Is Democracy the End of History? An Open Letter to Michael Lind
An interesting exchange is occurring over a recent article by Michael Lind in Salon on Libertarianism and Autocracy. Roderick Long at Bleeding-Heart Libertarians captures the crux of Lind’s misunderstanding when he writes:
One reason for Lind’s conflation is that he automatically translates being anti-democracy into being pro-autocracy — because he assumes that the only alternative to democracy is autocracy… libertarians don’t oppose democracy (in the conventional sense) because they hanker after autocracy; they oppose democracy because it is too much like autocracy.
In addition, Sheldon Richman poignantly questions Lind’s pairing of libertarianism with conservatism and asks whether criticism of libertarian individuals is an indictment of an entire ideology.
I’d like to suggest that one of the unstated premises of Lind, and many others like him, is that democracy is the end of history. We have reached the apex of social organization – and, funny enough, it looks a lot like what Lind and I were both taught in 6th grade Civics class.
You need not be a libertarian (or an autocrat) to question the wisdom of this position.
Representative democracy was a novelty in 1776 when people claimed that such a system was a utopian impossibility. But this is no longer the case. Democracy, like its predecessors, has now been subjected to criticism from many sides and for generations. We now have hundreds of years of — often rather unsettling — democratic history to attenuate our beliefs. Would Lind claim that democracies have no systemic problems that could potentially be fixed?
It is true that democracies have killed fewer of their own citizens than regimes like Soviet Russia or Communist China. It appears, though with less certainty, to be true that famines tend to be worse in non-democracies. A good democracy is preferable to violent dictatorship: but should this be considered an argument for democracy’s place as the ultimate end of institutional evolution?
After all, democracies have not always treated their citizens – or innocents at large – humanely. America interned Japanese-Americans during WWII and dropped the atom bombs. British democracy drove Alan Turing to suicide. American democracy did the same to Ernest Hemingway. Democracies imperialized; they colonized; they put innocent Africans in concentration camps; they prop up banana republics and petty tyrants the world over. They’ve dumped agricultural surpluses (a direct result of democratic rent-seeking behavior) on poor countries and destroyed the livelihoods of its residents. They have treated their own unwitting citizens as lab rats for chemical experimentation; they have conscripted generations of young men to die in wars of dubious legitimacy – then turned their backs when faced with the scars of their return.
Lind mentions Jim Crow and the Fugitive Slave Act; he fails to mention that these crimes against humanity were enshrined by democratic edict and enforced by the democratic bureaus supposedly exercising the popular will.
Economists and political scientists have rigorously shown how the incentives of democracy lead, in reality, to the rule of the many by the few, as special-interests capture a society. ‘Universal suffrage’ means little if democratic government in practice becomes the whirring machinery of corporatism and elites.
Easily one of the most inhumane traits of democracies is their tendency to seal off their institutions from other peoples. “Mature democracies” with generous welfare states like Sweden resemble a giant gated-community for blondes with blue-eyes. Restrictive immigration and labor policies leave millions of the most desperate human beings in the world languishing elsewhere. Those that do arrive are relegated to slums and unintegrated into ‘democratic’ society. If the expensive and often bloody efforts of the West are any indication: democracies in the developing world do not come easily. When they do come, they are too often hollow democracies – thin veils for a ruling cabal to exploit the populace at large.
But if Lind concedes that mature democracies tend to raise barriers to immigration and if he believes no other institutional arrangement is acceptable, then he is condemning the vast majority of mankind to an indefinite future of poverty and oppression.
Is this what writers like Michael Lind mean when they say ‘universal suffrage’? It is a universality bounded by the imaginary lines of the nation-state. Where libertarians like Arnold Kling, reviled by Lind in his article, ask for a decentralized world of free-movement and free-association of people: Lind is offering the pettiness of an American manufacturer, schmoozing in the Statehouse to extract a protection against competing, foreign upstarts.
When libertarians like Patri Friedman criticize democracy and suggest institutional alternatives, it is not from any affection for authoritarianism. Libertarians who — as Lind conveniently omits — have inherited the decidedly leftist sentiments of classical liberals and 19th century anarchists, are concerned with building a world of peace, prosperity, tolerance, and human flourishing. And so I ask those who purportedly share these progressive goals to answer honestly:
Do you believe that democracy is the end of history?
Update: Sam Bowman from the Adam Smith Institute utterly demolishes the factual basis of Lind’s claims and selective quoting here.