Beyond Democracy, Toward Freedom
by Chris Bassil
In addition to his career in medical research, he is a freelance writer in the anarchocapitalist tradition. He has been published on the Mises Institute’s website and runs the Austro-libertarian blog, Hamsterdam Economics.
As Americans, many of us have learned since the time we were small to associate the democratic form of collective decision-making that governs us with the very essence of freedom itself. In fact, many of us have even come to understand these two not as the separate and distinct phenomena that they are, but rather as similar and partnered sides of the same coin. In school, for instance, we have recited the Pledge of Allegiance each and every morning, separating the republic from liberty by little more than a breath before we begin our day. In the media and in politics, we have been fed an obsession with the free world, and have been convinced that much of what lies outside of it must be made safe for democracy. Even in our entertainment programs, we witness the two as inextricably bound up with one another: in the recent premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO television series The Newsroom, for example, the main character reprimands a neoconservative for his assertion that America’s freedom makes it the best country in the world. “There are 207 sovereign states in the world,” he scoffs, “and, like, 180 of them have freedom.”
Actually, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, there are only 167 countries in the world that demonstrate some form of democracy — from the democracies qua democracy to constitutional and parliamentary republics right down to socialist police state republics — assuming that these are what Sorkin is referring to. In so doing, however, he and The Newsroom perpetuate the same association of democracy and freedom that is seemingly omnipresent in our political discourse, our media and evening news, and even our kindergarten classrooms. In fact, this obsessive confusion of the two has begun to erode their perceived differences to the extent that they are now being used interchangeably, as synonyms.
As economist John T. Wenders points out, however, failing to recognize the two as distinct and self-contained is irresponsible, and equating them as identical is fallacious. “There is a difference between democracy and freedom,” he explains. “Freedom cannot be measured by the opportunity to vote. It can be measured by the scope of what we do not vote about.” (John T. Wenders, “Democracy Would Doom Hong Kong: What Hong Kong Really Needs is an Enlightened Constitution,” The Freeman, 48.1, 1998.)
Despite the discerning brevity of Wenders’ insight, there are actually a number of differences between democracy and freedom — especially with regards to their respects for individual sovereignty and collective action through voluntary association — the illumination of which is the goal of Frank Karsten and Karel Beckman’s new book, entitled Beyond Democracy: Why Democracy Does Not Lead to Solidarity, Prosperity and Liberty but to Social Conflict, Runaway Spending and a Tyrannical Government. At under a hundred pages in length, Beyond Democracy serves as a pocket-sized rebuttal to this reflex association of democracy with freedom, and endeavors to show that the two are not only quite distinct, but can even be opposed at times.
As far as Karsten and Beckman are concerned, the above quote from Wenders — which itself appears in Beyond Democracy, alongside a number of other excerpts from thinkers ranging from Frederic Bastiat to H.L. Mencken to Ludwig von Mises — is wrong only insofar as it does not go far enough. “Democracy,” they explain in an introductory passage that lays the groundwork for the rest of the book, “does not mean freedom … nor is it synonymous with justice, equality, solidarity, or peace.” Karsten and Beckman make clear that they are not concerned with deferentially tiptoeing around what they refer to as “the last taboo,” but rather with exploding the common myths surrounding democracy in a blitzkrieg of aggressive, unapologetic arguments that strike at the foundations of these misconceptions themselves.
In fact, Karsten and Beckman treat what they deem to be “myths” surrounding the democratic process quite seriously, and devote the most significant portion of their book to both enumerating and eschewing a full thirteen of them. From “every vote counts” to “it is the people who rule,” for instance, the authors of Beyond Democracy make strong appeals to the reason and common sense of their readers in overturning the conventional rationales behind our preferred form of collective decision-making. How could it be that every vote counts, they ask, if an influence of one in roughly 100 million is all that each voter gets in a presidential election? Furthermore, what would it mean even if, by some infinitesimally small chance, a vote did influence the outcome of an election, given that the votes themselves often indicate nothing more than a vague preference for one party or leader over another, that they generally have no direct effect on policies themselves, and that they do not even bind a leader representing certain viewpoints to implement policies consistent with those viewpoints in the end anyway? And how would things change, they wonder, if it turned out that the political elite rallied for higher and higher voter turnouts not in order to better approximate the wishes of the citizenry, but rather to use as a stamp of approval to justify their own policymaking and political platforms? And, assuming all of these truths, is it really that valid to deem freedom and democracy as interchangeable and interrelated in the first place?
Karsten and Beckman are tireless in their pursuit of each of their thirteen myths of democracy, and seldom are they content to expose one only as baseless and unfounded. In rebutting the argument that democracy creates prosperity, or that it fosters a communal sense of harmony, for example, the authors of Beyond Democracy take their arguments a step further in order to show that, oftentimes, it is the opposite that is true. Democracies tend to destroy wealth, they claim, as a consequence of the short time horizons and lack of accountability of public officials. And, far from instilling a sense of harmony between neighbors, a democratic government can foment tension and conflict through its constant insistence that citizens must reconcile their lifestyle choices with each other at the voting booth. Always implicit in these insights is a question of the space — one which the authors of this book consider vast — between democracy and freedom: can it really be true that the essence of freedom is characterized by the wasteful reallocation of private property and a self-righteous disrespect for the basic notion that individuals should be allowed to govern their own lives, as sovereign over themselves?And, again, is it really responsible for so many of us to casually think of the two, then, as one and the same?
If the primary mission of Beyond Democracy is to furnish a reply to that question resoundingly in the negative, then its follow-up agenda is more concerned with providing a list of phenomena that Karsten and Beckman believe are more appropriately paired with the idea of democracy. Among these, which the two refer to as “sins of democracy,” are bureaucracy, parasitism, megalomania, “welfarism,” antisocial behavior and crime, lower standards and mediocrity, cultures of discontent, and “short-termism.” After expediently dealing with these alleged consequences of democratic government, the two also lay their blueprint for an alternative method of organizing society — one which they believe can be more truly associated with freedom, and one with which libertarian-leaning readers will certainly be familiar.
Not surprisingly, Karsten and Beckman claim the work of Austrian economist and libertarian anarcho-capitalist philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe — especially Democracy: The God That Failed — as a major influence on their thinking, and Hoppe himself offered high praise for Beyond Democracy. Although the two works (and three thinkers) share a common and unusual thread, they — like democracy and freedom — have their differences as well. As Karsten himself points out in an interview with Aschwin de Wolf of Against Politics, “Hoppe’s book is a collection of academic essays … our book is for the average person, but I also think seasoned libertarian can learn lots from it.” If there is a criticism of Beyond Democracy to be made, it is laid clear in Karsten’s analysis. The book will be most useful either to the wholly inexperienced as a shocking, unrelenting eye-opener, or to the well-versed expert, who can fill in the finer philosophical points for himself. Those who find themselves somewhere in the middle, though, may feel unfulfilled with the lack of in-depth theoretical analysis, and may eventually turn to something like The God That Failed as the next step in their intellectual development.
Actually, this is not a bad thing, since a book as accessible to beginners as Beyond Democracy is sure to increase interest in and readership of the works of Hoppe and other libertarian thinkers. In fact, it is not hard to imagine — given the veritable treasure trove of allusions, references, and quotations that Karsten and Beckman have embedded into their text — that many readers searching to discern the true nature of the relationship between democracy and freedom will progress quickly from the former to the latter. We can only hope, of course, that our kindergarten teachers, media pundits, talking heads, politicians, and even Mr. Sorkin himself will eventually be among them.