Skip to content

Is Democracy the End of History? An Open Letter to Michael Lind

August 31, 2011

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.

Share

About these ads
9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2011 5:26 pm

    The idea that “famines tend to be worse in non-democracies” has actually been disproved in a recent prize-winning article by Olivier Rubin, “The Merits of Democracy in Famine Protection – Fact or Fallacy?”: http://anti-democracy-agenda.blogspot.com/2010/01/article-olivier-rubin-refutes-merits-of.html

    Unfortunately, most of the points you list here against democracy aren’t really convincing, for the simple reason that you could put together a much larger list of such points for any other form of government ever in existence (including anarchy in today’s Somalia). Personally, I try to avoid accusing democracy of misdeeds that are not limited to democracy. It’s just further confusing the debate.

    Check out my Google+ profile for many posts on anti-democratic thought and practice: https://plus.google.com/109507108125539761871

    And read my book, “Anti-Democratic Thought”: http://books.google.com/books?printsec=frontcover&id=KkMdJtaaeOYC

    • Z. Caceres permalink*
      September 2, 2011 8:21 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Professor Kofmel, I previewed your book on Google and it looks like a very interesting read. I also appreciate your information about democracy and famines: I had taken to Amartya Sen’s thesis given the evidence in Development as Freedom and his prestige as an economist.

      However I’m not sure I follow your criticism. You seem to be saying that my list of democracies foibles (not exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination) could also apply to some other forms of government, or that a similar list could be compiled for other forms. I would never argue otherwise. But there are few people advocating for Monarchy or Feudalism or Anarchism today. Certainly none of these systems are treated with the childish reverence that democracy receives. My point was to question democracy’s mostly undisputed standing as the be-all-end-all of political systems.

  2. August 31, 2011 7:07 pm

    I agree with the sentiment that anti-democracy is not pro-autocracy, and the understanding behind it. Too often people oversimplify debates into binary positions. For productive debate labels often do not sufficiently convey important subtleties in positions.
    I also agree that it is foolish to suggest that there will be no further evolution in forms of government. Lacking the capacity to conceive of a new form of government is not synonymous with one not being possible.
    My own efforts to devise a form of government are sometimes couched in well-known terms, but to fully understand it one eventually needs to leave behind the labels and look at the underlying concepts.

    • Z. Caceres permalink*
      September 2, 2011 8:13 pm

      Thanks for your comment Gary, I agree that the language of political discourse (which is so often hideous and deliberately obscuring) oversimplifies matters.

  3. September 2, 2011 4:09 am

    I find that ‘average’ people I talk to worship democracy as if it were a religion, without really questioning whether it’s the best form of government available.

    Why do I say that? Because, the more you probe their beliefs, the more it upsets them, and they become less willing to discuss the issue.

    (Note I’m talking about “Joe six pack”, definitely not the intellectuals with whom I’ve discussed this subject.)

    • Z. Caceres permalink*
      September 2, 2011 8:10 pm

      I think Randolph Bourne was on to something when he described the ‘State’ (separate from the government) as a quasi-Mystical idea. I’ve heard other people suggest that many establishment leftists and neo-cons have substituted for traditional religion, at which so many of them sneer, a political religion. This seems plausible to me!

Trackbacks

  1. You’ve been lied to: Freedom and democracy don’t mean same things « David McElroy
  2. AdamSmith.org: Do libertarians apologize for autocracy? « Sam Bowman
  3. Karl Popper and the Really, Really Open Society « Let A Thousand Nations Bloom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 441 other followers

%d bloggers like this: