Democracy – the God that Failed
Democracy means rule by the people on the basis of universal suffrage – all citizens having an equal voice in political decision making. In the West it means voting for elected law-making representatives, rather than classical direct democracy. Elected representatives have incentives to undermine liberty and prosperity. Direct democracy might work better, if only as a transition to no government (i.e. Private Law) societies.
Today’s topic is Democracy, specifically, representative democracy. It is the sacred cow of the collectivist public religion which underpins our increasingly threadbare and unpleasant Democratic Socialist states. It hasn’t existed in modern times nearly as long as people imagine. In Europe it is only a century old and it looks to be running out of road.
The title of this post is a reference to Hans Herman Hoppe’s well-known book ‘Democracy, the God that Failed’. Hoppe, one of the leading living Libertarian thinkers, included much of the same material in essays in ‘The Great Fiction’ on which this post is partly based.
‘The Great Fiction’ was the 19th century economist Bastiat’s expression dismissing the popular view that the state exists to help anyone other than itself, its cronies and its bought-and-paid-for supporters (for more on Bastiat and his crucial insights about opportunity costs in economics see the www.awah.uk post ‘HS2 and the Broken Window Fallacy’).
WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?
The expression ‘Democracy’ however needs an unexpected effort to define what it actually means. I took soundings amongst my fellow members of our informal and highly civilised Bridge playing group. To my surprise, the consensus was that democracy meant a state characterised by the Rule of Law. This is the idea that everybody (other than state privileged individuals of course) is equal before the application of publicly and honestly enacted and enforced laws. Linked with this was the universal possession of ‘certain inalienable rights’ (as the secessionist framers of the American Declaration of independence put it in 1776) including freedom of movement, religion, speech and right of assembly.
This conversation took place in the good old days before most western governments decided to deprive us of our inalienable rights in alleged response to an illness which for most people amounted to a bad flu. The rule of law also seems increasingly compromised. It certainly will be if individuals who have agreed to act as human guinea pigs for profit-grubbing Big Pharma are given a different legal status from those who have not.
This definition of democracy as a relatively free and above-board public legal framework is not what people in earlier times meant by the term ‘Democracy’. What philosophers meant by democracy at the time of the American and French Revolutions in the late eighteenth century was quite different. And what they meant by democracy was usually treated as something to be despised and avoided. This was certainly the view of the American Founding Fathers who fought off (well-founded as it turned out) concerns that the newly free United States would in time become a democracy.
DEMOCRACY IS UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE – ONE MAN ONE VOTE
So from the eighteenth century perspective of the American proponents of the US Constitution, and of their opponents, what was meant by democracy and why was it treated with suspicion? Well, the central democratic tenet was considered to be that everybody should have the same amount of political power or weight in political terms. The most obvious instance was that every man should have a vote in communal decision making, i.e. there should be a universal (male) suffrage.
HARDLY ANY DEMOCRACIES IN HISTORY
Historical and contemporary examples of democratic countries at the time of the American War of Independence (1776-1783) were few and far between. There had been democratic episodes in the history of some classical Greek and medieval Italian City states. With the significant exception of Athens and Rome, all classical democracies had quickly collapsed into chaos and dictatorship. Few 18th century thinkers had a high opinion of democracy.
There were indeed republics in 18th century Europe, notably the Netherlands, Switzerland, Venice, Genoa, and some smaller places like Dubrovnik and Rousseau’s Geneva (not then a part of Switzerland), but they were not democracies. Like contemporary Britain, they were in effect aristocratic republics. That is to say, only a small proportion of propertied men could vote and only weaIthy men could compete for election to assemblies. That was because elected representatives received neither salary nor expenses.
In such oligarchic republics the definition of democracy in terms of the rule of law and commonly understood personal freedoms did generally prevail. But universal suffrage for all men did not. Nor was it proposed by the American or French revolutionaries. It was an aristocratic republic that the founding fathers had in mind for the fledgling United States.
