Non-violent extremists for liberty

Hey, have you heard of the internet? Our prime minister and his secretary, Theresa, sure have, and they’re keen to crack down on and get tough with the non-violent extremists on there who are opposed to democracy. Whether or not this is good policy, one thing is certain: in an ideal world this would mean far fewer libertarians on the internet.

Not that I want there to be fewer libertarians online, of course – although it might be nice to see the back of the welfare-statists, nationalists and warmongers who have taken a shine to the label. What I mean is, libertarians must get over their fascination with democracy; the notion that majority rule has anything to do with liberty must be jettisoned with all haste.

Now, this is probably not the most popular opinion. The alleged intimate and necessary connection between liberalism and democracy, the belief that you can’t have one without the other, is near universal, even, or perhaps especially, among liberals. But (confining ourselves to practical matters for the moment), remember that the raison d’être of liberalism is to limit the size and scope of government. This being the case, given that we live in an age of democracy the like of which has never been seen, surely it must be worthwhile to ask, How come government is so big? If majority rule is the quintessentially liberal form of government, how come the growth of democratic politics has proceeded pari passu with the growth of the state? Isn’t the fact that government is everywhere we look today a hint that “liberal democracy” might be an oxymoron?

If experience is anything to go by, then, it would seem that “government by the people, for the people and of the people”, far from being a limit on state power, actually works to promote its relentless expansion. And, frankly, why would this not be the case? After all, don’t people like getting “free” stuff? It’s human nature to prefer more to less, and when the “more” doesn’t cost you anything, it makes sense to ask for it, even if it’s stuff you might not use (if only as a kind of ‘preemptive self-defense’: though you yourself are not a greedy person, if you don’t ask for “more” your neighbours certainly will, and who knows what they’ll ask for! The more sensible things you ask for, the better). Likewise, it makes sense to complain about stuff being taken away even if you never used it, perhaps because “you never know”, or perhaps because having it is a “mark of a civilized society”.

Of course, it’s not exactly true that what governments provide is free. But the way these goods are funded is such that the cost to taxpayers for each individual item is barely perceptible. Almost no one notices a few extra pence disappearing from their bank accounts over the course of a year – and who can get worked up over a few pence anyway? “Who cares?” “Life’s too short”, etc.

The easiness of this process, for the robber, his principals and his victims, ensures that democratic governments will keep on growing. Absent a state, any group seeking to profit at the expense of another faces certain unavoidable costs (not the least of which is the moral cost) that may prevent it making the attempt, and if it should, success is never guaranteed. In a democracy, however, the government assumes these costs; moreover, given the weight elected politicians must attach to popular prejudices, it is often enough for a group simply to exist for its claims to be enforced. Where formerly expropriation was only a possibility, now it is an inevitability.

Away from purely practical concerns, it is strange that anyone calling themselves a libertarian would give majority rule the time of day; libertarians are supposed to be the great defenders of the individual, and the individual is the smallest minority there is. So isn’t it incredibly odd, to say the least, that all the talk about “individual rights” gets forgotten the moment democracy comes up? What is democratic politics other than the constant overruling of individual choice?

This illiberal nature of democracy can be seen in its foundations. How does democracy come to exist? Prima facie there are two distinct ways: either it can be imposed by authority, or it can be adopted by vote. The former clearly runs aground on all that pesky “individual rights” stuff. Perhaps surprisingly, the latter does, too. If the individuals making up a society were to vote on whether to accept democracy as the method of making decisions that were binding on all, a majority vote in favour would only be binding on the minority if democracy had already been accepted as the method of collective choice. As this can obviously not be the case, being what this vote was meant to decide, the founding of democratic government cannot take place other than by resorting to authority.

Whatever else democracy may be, it is not liberal, and libertarians will never get anywhere until they reject it root and branch, in theory and in practice.

Twitter @StrictlyLiberal

Google+ Rocco Bogpaper


2 thoughts on “Non-violent extremists for liberty

  1. I understand your dissatisfaction with the present state of events, but you offer no alternatives. We must have agreements by which we govern ourselves. I agree that our present governments are bloated, self-serving, and much too powerful. We, as the governed, must insist upon a bottom up form of governance. This is the way the United States Constitution was originally drafted. Although we live in different countries, I think we can agree that most decisions concerning people’s lives and living conditions should be made by the people in their own local jurisdictions. Unless I am misunderstanding what you are saying, you are advocating abandoning what we are presently practicing as “Democracy” for some other form of social order. What shall it be? Who will be the arbiters?


    1. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment, Mark. I very much appreciate it.

      Just to be perfectly clear: I’m an anarchist; I’m not interested in being governed in any way – top down or bottom up, it makes no difference. My purpose in writing here, at Libertarian Home, and previously at Bogpaper, is to persuade people who are already convinced that bigger government is never the answer, that limited government is impossible. So the post is not a criticism of present democratic governments; it is a criticism, from a liberal point of view, of democracy itself. Not only is democracy per se incompatible with liberty (which is always the liberty of individuals, not majorities), but – as I say above – even if you’re only interested in limiting the size of government, majority rule is certainly not the way to go about doing it (this, – although it’s about UK politics – goes into more detail).

      Neither is constitutional government any better. To put it briefly, (I have a fairly substantial post on this, here ), a constitution is said to be a contract between the state and society. But one party to the contract (the state) is also the enforcer of the contract, as well as the interpreter of the contract; it can unilaterally change the terms of the contract, or add to them. Now, Mark, if you imagine that you and I (rather than ‘state’ and ‘society’) were the parties to such a contract, it is transparently obvious how flawed this all is. And this problem with constitutions isn’t one that can be solved by using “the right words”: every word, every phrase is susceptible to being reinterpreted – or simply being ignored. (I have a short post on this, here )


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