In an October 20 article at FEE.org, Jeffrey Tucker discussed the media panic over Donald Trump’s potential refusal to accept the election results on November 8. His explanation of the reasons behind the horror displayed by the establishment is accurate, if incomplete. The powers that be sense that the public are waking up to the realization that the current system not only fails to serve them, but is designed to oppress them in order to benefit the ruling classes. Knowing from history what people are capable of when such sentiments become sufficiently common and bold, and knowing that the current system is ultimately unsustainable, the rulers and those well-connected to them seek to keep the system going a while longer so as to pass the ticking time bomb to someone else. Thus “the demand that all candidates join hands in a celebration of democracy” which is “nothing but performative piety.” Where Tucker goes wrong is in his defense of democracy versus the alternatives.
Democracy and Violence
Tucker’s next act is to explore why the talking heads made much use of the phrase “peaceful transition of power” in their commentary. He writes,
“Along with the spread of human rights in the late Middle Ages, the theory of government began to change. The king or head of state did not possess legitimacy as a result of divine right; instead, the legitimacy of rulers is derived from the support given to them by the people. It is the social usefulness, and not some mystical magic, that grants them power.”
In reality, neither of these are true, regardless of the former or current opinion of most people. In a universalizable ethical theory, the state cannot be legitimate by any means, as its agents invariably commit actions which are considered criminal for anyone else to commit. In practical terms, a government is legitimized by its ability and willingness to martially defeat challenges to its power.
“The end result of this way of thinking is, of course, democracy, which gradually came to dominate governmental transitions between the 16th and the 20th centuries. It was widely believed that the more democracy you had, the less civil war and violence would interrupt the development of civilization.”
This was the historical outcome, but it was not necessarily for the best. Though the transitions of power became more peaceful, the power itself grew far more destructive. This was partly due to the increased productivity brought about by capitalism, as a large bureaucratic state cannot survive upon the meager portions which were available in the Middle Ages. But democracy’s tendency to sanitize statism played a larger role, in that it makes crimes easier to commit and removes incentives for the people to limit government. To rob one’s neighbor directly, one must risk one’s life, liberty, and reputation in the community. To vote for a politician to hire a tax collector to rob one’s neighbor is a far less risky proposition. If a property owner kills a thief in the act, few would fault him. If he kills a tax collector, he will be almost universally condemned. If there is an unelected monarch and no path to the throne for the citizenry, then they know who wields power and that it is not and will not be them. They are therefore incentivized to seek restraints on the king’s power. But give them democracy, and each citizen can come to believe that they are the state and might wield its power. One is less likely to seek restraint of a power that one might get to use.
The Misesian case for democracy, which Tucker echoes, asserts that peace is a necessary condition for human progress. To believe this, one must ignore all of the inventions which were borne of necessity in wartime. The anthropological record shows that intelligence and innovation occur as a result of adversity, and humans experience no other adversity like that which comes from opposing humans. While it would be a broken window fallacy to ignore the progress which could have occurred without the destruction of warfare, it would also be fallacious to ignore the powerful incentive provided by the stark choice to either make technological progress or lose a war. Even if it were better for people to, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed,” one must remember that no revolution in that time period sought abolition of the state, but rather the replacement of one form of statism with another.
In that view of democracy, it was to limit government be allowing people to vote out rulers who attempt a power grab without subjecting the law or the type of regime itself to democracy. But this is a logical impossibility; one cannot vote for people to determine the nature of the state without voting on the nature of the state. When presented with a choice between a democratic response to peacefully “throw the bums out” and a revolutionary response to violently overthrow the system itself, people usually choose the former, and this knowledge has been weaponized by the ruling classes. They have discovered that all they need do is to make sure that one group of bums will invariably be replaced with another by controlling who gets to run for office, who gets campaign funding, who gets seriously covered and discussed by the press, who gets into highly publicized candidate debates, and so on. As Noam Chomsky observes,
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
Democracy and Liberalism
The reason that classical liberalism and democracy went hand-in-hand is that the Enlightenment philosophers whose theories were brought into practice between the 16th and the 20th centuries were uniformly guilty of a contradiction. They started with what they claimed were self-evident truths (which were not, but that is another matter) which are incompatible with any form of statism. They then invented fallacious arguments using these premises to justify what is now called minarchism, or the belief in a state which only acts to enforce the universal ethics which are necessary for a free market. But rule of law, legal equality, private property, free association, peace, and justice cannot be provided by the state, as the state makes all of these logically impossible.
Over time, democracy has taken society further and further away from these ideals, and no other result should be expected. In a democracy, power is wielded by temporary caretakers who only own the usufruct of the country rather than the capital stock. Their incentive is not to take care of the country so as to leave a good inheritance to their descendants, but to loot and plunder while they can. Rather than accept donations from and grant favor to special interests that help the society, they are incentivized to do what is best for themselves at the expense of the citizens they are ostensibly representing. The citizens themselves are also subject to perverse incentives, as they can vote themselves handouts from the public treasury, conflicting their personal interest with that of the nation. They can also use state power to attack each other by using the ballot box to impose their criminal intent upon their fellow citizens without suffering the normal criminal penalties for engaging in such behavior oneself. The end result of subjecting everything to a vote is well described by Nick Land:
“[T]he politically awakened masses [are] a howling irrational mob, …the dynamics of democratization [are] fundamentally degenerative: systematically consolidating and exacerbating private vices, resentments, and deficiencies until they reach the level of collective criminality and comprehensive social corruption. The democratic politician and the electorate are bound together by a circuit of reciprocal incitement, in which each side drives the other to ever more shameless extremities of hooting, prancing cannibalism, until the only alternative to shouting is being eaten.”
In fairness, Tucker does realize toward the end of his article that democracy in practice has not played out according to theory, although his reasoning is again incomplete:
“Democracy with a huge and entrenched permanent bureaucracy, a deep state that is impervious to election outcomes, a thicket of laws and regulations created by people long dead that still exist on the books, and spending commitments that do not change regardless of who is in charge, is not really providing peaceful transition at all. It becomes a veneer that the ruling class uses to entrench the status quo. In other words, the problem has less to do with the elected than the problem of the unelected. And this realization is a part of what fueled Trump’s rise and will continue to empower others like him in the future.”
Democracy and Revolution
While it is true that the historic alternative to democracy has been not liberty, but authoritarianism and violence, Tucker hastily generalizes by claiming that this must always be the case going forward. To the contrary, a thorough analysis shows that removal of state power in favor of a libertarian social order can only be accomplished through violent revolution followed by the continuous application of force to subdue common criminals, organized crime, warlords, terrorists, and foreign government agents. This is because all of the other methods that libertarians have proposed and tried to increase the amount of liberty in society fail to address the fundamental problems posed by the state apparatus, which are:
- The people who manage, run, and/or benefit from it have become accustomed to existing parasitically upon the productive members of society, and at least some of them will not stop doing so unless they are forced to stop.
- An institution based upon initiatory force will resort to force to counter attempts to remove and/or dismantle it.
Note also that if we are to discount revolution as a method of ending the state because it has yet to succeed, then we must discount peaceful methods even more so, as people have attempted many more acts of nonviolent resistance than revolutions. It is for these reasons that political violence is a necessary step toward the goal of the anti-political democracy of the market economy.
While Tucker’s analysis of the current situation is generally correct, his view of the prospects of democracy and peaceful change are far too optimistic and his understanding of the phenomena at work leaves something to be desired.