For the Record, I Fear Pure Majoritarian Democracy as Well

One of the themes of Nancy Maclean's new book on James Buchanan as the evil genius behind a conspiracy to unravel democracy in this county.  In critiquing her critique, I meant to also make it clear that whatever Buchanan may have believed on the subject, I am certainly skeptical of pure majoritarian democracy.  For me, protection of individual rights is the role of government, and populist majoritarianism can easily conflict with this goal (this is not a new finding, we pretty much figured this out after Julius Caesar, if not before.  Here was a piece I wrote years ago I will repeat here:

Every Memorial Day, I am assaulted with various quotes from people thanking the military for fighting and dying for our right to vote.  I would bet that a depressing number of people in this country, when asked what their most important freedom was, or what made America great, would answer "the right to vote."

Now, don't get me wrong, the right to vote in a representative democracy is great and has proven a moderately effective (but not perfect) check on creeping statism.  A democracy, however, in and of itself can still be tyrannical.  After all, Hitler was voted into power in Germany, and without checks, majorities in a democracy would be free to vote away anything it wanted from the minority - their property, their liberty, even their life.   Even in the US, majorities vote to curtail the rights of minorities all the time, even when those minorities are not impinging on anyone else.  In the US today, 51% of the population have voted to take money and property of the other 49%.

In my mind, there are at least three founding principles of the United States that are far more important than the right to vote:

  • The Rule of Law. For about 99% of human history, political power has been exercised at the unchecked capricious whim of a few individuals.  The great innovation of western countries like the US, and before it England and the Netherlands, has been to subjugate the power of individuals to the rule of law.  Criminal justice, adjudication of disputes, contracts, etc. all operate based on a set of laws known to all in advance.

Today the rule of law actually faces a number of threats in this country.  One of the most important aspects of the rule of law is that legality (and illegality) can be objectively determined in a repeatable manner from written and well-understood rules.  Unfortunately, the massive regulatory and tax code structure in this country have created a set of rules that are subject to change and interpretation constantly at the whim of the regulatory body.  Every day, hundreds of people and companies find themselves facing penalties due to an arbitrary interpretation of obscure regulations (examples I have seen personally here).

  • Sanctity and Protection of Individual Rights.  Laws, though, can be changed.  In a democracy, with a strong rule of law, we could still legally pass a law that said, say, that no one is allowed to criticize or hurt the feelings of a white person.  What prevents such laws from getting passed (except at major universities) is a protection of freedom of speech, or, more broadly, a recognition that individuals have certain rights that no law or vote may take away.  These rights are typically outlined in a Constitution, but are not worth the paper they are written on unless a society has the desire and will, not to mention the political processes in place, to protect these rights and make the Constitution real.

Today, even in the US, we do a pretty mixed job of protecting individual rights, strongly protecting some (like free speech) while letting others, such as property rights or freedom of association, slide.

  • Government is our servant.  The central, really very new concept on which this country was founded is that an individual's rights do not flow from government, but are inherent to man.  That government in fact only makes sense to the extent that it is our servant in the defense of our rights, rather than as the vessel from which these rights grudgingly flow.

Statists of all stripes have tried to challenge this assumption over the last 100 years.   While their exact details have varied, every statist has tried to create some larger entity to which the individual should be subjugated:  the Proletariat, the common good, God, the master race.  They all hold in common that the government's job is to sacrifice one group to another.  A common approach among modern statists is to create a myriad of new non-rights to dilute and replace our fundamental rights as individuals.  These new non-rights, such as the "right" to health care, a job, education, or even recreation, for god sakes, are meaningless in a free society, as they can't exist unless one person is harnessed involuntarily to provide them to another person. These non-rights are the exact opposite of freedom, and in fact require enslavement and sacrifice of one group to another.

I will add that pretty much everyone, including likely Ms. Maclean, opposes majoritarian rule on many issues.  People's fear of dis-empowering the majority tends to be situational on individual issues.

  • mlhouse

    The U.S. Constitution is a demonstrably anti-majoritarian document which mainly outlines limits on what Congress can do. Even if everybody in the country but you want a Bill of Attainder against you, Congress cannot pass such a bill. The Constitution protects even a mnority of One.