DEMOCRACY IN CLASSICAL ATHENS AND ROME
Expectations of just what real universal suffrage democracy would look like and what it might lead to were informed by familiarity with the particular cases of the Athenian and Roman republics. Educated people in the eighteenth century were steeped in the language, lore and history of these republics. In Athens and Rome democracy began with anti-despot revolutions at the same time in the late 6th century BC (509BC for Rome and 508BC for Athens). The Athenian democracy lasted for much of two centuries and the Roman for nearly half a millennium until the end of the first century BC. But both republics stood out for their longevity and, not coincidentally, for their imperial expansionism.
Both city states largely comprised rural peasant farmers. These were divided up into notional voting tribes in Athens and Rome. The election of the two consuls, the joint heads of government in the Roman republic, the choice of other officials and approval - or not - of laws proposed by the elite landowning Senate rested with the voting tribes. Each voting tribe had equal weight in law. The first to vote in Rome were the numerically minor, elite senate and ‘equites’ (‘horse owning’) tribes. They were followed by the much larger and far more numerous plebian tribes. A law was approved or rejected once a majority of the tribes was achieved. It was not pure democracy but no law could be approved and no leaders elected against the will of the people – which makes it close enough to universal suffrage.
There were other democratic safeguards in Rome and Athens. In both cities trial juries were enormous. They could be several hundred strong. This was to make bribing or nobbling juries too difficult and expensive.
In Athens, most officials were chosen by lot. Every citizen was entered into list of possible office holders. If your number came up you had to take on official duties for one term. This was to prevent the appearance of professional politicians and demagogues. The Athenians thought such people would abuse their positions to enrich themselves and corruptly secure re-election.
Athens also had a ‘recall’ system for unpopular political figures. Each year one prominent Athenian could be subjected to a vote on whether he must go into exile for ten years. Every citizen could vote for his exile by writing his name on an ‘ostracon’, a piece of broken pottery. If exiled, the unlucky man was ‘ostracised’, hence the expression. The great Themistocles, the general who created the Athenian navy which triumphed over the Persians at Salamis in 480BC, was himself ostracised a decade later. He ended up as a Persian governor in Asia Minor.
Most officials might be chosen by lot but generals, ‘strategoi’, were elected by popular vote, effectively the same deal as in Rome where the two annual consuls were first and foremost generals in the Republic’s endless wars. Choosing generals by lot was felt to be too risky. But choosing them by popular vote precisely created the political risks Athenians feared.
War, militarism and imperial excess were integral to the stability of the two classical democracies, and to their eventual demise. The underlying political principle of classical city states was that their (male) citizens banded together to defend jointly, at their own expense their possessions - women and children, slaves, crops and herds – and to steal as much as possible of the same from neighbouring cities.
Each Greek citizen had to equip himself for war. Horses, arms and armour were expensive. The better the kit, the more political weight its owner had. People who could furnish horses were at the top of the pile. Those who could afford spear, shield and helmet made up the heavy infantry backbone of city armies. Poorer men might occupy light infantry roles as slingers or skirmishers, or be rejected as militarily useless. Ordinarily this led to a fair spread of political influence at least among the men who could afford to fight as hoplite heavy infantry, but not in most cities to anything resembling a durable democracy.
Poor men, women and slaves lacked the military kit, prowess and indeed the incentive, to protect the property of those who could afford to fight as cavalry or armoured heavy infantry. And so, logically, they could not have a share in political decision making.
Rome never fielded much useful cavalry. It brought in what cavalry it needed from allies. It simply flung large infantry armies at less demographically resilient neighbours until they caved in. How Rome got to have such a large population so early in its history is a mystery. Livy explained that the city had had a very liberal immigration policy to build up its numbers. And the Romans consistently assimilated other peoples into the citizen body – quite unlike other cities which restricted citizenship. By 212 AD all freeborn inhabitants of the empire would be citizens of Rome, a city which most of them would never see.
