This is the title of a book by Hans Hoppe that systematically shows the failings of Democracy, specifically when compared to Monarchical government. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m familiar with Dr. Hoppe’s ideas enough to glean it’s probably content. I don’t really want to get into the whole monarchy thing, but his principles on the failings of the Democratic approach are very sound. There’s no better way to hush a party than to pronounce that “democracy is a failed system.” That will get you a few head turns and a few cat calls of “socialist!” But, that’s not it at all. Anyone who knows libertarians, knows that it would be idiotic to accuse them of being socialists or any type of collectivists. No, the point is that democracy is not the infallible political “god” that modernity has made it out to be. That’s all.
The closest we can come to finding the birth place of a centralized democracy is Greece around 500 BC. Cleisthenes instituted a one man, one vote type of government after the overthrow of the Pesistratus tyrrany by the mob. Votes were cast with either a white stone or a black stone signifying a yes or no vote. The wonderful thing about this arrangement is obviously that it takes the power out of the hands of an all-powerful aristocracy and places that power in the hands of the people. One man, one vote. From that perspective, democracy is just as revolutionary as it appears. There are problems though. And they surfaced immediately in Greece. The first problem is the idea of the “tyrrany of the majority.” One man, one vote means that 51% of the population is able to rule the other 49%. This arrangement is only slightly better than an aristocracy. What if 51% of the people vote to take all black children and force them into concentration camps? Obviously, a majority vote doesn’t make something moral if it’s not.
The tyrrany of the majority problem was perhaps nowhere more evident than in the practice of ostracism. The word comes from the greek word ostrakismos. Each year, the Athenian’s could hold an ostracism and choose to expel one citizen from the country for a period of ten years by majority vote. Ironically, Cleisthenes himself may have been a victim of ostracism by the very democracy that he helped develop. It’s not clear from the historical record. Anyway, you can see the point. Direct democracy is a large improvement in some areas, but it introduces a new set of problems from the majority rule approach. So, we can say that maybe a representative democracy would surely be better. That way, the raw wishes of the majority can be tempered by an assembly of semi-independent minds. Wouldn’t that make things better?
I’m not sure this really helps any. It seems, in fact, that it probably makes things worse. Sure, you have a smaller body on which to focus and lobby, but this smaller body also brings with it a much greater risk of corruption. It’s extremely difficult, although not impossible, to organize a coalition of millions of people to go along with a certain policy. Contrastly, it’s much easier to get 50 or 60 assemblymen to go along with that same policy. At least a direct democracy diffuses political whims. Boiling all the power down into the hands of a few just seems like killing the patient to cure the disease. It no longer takes a simple majority to bring about the tyrrany problem. Now all it takes is a few self-interested politicians. That’s hardly an improvement.
But, what about the United States then? We are a democracy, but in the form of a constitutionally restricted republic. Isn’t that a much better scenario? Well, yes and no. The U.S. has all kinds of constitutional mandates that attempt to resolve many of the traditional problems of pure democracy. Separation of powers, splitting of the assembly into two houses, the electoral college, congressional rules allowing filibustering, etc. These are all great, but it’s still a representative democracy at it’s core, so the problems associated with that system might be somewhat masked, but they still exist. Only now we have a new problem: skewed time preference due to term limits.
Let me paraphrase Hoppe as best I can here, since I couldn’t find a transcript. He gives the example of a house that is given to a person to do with as they will versus a house given to a person only to use for a period of a few years and then they must give it to someone else. In the first scenario, the incentive is clearly on the side of a low time preference, since the house is now an permanent asset of the beneficiary. In the second example, the beneficiary’s time preference is skewed high so that he only wants to get as much as he can out of the house in the shortest period of time before he loses it. The long term condition of the house is not important to him at all. This distinction is one of monarchy vs. republic. We started in the very beginning with the notion of taking the power out of the hands of a permanent aristocracy and have come full circle back to it being necessary to do so. Clearly, something is wrong here.
This is why the founders wisely chose to build into our government the idea of dual-sovereignty. Having 50 individual states constantly fighting the Federal government for power basically deadlocks many of the processes that would ultimately lead to high time preference decision making. It wasn’t the republican part of our system that was genius. It was the dual-sovereignty part. But Lincoln destroyed any last remnant of state sovereignty at Appomatox. That basically leaves us now with a pure representative republic. That’s where we are now in the U.S. and that’s why we are seeing such horrible decision making coming out of D.C. There is a built-in inability to make good long term decisions that would do things like reduce the national debt or end the Federal Reserve. Our system rewards short-term gain. Unless there is a resurgence of balls amongst state Governors to defy the Feds, and bring back the checks and balances that a pure democracy needs, we will continue to go rapidly down hill.