18 March 2010

Article: What's So Good About Democracy?

The article "What's So Good About Democracy?" by Norman Barry was published in "The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty" (53 [5], May 2003: pp. 44-8), the near-monthly magazine of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).

The article can be read free of charge here:


Excerpts: "Some words convey descriptive information about the world – like those used in the weather forecast – while others are designed not to tell us anything factually important but to act on our emotions and garner our support, such as advertising slogans and political words. This is true of democracy: If anybody confesses to being anti-democratic he is likely to be called a fascist. In its emotive sense, all sorts of good things, such as liberty, rights, majority rule, and the public interest, are bundled up and marketed under the label 'democracy.' [...] A modern critique of democracy must proceed from [...] nineteenth-century skeptical insights – but with one crucially important qualification: the threat to civilization has not actually come from the unfettered mob but from the uncontrollable influence of pressure groups ([James] Madison's 'factions') on the social and economic process. They are much more dangerous than majoritarianism precisely because they can claim the imprimatur of liberal democracy for their anti-individualistic and anti-market effects. [...]

"It was the Italian theorists of elitism who first produced a powerful, theoretical critique of democracy, and some of their strictures are relevant to modern considerations. [...] Although [Joseph] Schumpeter had the key to a wholesale critique of democracy, he still supported it. Democracy could work, he thought, if a society were reasonably homogeneous, had a reliable bureaucracy [...], and not too many affairs were subject to political, as opposed to private economic, decision-making. He thought that the level of rationality fell as soon as people left the marketplace and played politics, either as voters or activists. This seems to be true. Just watch the supreme rationality of the housewife quickly responding to price changes at Wal-Mart, compared to her ignorance of the policy proposals of political parties at an election. [...] The problem is that it is not in her interest to be well-informed about politics. It is simply in no one's rational self-interest to be informed about what is in the 'public interest.' Least of all is it in anyone's interest to sacrifice his well-being for the 'common good.' Democratic theorists have never solved the problem of why rational people vote at all, given the nugatory effect a single vote can have on the result of an election. [...]

"A coherent critique of democracy requires things of which Schumpeter never dreamt: first, a logical explanation of why the public good cannot often be transmitted through the voting mechanism (not merely the casual observation that it rarely happens) and, second, a theory of why, in practice, democratic politics degenerates into a squabble over benefits among rival interest groups. [...] In fact, a democracy would work better if the people voted directly on separate issues rather than having their representatives vote on bundles produced by the parties. Contra conventional conservatism, direct democracy is actually better than representative government. [...] Because of its emotive appeal, selling an anti-democratic idea is politically difficult. Various alternatives have been suggested, but most are infeasible whatever their internal logic. As suggested above, an effective approach, paradoxically, might be to demand more democracy, with choices put to the people rather than to their elected representatives. [...] All of this is rather tame for an anti-democrat. Even the Swiss [model's] constraints are not insurmountable; they have failed to resist some advances of centralized government. But they do constitute a model from which further dents in the edifice of conventional majority rule and almost unlimited sovereignty might be made."

Personal experience from Switzerland tells me that there is no significant difference in outcomes between representative democracy and direct democracy.

The late Norman Barry (1944-2008) was a libertarian Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Buckingham.

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