There has been a lot of talk about the jaundiced state of democracy, and in particular what is responsible for its decline. Just so we're on the same page, democracy means here: a political system where people vote, directly or through representatives, on rulers and policies. Thus, majoritarian democracy is direct democracy, and a republic is an indirect democracy. In short, we use the broad, partisan-neutral, definition of democracy here. We definitely do not use democracy in the sugar-coated sense of freedom, justice, and everything good and wonderful about our favorite government.
Some of the culprits for ruining democracy cited by (admittedly partisan) pundits are: Fox News, "we" Americans, and insufficiently patriotic people. No one seems to want to admit the obvious fact: Democracy kills itself. It is unsustainable. Democracy creates the very conditions which destroy it. Democracy leads to oligarchy. The only exception is for small voluntary organizations, like chess clubs or camping and hiking associations. For governments, democracy is a road to tyranny.
The recent case of democracy failure is a classic example. Voters elected an all-but-unanimous crop of warmongers, which voted almost unanimously to give Bush the Elder a blank check to occupy the Middle East and murder as necessary. The 2001 "Authorization for Use of Military Force" bill was passed 420-1 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. This, not too long after the well-known failure of the Vietnam occupation! The only politician that voted against a new mass murder spree by the State was Barbara Lee. Do pro-democracy people really think that more voters would have made any significant difference? As standup philosopher George Carlin said about democracy, "Garbage in; garbage out." Despite this, some statists naively insist that, if only more people voted, things would be less fouled up. Call them democratic utopians, blindly unaware of human nature and incentives.
The science of social groups is well-known: once you get over ten or twelve people together, cliques develop. The larger the democracy, the more oligarchic it becomes. If factions were a perceived problem in those early United States, as Madison observed, when US population was about 2.4 million, no one should be at all surprised that factionalism, division, strife, and a political war of all against all occurs when the population is over 100 times as large.
How does democracy lead to oligarchy? The creation of cliques, cabals, factions, insider groups, and special interests results from these factors:
- Once elected, the rulers have no contractual obligation to promote the general welfare, or anything other than their own wealth and power. They are not agents, susceptible to getting fired by their clients. No, they can break any campaign promise at will, without recourse by the trusting, rather naive, voters.
- The major incentives are perverse - virtually the opposite of the promises democracy makes. Elected rulers gain power and prestige and wealth by looking after their own self-interest in the game of politics. Any talk of the common good is only for duped voters’ benefit.
- Democracy tends toward a two-faction winner-take-all system conducive to polarization of the masses, which in turn feeds oligarchic authoritarianism. Rising rage requires ranting rulers. Democracy feeds the rage and supplies the tyrants.
So should people jettison the notion of democracy as a good thing? Yes. Again, with the exception of small voluntary groups. What political value should we aspire to, if not democracy? I suggest liberty - the right of every individual to do anything he is entitled to do. This is a traditional American value. Somewhere along the line too many Americans accepted the false promise of democratic security, and forgot that individual human liberty is the higher value.
Another grave problem with democracy is its proclivity toward large permanent debt and short-range thinking. Democracy tends to destroy the capital value of a country, since elected officials only “rent” the State instead of owning it like monarchs did. This is not to say monarchy is generally better than democracy, but in terms of the capital value of a country, democratic governments tend to spend like drunken sailors and go chronically into debt. Why not, if you are a ruling politician? You will be out in four to eight years, and then it is someone else’s problem. Please your constituents while you can! On the other hand, monarchs generally wanted to maintain the capital value of their kingdoms, so they could pass it on to their sons.
What can we do to get more liberty and less democratic oligarchy? The short answer is: build parallel structures outside the auspices of government. Most goods and services (the legitimate ones anyway) can be done better, and certainly more morally, by voluntary society than by ruling elites. Whether you envision doing this by community cooperation or a freed market is less important than the rejection of political authority. Free people do not want mommy government, nor daddy government, but a society of free autonomous adults uncoerced by either flavor of tyranny.