In any case, Rome deployed its citizens overwhelmingly as infantry, whether as ‘heavy’ (close order combat) or ‘light’ (open order missile) troops. Once the machine was rolling, armies of citizens would be continuously engaged in plundering and enslaving other people. The importance of slaves as loot, and in ancient ‘trade’ generally, was very great: It would be a very poor and unrespectable Roman who did not possess at least one slave.
External aggression was a solution to the main problem commentators always had with democracy. If you put political power in the hands of the majority, the ‘have nots’, they would surely turn to expropriating the ‘haves’. The ‘haves’ are inevitably a minority of any population, especially in agrarian societies with masses of subsistence level peasants. The result would be instability as popular and elite leaders struggled for supremacy. Rome and Athens fended off the dilemma of democracy by pillaging other societies to obtain loot for the voters. Social peace, of a kind, was secured at home. It did however depend on continual success in war.
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ATHENIAN EMPIRE
The newly democratic Athenian Republic at the beginning of the 5th Century BC comprised perhaps 250,000 inhabitants in Attica, the territory of Athens. After subtracting women and children, slaves and ‘metics’ (foreign men), there might have been as many as 40,000 male citizens. Many were too poor to arm themselves and so would ordinarily have been militarily useless, and so unable to justify having a political voice. But help was at hand for them in the navy. Poor men could nevertheless row.
Themistocles promoted the development of a massive oar-powered Athenian navy in the 480s BC to counter the continuing Persian threat after their first invasion was defeated by Athens on land at Marathon in 490BC. The Navy was paid for with silver mined by slaves, i.e. non-voters, in the new mines at Laurion. In the navy the poorer citizen voters could, as it were, pull their weight. In vote buying terms it was win-win for Athens, if not for the slaves in the mines.
Almost immediately the Athenian fleet faced and defeated the Persians at Salamis in 480BC and in the following year the Greeks defeated the Persian army in Greece at Plataea (379BC). Spearheaded by the Athenian navy, the Greeks of the new League of Delos went on the offensive to ‘liberate’ the wealthy Greek cities in western Turkey from Persian rule.
But, over time, the members of the League found themselves incorporated into what amounted to an Athenian empire. Their contributions, and indeed the contents of the joint treasury at Delos, found their way to Athens to fund its navy, elaborate and beautiful building projects like the Parthenon, and hand-outs to Athenian voters. Athenian hubris (‘overweening pride and arrogance’), fuelled by hand-outs to dependent plebian voters, plunged Greece into the misery of the Peloponnesian War. By 404BC astonishing Athenian military recklessness led to abject defeat at the hands of (sinisterly totalitarian) Sparta.
THE IMPERIUM OF THE SENATE AND PEOPLE OF ROME
The Roman Republic in contrast evaded terminal defeat, sometimes narrowly, and chomped its way through the whole Mediterranean basin to placate the appetites of senatorial generals and plebian voters alike. In the late 2nd century BC, Marius’s reforms created the ‘iconic’ heavy infantry legion that would lord it over the Mediterranean world for four centuries. They also created an army equipped by and, even worse, paid from the public purse. It was a mercenary army of citizen voters ready to back ambitious generals in return for land and loot. The ensuing civil wars destroyed the Republic and led to Augustus’s establishment of the Empire. The empire consolidated and pacified the Roman world under a gradually increasing, but inexorable, despotism until it became a vast, sclerotic autocracy.
BRITAIN AS THE MODEL ARISTOCRATIC ‘REPUBLIC’
This then was the historical record of democracy on the eve of the French Revolution in 1789. Along with brief and unsuccessful democratic episodes in other cities, the ancient experience of democracy seemed to most to show it was predatory, unsound and irrational. Its key weakness was the mismatch between the equal distribution of political power – one man one vote – and the very unequal ability of men to contribute, by their talents or resources, to the prosperity and protection of the community. Inevitably vote seeking politicians would seek to steal from the more monied and productive to literally buy the votes of the many men who had little else to offer.
