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The False Promise of Democracy

Karel Beckman - June 25, 2012

People around the world are fighting autocratic regimes in the name of freedom and democracy. They are right to fight for freedom, but wrong to fight for democracy. Libertarians should try to make it clear to them that the democratic path will not lead to freedom, but to slavery.

Most libertarians no doubt sympathize with the courageous protests against authoritarian regimes by ordinary people all over the world. Unlike neoconservatives or liberals, libertarians are not worried when protesters threaten the "stability" of some US-backed client state. They have always warned that supporting dictatorships leads to unwelcome "blowback", since oppressed people who revolt usually turn not only against their oppressors, but against their western backers as well. Post World War Two history is full of examples of this.

But what are libertarians to think of the fact that those protesters are usually fighting for (more) democracy? For it cannot be denied that dissidents in authoritarian countries, like Russia, China, Egypt, Tunisia, and the Persian Gulf States, demand democracy ("free elections") above all. Indeed, the first of the modern protesters, in Tiananmen Square in 1989, were known as the ’89 Democracy Movement.

For libertarians this presents a dilemma. Certainly since Hoppe published his famous Democracy – The God That Failed in 2001, libertarians have become increasingly critical of the whole idea of democracy. You could say that thanks to Hoppe they have re-discovered the fact that democracy is in a very basic sense antithetical to liberty.

As Hoppe and others have shown, democracy ("rule by the people") is not at all the same as liberty ("freedom of the individual"). In a system in which "the people’ rule, all significant decisions on all aspects of society are taken by "the people", i.e. by the democratically elected government that supposedly represents the people, i.e. by the State. In such a system, people naturally turn to the State to solve their problems or deal with all of society’s ills. As a consequence – and because one intervention tends to lead to another – the power of the State is steadily expanded.

This is exactly what has happened in practice in democratic countries. The advent of democracy has subverted rather than supported the freedoms and rights people enjoy in western countries. The power of the State has grown steadily in the last 100 to 150 years in line with the steady growth of democratic principles in government. In the 19th century, right up until the First World War, the tax burden in the United States was a few percent at most, except in times of war. Income tax didn't exist and was even forbidden by the Constitution.

But as the United States were transformed from a decentralized, federal state into a national parliamentary democracy, government power steadily increased. Government spending in the US grew from about 7% in 1870 to 42% in 2010 (according to figures from The Economist). Government spending and indebtedness are now totally out of control. It is the same in all other western democracies.

The sheer number of laws by which the government controls people has mushroomed beyond anything that the Founding Fathers would be able to imagine in their wildest dreams. The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) – which lists all laws enacted by the federal government – grew from just a single book in 1925 to more than 200 volumes in 2010, of which the index alone takes up more than 700 pages. It contains rules for everything under the sun – from how a watchband should look to how onion rings should be prepared in restaurants.

Even worse, there are half a million people behind bars in the US just for "drug crimes". No one is safe from law enforcers these days; anyone can be locked up on any pretext. No "right" is sacrosanct, neither the right to free speech nor the right to private property.

And there is no sign that things are getting better. As Lew Rockwell once wrote: "Every day, our markets are less free, our property less secure, our laws more arbitrary, our officials more corrupt and the ideal of liberty a more distant memory."

Rebellion and revolution

Yet this is not how those protesters look at democracy. They do associate democracy with freedom. It is not difficult to see why.

What people in dictatorial states probably want most of all is two things: a decent standard of living, and control over their own lives – over their environment, their careers, their social life. At present they have no say over the laws that rule their lives. They have no control over their property or environment. They cannot set up a business without permission from corrupt bureaucrats. They have no power over whether a dam gets built that will wipe away their village or a polluting plant that will destroy their crops. And they have no way to remove their rulers except through rebellion and revolution.

In democracy, they see a way to remedy all these ills. They believe democracy will give them the means to choose their own rulers, to help formulate the laws that govern them, to enable them to appeal to independent courts when their rights are abused. And they believe democracy will make them more prosperous.

These beliefs are perfectly understandable. After all, in Western democratic countries people do have some control over their lives. They are able, to some extent, to reign in their rulers, or dispose of them by means of the ballot box. They have more or less independent courts they can appeal to if they believe their rights are violated. They are to some extent free to move around, to go looking for a better job, or a better life, elsewhere, if they want to (at least within their own countries). And they tend to have a relatively high standard of living.

Those are the promises that democracy holds out to the oppressed people of the world.

What those oppressed people fail to realize, however, is that the freedom and wealth people enjoy in most western countries are not due to the fact that they are democracies, but to the fact that their democratic systems were built on a classical-liberal foundation.

All the freedoms that modern Americans enjoy (or used to enjoy) – private property, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, independent courts, limited powers of the rulers – were established by the Founding Fathers after the American revolution (in part building on British classical-liberal traditions). This was before the advent of democracy as we know it today. And this is the same in other western countries. First came individual freedom, only later came the national democratic state.

In newly to be formed democracies, like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, or, who knows, China, where there is no tradition of classical-liberalism, there is no reason to expect that the advent of democracy will lead to (more) freedom. On the contrary. The "people" in those new democracies will demand that the State take action to grant their wishes. This will most likely lead to the creation of socialist, nationalist and religious dictatorships.

At the first free elections in Egypt, the liberal-secular parties that instigated the Tahrir Square revolt got only 7% of the vote. The Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamic parties became the biggest parties by far. In Tunisia the same thing happened. It seems quite out of character for the Islamists to be ringing in a free society. Much more likely they will do the reverse and subject the entire society to sharia law.

Nor is this an exclusively Arab or Islamic problem. In countries like Venezuela, Thailand and Hungary, elected leaders have little intention of establishing libertarian societies. In China too, if that country became democratic, some highly nationalistic parties might rise to the top.

So, although proponents of democracy in the west are rightly hailing the Arab Spring movement as a victory for democracy, it will probably (perhaps with some exceptions) not turn out to be a victory for freedom.

Of course one may ask, don’t people like the Muslim Brotherhood have the right control their own lives? To abide by the sharia, for instance, if they want to? Well, yes. The problem is that in a democracy – in a democratic nation-state – such people do not only rule their own lives, they extend their rule over everyone in their society. That’s how the democratic system works.

What then should we as libertarians say to those courageous people out there who face down guns and tanks in their struggle to be free? Aren’t we letting them down if we say they should not fight for democracy? No. Not if we explain that what they should fight for is not democracy, but freedom. And that this means they should not try to replace their authoritarian state with a national democratic state, but that they should instead try to break away from their state. They should try to create their own, decentralized, free society, in a place of their own. Admittedly, it is not certain whether the majority would let them, but then again, they might, depending on the circumstances.

Come to think of it, isn’t this also what we should be trying to do ourselves, in the Western world?

This article was also published on and Mises Brazil