Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Vol. 9, No. 2; Summer 2003

The Trouble with Democracy

The Case Against the Democratic State: An Essay in Cultural Criticism. By Gordon Graham. Imprint Academic, 2002. 96 pgs.

Gordon Graham challenges practically the whole of reigning orthodoxy in political philosophy in his remarkable book. To the bien pensants of political theory, "political participation" and "democratic decision-making" are all the rage, and theorists such as Amy Guttmann, Benjamin Barber, and Ronald Dahl constantly urge us on to more and more democracy. Like Hans-Hermann Hoppe in his excellent Democracy---The God that Failed, though with rather different arguments, Graham sets himself in firm opposition to this dominant trend.1 Graham is principally a philosopher of religion, and he brings to political theory the fresh perspective of an outsider.

Like Hoppe, our author goes further than to put democracy into question. He manifests a bold and welcome skepticism toward the state itself. Graham here labors under a handicap, as he in effect fights with one hand tied behind his back. He appears unaware of private property anarchism. When he asks, why do we need the state, he does not bring to bear how private protection agencies might fulfill the functions that today the state monopolizes. In spite of laboring under this limitation, he strikes crippling blows at the usual rationale for the state.

Those ensnared by the conventional wisdom will likely throw up their hands in despair. "Of course we need the state," they will say. "Without it, will not society at once collapse into chaos? Crime will be uncontrollable, and we will find ourselves in a Hobbesian war of all against all."

Will we? Graham raises two points that, taken together, throw into question this familiar view. For one thing, most people refrain from crime because they think it wrong. Unless most people avoided aggression on their own volition, not even the most powerful state could restrain them. "It simply is not plausible (because not feasible) to suppose that police, even in considerable numbers, could enforce the sort of order that is required for a large and busy supermarket to function effectively, never mind the thousands upon thousands of these that many modern societies support. We know very well than when rioting does break out, it can be difficult for well armed and trained police in sizeable numbers to control a mob in even one small locality."(p.11)

If the state is not necessary for social order, neither is it sufficient. Graham reminds us of an obvious fact, often overlooked when we take for granted the need for the state. Crime exits: the state does not fully give us the social order it promises. "Theft of property, fraudulent transactions, kidnapping, violence against the person and so on, all occur in societies with a strong and efficient State."(p.12)

The choice between the state and anarchy, then, is not a decision between order and chaos. Order does not depend on the state, and it does not prevent all disorder. But Graham does not conclude from these considerations that the state should be abolished. The argument from "public goods" impresses him; when individual and collective rationality diverge, must not the state step in to bring them into alignment? (Unfortunately, Graham is evidently unaware of work by Bruce Benson and others on the private provision of public goods.) And he thinks that stateless societies could not mount effective resistance to attacks from foreign states.

The state, then, can be useful, our author thinks. But it is dangerous, as the totalitarian nightmares of the twentieth century have taught us. How can we obtain the advantages of the state while avoiding its dangers? Some have sought an answer in democracy. If the people rule, we have little to fear, and much to gain, from a well run state. It is this thesis that Graham sets as his principal task to refute.

Our author begins by recalling the arguments of the greatest of all opponents of democracy, Plato. In the Republic, Plato famously argues that, "[j]ust as it would be madness to settle on medical treatment for the body of a person by taking an opinion poll of the neighbors, so it is irrational to prescribe for the body politic by polling the opinions of the people at large."(p.23)

To this the reply is obvious. Given a certain goal, such as health, we can appropriately turn to experts. But in politics, just what are "up for grabs" are the ends that society should pursue. Here there are no experts; and there is nothing at all incongruous about appeal to the majority in this context. Indeed, is not the alternative to majority rule outright dictatorship?

But Plato is not so easily turned aside. Democratic elections often settle questions that have to do with means. When voters endorse minimum wage laws, inflation, and environmental controls on business, are they not dealing with issues that fall within the competence of the economist? They think these measures will promote prosperity: they presumably do not support them as valuable for their own sake. Why then is it up to them, rather than qualified experts, to decide on these issues?

