Unlike many concepts in political theory, such as liberty or justice, democracy is easy to define. It denotes government by the majority, whether directly or indirectly. In the present essay, I shall restrict the discussion to government in control of a reasonably large territory. This restriction leads to, but perhaps does not entail, a further limitation. The type of government I shall endeavor to discuss is a variety of indirect democracy, i.e., a representative democracy, as in the United States and Great Britain, where the national legislature is popularly elected. Representative democracy is not the only conceivable sort of indirect democracy: imagine, e.g., a system in which the people by plebiscite can veto laws but only a non-elected body can propose them. Nevertheless, it is the system of government most frequently commended to all and sundry.
Though it is easy to characterize democracy, recent political theory has been marked by a conspicuous omission. Virtually no argument is ever offered to support the desirability of representative democracy, and the little that is available seems distressingly weak. Why ought democracy to be either instituted or promoted, let alone exported, as a recent book by Joshua Muravchik (Exporting Democracy) advocates? One would think that as important a question as that of the best political system would have generated an enormous literature. In point of fact, most writing on the subject simply takes for granted the desirability of democracy and inquires how existing democracies may be improved. The issue of whether democracy is a “good thing” is not thought worth raising.
A notable example of the omission I contend exists is a recent volume, The Conquest of Politics, by Bernard Barber, a distinguished political theorist teaching at Rutgers University. Barber criticizes a number of philosophers who have written about politics, including John Rawls, Bruce Ackerman, and Robert Nozick, for presuming to arrive at agendas for a just political order in the absence of democratic discussion. The decision of the people, rather than the excogitations of philosophers “voyaging through strange seas of thought alone,” should determine questions of distributive justice. To think otherwise is to be undemocratic.
Barber, whatever criticism one might make of him, at least has something to say. Concerning another group, the so-called Western Straussians headed by Harry Jaffa, it is difficult to give its members even this much credit. Is it an argument for democracy that Abraham Lincoln favored the system? The elaborate attempt of Jaffa, in Crisis of the House Divided, to argue that Lincoln correctly interpreted the Declaration of Independence to support a system of egalitarian democracy seems of purely historical interest. Why should Lincoln’s position be of any present-day importance? It is no more an argument for democracy that Lincoln favored it than it is one against this system that King James I opposed it.
What of the claim that the Declaration of Independence either mandates democratic government or, less strongly, recommends it? At best, the point would be relevant to the United States, for which the Declaration counts as an important historical document, rather than as a universal argument for democracy, unless, of course, it is contended that the Declaration enshrines principles of universal validity. But what is the argument for this claim?
Even if one restricts the discussion to the United States, appeal to the Declaration does not by itself take one very far. It seems more than doubtful, to say the least, that the Declaration can be taken to require democracy. It does not, after all, list among its grievances against George III that the monarch was undemocratic: it is the specific complaints adduced, rather than the absence of democracy, that the Declaration instances as the reasons entitling the colonies to “dissolve the political bands” that connect them with Great Britain.
To this one might counter that democracy is still the system most favored by the Declaration: even if other systems must be tolerated they are less than ideal. Although I am strongly inclined to dissent from this interpretation, I lack sufficient knowledge of the literature on the Declaration to discuss it in detail. (One related argument will however be discussed below.)
But suppose the Declaration did recommend democracy. Once more the question would arise: what is the significance of this? Some argument would need to be provided that the assumed view of the Declaration has binding authority. Surely the argument: the Declaration is one of the founding documents of the United States; therefore, any preference to be found in it regarding a proper political system ought to be followed by contemporary Americans, moves too fast. What precisely is the view of tradition supporting this position? Or is the argument rather that democracy has theoretical support independent of the Declaration, but that the support of the Declaration adds weight to this? But this merely returns us to the point at issue: what is the argument for democracy?
It might be contended that the argument that I have claimed to have trouble locating is in fact quite straightforward. Everyone ought to be in control of his own affairs, to the extent that his liberty does not impinge on the equal liberty of others. No one has the right to enslave another, using him as a mere tool. A version of this argument is, I suspect, behind Jaffa’s appeal to the Declaration in support of an egalitarian republic. If “all men are created equal,” how can a political system be justifiable in which some are entitled to lord it over others?
