Spring 2002; Volume 8, Number 1
No Safety in Numbers
Democracy: The God That Failed by Hans-Hermann Hoppe (Transaction Publishers, 2001, Xxiv + 304 pages)
Classical liberals view the state with suspicion; indeed some, of whom Murray Rothbard and Hans Hoppe are examples, wish to do away with it altogether. However convincing the arguments for private-property anarchism, we now live in a world of states. Given this fact, what kind of state is best? If, as Albert Jay Nock famously said, the state is our enemy, which regime threatens us least? Many have looked to democracy, but Professor Hoppe dissents.
In his view, democracy has led to the increase in state power that classical liberals deplore: “I will explain the rapid growth of state power in the twentieth century lamented by Mises and Rothbard as the systematic outcome of democracy and the democratic mindset, i.e., the (erroneous) belief in the efficiency and/or justice of public property and popular (majority) rule.” Though Mises and Rothbard “were aware of the economic and ethical deficiencies of democracy,” they “had a soft spot for democracy and tended to view the transition from monarchy to democracy as progress” (p. xxiii, order of sentences changed).
Monarchy preserves liberty far better than does democracy; and when our author says “monarchy,” he means it. He does not have in mind constitutional kingdoms, in the style of contemporary Britain, where the monarch reigns but does not rule. Rather, he refers to the full-fledged kings of the Old Regime, with the Habsburgs as particular favorites.
But how can Hoppe say this? A king rules to benefit himself, and he need answer to no one. In a democracy, by contrast, a government that displeases the people can be replaced. Does not the knowledge that it can be turned out at the next election act to restrain the government now in power?
Our author turns on their heads these commonly held beliefs. True enough, a king regards the government as his personal possession; but exactly this will induce him to act with good judgment. Rather than squander his nation’s resources, he will manage them prudently, all the more so if he expects to pass on the realm to his heirs. “Assuming no more than self-interest, the ruler tries to maximize his total wealth, i.e., the present value of his estate and his current income. He would not want to increase current income at the expense of a more than proportional drop in the present value of his assets” (p. 18).
One might at first think the argument proves too little. The ruler may well conserve his own estate; but what about the rest of the country? What stops him from plundering the property of his subjects? To this, Hoppe has an ingenious response. A prosperous and secure society will raise the value of the king’s estate; hence, the ruler will have a strong incentive to limit his depredations on the public. “[T]o preserve or even enhance the value of his personal property, he [the king] would systematically restrain himself in his taxing policies, for the lower the degree of taxation, the more productive the subject population will be, and the more productive the population, the higher the value of the ruler’s parasitic monopoly of expropriation will be” (p. 19).
This strikes me as an insight of major importance; incidentally, it greatly impressed the distinguished Austrian classical liberal and monarchist, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. One might, I suppose, adduce a countertendency for the monarch to transfer as much as possible to his private estate. Would not the prosperity of his subjects have to be set against what the king thought he could gain through direct seizure? At least, though, Hoppe has shown that a powerful incentive limits the growth of government in a monarchy. Even Jean Bodin, the great French theorist of absolutism, maintained that the king should, if possible, support himself entirely from his own estates.
In a democracy, by contrast, the government will grab as much as it can, without regard to the future. Precisely because the holders of power do not own the government, they lack the incentive to look to the long run. “A democratic ruler can use the government apparatus to his personal advantage, but he does not own it . . . [h]e owns the current use of government resources, but not their capital value. In distinct contrast to a king, a president will want to maximize not total government wealth (capital values and current income), but current income (regardless and at the expense of capital values)” (p. 24).
Again Professor Hoppe anticipates and dispatches an objection. If a democratic government acts as he indicates, will the people not remove it at the next election? The whole point of democracy, after all, is that seekers of power compete for the favor of the majority. Fear of removal will thus check the government’s predation.
Unfortunately, as Hoppe notes, a democratic government can render the supposed check nugatory. The rulers buy votes by promising to the poor extravagant welfare benefits. The rich pay the price for these, but their dissatisfaction cannot overturn the government. They number but few compared with the poor whom the government enlists in its support. Thus predation proceeds unhindered, to the government’s own advantage.
One aspect of this strategy of panem et circenses deserves special mention, because of its importance in the contemporary United States. If democratic predation depends on support for the government from a large number of poor people, the rulers will naturally wish to add to their numbers. Mass immigration becomes the order of the day. If the new residents have no useful skills, no matter: after a few years, their votes will help to swamp the protests of productive citizens reluctant to give to the state what rightfully belongs to them.