The model to which the American Founding Fathers, and many in the States-General at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, actually aspired was the contemporary British aristocratic republic. Inconveniently, Great Britain was a kingdom, so the politically correct aspiration was termed a ‘constitutional monarchy’ which perhaps misled Louis XVI into believing he was somehow indispensable. But in January 1793 he was abruptly dispensed with. The opportunity to create a constitutional monarchy had been lost. A much more ‘democratic’ impulse developed as mass conscription (a French invention) powered successful warfare against neighbouring societies, under the Republic and then the Empire.
It is worth lingering on the oddly mis-named Kingdom of Great Britain (from the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland) to understand how undemocratic a model this aristocratic republic really was for the American and French revolutionaries. That is to say, how restricted in Great Britain the right to vote actually was.
The British constitution in the long eighteenth century from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the Great Reform Act of 1832 was an extraordinary hotchpotch of incremental medieval practice and precedent. But it worked well.
The two senior medieval estates, the clergy and the nobility, sat in the House of Lords. The twenty or so bishops ‘represented’ the established, nationalized Catholic (‘Anglican’) Church. The lords were not ‘represented’ at all. Instead, all of them could and did sit in the House of Lords which was for long as important as the House of Commons. So much so that the 1911 Parliament Act crippling the House of Lords fundamentally democratised, and destabilised, British constitutional arrangements.
Unsurprisingly the Lords, as huge landowners, ‘lorded it’ over British society. They were wholly devoted to property rights, their own first and foremost, of course. But a few hundred families protecting their own property - but not that of the middling landowners and merchants – would be in a rather precarious political position. The many modest property owners who had taken up arms on behalf of The Earl of Warwick against Charles I in 1641 and against his son James II & VII in 1688 had to be reckoned with. So the Lords sensibly defended all property rights on principle. ‘Political’ rights such as freedom of speech, religion, movement and association were (and are) imperfectly defined aspects of everyone’s most fundamental property rights, those in their own persons.
In this defense of property, and therefore liberty, the Lords were abetted by the junior House, the House of Commons, in which the third estate of the population was represented.
The medieval ‘third estate’ meant everyone else, or rather everyone else who could vote for an MP. In practice, MPs were chosen by very few electors. They were also often related to or dependent upon peers - members of the House of Lords. Very big noble landowners might control a clutch of seats in the Commons. A few noblemen had tens of dependent MPs, making assembling support in the Commons for a government that much easier.
HOW DEMOCRATIC WAS THE HOUSE OF COMMONS?
Popular support for independent Commons or Communes - communities free of church or lordly control - had been a feature of medieval politics, especially in Italy and the Low Countries. In England no city secured actual independence from the King in the way that northern Italian cities had done from the Holy Roman Emperor. The City of London came close, but arguably took over the kingdom instead of seceding from it.
The Commons were a combination of Knights of the Shire (counties) and men from free or at least chartered communities or boroughs. There were two MPs for each of the forty or so counties in England elected by country landowners down to owners of quite modest landed properties. Much more numerous were the MPs from medieval era boroughs. In medieval times the kings of England, especially financially pressed kings, sold ‘charters’ for cash upfront to ambitious communities or Commons. The charters created independent free communities, independent, that is, of barons’ courts, forced labour and other exactions.
Later, as Parliament developed, one or two ‘representatives’ from each chartered ‘borough’ were asked to meet the king at their own expense to bolster the third estate in its crucial function of tackling the kings’ perennial requests for more taxes. In return the king was obliged to placate the Commons and Lords by agreeing to ‘Acts’ of Parliament addressing grievances of the propertied classes. In other words, the whole process was a stitch-up between tax paying interests and the king.
Who could vote in the boroughs to select MPs? It varied with each borough but usually it was only owners of properties in the borough. Sometimes the only voters might be the owners of just the first few plots of land laid out when the borough charter was first issued. Boroughs might prosper greatly and still only have two MPs in the Commons. Or they might fail and become rotten or pocket boroughs and still have MPs. Anyone who bought the land occupied by failed boroughs also bought their seats in the Commons.
