Does Majority Rule Make Us Impotent?

I wanted to share this insightful piece by Michael Munger, originally published in the Freeman magazine and addressed to libertarians, explaining how democracy can destroy democratic values. What do I mean by this? Well, I think we can define democratic values as those that empower the individual to self-govern. I don’t think anyone who speaks of “democratic values” favorably thinks literally of what democracy often ends up being in practice: a tyrannical majority voting for someone so that he or she can tell us all how to live.

I <3 Majority Rule ShirtAlexis de Tocqueville wrote about this problem in Democracy in America, where the problem he saw in French democracy was that people were so isolated and therefore ineffective because they had few intermediary institutions between themselves and the state. Most French came to see the government as the only organization that could affect change.

Here is the money quote by Munger:

Tocqueville criticizes his countrymen in France. He had seen, in the legacy of the French Revolution, the damage that political democracy and a reliance on majority rule could do.
But when I read his critique today, I get a sick feeling. His criticism of France in 1831 is an even more scathing indictment of American society today. We have become a political democracy: Voting is the extent of civic action, and interest-group lobbying for power and wealth is the only route open to solve civic problems.
The American spirit does not allow for sitting back and waiting for the State do it. If you are my neighbor, I’ll help you, and you’ll help me. We have direct, powerful, voluntary connections based on a thickly woven moral fabric of reciprocal obligations, complex organizations, and intricate relationships voluntarily negotiated and voluntarily ended.
Democracy, to the extent that it substitutes votes for action and taxes for charity, enfeebles the natural impulse people have to help each other. State action crowds out voluntary private associations. If the government is supposed to take care of all of us, then I have no moral obligation to pitch in, to help out. I see you attacked, and I look up and down the street and cluck to myself, “Why don’t the police do something?” If I see a bad school, I wonder why the state doesn’t improve it. If I see a broken pump, I wait with my neighbors, and we watch our children play in the dust. The great Murray Rothbard diagnosed the problem perfectly when he said that leaping from the necessity of social connection to claims about the necessity of State action is the world’s greatest non sequitur.
This is why in addition to advocating freedom, The New Polis also supports community, by which we refer to families, churches, fraternal organizations, and any other private association. The state attempts to crowd out and supplant these layers of community and reduce us to atomistic individuals unable to undertake any collective action not under its auspices. By strengthening community we strengthen our personal autonomy and decide for ourselves how we want to live.

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4 thoughts on “Does Majority Rule Make Us Impotent?

  1. Jeremy M. Rothbard on said:

    "Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about this problem in Democracy in America, where the problem he saw in French democracy was that people were so isolated and therefore ineffective because they had few intermediary institutions between themselves and the state."

    This is very well put, Tate.

  2. Elizabeth Caywood on said:

    Great article! Huricane Katrina demonstrates this point well. Who was first to respond to the hurting communities? The state was slow in showing up, unorganized, and ripe with corruption.

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