Once again, a monarchy will tend toward an altogether different policy. “[A]s far as immigration policy is concerned, a king would want to keep the mob, as well as all people of inferior productive capabilities, out. . . . A king would only permit the immigration of superior or at least above-average people, i.e., those, whose residence in his kingdom would increase his own property value” (p. 143). In sum, monarchs look to the long run, democratic rulers to the short term.
It is hardly a surprise that our author considers the former policy by far the better; and he accordingly recommends that contemporary governments should endeavor to follow as closely as they can the indicated path of the monarch. Several well-known libertarians have thrown up their hands in horror: does not Hoppe here betray the supposed principle of “open borders”? How can he in conscience support action by the government?
Here once more Hoppe has arrived at a fundamental insight. In the ideal libertarian state of affairs, all property is private. Each owner is free to decide who may enter his property. If so, Hoppe asks, is not the cry of “open borders” the very antithesis of proper policy? In a free society, you cannot go wherever you please; to say that is to legitimize trespass.
Proponents of unrestricted immigration will not be swayed. Granted, they will say, that you cannot rightfully “immigrate” to someone’s property without his permission, why does it follow that the government may close the borders of public property? To object to Hoppe in this way, as it seems to me, is precisely to miss the point of his argument. He has endeavored to show that “open borders” is not a libertarian principle, not to deduce his own prescription. If he is right, libertarian theory leaves undetermined what course should be followed if public property exists. Nothing in morality then bars the government from being guided by the prudential considerations Hoppe has cited.
Professor Hoppe has made a strong case; but in one respect, I am not entirely clear what sort of claim he is making. In the book’s introduction, he launches a vigorous defense of the a priori: “If one is to make a rational choice among . . . rival and incompatible interpretations, this is only possible if one has a theory at one’s disposal, or at least a theoretical proposition, whose validity does not depend on historical experience but can be established a priori, i.e., by means of the intellectual apprehension or comprehension of the nature of things” (p. xv, emphasis omitted).
From this statement, we know that Hoppe thinks that his claims about monarchy and democracy cannot be established by purely empirical means, since these claims are historical interpretations. But does he think that his evaluations of monarchy and democracy are themselves a priori propositions, or is he content to accord them some less certain status? He may mean that a priori truths, e.g., that high taxation cannot cause prosperity, help to render likely his assessments of monarchy and democracy. On this construal, the assessments need not themselves count as a priori. I incline to think that his case is stronger if one adopts the latter view.
I hope that in future work Professor Hoppe will address these questions: If monarchy is the best form of government, what sort of monarchy is desirable? What about systems that combine monarchical and democratic features? Do these surpass monarchy, or do they suffer from debilitating flaws?
Though he prefers monarchy to democracy, our author does not enlist in royalist ranks. Quite the contrary, he opposes the state altogether. “Indeed, a monopolist of ultimate decision making equipped with the power to tax does not just produce less and lower quality justice, but he will produce more and more ‘bads,’ i.e., injustice and aggression. Thus, the choice between monarchy and democracy concerns a choice between two defective social orders” (p. xx).
Our author goes so far as to ascribe the failure of classical liberalism to ignorance of this fundamental fact. Nineteenth-century classical liberals, and their latter-day successors, for the most part pursued the chimera of limited government; this was their “central and momentous error” (p. 224). Government by nature tends to expand.
Hoppe goes further. He holds that if one accepts the rights of self-ownership and private property, understood in a Rothbardian way, one cannot acknowledge the legitimacy of a protection agency with monopoly power to enforce rights. “[S]uch a monopoly-contract would imply that every private property owner had surrendered his right to ultimate decision making and the protection of his person and property permanently to someone else. In effect, in transferring this right onto someone else, a person would submit himself into permanent slavery” (p. 227).
Certainly a contract of the type Hoppe imagines is not licit, but I am not sure that this point altogether suffices to put limited government out of court. Someone with Rothbardian natural rights can legitimately hire a protection agency to defend himself; in doing so, he need not surrender his right to self-defense. Why does this change if there is only one protection agency? But this is a quibble of minor importance. On the main practical point, Hoppe is surely right. People who consent to a monopoly state have put themselves at grave risk of losing their freedom. In helping us to see this, Hans Hoppe has rendered us a great service, one of many in this work of outstanding merit.