The principal difficulty with this argument is that it is far from evident how democracy emerges from the considerations here alleged in its support. Democracy is not a system in which each controls his own affairs but rather one in which the majority controls everyone. The principle of liberty from which the argument begins, which seems to me eminently plausible, leads to a regime of strictly limited control rather than to democracy. If it is replied that the argument shows the need for democracy combined with a Bill of Rights, we must again ask where does democracy come in? It seems to have nothing to do with the case.
But this argument has not yet concluded. If a strictly limited but undemocratic state exists, its rulers will still have more power than other citizens, however limited their restriction of individual liberty. Only democracy, a critic may claim, can eliminate this disparity.
But why ought it to be eliminated? It does not follow from the principle of liberty that everyone ought to be equal in power: if this is denied, I, for one, would like to see the reasoning set out. To assume that no person ought to have more political power than anyone else begs the question at issue, the desirability of democracy. This premise cannot be used as part of an independent argument in support of democracy: it is itself a restatement of an extreme version of democracy.
Some philosophers might contend that we have failed in our quest for the justification of democracy because we have not plunged deeply enough into the foundations of ethics. Is it not a basic principle of morality, as Ronald Dworkin contends, that everyone is entitled to be treated with equal consideration and respect? Only a democracy, it might be claimed, can obey this imperative.
I must confess it is not so evident to me as it is to Dworkin that the principle of equal consideration is correct. No doubt everyone should be treated with the respect due to him: but why equal respect? Is everyone of equal moral value? Charles Manson and David Hume? Fidel Castro and Douglas MacArthur? Perhaps, though, the point intended is a different one. Even though people differ in moral value, the respect due to them ought not to mirror their moral worth. (Presumably, supporters of this position will not regard defense against criminals as inconsistent with their concept of respect.)
Once more, this principle strikes me as implausible, but even if, contrary to fact, I had a good argument against it which did not appeal to conflicting moral intuitions, further discussion of it would take us too far afield. Instead, following our established tack, we inquire: does this principle support democracy?
It will hardly come as a surprise that it does not. As Dworkin himself has noted in another connection, treating people with equal respect does not imply treating them identically. The principle requires equal consideration of each person’s claims. It does not tell us without other principles what the outcome of that consideration will be. Dworkin is himself not only a democrat but a supporter of distributing economic resources along egalitarian lines; however, he does not obtain his results from the principle of respect alone. The details of Dworkin’s argument will not be discussed here; I have mentioned him only because his principle of equal respect, or similar rules, is often invoked in support of democracy.
Bruce Ackerman, for example, devises in his influential Social Justice in the Liberal State a series of imaginary conversations designed to illustrate the appropriate political and social principles. A requirement of his conversations, the outcomes of which turn out invariably to be democratic and egalitarian, is that no one claim that he is intrinsically more valuable than anyone else. Why not? Some people are better than others. Why must this moral fact be suppressed? How strong is an argument for democracy that rests on the refusal to allow reference to an obvious truth? Incidentally, Benjamin Barber, whom we have earlier discussed, criticizes Ackerman for a different reason – he is insufficiently democratic.
Are there no good arguments for democracy? Perhaps we have overlooked the obvious. Is it not wrong to impose a government on people without their consent? To do so seems inconsistent with a free society. If this is true, do we not at last have the argument for democracy which we have so far sought in vain?
Not at all. Consent has to do with the acceptance of the authority of a government by those subject to it: democracy refers to a type of rule, i.e., control by the majority or its agents. Consent neither implies nor is implied by democracy. Dictatorial regimes have enjoyed widespread recognition of their authority: one need only mention Napoleon during the years of his political success. A democratic system, moreover, can be forcibly imposed on a country without the consent of its citizens. In this case, the citizens are able democratically to govern themselves but cannot change the system, even if they overwhelmingly wish to do so. The United States has often acted in just this fashion in Latin America, since the days when Woodrow Wilson decided that the Mexican government was insufficiently democratic for his taste. Wilson also declined to grant Germany an armistice in World War I until the country replaced its monarchy with a republic.
