1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar

The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

Advancing the scholarship of liberty in the tradition of the Austrian School

Search Mises.org

Democracy is Coercive

Mises Daily: Wednesday, February 16, 2000 by

A
A

"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 optimism."
LUDWIG VON MISES, Notes and Recollections


"There 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 liberty.

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 liberty."

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.

Empirically, 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 sense.

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 popular."

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 one.

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 good.

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 dictatorship.

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 enterprise.

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 test.

Christopher Mayer is an MBA student at the University of Maryland.