Two of our greatest prime ministers, Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger, entered politics by representing a rotten borough. Their ancestor Thomas ‘Diamond’ Pitt returned from India with the funds to buy the borough of Old Sarum. With no inhabitants to speak of it had more representation than Manchester or many other industrial towns which had never become Parliamentary boroughs. The whole thing was, to modern sensibilities, corrupt and wrong. Electors naturally regarded their vote as a property right, for which they could be paid. The record for spending on an election and its voters was at an election in Yorkshire in 1807. About £250,000 (around £100 million in money of 2021) was spent in two weeks.
Suffice it to say that the electorate in England in the last year of the unreformed aristocratic constitution, 1831, was very small. There may have been a little over 400,000 voters out of a population of around 14 million. Almost all were propertied men. They had a strong interest in ensuring minimal government interference with their property or liberty – and they voted for representatives who were similar to them in outlook.
Famously, just after the Napoleonic War ended, the Commons unilaterally scrapped the new-fangled wartime income tax – directly contrary to the government’s wishes. It really was a taxpayer assembly. Such was the political basis of Britain’s fabulous success as a semi-libertarian society. It was definitely not based on universal suffrage.
And the electorate increased only slowly as a proportion of the very rapidly growing British population, until the last third of the nineteenth century. In such circumstances no party offering big government and heavy taxation could make electoral headway. Consequently, governments generally took around 10% of society’s wealth up until 1914, as opposed to around half now. It was the heyday of classical liberalism in America and Europe. It was an era of steadily growing wealth and innovation.
DEMOCRACY IN 19th CENTURY AMERICA
Universal (white) male suffrage came much earlier to the United States. In the late eighteenth century, it was usual for states to have property and age qualifications for voting. These fulfilled their purpose of limiting political power to people with assets to defend and the ability to pay taxes. These requirements were however largely dispensed with in the first third of the nineteenth century - for white men at least.
It may be wondered why 19th Century America did not experience a rapid growth of government if it achieved universal white male suffrage so early. Evidently there is no simple relationship between extending voting to all (white male) adults and bringing about the appearance of big government. Universal suffrage makes possible the bloated, dysfunctional government structures we have now once a majority of self-identifying ‘have-nots’ agree to sell their votes to politicians in return for ‘benefits’ paid for by pillaging the more productive workers and investors.
But universal suffrage did not have this effect in America until the beginning of the 20th century. The reason for this is that Americans in the late 18th and in the 19th centuries were ideologically libertarians. In early 18th century England, there was a strong tradition of genuinely libertarian, ‘natural law’ (anti-state on grounds of moral/religious principle) sentiment. It had showed itself in the thinking of the ‘levellers’ at the time of the Civil War in the mid-17th century. This true radical tradition continued but it could make no headway against the semi-libertarian constitutional settlement achieved after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Landed interests in Parliament had achieved enough to protect property rights and liberty whilst also securing control of the crown’s (theoretically unlimited) prerogative power. They did not want further radical change.
The British constitutional deal of 1688 remained stable and effective until the early 20th century, when the 1911 Parliament Act eliminated the House of Lords’ key role in it. It was good enough to enable the Industrial Revolution to get going, ultimately raising living standards and population around the world to undreamt of heights.
Meanwhile Trenchard and Gordon, two British libertarian writers, developed the libertarian tradition by publishing a series of works entitled ‘Cato’s Letters’. In the 18th century American colonies they had a very great influence. Their emphasis was on separation. Separating the state from religion, from education (indoctrination), from money (no central bank) and military force (by relying on independent militia). Eventually separating the state from everything would leave it so small as not really to exist.
Jefferson was a leader of this tendency but was dragged into the war of 1812 against Britain. It produced no result other than the consolidation of government power that wars usually bring about. The Jeffersonian tradition re-formed in a new Democratic party led by Andrew Jackson. It proposed a long-term program of eliminating government debt, the would-be US central bank, and cutting federal government activity generally.
To achieve this program, Democrats favoured eliminating property qualifications for voting. That’s because the masses were understood to be basically libertarian. In 19th century America, as in Britain, working people were actually pro-free trade and economic liberty. Hence the success of Cobden and Bright’s anti-corn law league in mid nineteenth century Britain. People then understood (as their indoctrinated descendants now mostly do not) that insider crony corporatists and official power grabbers, if given free rein, will always gang up to use state power against the wellbeing and interests of society as a whole.