Although consent and democracy need not in fact be connected, it might be argued that they ought to be. Only a democratic system ought to receive popular consent, even if people are benighted enough to think otherwise. But this contention presupposes that there exists an acceptable account of consent. Though I cannot here argue the point and can hardly ask readers simply to accept my assessment, it does seem to me that none of the principal theories of consent withstands philosophical criticism. It is in part on this basis that I support a libertarian system, in which the issue of consent to political authority does not arise. The arguments advanced in this essay do not, however, appeal to specifically libertarian contentions: the principle of liberty discussed earlier was deliberately worded in a way intended to be generally acceptable. But all this is by the way.
If in response it is alleged that even if we lack a convincing theory of consent, we at least know that the existence of a democratic system is a necessary condition of the yet-to-be found account, I fear that the familiar litany must be repeated: why is this so?
Perhaps the most substantial argument in support of democracy is that of the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. A democratic regime, since it by hypothesis enjoys majority support, will best insure that political change avoids violence. A government that people dislike but cannot alter democratically will, in contrast, be susceptible to revolution, with its attendant destruction.
Mises’s argument seems to me vulnerable at several points. It does not address the contention raised earlier that a democratic system can itself be unpopular: unless the majority has the power to abolish democracy, Mises’s own argument would suggest the likelihood of revolution. He might, however, reply that, though he cannot show that democracy always leads to stability, it remains the system most likely to do so.
More directly to the essence, Mises fails to address the problem of revolutions brought about by minorities. Why should a dissatisfied minority confine itself to attempting to secure majority support for its proposals? Mises might reply that it has little choice – since the majority opposes it, it will lose should it attempt to seize power by force.
But this flies in the face of history; are not revolutions often, indeed usually, the result of efforts by a determined minority? Little purpose would be served by a long list of historical examples, though the French and Russian Revolutions will do for a start; but the list is unnecessary. All that is required to challenge Mises’s claim is to note that it is an empirical issue, not one to be settled a priori, whether revolutions stem in a significant number of cases from dissatisfied majorities. Unless they do, Mises has not shown that a system with majority support is in practice needed to avert revolution.
Mises’s claim that a government elected by a majority is unlikely to be overthrown violently by that same majority seems plausible. But if he has located a sufficient condition for immunizing a government against a revolution with majority support, he has failed to adduce a necessary one. Any regime that enjoys widespread popular approval will meet Mises’s requirement, which in fact is an instance of the trivial point that a group will not overthrow a system it supports.
Furthermore, even if Mises is correct that democracy maximizes stability, precisely how does this work? If, finally, Mises were to respond that since governments may lose their support, democracy is necessary to allow changes in opinion to register their effect, an exactly similar rejoinder is appropriate. Any government responsive to popular discontent will be in a position to avert revolution, not just a democracy.
A supporter of democracy may reject the entire line of approach pursued in this essay. Why are arguments to justify democracy needed at all? Do we require arguments that we should not gratuitously inflict pain on others, or not betray our country to the enemy? Would we not look askance at someone who raised the question of whether he should steal as a “live option” rather than as a philosophical perplexity? Similarly, it might be contended that democracy stands in no need of further justification.
It seems to me entirely right that some truths, including certain principles of ethics, are known to be correct without the need for justification through argument. But is it plausible to think that the issue of how best to organize the making of political decisions is a matter open to direct apprehension? If it is, what are the intuitively evident principles governing division of power between legislature and executive? The requirements for public office, etc.? If these latter issues cannot be settled on intuitive grounds, why should we think the more general issue can be? What are the boundaries of intuition? Is this question also a matter of intuitive judgment?
If, in spite of these considerations, someone does have such a moral intuition, I have nothing to say against him. But to those for whom the question is a matter of inquiry, a case of this sort is irrelevant. Political theory cannot advance unless the analysis of controversial issues can proceed beyond the point of unsupported reiteration of prior convictions.
Those who support democracy but wish to go beyond appeal to an intuition of its desirability have work to do. Perhaps there is an argument that does show that democracy is entailed by sound morality. Much more likely, it seems to me, there is not. The slogan “Vox populi, vox Dei” and its endless modern variants are best consigned to the rubbish heap of exploded superstitions.
This article was first published in This World, Number 27, Winter 1992.
David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and Distinguished Columnist at LewRockwell.com. He is also author of Resurrecting Marx and An Introduction to Economic Reasoning and editor of numerous books including Strictly Confidential: The Private Volker Fund Memos of Murray N. Rothbard. Send him mail.