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David Friedman on “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest.”

August 31, 2010

In the comments on a controversy at Volokh Conspiracy, David Friedman provides the most sensible interpretation of the famous quotation “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest.”  Far from a backhanded compliment for democracy, the correct interpretation is that we should do as little by means of government as we possibly can:

I think the obvious implication of that quote, although not the one most people draw, is that all forms of government work pretty badly, hence one should, so far as possible, avoid doing things via government. It is, for instance, an argument for vouchers over public schools, or for an entirely private schooling system over vouchers.

It’s also an argument for not assuming that if you take a controversy to the government courts you will get a just result. Hence, in comparing that to private alternatives, including use by the parties to a dispute of non-governmental mechanisms for resolving it, you should assume that neither method can be counted on to give a just outcome, and choose between them allowing for the likely faults of both.

We might have to keep doing national defense via democracy for a few decades, but in the meantime let’s move as many other systems over to private supply as we can as quickly as we can.  And, as Caplan and Stringham point out, in principal all we need to do so is to allow private arbitration agreements to be binding, though governments would still take our tax monies.


  1. Jeff Gibson permalink
    September 1, 2010 6:20 pm

    Defense of our borders and foreign policy left to current cadre of public representatives has done a fairly good job, but the empire building point is excellent one. The fact that the current defense budget exceeds that of the whole rest of the world is telling. What it means is, the U.S. (and minor extent, Anglo partnered) military hegemony essentially subsidizes the rest of the world with security paid for by the taxpayer here.

    To steal the famous movie quip “They live under the umbrella of our freedom and question the manner in which we provide it.” Where would these countries, who have had to do little but spend fractions of a % of their GDP be without U.S. being their world policeman and defender?

    That said, I am intrigued to contemplate private supply’s potential handling of defense in the nuclear age, and in a world with occasional irrational players that defy game logic. These are obstacles to be overcome, and may be insurmountable.

  2. September 1, 2010 1:48 pm

    Since efforts to provide “national defense via democracy” have resulted, in the United States, in budget-busting waste and the growth of the national security state at home and in an endlessly destructive empire abroad, I’m not sure why we shouldn’t move this “system[] over to private supply as we can as quickly as we can” as well.

    • September 1, 2010 1:51 pm

      Make that:

      I’m not sure why we shouldn’t move this “system[] over to private supply . . . as quickly as we can” as well.

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