The Democrats made a lot of progress with this radical pro-liberty agenda until the issue of slavery broke the party. The American civil war then massively entrenched the federal government. Nevertheless, the American population stayed distrustful of government, and of the federal government in particular. Despite the growth of ‘Progressivism’, no federal income tax could be levied until the ratification of the 16th amendment in 1913. Nor could a money-creating central bank, the Federal Reserve, be set up until the same year.
UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE AND SOCIALISM
Liberalism or libertarianism lost its way during the nineteenth century. It lost its emphasis on the moral case for absolute self-ownership. Pro-state (and therefore anti-liberty) ideas began to spread rapidly, in particular amongst the increasing number of professional people. For the first time it was possible to glimpse the possibility that poverty could become a thing of the past. That made it easier to agitate about perceived injustices and inequalities which had previously been accepted with resignation. Marxist socialism in Europe and Progressivism in the United States also drew heavily on anti-trade and anti-capital biases amongst members of establishments. Many people resented independent business success and wealth, especially in ‘unqualified’ people from modest backgrounds.
One way to look at the developing socialist consensus in establishment circles in the late nineteenth century is to see it as a successful revival of early 19th century conservatism. In the French National Assembly the seating arrangements gave rise to our political terms Right and Left. Pro-liberty radicals such as Bastiat sat on the left side, and anti-liberty pro-hereditary privilege and authority types sat on the right. The Right tried to ‘conserve’ pre-industrial forms of society, state supervised economies and religion, and rigid social hierarchies. They wanted to paternalistically boss everyone else around from their inherited positions of privilege.
By the mid nineteenth century the success of industrial society based on the rule of law and elimination of legal privilege made the old conservative position untenable. It regrouped around ‘following the science’, rather than religion and inherited privilege. Marx’s economic treatises gave this effort a wholly bogus veneer of intellectual heft. A centrally planned totalitarian society managed ‘for the greater good’ by the usual suspects, now dressed up as technocrats, was back on the table for inspection by mass electorates.
This statist revival finds an echo in the Greek experience. After the Athenian democracy ran into its own brick wall in 404BC, aristocratic (‘rule by the best’) notions of paternalistic suppression of freedom, and of the lower classes, came to the fore. Socrates’ student Plato set out the manifesto of technocratic rule in ‘The Republic’. Society should be controlled by self-appointed, unaccountable, credentialed rationalists – i.e. people like himself.
State direction of society could only mean much higher taxes and more interference in other people’s lives. In other words, the successful Classical Liberal model of limited government which had so transformed mankind’s wellbeing had to be overthrown. Instead of free cooperation gradually raising living standards, society would be characterized by a lot more extortion and bullying by public and private special interests. Power seeking politicians and would-be monopolistic businessmen really liked that idea. But it could never have happened if the vote had continued to be restricted to propertied taxpaying voters.
What happened was that politicians in Europe radically expanded the electorate to finally include wholly unpropertied working class voters. (The US electorate was already based on universal suffrage, as we have seen.) Many of these new voters proved susceptible to socialist ideas. Or at least they liked getting ‘free’ services and hand-outs paid for by the better-off. For the first time in recent history, individual political power in the West was not formally tied to ability or willingness to pay taxation (or, in the ancient world, to providing one’s own military equipment). The tax-base ceased to have the upper hand without, it seems, many people realizing how revolutionary a fact this was.
Hoppe provides some examples of the parallel moves towards universal suffrage and socialism in the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century in Europe:
Moving the political centre-of-gravity away from the propertied taxpaying classes made it possible to propose redistribution of wealth towards the relatively more numerous ‘have-nots’. It came to be usual to pay elected representatives so as to enable poorer candidates to put themselves forward. Worthy as this well-intentioned idea was, the result has been to create a new caste of paid middle-class professional politicians, often lawyers, whose principal task and talent is simply getting elected. With mass electorates, it became ever less likely that such politicians would be ‘representative’ (in the sense of ‘typical’) of voters.
