A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Is Not Voting a libertarian issue?

From H.L. Mencken’s proclamation that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard,” to Jason Brennan’s near-constant stream of papers lambasting democracy, there is a long tradition of libertarians being at best sceptical and often hostile to democracy. My aim in this article is not to comment on whether they are correct, but to discuss whether this ought to be part of the libertarian movement.
The basic argument against giving scepticism about democracy a prominent place in the libertarian movement runs roughly as follows:
(1)    Many people have a deep, almost religious attachment to democracy.
(2)    By attacking people’s most deeply-held beliefs, libertarians risk alienating people who might otherwise be interested in libertarian ideas.
(3)    By attacking democracy, libertarians risk alienating people who might otherwise by interested in libertarian ideas. (from 1 and 2)
(4)   Scepticism about democracy is not important to libertarianism.
(5)   If something is not important to libertarianism and it risks alienating people, it should be kept separate from libertarianism.
(6)   Scepticism about democracy should be kept separate from libertarianism. (from 3, 4, 5)

The evidence for (1) is all around us. See the constant exhortations that “If you don’t vote then you can’t complain!”, the haranguing received by Jon Stewart over a mere joke that he had not voted, the ongoing debate over whether voting should be compulsory, and a million and one other examples which would only cut into my word allowance for this article.
I’m not going to argue for (2) here, but I don’t think it should be especially controversial.
(4) seems, to my mind, the weakest of the premises. Libertarianism does not require scepticism about democracy – one could well be a libertarian and yet think that democracy is overall a good system. But perhaps this scepticism might be considered part of a “thick libertarianism”; in particular, it might be part of a “strategically thick” libertarianism. “Strategic thickness” refers to those practices and ideas which tend to undermine the implementation of libertarian institutions, even if they do not necessarily contradict the non-aggression principle (or whatever else one regards as the fundamental moral grounding of libertarianism).
I can think of two ways one might argue for this. The first is that, so long as people remain wedded to the ideal of democracy, they will remain sympathetic to a form of collectivism, which will generally lead to bigger governments. The second would be that there are specific ways in which democracies tend to fail, ways which are particularly harmful to liberty. One example might be immigration, where anti-foreign bias systematically leads to people being more likely to oppose anything involving foreigners. (Incidentally, philosopher Arash Abizadeh – not, so far as I am aware, a libertarian – has argued that there are no reasons why voting should be limited only to present citizens of a nation, and therefore that there is no way in which democracy could actually justify immigration restrictions).
There are two problems here. One is that, by focusing on areas where democracy has a tendency towards failure, we almost by definition focus on areas where people will tend to be irrational and will want to ignore our arguments. The second is that proposing to abolish democracy means replacing it with something else, and although we might have in mind simply to abolish government involvement in the issue being discussed, this is neither what people are likely to take us as saying nor what is actually likely to happen. Many people, including (perhaps especially!) libertarians, are heavily opposed to technocratic rule. Libertarian scepticism of technocracy is an honourable a tradition as scepticism about democracy, as famously expressed by Friedrich Hayek in The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
(5) also seems potentially vulnerable – one might perhaps suggest that we should be honest and forthright about every aspect of what we advocate, regardless of whether this is the most convenient thing for us. However, the strength of this objection will turn upon how strongly we use the word “forthright”. I certainly don’t think that libertarians who also happen to be sceptical about democracy should lie or even mislead in order to hide their scepticism, but there is a difference between concealing unpopular views and making them important planks in a platform. In an academic setting, where the entire goal of discourse is to arrive at truth on every individual issue, it is reasonable – even virtuous – to loudly advocate for unpopular views which one seriously believes, even if this is liable to reduce people’s trust in you regarding other issues. In politics, we must be more pragmatic.
“Scepticism about democracy ought to be kept separate from libertarianism”.
I do not mean to insist that this conclusion is either true or false, but I think that it is a question that libertarians ought to think about when lambasting the failures of democracy in a popular setting. The way we go about libertarian advocacy has consequences for people’s freedom, including our own, so we should be cautious when attacking people’s deeply held beliefs – even when those beliefs are strange and irrational. I don’t wish to suggest for a second that we should compromise on our basic principles in order to be more presentable, but there is often far less need to push people’s buttons than we might think.

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