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Liberal Democracy: D- or B+?

August 13, 2009

Will Wilkinson doesn’t hate the (democratic) state.  Which is great!  Rothbard’s “Do You Hate the State?” convinced me of the opposite of it’s point, and I firmly believe that hating the state is bad for your blood pressure and productivity.  But Will Wilkinson seems to find it far more tolerable than I do, and that is unfortunate (for me, at least), because it means he is less motivated towards change.

In a comment on Will Chamberlain’s post, Wilkinson writes:

I’m a liberal meliorist who doesn’t think nation-states are likely to go anywhere and who wants them to be governed in a way that does the best possible for freedom and prosperity. I understand the utopian aspirations that animate this blog, and I wholeheartedly support experiments in living and jurisdictional competition. But it is precisely the empirical spirit some of you profess to uphold (when in an evangelizing mode — some of the thousand blooming nations will be democratic!) that leads me to stand by the well-tested success of liberal democracy. If there is some non-state, or non-democratic mode of governance demonstrated to do better, I’ll happily acknowledge it. But, as one might say when throwing down, put up or shut up.

Yes, liberal democracy is well-tested – it is by far the best system at achieving a 6 out of 10 on my personal 1-10 scale of economic and social freedoms.  Tons of liberal democracies achieve that coveted 60% D- grade, which puts them at the top of their class of morons and retards.  Perhaps Will finds this world of D-minuses satisfactory – I do not.

I’m glad that he supports the experiments, and I fully agree that some (perhaps most!) of the thousand blooming nations will be democratic.  I think our differences lie in whether we consider the current “success” of liberal democracy to have achieved a reasonable standard of freedom, or a miserable but tolerable one.  Relatedly, whether we think it achieves close to the best possible governance, and thus how easy and how important we think it is to do better.

For example, I believe in Mencius’ claim that over the last hundred years, a vastly decreased quality in governance has been masked by a vastly increased level of wealth, knowledge, and technology.  I think life in liberal democracies is good despite their governance, not because of it.  For example, inner cities that look like war zones, where it isn’t safe to walk for a man during the day, and certainly not a woman at night, are a feature of liberal democracy that would have shocked urban residents in past societies.

Perhaps I am wrong, and liberal democracy is a B+ on the scale of possible governance.  But I think this difference may be at the heart of why he is relatively democraphilic and I am relatively democraphobic.

15 Comments
  1. August 13, 2009 1:19 am

    “For example, inner cities that look like war zones, where it isn’t safe to walk for a man during the day, and certainly not a woman at night, are a feature of liberal democracy that would have shocked urban residents in past societies.”

    Really? You think that, in the past, women were running around whenever and wherever they wanted without a care in the world?

    I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that it’s easily demonstrable that the crime rate has gone down, especially over the long run. Two hundred years ago, people were not walking around at night blissfully unaware of the possibility of their being mugged. If I’m mistaken about that, I’ll have to do a lot of reconsidering.

  2. August 13, 2009 1:51 am

    “Yes, liberal democracy is well-tested – it is by far the best system at achieving a 6 out of 10 on my personal 1-10 scale of economic and social freedoms. Tons of liberal democracies achieve that coveted 60% D- grade, which puts them at the top of their class of morons and retards. Perhaps Will finds this world of D-minuses satisfactory – I do not.”

    Who am I to gainsay your “personal 1-10 scale of economic and social freedoms”? What I can say is that the fact that a society you have conjured in your imagination scores highly on your personal scale of freedom is probably not reason enough to conclude that I’m “less motivated toward change.” I think it is deeply admirable to want to do better. And the baseless zeal of ideologues has fueled many experiments in living. Some have even succeeded. I’m working hard in my own way to make the world freer and better. But I don’t think this effort is aided by comparing the best civilization has yet achieved to “morons and retards” at full potential. This is not only juvenile, but deeply insulting to those with due respect to the very real, hard-won achievements of liberal democracy.

    Yes, after the revolution the chickens will jump in the pot. Good luck to you.

    • August 13, 2009 5:02 am

      But I don’t think this effort is aided by comparing the best civilization has yet achieved to “morons and retards” at full potential. This is not only juvenile, but deeply insulting to those with due respect to the very real, hard-won achievements of liberal democracy.

      There is some emotion here, on both sides, which is interesting. My use of those loaded terms suggests that I do indeed, hate the state. And for some reason, that offends you to the point where you find it insulting. I can introspect on reasons for the former, but I will leave explaining the latter to you. Some key points:

      First, the claim that this is the best civilization has yet achieved. Keep in mind that we must separate the quality of governance from the quality of technology and the accumulation in capital. Otherwise the gargantuan gains in wealth will obscure any rise or fall in the quality of government. With that separation, I disagree with you. The United States from 1776-1928 was far more libertarian (and thus, to me, better) than the current government. If you think slavery is so horrid as to outweigh everything else, you get 1863-1928. If you think women not being able to vote is so horrid as to outweigh everything else, well, you still get the roaring twenties.

