the state to hide its true nature: a brutal organization which successfully claims the monopoly of violence on a given territory and population. In Western societies, this subterfuge has notably been accomplished by the use of a political vocabulary, indeed romantic, although political theory has often illustrated the incoherence of democracy’s claims. 

American scholar Kenneth Arrow, for example, has proved the impossibility of defining any general will or general interest among voters because of the singular nature and diversity of individual preferences. But it seems this impossibility does not stop those who pretend to speak in the name of an imperceptible and nonexistent popular will. Even if this anthropomorphism is completely irrelevant, it is terribly effective on the political stage.

Attributing a proper will to a community reinforces the power of those willing to dominate it, even if only freely and contract-based human collectivities can pretend to act in the name of the individuals who compose them. The problem with the state is that it does not correspond to that definition, even if it uses universal suffrage to elect its leaders. Therefore, any pretension of government to personify the interests and the soul of its subjects is a falsehood.

Unlimited Democracy Means Perpetual Conflict

Far from being the mark of peaceful and civilized societies, democracy exercised through a state apparatus is no more or no less the expression of the bellicose urges human societies try to institutionalize through political processes. In contrast to voluntary market transactions, where both sides are left better off, democracy is indeed a zero-sum game in which everything obtained by a political faction is necessarily lost at the expense of someone else. 

French publicist Frédéric Bastiat warned us 150 years ago, in his famous pamphlet “The Law” that a political regime — even a democratic one — unable to find its own limits, could only reproduce the Hobbesian nightmare against which proponents of the mythic “social contract” pretend to protect us. An unlimited state, democratic or otherwise, results in a nightmare of a war of all against all in which everyone tries to impose his own preference on his fellow man through the use of state coercion. Political scientist Carl von Clausewitz described war as “the continuation of politics by other means.” But it seems the reverse is also true.

Against Democratic Despotism

If one really wants to promote a society respectful toward individual and collective choices, one must admit democracy cannot rule every aspect of social life. French-Swiss writer Benjamin Constant, anticipating the Tocquevillian critic of democracy, thus estimated that the will of the majority is not more legitimate than the will of the smallest minority concerning issues on which law does not have to decide.

Indeed, few of us would like to submit their sexual orientation, the length they sleep at night, or the way they dress themselves to the hazard of universal suffrage and democracy (even though some political ideologies also want to control individual choices on those topics).

Thanks to secularity, and despite its imperfection, religion is one of the few issues which has been largely removed from the democratic sphere to be reintegrated into the private sphere. Nowadays, however, authoritarian ideologies are pushing toward re-politicizing personal identity and confessional issues — among other things. For authoritarian democrats, there are still many spaces of freedom to conquer.

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