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Thursday
Jun102010

Democracy Lives

One of the things I’ve been listening to lately is a series of video essays by Stefan Molyneux, an anarchist thinker.  I have very mixed feelings about his arguments for a variety of reasons.  I am in some ways sympathetic to anarchist polticial philosophy (which includes concepts like volunteerism, consensus decision-making, and free association while managing to avoid some of the pitfalls of naive libertarianism), but on the other hand I’m a big fan of democracy.  He rants a good rant, but his argument can be less than watertight.  For example, in Molyneux’s first “Statism Is Dead” essay, he states:

[presenting an argument for statism] “People won’t be voluntarily charitable, but they will vote for the violent theft and transfer of their wealth.”  I mean, it’s like a Kafkaesque dream sequence, these arguments, right?. People don’t want to help the poor, but they will vote for people to put a gun to their head and force them to help the poor.  […] The existance of the wellfare state is certain proof of the fact that people want to help the poor, and will.

It’s a bit of a straw-man, that argument.  I can think of two reasons why people might pursue policies democratically instead of through volunteerism.  First, they might think that a democratic government is better able to carry out that policy than a non-governmental organization. Second, they might be more willing to support a policy in a decision process where everyone is bound by the results, as opposed to volunteering to support a policy supported only by the volunteers.

Of course, the uncharitable way of describing that is to say that people will voluntarily support charity so long as they can require the “violent theft and transfer” of non-volunteers’ wealth (Molyneux does not say that, presumably, because he’s trying to persuade and does not want to (indiscriminately) insult his audience).  A better way of describing that, in my opinion, is that people in a democracy participate in a decision-making process where they pre-commit to be bound by the result of the process, even if they don’t get their way on a specific issue.  In the world as it is, that may not be a voluntary pre-commitment.  Moving to another democracy can be hard, moving to a libertarian/anarchist society may be impossible.  Still, I would argue that people have a right to participate in a democratic decision-making process and a corresponding responsibility to abide by the results or willingly face the consequences, even though current conditions don’t allow for participation in society to be truly voluntary.

(But here’s a recurring idea of mine, which might apply to this situation:

Idea #3: People tend to worry too much about freeloaders.

So maybe you could run a modern society on volunteerism and consensus without tax collectors and then the police knocking on someone’s door when they say, “Screw the decison-making process, I didn’t agree to that policy,” and that would be even better.  I’m skeptical, though.)

* Of course, to hear Molyneux say it, it’s even worse than that:  Democracy is a sham, all political progress merely granted to the masses by a monolithic political class to improve productivity, the equivalent of “free-range” livestock.  Even given his argument that the US is that sort of government, I don’t think that’s reason to support anarchy over democracy in the abstract.  Nor do I think a bunch of virtuous non-voters will be very effective at achieving political change.

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