MODERN UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE DIFFERS FROM ANCIENT DEMOCRACY
It is worth considering how modern democracies differ from classical Rome and Athens. And not generally in a good way. Laws in the classical democracies were not approved by representatives. In Rome the senators proposed laws and the citizens voted on them directly ‘in person’ (except in the last years of the republic when the Senate passed laws as well as proposing them). All the senators actually sat in the Senate – they were not elected representatives, unlike members of the US Senate and other upper houses.
We have no selection of officials by lot, as was standard in Athens. Her Majesty’s ministers, and indeed Parliament, would be a great deal more representative if selected by a national lottery. Better still, all these people would be confined to one term under Athenian practice. They would therefore have neither the incentive nor the means to bribe voters to elect them again. Clearly the result would be more ‘populist’ assemblies with less interest in featherbedding establishment vested interests.
Hopefully, if laws and regulations proposed by Parliament had all to be approved by a majority of voters, we could end the mind-numbing torrent of uncontrollable, self-serving law-making we now experience. Naturally, this ‘populist’ version of democracy is exactly what the globalists now attacking liberty in the West do not want to face. They prefer to deal with professional politicians and officials who share their dislike of the population.
Two other ideas: The Athenian practice of ostracism - ‘recalling’ or expelling unpopular political figures - has not been widely adopted in western democracies, but should be. And now that elected assemblies do not represent the taxpayers, there must be a case for creating taxpayer assemblies and or referenda to approve – or not – tax and borrowing.
WESTERN DEMOCRACY RELIES ON ELECTED POLITICAL REPRESENTATIVES
It is easy to see why western democracy came to rely on representative assemblies, ultimately derived from medieval institutions, rather than the ‘direct democracy’ approach of classical republics. It was increasingly a problem as Rome expanded just to gather the voters on the Campus Martius at Rome. Modern states are too large in size and population for direct consultation of every citizen to be attempted. (Though we do now have the communications technology to bypass unsatisfactory elected representatives.)
In contrast the citizen bodies of Athens and republican Rome could be assembled in one place for political decision making. The Athenian citizenry would barely fill half the seats in Wembley Stadium. But elected representatives have their own particular drawbacks.
PEVERSE INCENTIVES FACED BY ELECTED POLITICIANS
“Give a man a desert and he will turn it into a garden. Rent a man a garden and he will turn it into a desert.”
This is a classic statement about incentives. Incentives which encourage long-term improvement lead to productive results. But a short-term owner has an incentive to run down an asset for temporary gain at the cost of long-term ruin. Incentives matter, and it is unreasonable to expect officials, elected or unelected, not to promote their own interests.
Hoppe identifies modern democratic politicians as possessing very short-term leases on society’s assets, running just until the next elections. Their incentive is therefore quickly to strip as much wealth out of society as politically possible. With it they can buy votes for that all-important next election. They can also make mutually beneficial deals with corporate, banking and official insiders to rig markets against consumers and smaller businesses. None of this aligns with the long-term wellbeing of society.
Incentives were different in the 18th and 19th century heyday of classical liberalism. Then representatives were, as we have seen, mainly elected by property owners and taxpayers. They were also the same kind of monied people as their electors. They served (at their own expense) to keep government tax raising ambitions and attacks on property in check. In this, representatives’ incentives were aligned with those of their voters. Both wanted property protected to allow long term improvement and prosperity.
Government was kept small, relatively harmless, and not very important to most people. The result was an extraordinary increase in wealth and living standards brought about by unfettered capital accumulation and investment.
BIG GOVERNMENT JUSTIFIED BY REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY
Yet Western states depend wholly for their legitimacy on the idea that all individuals can safeguard their interests and make their views count via elected political representatives. That means that government, with its otherwise unacceptable legal privilege of robbing and bullying the citizenry, is OK because it is ‘our’ government. Everything the government does is just it doing our own will.