      Second, I claim that on absolute standards, the state is so horrid as to be worth being insulted, not praised. One can provide myriad reasons, but I will simply provide two. 1) It believes I should be locked in a cage because I occasionally take psychedelics. This is not merely a theoretical risk – it could happen. 2) About 40% of the product of my labors is confiscated by the state. I am a sharecropper, better than a slave, but much less than a free man. Those are a *huge* deal, and why the state feels to me, emotionally, like an enemy, not a friend.

  3. August 13, 2009 1:52 am

    I just posted this downblog, but perhaps I should post it here…

    “Their relationship is an empirical question, and the evidence so far seems to suggest that democracy is a mechanism which substantially restricts liberty.”

    I agree that democracy is a mechanism. Indeed, it is a family of mechanisms, since different democratic systems produce significantly different outcomes. Some of them are terrible.

    But the empirical evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that that freest societies generally rely heavily on some kind of democratic mechanism. It works. The regularity is so striking I am led to conclude that the relationship between high levels of freedom and democracy is not accidental. Democracy is a mechanism for peacefully changing directions in governance when it strays too far from the publics’ values. When a people value freedom, democracy helps them preserve it without recourse to violent social upheaval

    Democracy is obviously not sufficient for freedom, and I don’t think it is necessary either (putting me outside the consensus view of political theorists), but “If relatively free, then democratic” holds up pretty well as a generalization. I’m not aware of many instances of non-democratic societies that are also relatively free.

    We’ve covered this ground before, but, again, I thought the idea of jurisdictional competition driven by dynamic geography was to better find out what works. So far, in the natural experiments that have been run, democracy works. So I’m not sure why you insist on predicting that successful seasteads will not be democracies of some form. I predict that if there are successful seasteads, they will be democracies of some form on the basis of democracy’s actual winning record. The basis of your prediction, if you’re making one, is not so clear to me.

    I also predict that undermotivated attacks on democracy will hurt the prospects of your project. Why not act like you believe your “let a thousand nations bloom” experimentalist rhetoric and wait to see how your experiment turns out? Is it that you think demand for something like seastead living depends on demand for freedom-oriented alternatives to democracy, and that your project therefore won’t be viable if people accept that freedom and democracy in fact tend to go together? I’m really curious. I simply don’t understand the animosity toward democracy, unless it’s just a symptom of anarchist animosity toward the idea of legitimate government coercion.

    • August 13, 2009 3:14 am

      But the empirical evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that that freest societies generally rely heavily on some kind of democratic mechanism.

      In the 19th century Prince Metternich spent his life trying to prevent the spread of democracy into Germany. The French Revolution had unleashed bloody jingoism, and Metternich’s quest was to make sure that never happened again.

      In 1870, Germans received universal male suffrage. Over the next few generations, politicians tried to outdo themselves by resorting to jingoism, nationalism, and anti-semitism. In 1914, the elected parliament voted for a disastrous war. After losing, the Anglo-American medicine for Germany was more democracy. In a little over decade, the Germans managed to elect one of the most murderous tyrants to ever to walk the earth.

      After the second war, German was transformed into a pacified province, with a state controlled education system telling people what to think, a public sphere where certain statements were illegal, and a civil service state that kept power firmly out of the hands of the democratically elected politicians. Thus was jingoism finally licked.

      How would you explain the away the 20th century to Metternich? How would you convince Metternich that democracy was “empirically” the most liberal form of government?

    • August 13, 2009 5:27 am

      But the empirical evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that that freest societies generally rely heavily on some kind of democratic mechanism. It works. The regularity is so striking I am led to conclude that the relationship between high levels of freedom and democracy is not accidental. Democracy is a mechanism for peacefully changing directions in governance when it strays too far from the publics’ values.

      You are still including your assumption in your reasoning – the whole point of my post was that I disagree with “high levels of freedom”. What I find is a striking regularity in how democracies contaminate and destroy economic freedom and with what amazing consistency democracies are manipulated by concentrated interests in ways that cost the entire society enormously. That is there, in the data, just as much as the progressive spread of the protections to minorities.

      What I see in modern democracies is a sclerosis that destroys economic freedom and slows the growth of the economy, while spreading civil rights more and more broadly. If what really pisses you off is the indignity and persecution experienced by those who lack of civil rights, this will seem like progress. If what really pisses you off is the millions of death caused by the FDA, this will seem like decay.

