In recent days, I’ve seen two examples of denialism about the defects of democracy.
First, a couple of commenters at LibCon have tried to deny my claim that there is a contradiction between libertarianism and democracy. They’re wrong.
Robert Nozick began Anarchy, State and Utopia with the line: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them.” This, or something like it, surely, is the cornerstone of libertarianism.
But there are often cases where democracies want to infringe those rights. This can happen under direct democracy, as with the Swiss ban on building minarets, or representative democracy, as with the French ban on wearing burqas*. In such instances, a libertarian insistence upon protecting rights conflicts with a democrat’s desire to see the will of the people enforced.
There is, therefore - obviously - a conflict between libertarianism and democracy.
Secondly, Rob Marchant describes the governments of Venezuela, Russia, Iran and Gaza as “pseudo democratic.”
I fear that word “pseudo” is serving to hide a nasty fact - that Chavez, Putin, Ahmadinejad and Hamas have all been very popular. Democracy can produce rulers who are bigots, terrorists and tyrants. This is not necessarily because there’s something “pseudo” about the democracy, but because there’s something unpleasant about public opinion.
Granted, you can say that this opinion in these countries is warped by an unfree media or the influence of religious bigots. But public opinion even in what Rob calls “healthy” democracies is also affected by some unpleasant influences.
What I’m saying here should be a trivial Berlinian point, that there can be conflicts between values. The value of democracy can conflict with the values of liberty or even decency.
What worries me is that even intelligent people like Rob seem reluctant to acknowledge this. I fear that democracy has become such a cheer word that people are unwilling to recognize its defects.
But it does have defects. I say this not (just) because I’m a Marxist, but because I’m an economist.
All democracies, pseudo or not, contain bad incentives. Voting is cheap, and thus over-supplied. And people who vote for bad governments or policies do not pay the price of doing so; the cost of bad government falls upon all citizens, not merely (and often not mainly) upon its supporters. Basic economics, then, predicts that democracy will sometimes have unpleasant effects. Which makes it all the odder than so many people are in denial about this.
* The are clear examples of anti-libertarian policies. Any “libertarian” who pretends otherwise is just confirming Flying Rodent’s opinion of them.