The problem of democracy

[By Ryan Noble]

A quick search around the beneficent internet confirmed for me a fact we all already know. The world is awash in democracy. Local, national, provincial, direct, indirect, rigged, fair, landslides or nail-biting elections are occurring in almost every place that knows how to keep plumbing running. Across the world historians have chronicled the circumstances under which countries transition from non-democratic to democratic.  How many have looked up and noticed democratic states swallowing the world like an invasive species? From its birth in Athens to today democracy has spread itself more effectively than any institution in history. This essay will lay out a theory attempting to explain why this has happened. Later, it will also argue that development has real negative consequences. To do this I will briefly lay out a few premises that I hope we can agree on.

Firstly, stateless societies have existed in isolated cases throughout history but so rarely that I believe we can sustain the following premise (at least for this exercise); Societies form states, and those that don’t are subsumed by states. Any historical exceptions to this I happily accept at face value and I do not believe any number of examples will damage this premise (hopefully someday in the future it will be proven wrong).

Second, states are vulnerable to those they rule and competing states. States evolve to survive and influence changes in the culture and attitudes of their subjects. They can act contrary to the wishes of other states and their subjects for a period of time, but they are always at risk of losing power or annihilation if relations are strained for too long.

Third, a state’s survival is dependent on intersubjective consensus with force used on the margin. This consensus is not tied to any set of strictly rational criteria; it is a product of culture, propaganda, and individual survival instinct. If you are unfamiliar with this concept, imagine the following. My neighbor and I live on our own little Gillian’s island. We are having a conflict about where my property ends and his begins. How are we to resolve it? Our options are to come to an agreement, ignore the problem, or use force on the other person to get our way. Now, if a judge were on the island with us he could rule on the matter. If both parties respect the judge and his ruling than our consensus on that fact would resolve the matter for us. However, if one of us did not we would be back to square one; come to an agreement, ignore the problem, or use force. If the judge brought a policeman with him to the island, he could compel compliance with the threat of force or the use of it. That is, if the policeman had the consensus view on his and the other people’s roles in our island society. If I disagreed with the ruling force would be used against me, the policeman is the force and I am the margin. How many people on this island of 4 need to agree to this arrangement for it to work? What about an Island of 1000? The short answer is you need a sizable majority to play by the rules for the rules to mean anything.

So now we have the following.

  1. Societies will live under state rule (for now)
  2. States are vulnerable and mutable
  3. States are dependent on intersubjective consensus

With these premises in place, I submit to you that democratic government has emerged as the dominant survival strategy for states. As such, those governments that were not democratic have almost all failed, those that adopted democracy have survived, and those democracies that have failed were replaced by different democracies. Why is democracy the best survival strategy? As it turns out, there are quite a few reasons.

The nature of democratic government solves a lot of problems for states that they previously had difficulty overcoming. The first problem democratic government mitigates is the problem of intersubjective consensus. Elections require majorities. Democracy insures that at least 50% plus 1 person agrees at the very least on who is in charge.  Opposition is easily delegitimized as going against the will of the majority. Elections are held often enough so any politician that veers too far away from the consensus will be replaced by one that does not. Lots of modern elections are won by very thin margins; they do not have enough support to effectively rule all those that did not choose them. However, there is a prior consensus that is self-reinforced. That consensus is that the losers of elections should respect the result of the election and they will have to wait until the next one to try and get their way. Anyone that does not accept this is easily portrayed as having sour grapes. When Bush got elected Liberals knew they would get another chance in four years and when Obama was elected conservatives knew they would have another go at it soon as well. Democracy does not solve the problem of consensus but it does have a way of turning revolutionary disagreements into mere outbursts.

Another problem democracy solves for states is adaptability. Oligarchs and dictators are sometimes brilliant leaders, but are not per se. They are people and subject to the same psychology we all are. It is far more common for dictators to be deposed or resign than be subject to the humiliation of having make a major adaptation to conform to the people’s consensus. This is not by accident. When dictators are seen by the people as weak or unable to control the nation the legitimacy of the state is undermined.  When Cameron resigned after the Brexit the effect on the country was tiny. Were he a dictator it would have led to a power vacuum. The disposability of individuals in democracy makes it tremendously adaptable.