Further, why should we accept the contention that there are no experts about ends? To say this is to beg the question against Plato. He maintained, and many of successors agreed with him, that ethics is an objective inquiry. If he is right, why should we be governed by the untutored whims of the populace? "In any democracy, there will always be people who cannot leave aside purely personal preference and interest when they enter the realm of public debate. Are they to be ranked along side those who genuinely try to think about what would be best for the community as a whole?"(p.28)

Graham supplements his resort to Plato with the claim that support for democracy leads to a paradox. Suppose you endorse democracy: you think, e.g., that the majority of voters should decide whether we have minimum wage laws. At the same time, you yourself think that such laws are objectively bad. What happens if minimum wage laws win majority support? You are caught in a trap.You must think we ought to have such laws, since you think that the majority should rule and the majority has voted for them. At the same time, you must think that we ought not to have them, since you believe that they are objectively bad.

I cannot think that this alleged paradox generates a real difficulty. Here, we have reasons to accept two conflicting conclusions. One reason tells us that we ought to have minimum wage laws, another that we should not. Must we not  then decide, in the given case, which consideration is the stronger? A clash between various prima facie oughts, to use the term of Sir David Ross, is nothing to be feared.

Let us return to the Platonist arguments. Faced with these, a democrat might I think reply in this way: "A democracy might very well institute policies that, objectively speaking, are bad. If I deem the policies of my society bad, at least I have the possibility of trying to change them; my vote counts. The alternative is dictatorship; is this what the critic of democracy wants?"

Graham meets this argument head on. In a modern democracy, your vote does not count. Because of the large number of voters in an election, an individual has not the remotest chance of turning the results in the direction he favors. "Imagine an election in a parliamentary constituency of 10,000 voters where 60% go to the polls and the outright winner(X) gets 52% of the vote. Suppose I voted for X. It is evident that my vote makes no difference. Had I not done so, she would have won anyway; 32,000 minus one still wins. Had I voted against her, this would make no difference either. . . But if this is true of my vote, it is true of everyone else's also. So it does not matter how anyone would have voted, the outcome would have been the same."( p.58, emphasis omitted)

A supporter of democracy is unlikely at this point to retire from the battle defeated. "No individual vote counts for much," he will acknowledge, "but in a democracy people are free to persuade others to adopt their policies. It is the process of free discussion, not voting by itself, that lies at the essence of democracy."

Our author is well prepared for this counter. What has free discussion to do with majority rule? A majority-rule system can suppress free speech, and an elite regime not dependent on majority support can permit it. "Why should the subjects of a good despot or liberal oligarchy not arrange public debates on political issues, publish newspapers, make television programmes, and even organize conferences and rallies designed to bring influence to bear on the decision makers?"(p.53)

"Possibly an oligarchy might act in this fashion," a democrat will reply, "but discussion will not be widespread. In a democracy, people endeavor to influence the voters, the ultimate decision makers. In an oligarchy, discussion and debate lack a practical purpose. Why would people waste much energy on public discussion when their efforts may count for naught?"

Graham once more has a response. Why should one believe that persuasion can work only in a democracy? Why are "the good despot and the liberal oligarchs"(p.55) immune to persuasion? "The democrat . . . would be very unwise to play down the significance of voicing opinions, since this is the only way, between elections, that democracy is to be distinguished from elective dictatorship."(p.55)

In sum, although Graham does not reject the state, he thinks the usual arguments for it of little merit. The alleged advantages of the state must be weighed against its manifest disadvantages, most notably its tendency to assume undue power. Democracy provides no safeguard against this danger, and in a democratic system individual voters are powerless. Further, democracy subordinates the pursuit of truth to government by the whim of the incompetent and untrained. Free discussion is no doubt a good, but such discussion has no necessary connection with democratic rule. Graham's courage and insight in challenging prevailing dogma deserve great praise.

1 See my review of Professor Hoppe’s book, in The Mises Review, Spring 2002, pp.1-6.


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