  • Joshua

    For the record, so does Nancy Maclean. Or at least I assume she supports Brown v Board of Education (antidemocratic) and Roe v Wade (antidemocratic) and gay marriage (antidemocratic).

  • Max Bnb

    all democratic politicians, with almost no exception, are morally uninhibited demagogues

    the selection of government rulers by means of popular elections makes it practically impossible that any good or harmless person could ever rise to the top. Prime ministers and presidents are selected for their proven efficiency as morally uninhibited demagogues. Thus, democracy virtually assures that only bad and dangerous men will ever rise to the top of government;

    https://mises.org/blog/why-democracy-rewards-bad-people

  • Mercury

    "In my mind, there are at least three founding principles of the United States that are far more important than the right to vote:"
    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Not bad...you could further boil down democracy, all by itself, to two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner which is why individual civil rights (limiting what and under what conditions the government can do things to you), property rights and the rule of law are even more important than mere "voting". You'd much rather live in a monarchy that had these things than in a democracy that didn't.

    I'd ask people primarily focused on the democracy part of our American system to focus their attention on the now vast majority of laws and regulations which we are subjected to which have been written and enacted by neither the voting public nor their elected representatives but by unelected, unaccountable civil servants and the powerful interests who lever them into positions of power.

  • cc

    Chavez promised the people he would take money from the rich and give it to them. They loved it and voted him in. It was great (for many) until they ran out of rich people to rob.

  • Rick Vogel

    Minor quibble - Hitler was not elected by majority or even plurality, Paul von Hindenburg was - twice. Hitler was appointed Chancellor only after the second Weimar election and after two previous Chancellors were dismissed. From Wikipedia - "Hindenburg paved the way to dictatorship and war by issuing the Reichstag Fire Decree which nullified civil liberties. Hitler succeeded Hindenburg as head of state upon his death in 1934, whereafter he abolished the office entirely, and replaced it with the new position of Führer und Reichskanzler ("Leader and Reich Chancellor"), cementing his rule."

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_presidential_election,_1932

  • LoneSnark

    Not entirely. Super majorities are free to amend the constitution. But super majorities hopefully don't last long enough to actually do it.

  • Clark Irwin

    Non-minor quibble: New York Times, 21 August 1934:
    "Hitler Endorsed by 9 to 1 in Poll on his
    Dictatorship, but Opposition Is Doubled
    Absolute Power Is Won
    ---
    38,279,514 Vote Yes, 4,287,808 No on Uniting Offices
    ---
    871,056 Ballots Spoiled
    Negative Count Is Larger in Districts of Business Men and Intellectuals
    ---
    Hamburg Has 20% Noes
    ---
    Reich Bishop at Victory Fete Says Hitler's Anti-Semitism Is Fight for Christianity
    ---
    By FREDERICK T. BIRCHALL
    Special Cable to THE NEW YORK TIMES
    Berlin, Monday, Aug. 20 -- Eighty-nine and nine-tenths per cent of the German voters endorsed in yesterday's plebiscite Chancellor Hitler's assumption of greater power than has ever been possessed by any other ruler in modern times.
    Nearly 10 per cent indicated their disapproval. The result was expected.
    The German people were asked to vote whether they approved the consolidation of the offices of President and Chancellor in a single Leader-Chancellor personified by Adolf Hitler. By every appeal known to skillful politicians and with every argument to the contrary suppressed, they were asked to make their approval unanimous. ..."
    - - -
    In other words, nearly 90% of German voters approved the assumption of dictatorial powers. You could, as they say, look it up.

  • Tom Nally

    There was another important document that suggested that the role of government is to protect those individual rights that exist prior to government. Let's see...what was it? Now I remember: The Declaration of Independence.

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

    Typically, I substitute "natural" or "pre-existing" for "unalienable".

  • Rick Vogel

    An interesting point that needs to be addressed.