Related to the disposability of individuals in democracy, democracy is also effective at breaking down predetermined (constitutional) limits on government power. People under a democracy are incentivized to concentrate on electing politicians favorable to their ends. They are much less directly incentivized to, and have next to no power to, enforce limits to government power. The entire ethos of democratic government is that each station in the structure is a reflection of the will of the people and the rule of law. It is impersonal with a thousand moving parts. Reigning in the behavior of every individual politician in this situation is like trying to run a school with zero misbehavior, just less effective. When a dictator makes a power grab it is apparent, when a democracy does it responsibility and accountability are lost in the bureaucracy and machinery of the system. This greatly increases the State’s ability to reshape the “social contract” over time. The state achieves its ends and works to manufacture consensus either before or after the fact.

The democratic system of government harnesses human’s innate social and cooperative drives. It is a narrative superstructure which provides identity that is extremely durable. Citizens more easily tolerate laws and regulations that they disagree with because it is a reflection, however distorted, of the wishes of his community. So the story goes, at least.

Democracy is the primary legitimizing force of governments today. Minarchists and anti-statists have a difficult dilemma when it comes to democracy. On one hand democracy is a cherished institution that gives people the feeling of directly effecting their government; on the other hand, it is probably the last bastion of legitimacy the state has to fall back on. Attack democracy and you inadvertently conjure imagery of the dictatorial alternatives which we have learned to revile. Don’t attack democracy and you leave untouched exactly that which gives the state its power. Stated a different way, do we revile democracy as a manipulative tool of the state or do we appreciate it as a halfway house between prison and freedom?

One way or the other, simply demolishing aggressive state institutions does not achieve statelessness. On the contrary, creating or maintaining statelessness probably requires similar or greater levels of consensus to creating or maintaining a state. A positive and dutifully defended ethic of non-aggression, in my opinion, is required for a stateless society. However one decides to approach democracy this must not be forgotten.

To better navigate this dangerous rhetorical landscape it is important to clarify exactly what about democracy makes it an impediment to statelessness. This will give us instruction on how to approach it. To say democracy is the source of modern government’s legitimacy is accurate but also misses the point. Democracy gives legitimacy to states by purporting to be the negation of what states are. States are brutal and oppressive. Democracies are reflexive and citizen oriented. When states fail to look after their subjects it is a fulfillment of their nature. When democracies fail to look after their subjects it is an aberrant outcome, a misfiring of its nature. Of course just as all squares are rectangles all democracies are states; a subset of a category cannot be the antithesis of the whole.

Democracy is also an impediment to statelessness in a different way. The same durability of democracy which allowed it to become the dominant structure of states also provides for it a bulwark against the assaults of stateless philosophy. To illustrate what I mean I pose to you a question. How many of you have ever considered the possibility of running anti-state candidates in order to advance statelessness? I, for one, have. Despite the rank absurdity of the suggestion democracy calls to us on an instinctive level. “I hate the system, but if I could just get MY guy in to run the show!” Something about how democracy interfaces with the human psyche draws us to use it as a means of achieving our goals, to the direct diminution of the actual principles that we hold. The band Everclear poetically said “The hand you hold is the hand that holds you down.” To modify that slightly, Democracy is the outstretched hand that holds you down. It is the temptation to achieve your goals by cheating, by fiat, by force. It is a thing that needs you to use it so that it may claim that you need it.

This is how democracy holds back the philosophy of non-aggression. This is how anti-statists need to address it. Democracy is a dictatorship not of man but of machinery and process. Democracy is not a reforming of the brutality of the state, it is the Stockholm syndrome of the controlled. Democracy is not the invitation to participate, it is the invitation to abdicate responsibility and peacefulness.

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