That is the idea, but in practice people have little influence on the state. Throughout the West the people have neither the right to propose new laws nor the right to approve or reject those proposed by the state (with the partial and interesting exception of Switzerland).
The transfer of legislative power from the people to their elected supposed representatives is the big difference between modern and ancient democratic systems. In practice getting representatives to reflect their electors’ views, once elected, has always been problematic. It is now such a problem that representative democracy is itself losing credibility.
Universal suffrage, prevalent in the United States from the early nineteenth century and in Europe a century later, has enabled the interests of producers, savers and investors to be overridden by an alliance between politicians and the mass of the less productive. The result is enormous state machines riddled with private and public vested interests. They use government power to create winners (themselves) and losers (producers) – passing kickbacks, donations, etc. to the elected political party front men.
PRO-SPECIAL INTEREST LEGISLATION
In the American tradition ‘legislatures’ of elected representatives can at least propose as well as pass new laws. The only constraint on what might be legislated has been the US Constitution and above all its first ten amendments (The Bill of Rights).
In the parliamentary systems of Britain and her commonwealth offshoots, and in Europe, governments alone propose the laws to be passed by their legislatures. There are no real, constitutionally embedded rights and liberties. The parliamentary legislatures defer to ministers selected from amongst their number. They are rubber stamps approving deep state priorities. At the EU level, the unelected EU bureaucracy has displaced national politicians entirely in proposing new laws to be practically automatically approved by the European Parliament. This is as far from classical direct democracy as can be.
Crucially, taxes in modern states do not have to be approved by taxpayers – which was the original purpose of Parliament. Government borrowing and money creation by central banks are not even subject to allegedly democratic legislative oversight.
The result of this mish-mash of universal suffrage voting for unaccountable and increasingly ‘bought-and-paid-for’ political front men has been pervasive corruption. Once elected, politicians garner salaries, generous (often untaxed) expenses, promises of employment and opportunities for gain of various kinds.
As explained in www.awah.uk post ‘Legislation is a Racket to Fleece the Productive’, once our ‘representatives’ get to the capital, they are exposed to the temptations of generous and attentive lobbying efforts on behalf of public and private vested interests. The result is stifling over-regulation meant to profit politically connected corporate and official insiders at the expense of the rest of society.
It is a rare man who does not leave, for example, the US senate as a multimillionaire. Elected leaders and their families on both sides of the Atlantic have recently become extremely wealthy, far beyond what official salaries could explain, as they work with private and public sector schemes to strip-mine western populations’ remaining wealth.
BIG GOVERNMENT ALTERS SOCIETY FOR THE WORSE
With the ascendancy of socialism or collectivism, political systems based on universal suffrage led to buying votes by redistributing wealth from producers to supplicants. An unforeseen outcome of this has been the long-term transformation of western societies, mostly for the worse.
Socialist politicians assumed that populations would remain as responsible and productive as they had become under classical liberalism - regardless of socialist policies. They might even become better Marxist ‘New Men’. This has not turned out to be the case. Character seems to vary with the soundness of societies’ legal, and therefore political, arrangements.
Since politicians couldn’t justify simply sending cash to their supporters, vote buying had to involve new arrangements which benefited less well-off voters. There had to be free services such as education and healthcare. These rewarded voters who had previously (willingly) paid for both, as well as privileged unionised state employees and credentialled managers. There had to be welfare programs. And lots of jobs for the boys. By now at least half of UK households’ income is entirely or significantly dependent on the state.
It is a basic principle of economics that you get more of what you pay for. If you pay people to be poor - feckless and improvident - and deprive them of the means and the need to take responsibility for their lives, they will dumb down. You will get a steady shift away from high standards and productive values towards more dependent, undisciplined, irrational and dysfunctional values and behaviour.
Eventually the dead weight of non-contributors exceeds the carrying capacity of the remaining productive people. The expected result would be a sudden collapse, apparently coming from nowhere, just like the one that overtook the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. However this outcome may yet be averted in those places where enough people react against discredited governments and in favour of freedom.