Currently, you can get lots of hits if you search “what is wrong with politics.” Many suggested answers reflect a long-standing central tenet of progressivism that more democracy is the solution. As Woodrow Wilson wrote, when “something intervenes between the people and the government…thrust aside the something that comes in the way.” That has led to “democratic” being applied to whatever is politically approved of and “undemocratic” for something being opposed.
Unfortunately, majority determination is entirely consistent with choices that destroy liberty. America’s Founders said so plainly. And the contractions of individual liberty that have accompanied “progressive” expansions of democracy in America demonstrate that lesson to anyone willing to pay attention.
John Adams said that Americans’ natural rights “cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws.” James Madison noted that democracy provides “nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party.” Alexander Hamilton wrote, “Real Liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of Democracy.” Thomas Jefferson asserted that “elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one…founded on free principles.” Further, he wrote that “the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”
In fact, the word democracy appears nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. And a Constitution of limited, enumerated powers that included a Bill of Rights against government overreaching is clearly inconsistent with unlimited democracy. There would be no purpose in putting certain rights beyond government violation, even if democratically supported, if whatever some majority decided always determined the law.
Unfortunately, political democracy as an ideal has serious flaws. In fact, as Friedrich Hayek noted, it is frequently the problem, as “all the inherited limitations on government power are breaking down before…unlimited democracy.”
An ideal would avoid violating individuals’ established rights. But policies that somehow manage to achieve 50-percent-plus-one votes frequently advance coercive measures that take from some to give to others. An ideal would be responsive; people’s choices would have to matter. It would give people incentives to become well-informed and think carefully about policies. It would require powerful incentives to deter dishonesty and misrepresentation. It would have to be limited in scope, as no one wants every choice about their lives subject to majority determination. If you think otherwise, ask people what in their lives they want determined by majority rule rather than by their own choices.
But “democratically” violating people’s rights is the default setting for legislation and regulation today, rather than the rare exception. Virtually no one’s vote alters important election results, which is far from giving people power to effectively exercise their desires. Not only does politics impose few effective constraints on dishonesty and misrepresentation, but voters also face very limited incentives to think carefully about such malfeasance.
In contrast, a system of voluntary cooperation based on self-ownership requires that property rights be respected; no majority can violate owners’ rights. Individuals’ dollar votes change their outcomes, even when their preferences are not the majority’s preferences, making them far better informed than they are about politics. There also are more mechanisms providing honesty and accountability.
In sum, market “democracy” rather than political democracy, which is often focused on limiting or overriding market democracy, would serve Americans better in a vast array of areas. And those areas include virtually all decisions and policies we need not share in common (which is almost all of them, beyond the mutual protection of our property rights). We would be better served in such areas from letting people exercise self-determination through their own voluntary arrangements, protected by their inalienable rights.
That conclusion is not only inconsistent with a cornucopia of government actions today, but also with the “workers’ democracy” rationale so frequently given for unions and their government-granted monopoly power of exclusive representation, which has given Americans our “hot labor summer” of union strikes and demands.
Unions justify their claim to exclusive representation of workers by analogy to political democracy, as if it were the ideal. Just as democracy means those who did not vote for a winning candidate must accept their political representation, they claim all workers must accept union representation services chosen by a majority of workers in an election. But that analogy fails because, as Charles Baird put it, “unions are not governments.”
Democracy’s “mandatory submission of a numerical minority to the will of a numerical majority” only makes sense in very limited circumstances — where “different individual outcomes cannot peacefully coexist — e.g., rules and budgets for national defense, police and the courts.” But governments are monopolists of the legal use of force, who always face the temptation to employ that power against their citizens. Further, democracy was not supported to enable, but to limit, those exercising the power of government over them. Consequently “Compulsory submission by individuals to the will of a majority is justified only in constitutionally authorized governmental activities.”
[But] buying and selling labor services is a private matter. Different outcomes can coexist peacefully. When a worker decides to accept or reject the terms of a job offer, another worker can make a different decision. A job offer made and accepted is a matter of mutual, voluntary consent between an employer and an employee. Others can decide for themselves among available alternatives. Each can go his own way in peace.
Baird summarized his conclusions elsewhere when he wrote:
The Framers of the Constitution drew a bright line separating rules for decision-making in government and rules for decision-making in the private sphere of human action…it is legitimate to override individual preferences in favor of majority rule only with respect to the enumerated, limited powers of the federal government. Everything else should be left to individuals to decide — irrespective of what a majority of others may prefer. An individual is not forced to submit to the will of a majority.
Exclusive representation is a violation of voluntary exchange. It implies that an individual does not own his labor. Rather, a majority of his colleagues own it. It is a violation of a dissenting worker’s freedom of association. Freedom of association in private affairs requires that each individual is free to choose whether or not to associate with other individuals, or groups of individuals, who seek to associate with him. Freedom of association forbids any kind of forced association, even by majority vote. The sale of one’s labor services to a willing buyer is a quintessentially private act.
The union analogy to democracy is also undercut by the fact that political winners have to regularly stand for re-election. In contrast, once a union is certified in a single election, its power to represent that workplace continues without any further election being required. Subsequently, those who voted in that election need never be given another chance to vote, and no new worker needs to ever be given a chance to vote. “The eventual result, as with the United Auto Workers, is that none of the [current] unionized workers ever cast a ballot in favor of the union.”
Democracy has many failings as an ideal way to order society. And unions’ exclusive representation power is justified by an inappropriate analogy to democracy. That compounded misunderstanding does not serve Americans well. We would be better served in both cases if we instead relied on private property and voluntary arrangements over the vast range of what does not need to be decided in common. To do the opposite — continually doubling down on what “democracy” can force us to do against our will — cannot return us closer to equal rights and equal treatment under the law that is the real ideal for society.