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Egalitarians Against Democracy

August 3, 2010

Markets find ways to deliver to niche interests. The plethora of choice on Amazon far outstrips the binary choice in many elections. If your values are drastically different from the norm, you’ve got a better chance of satisfying them in a market. And if your political values differ from the common lot, then it ought to follow that you’d prefer a market in governance. As the long tail story goes, the larger the shelf space, the greater the variety. And yet despite this fact, I find many folks with weird political views undermining their ideals by embracing democracy.

Consider political philosophers who have far from moderate views, like Thomas Nagel, G.A. Cohen, and Derek Parfit.  They have strange beliefs about justice, devoting an extraordinary amount of attention to determining the best way to distribute goods. Injustice for these egalitarians is when some people are worse off than others. (For elaboration and refinement, see Parfit’s Equality and Priority.)  It should stand to reason that, given their niche beliefs about distributive justice, they would support a market in governance, where it will be more likely that some government will satisfy their obscure principles. Democracies certainly won’t enshrine them. No government actively pursues anything remotely similar to what these men call a just state. You would think they’d want more variety. A market in governance would offer it, and yet all of these men are skeptical of markets.

So it was refreshing to find an egalitarian essay that is critical of democracy and that advocates for increasing the number of nation states by means of peaceful secession. If you’re a zealot for distributive principles, you have to accept that democratic procedures will often yield results out of sync with your preferred principles of justice. Democracy and distributive justice are values in conflict. The author says this is why democracy is wrong:

In a large ocean there are two neighbouring islands: faultless democracies with full civil and political rights. One island is extremely rich and prosperous, and has 10 million inhabitants. The other is extremely poor: it has 100 million inhabitants, who live by subsistence farming. After a bad harvest last year, there are no food stocks, and now the harvest has failed again: 90 million people are facing death by starvation. The democratically elected government of the poor island asks for help, and the democratically elected government of the rich island organises a referendum on the issue. There are three options: Option A is a sharp increase in taxes, to pay for large-scale permanent structural transfers to the poor island. Option B is some increase in taxes, to pay for immediate and sufficient humanitarian aid, so that famine will be averted. Option C is no extra taxes and no aid. When the votes are counted, 100% of the voters have chosen Option C. After all, who wants to pay more taxes?

So 90 million people starve. Yet all electoral procedures on both islands are free and fair, the media are free, political campaigning is free, there is no political repression of any kind. According to democratic theory, any outcome of this democratic process must be respected. Two perfect democracies have functioned perfectly: if you believe the supporters of democracy, that is morally admirable. But it clearly is not: there is something fundamentally wrong with democracy, if it allows this outcome.

It’s a rambling essay, but I find many of its points are honest and worth thinking about. If you have any progressive friends you want to win and influence, pass it along.

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8 Comments
  1. August 3, 2010 7:58 pm

    What about option D – no raise in taxes and individuals organize aid voluntarily? Sure, there is still a chance that individuals have no moral fiber, and don’t donate at all – but this can happen in any form of government (except perhaps a coercive central-planning and, relatively, statist one). Ultimately, I see it as up to individuals to exercise the correct morality, not governments of any kind.

  2. azmyth permalink
    August 3, 2010 10:00 pm

    The reason that those who seek strong redistributive policies are not fans of competing governments is that they allow high productivity individuals to move to areas where they can reap the benefits of their productivity. Given choice, anyone with ambition or ability would flee an area with high levels of redistribution. Which side of the Berlin Wall cared more about equality?

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      August 4, 2010 2:32 am

      That tendency to build walls is not to be denied. But by their own equalizing assumptions–that it is in itself good if no one is worse off than others–then non-imperial egalitarians should encourage the productive to leave society. In away it’s similar to the leveling down objection: a society of the equally poor is better than one where a few are better off than most.

      • azmyth permalink
        August 4, 2010 3:48 pm

        In your counterargument, you assume that by redefining the nation state to a different group of people, the egalitarians will not treat the people who left as part of their framing of who is in their society. In the quote above, if they care about inequality across the whole world, the only answer is international large scale redistribution. Rule egalitarianism leads one to conclude that competitive governance is the best, since it leads to high quality institutions and allows people to pick rules that suit them and are fair. Outcome egalitarianism leads one to a conclusion that the only just system is totalitarian.

  3. mabuse7 permalink
    August 4, 2010 10:31 am

    Call me crazy, but something tells me that lines of thinking such as that displayed in the above quote are going to lead radical egalitarians to endorse authoritarianism; not consider ideas like a market in governance.

  4. August 17, 2010 2:55 am

    Progressive friends? Oh the horror who wud have such things?

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