    The vote in Aug '34 did not have any opposition candidate. It was effectively should Herr Hitler run things the old way or this new way after the death of von Hindenburg. The Weimar republic lasted less than 14 years, there was no long history of democracy that the Germans could fall back upon - people didn't believe it was working. Given Hilter's position and the Reichstag Fire Decree (Feb '34), even your NYT article acknowledges that it was passed with "every appeal known to skillful politicians and with every argument to the contrary suppressed" . The Reichstag Fire Decree had already set Germany on the path to a dictatorship. The decree consisted of six articles. Article 1 indefinitely suspended most of the civil liberties set forth in the Weimar Constitution, including habeas corpus, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, the secrecy of the post and telephone, not to mention the protection of property and the home. Articles 2 and 3 allowed the Reich government to assume powers normally reserved for the federal states. Articles 4 and 5 established draconian penalties for certain offenses, including the death penalty for arson to public buildings. Article 6 simply stated that the decree took effect on the day of its proclamation. Much of this was enforced even before the death of von Hindenburg. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichstag_Fire_Decree

    The vote totals are interesting. In the '32 election (first round), the Communists totaled 4,938,341 votes - more than the 4,287,808 no votes in '34. There were more total votes in '34 - 42,567,322 to 37,603,317. Did even some of the communists and independents, vote for it? This indicates to me, the plebiscite was more organizational than an election of Hitler. In my opinion, they were voting against the (now modified) Weimar republic rather than picking a leader.

    In many ways this reminds me of the elections held by Chavez in Venezuela, Castro in Cuba, or Kim Jon-Un in North Korea. They also have the ridiculous 90% in favor tallies. It was a consolidation of power not an assumption of power. Timeline is important, Hitler was already in power.

    So I will give you the fact that at one time, after he was head of state, the German people voted 90% to give him additional powers - against no opponent and no opposition arguments. In my opinion, my original quibble still holds - he came into power without having won an election with even a plurality. After the Reichstag Fire, he was able to turn it into a dictatorship. He consolidated the dictatorship with this vote.

    As always, your mileage may vary.

  • Dan Wendlick

    Democracy is not an end, but a means to an end. It is a very potent way to deliver either liberty or tyranny, depending on the will of the people. Just like the same fire can keep you warm or burn your house down, It is a tool that must be respected and used wisely.

  • Rick Vogel

    You're right, I need to address that.

    Hitler became chancellor in Jan 1933 after finishing second in the Mar 1932 election. Two previous chancellors were fired before he was appointed. With the death of von Hindenburg in Aug 34, he assumed the role of president. From Feb 1933 to Aug 1934, the Nazi party was already suppressing all opposition due to the Reichstag Fire Decree.

    As I see it, the Aug 1934 plebiscite was a choice of whether Hitler would rule under to old Weimar republic structure or under a new structure. He had no opponent proper in the plebiscite and as your NYT article points out - "by every appeal known to skillful politicians and with every argument to the contrary suppressed", the propaganda for the was very lopsided in favor of the change. In 1934, Germany did not have a long history of democracy, the Wiemar Republic was only 14 years old and with the combination of the the Great Depression (unemployment rose from 8.5% to nearly 30% between 1929 and 1932) and the Reichstag Fire Decree by 1934, it looked like the old system wasn't working.

    The Reichstag Fire Decree in Feb 1933 also paved the way for this plebiscite. From Wikipedia: The decree consisted of six articles. Article 1 indefinitely suspended most of the civil liberties set forth in the Wiemar Constitution, including habeas corpus, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, the secrecy of the post and telephone, not to mention the protection of property and the home. Articles 2 and 3 allowed the Reich government to assume powers normally reserved for the federal states. Articles 4 and 5 established draconian penalties for certain offenses, including the death penalty for arson to public buildings. Article 6 simply stated that the decree took effect on the day of its proclamation. By 1934, the Nazi's and Hitler were already in control without Hitler having won a plurality, They had a year to shut down opposition parties and press.

    In the 1932 election, the communists got 5,282,636 in the federal election and 4,938,341 votes in the presidential election but there were only 4,287,808 No votes in the plebiscite. This shows me how effective the Reichstag Fire Decree was in suppressing opposition.

    I feel the Aug 34 plebiscite was a consolidation of power not an election proper. Any election that has 90% votes in favor of a dictator looks to me like it's rigged. It's like the plebiscites that Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, or Kim Jong Un run. Given the events of the previous year, however, he probably would have won a plurality but, of course, given those events, there would have been no real opposition.

    So I hold to my original statement, that Hitler came into power without winning a plurality. He achieved power in Feb 1933; the Reichstag Fire Decree effectively made him a dictator. As they say, Your Mileage May Vary.