Democracy Isn’t Nirvana

As residents of a key swing state in the upcoming presidential election, Michigan voters will be treated to a bipartisan media onslaught, full of references to George Bush’s “deceptions” and John Kerry’s “waffling” – flaws that supposedly make both men unfit for the presidency. In turn, most pundits will pronounce this mudslinging regrettable.

But in fact, this is what democracy is all about.

Democracy is commonly yet erroneously romanticized. Engaged and informed voters are thought to participate in intelligent debate about relevant issues in order to avoid potentially bad outcomes. A successful candidate is the one who convinces a majority of voting citizens that his or her platform best promotes the general welfare of society. The “will of the people” can therefore be carried out, and since “we all voted for it,” the outcome is good.

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But the fiasco in Florida following the 2000 presidential election should have convinced even the most ardent apologist for democracy that it can be bitter, divisive, ugly and bereft of consensus. Al Gore received a plurality of the popular vote and the backing of the Florida Supreme Court, while George Bush won the electoral vote and the backing of the U.S. Supreme Court. Bush, therefore, won the right to sit in the Oval Office, while Gore won the chance to move back to Tennessee.

Democracy is both oversold and misunderstood, resulting in a large, growing, and often constitutionally dubious influence on our private lives by local, state, and federal governments. The idealization of democracy has ensured that it’s “democracy” that’s perceived as most important, and “democracy” to which we owe our primary allegiance. It’s become the Holy Grail not only of politics, but of just about everything else.

True, we should give democracy its due: It indeed can help safeguard (though not guarantee) civil freedoms. It’s a political safety valve for dissident views, because it promotes ballots instead of bullets as a means of resolving disputes. This is one reason why America has enjoyed peaceful transitions of political power for well over two centuries.

Thus, democracy is better than any form of despotism. And it’s no small matter to point out that ours is not a full-blown democracy, which would render it unworkable. Our founders wisely provided for “a democracy within a republic,” meaning that we elect representatives to make most decisions, rather than holding plebiscites.

But democracy is most emphatically not the critical ingredient in improving a nation’s standard of living. In fact, democracy is hardly sustainable without sound economic development already in place – development that comes about only when individuals are secure in their possessions and free to engage in voluntary exchange.

Think about it. Democracy is not what gave us life-saving drugs, MRIs and CAT scans, sleek automobiles, microwave ovens, energy-efficient homes, and plasma screen television sets. It’s not what has fed and clothed and housed more people at higher levels than in any other civilization in human history.

These are the products of our economic freedoms. If we want more and better products to improve the lives of more Americans, it would seem that we need more of these freedoms, not more democracy.

Sadly, economic freedoms and the free-market capitalism they constitute are often regarded as operating on the fringe, taking care of the less important tasks of our complex social order, while democracy attends to the important items that make headlines in the news. But most of us are more concerned about putting food on the table or raising our kids, and democracy seems neither in immediate peril nor the highest priority of the day.

Worse, democracy can easily work against economic freedom and human progress. Since the last election, democracy has contributed in at least one way to Michigan’s 6.5 percent unemployment rate, which is now the fifth highest in the nation and a percentage point above the national average. The steel tariffs imposed in 2002 to appease voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia are largely responsible for the loss of over 40,000 jobs in Michigan during the past year and a half alone.

So when the candidates make their treks to Michigan, we should be skeptical of their empty promises to create tens of thousands of jobs. Entrepreneurs risking their own money are the ones who do that.

Instead, we should ask for specifics about how each candidate intends to protect our economic freedoms. We should request their plans for encouraging investment and capital formation and inquire how they will protect our right to exchange freely with others, including people in foreign countries. We should ask how they will protect each individual’s right to enjoy the fruits of his or her labors and investments, because this is a basic function of government that aids the creation of wealth and improves the human condition.

In short, we need the candidates to tell us whether this election will bring us more economic freedom – or more government on top of an edifice that already consumes well over a third of all we produce.

Unfortunately, we will probably hear little of the sort. Both candidates will incessantly attack each other’s character and policies, often through little more than slogans, one-liners and superficial generalities. It is a sad commentary on what the electorate seems to accept that voters hardly notice when candidates pontificate, but don’t educate.

So in this election year, don’t expect a thoughtful, informed and enlightened discussion among the presidential candidates about the critical issue of economic freedom and the size and scope of government. Expect instead a chorus of paeans to democracy, full of empty rhetoric, pie-in-the-sky promises, bad economics and ever-bigger government.

The result, ironically, will be the undermining of democracy itself. Consider the words attributed to Sir Alex Fraser Tytler, the 18th century Scottish jurist and historian:

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.

“The average age of the world's great civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependency; from dependency back again to bondage.”


Mark Steckbeck is an assistant professor of economics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Mich. Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich.

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