      But either way, I am baffled by how you can characterize democracy as working to create freedom when the trajectory of democratic states is so uniformly away from libertarian levels of government spending. If democracy is a system for consistently and robustly ensuring that nations spend at least 25% and often as much as 50% of GDP, how can a libertarian claim that democracy and freedom go hand in hand?

      • August 13, 2009 7:51 am

        That is there, in the data, just as much as the progressive spread of the protections to minorities.

        I don’t think democracy is that great for minorities either. Democracy in Germany and Austria was certainly the worst thing to ever happen to the Jews. And don’t forget that the Jim Crow laws were enacted by democratic legislatures. If you go further back, the aristocratic British Empire eliminated slavery before the democratic rebels in the U.S. If you look more modern, the ethnic cleansing of Detroit’s whites was a prototypical example of democratic ethnic warfare.

        Amy Chua, a Yale Law professor ( definitely no reactionary) wrote a whole book called “World on Fire” about how the combination of multi-ethnic democracy and free markets results in unbelievable violence. I know which one I would rather forgo.

    • August 13, 2009 5:41 am

      So far, in the natural experiments that have been run, democracy works. So I’m not sure why you insist on predicting that successful seasteads will not be democracies of some form. I predict that if there are successful seasteads, they will be democracies of some form on the basis of democracy’s actual winning record. The basis of your prediction, if you’re making one, is not so clear to me.

      Sigh. I hate to occupy the whole blog with this discussion (interesting thought it is), but this is so wrong and so important that it gets it’s own post :).

    • August 13, 2009 5:52 am

      I also predict that undermotivated attacks on democracy will hurt the prospects of your project. Why not act like you believe your “let a thousand nations bloom” experimentalist rhetoric and wait to see how your experiment turns out? Is it that you think demand for something like seastead living depends on demand for freedom-oriented alternatives to democracy, and that your project therefore won’t be viable if people accept that freedom and democracy in fact tend to go together? I’m really curious. I simply don’t understand the animosity toward democracy, unless it’s just a symptom of anarchist animosity toward the idea of legitimate government coercion.

      Great question, and yes, you have hit on most of the answer. It’s a combination of two things:

      1) I feel oppressed and threatened by democracy. I worry that I will do something illegal and get thrown in jail. I habitually break laws, so this is not an idle worry. And to habitually obey laws would make me even more miserable. I’m one of those ornery libertarians who fucking hates pointless restrictions, and having to hide things they do, and just wants to live an open, honest life not hurting other people and having that be OK. I don’t believe in natural rights, so I don’t believe (in my head) that this intuitive morality is objective truth. But I feel it strongly in my heart, and so it is very painful to live in a society that so constantly violates what I feel is right.

      2) Just as you say, the demand for competitive government / seasteading depends on the degree to which people think it is possible to make a better society. If everyone believes that liberal democracy is the best we can do, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy b/c they don’t put any resources into alternatives.

      Now, much of the point of seasteading is that it is a strategy which requires far less resources than other freedom strategies, and can be done at a profit, so it minimizes this effect. Yet the effect is still large. If the Seasteading Institute had the budget of Cato or the Ron Paul campaign, we would be making progress much faster. So, yes, I worry that the viability of my project is reduced by people who falsely underestimate its potential.

      Thus it is my job to demonstrate that potential, and I am frustrated when people don’t see it. It may well be that animosity undermines the performance of that job – I’m open to that idea – but it seems pretty clear to me that making the case against democracy is very important to my cause. Which is why a substantial fraction of our upcoming book will be devoted to the public choice case against democracy.

  4. August 13, 2009 2:53 am

    Patrissimo-

    Where do the 19th century monarchies (Hasburgs, Bourbons, etc) fall on your 1-10 scale? How about aristocracies like pre-Reform Bill Britain or pre-Jacksonian America? Do you consider these systems better or worse than modern democracies?

    • August 13, 2009 5:19 am

      I don’t know much about the 19th C monarchies, but pre-sclerosis UK and US seem much better than modern democracies to me. For white males like myself, at least – I can certainly understand why a non-(white male) would feel differently.

  5. August 22, 2009 12:43 am

    Patri,

    “I don’t believe in natural rights, so I don’t believe (in my head) that this intuitive morality is objective truth. But I feel it strongly in my heart, and so it is very painful to live in a society that so constantly violates what I feel is right.”

    What is the difference between feelings which are mere irrational and unproductive prejudice, and your reportedly heartfelt sense of right and wrong?

    Why do you refuse to abandon the language of objective morality when you claim not to believe in it? There is no shortage of language for non-moral preferences.

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