Do libertarians believe in democracy?

Those who follow my posts on American politics will probably have noticed me on a few occasions quoting with approval from Jon Chait, columnist at New York magazine. Chait makes no bones about being a partisan Democrat, but he’s often spot on as an analyst and he’s a very fine writer as well. So it’s worth having a look at a story of his yesterday that strikes me as being interestingly wrong, with an important grain of truth.

The subject is Kentucky senator Rand Paul, who represents, at least broadly speaking, the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. Paul is one of the few Republicans who seems willing to make a genuine effort to reach out to blacks and other minorities; a profile of him this week in New Republic recounts him telling an audience of black students that some sort of federal intervention to enforce civil rights was justified: “‘I’m not a firm believer in democracy,’ he explained. ‘It gave us Jim Crow.'”

Chait seizes on this line to paint Paul as distrustful of democracy – not because of segregation, but because “democracy allows the majority to vote away the property of the minority.”

First up, I think Chait is quite right to say that attributing southern segregationist policies to democracy is “awfully strange”: the American south of the pre-civil-rights era was not a democracy, since blacks were forcibly prevented from exercising their theoretical right to vote. Nonetheless, Paul’s fundamental point is valid.

What Paul is saying is that people’s fundamental rights shouldn’t be subject to majority vote. And that’s not actually a controversial position: it’s the whole point of having a bill of rights and judicial review. Indeed even most of those who are opposed to a bill of rights aren’t opposed to safeguarding individual rights, they just disagree about the best way of doing it.

Nor is it controversial to say that property rights should be among those protected. Both the United States and Australian constitutions contain guarantees against taking property without compensation (see the fifth amendment and section 51(xxxi) respectively). There’s a thriving debate about the proper scope of those guarantees, but on Chait’s argument you’d have to say they have no proper role at all – a result that I suspect he doesn’t intend.

Paul may well have strange views about which sort of property rights should be protected, or how vigorously; Chait’s fully entitled to disagree with him there. But that’s a difference of degree, not a matter of basic principle. (Chait also has an obsession with the views of Ayn Rand, which I think he misrepresents, but that will have to be a digression for another day.)

So what’s all this got to do with democracy? Just about every democracy has a constitution that protects at least some basic rights; none of them seem to have found that there’s a conflict between that and democratic government. There’s a conflict between human rights and unlimited government, for sure: if a government has to respect people’s rights, then that’s a limitation on its powers.

But within the limits set by constitutions, courts and the rest, such a government can still be democratic. Indeed it’s very desirable that it should be, not just because democracy is good in itself (although I think it is) but because democratic governments have a much better record than authoritarian ones in respecting their constitutional limits.

So why would Paul say that his support for human rights makes him “not a firm believer in democracy”? This is where I think Chait is on the money: many libertarians have conceived a deep dislike for democracy, apparently in the belief that it’s somehow incompatible with limited government. Why?

My impression (although you’d have to trawl the archives to prove it) is that this idea started on the left. Supporters of expanded government programs, who wanted government power to be unlimited (at least in certain directions), found it rhetorically useful to tell people that they had to choose between democracy and limited government. To many of them, democracy necessarily involved the power of government to disregard the rights of people they didn’t like. Those who objected, for example, to governments expropriating their businesses could be attacked as “undemocratic”.

Unfortunately, many libertarians came to believe them. But they shouldn’t have: it’s a false dichotomy. There’s nothing undemocratic about a government that sticks to its proper functions (whatever they may be), provided that in doing so it’s responsible to the people.

There’s more to it, of course, than just innocent confusion. On the right, as Chait says, the overwhelming fear is of government money going to the “wrong” people  – “the minority that is responsible for progress and prosperity finds itself set upon by the grasping hordes.” The problem is not that the government is taking property, but that it’s doing, by their lights, the wrong things with it.

Any government redistributes resources to some extent: it’s impossible to run a government otherwise. If your conception of property rights is that they prevent any redistribution at all, then you’re out of luck. (Even getting rid of government altogether doesn’t solve the problem, although it would take us too far afield to explain why.) But when certain right-wing libertarians say they’re against “redistribution” they have something much more specific in mind, namely money ending up in the hands of the poor.

And if that’s the problem, then nobbling democracy might be a very effective remedy. If the poor don’t get a vote, they’ll be less able to influence government to look after them. But that won’t stop redistribution (indeed on the historical record it’ll probably increase it), it just means it’ll work in the interests of the rich and powerful.

There’s hardly any room to doubt that that’s the real objective of many in the Republican Party. If Paul is one of them, then his scepticism about democracy is well founded. But if he’s not – that is, if he really is a libertarian – then democracy should be nothing to fear.



6 thoughts on “Do libertarians believe in democracy?

  1. You certainly tackle some broad subjects within very confined columns. Its the nature of the media today whether we like it or not I guess.

    I doubt “democracy ” has ever found a true home. It assumes that the people know what they want and that the government can deliver their wishes via an electoral process based on majority rule.

    Most of these discussions on which system is better fail to tackle the arduous unraveling of the human condition and it’s divergent need for power and irreconcilable desire to help the needy. I expect there will never be a solution as one gains power and influence, particularly at the government level , one immediately becomes corrupted by the ability to tell rather than listen. Government systems also allow incompetence to not only go unnoticed but rewarded (similarity to corporate are now is almost indistinguishable).

    I hold no Australian politician in total regard because it’s inevitable that they will become corrupted (don’t read criminally) by the process of not only government but trying to please people.

    I suggest a beneficial dictator is probably just as acceptable and much more efficient than the democratic government.


  2. Perhaps Leonard Cohen explained it better:

    verybody knows that the dice are loaded
    Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
    Everybody knows that the war is over
    Everybody knows the good guys lost
    Everybody knows the fight was fixed
    The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
    That’s how it goes
    Everybody knows


  3. Thanks for that Harry – I’ve always been a big fan of Leonard Cohen. I share your general scepticism about government, but I think there’s a reason why benevolent dictators are so thin on the ground. It’s generally only a certain sort of person (a not very nice sort) that seeks absolute power, and even an ordinary person who gets it will be corrupted by it. That’s why the best of dictators (it’s a small group, but I’m thinking someone like Oliver Cromwell, or maybe Jerry Rawlings in Ghana for a modern example) do their best to return their countries to democratic government as soon as they can. The key thing is the ability to change rulers without bloodshed, and that’s what democracy does. It’s far from perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got.


  4. Probably true about Rawlings in Ghana and some would argue Lee Kuan Yew took on that role early in his career however as time past his nepotism was astonishing.

    I had some time for John Gorton who voted himself out of leadership.Personally I consider him one of the most intelligent Prime Ministers we have had. The politicians of today clearly have no understanding of the basis of democracy .

    The gobsmacking recent revelations of US, UK, Australia spying on their own people is an insult and affront to the common man. I say the common man because that is who democracy is supposed to benefit.

    Charles, I don’t consider myself a cynic or a skeptic but a reasonably educated person who asks common sense questions in a political world that seems to be bereft of a basic understanding of how things work.


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