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Democracy: mother of tyranny or innocent bystander? I record a podcast

I, like lots of people from around these parts, am not a democrat. It seems to me that as the franchise has been extended – especially to people who aren’t paying the bills – so, freedom has been lost.

But Douglas Carswell MP, begs to differ. I recently interviewed him for Cobden Centre Radio about his new book The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy. One of his central claims is that we shouldn’t be blaming democracy.

Now, I appreciate there will be people out there thinking: “Well, he would say that wouldn’t he?” Which, of course, is true – it would not be in the interest of any politician to say that he was about to take away the vote from, say, 47% of his electorate.

But that doesn’t mean he is wrong.

To save you the trouble of reading the book or listening to the podcast (although I would be delighted if you did – it’s one of my better ones) this is the short version of Carswell’s argument: the United States was a democracy long before that state started to expand. The state only started to expand after the invention of what Carswell calls “unequal taxation” – taxes that only some people pay. Ergo, don’t blame democracy.

So, has he got a point?

29 comments to Democracy: mother of tyranny or innocent bystander? I record a podcast

  • Rich Rostrom

    One could also note the expansion of the state in relatively or totally undemocratic nations.

    Bismarckian Germany certainly saw the expansion of the state without mass democracy (the legislature was massively gerrymandered, and IIRC there was no universal suffrage).

    The Imperial Russian state grew despite very limited democracy, and democracy was non-existent as the Soviet state engulfed everything.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Here starteth the lesson- Gray’s three perils of democracies.
    1) The most obvious peril is that the mob, simply by having numbers on their side, can legally be empowered to victimise a minority. Whether Jews or gingers or tycoons, scapegoating has happened before, and can happen again.
    2) The next peril is enforced equality. Equal voting rights spills over into the belief that we should all be equal in all other ways- and if we’re not, there oughta be a law about it!
    3) The last peril is more long-term, the political mandate problem. A politician can get into power best by highlighting a real or hypothetical danger or problem, and promising to solve that problem when in office, and the politician feels empowered to add another law to the lawbooks. All these mandates keep building up, and there are few votes in promising to do nothing.
    As for Democracy not being much of a threat early in US history, maybe when people could escape west, the capital couldn’t do much, but then they stopped making land, and the taxpayers couldn’t escape, and congress has grown ever since!

  • Midwesterner

    When the 17th Amendment stripped the several states of their role, the Constitutional federal republic became a effectively a democratic national republic. The federation of states became “One Nation. Indivisible. . . ” The 16th Amendment funded the new unified government and the Federal Reserve System created, together with the Treasury, a central bank with the means to compel tax collection.

    All of this occurred in 1913 and it is a mistake to treat them as independent events. Democratic election of US Senators, unlimited power to tax incomes and (presumably) the Fed system were achieved simultaneously through the calculated machinations of the Progressives. It is the enabler of everything that has happened since. Most of the worst things done by the National government would be dead in their tracks if they required the consent of greater than half of the states’ governments’ appointed delegates.

    My take on it is that whether the state has power to levy taxes selectively is insignificant compared whether the power of the state is constrained. The number of people calling the shots in an unrestrained government will almost always start with a plurality and devolve to an oligarchy of some flavor. By destroying the delicate balance that kept the various competing (with the national and each other) governments in check, the Progressives very cleverly broke the constraints on democracy (17th), spending (the Fed System) and selective confiscation (16th) all in one very destructive year.

  • Laird

    I agree with Midwesterner’s points, and also note that (assuming Patrick’s summary is accurate) Carswell’s opinion is of questionable value inasmuch as his understanding of the US political system is seriously flawed. The US was not a democracy in its early years, but rather a federal republic. The states were important semi-sovereign entities then, coequal to the federal government in many ways. Only with the diminution of their power (thanks largely to the 17th amendment) did the federal government begin to seriously expand. Also, in those early years the franchise was limited. Women did not have the vote, or slaves (of course), and in many areas it was also restricted to property owners which eliminated many more from the electorate. In large measure ony those who actually paid for the government voted in its elections.

    Only with the broad expansion of the franchise, which now includes not only women, blacks and the propertyless but also 18-year olds, as well as direct popular election not only of senators but also of presidential electors, did the nation begin to become what it is today: something closely approximating a democracy. The delicate political balance was thrown completely out of whack, and the results are apparent. The Founders knew that unfettered democracy was just about the worst possible form of government (just read any of their writings on the subject) and they did everything in their power to prevent it from arising. Unfortunately, they failed.

  • Alsadius

    Governmental expansion has very little to do with structure and quite a lot to do with the nation’s ability to pay. Government is a bunch of things that most people want, and that they’re generally willing to pay for if they have the cash. The cause of big government is the Industrial Revolution.

  • Frederick Davies

    …the United States was a democracy long before that state started to expand. The state only started to expand after the invention of what Carswell calls “unequal taxation” – taxes that only some people pay. Ergo, don’t blame democracy.

    Short answer: first, before the US government started to expand, the USA was not a Democracy, but a Federal Republic with restricted frachise; second, “unequal taxation” appeared due to democratic pressures, hence democracy is to blame.

    FD

  • Install a democratic Lords, distribute ballot papers for that house with your income tax receipts. Stop income tax on the public sector. Change nothing else and watch incentives go to work.

  • The United States is not and never has been a democracy, it is a “Constitutional Republic”.

    Going back to Mr. Carswell’s wider view of democracy, it may have existed before the massive inflation of the state in the UK, but that has little to do with it.

    When the right to vote was limited to the land owning classes, they would not support governments to go on wild spending spree’s therefore I would contend that government was limited because the basis of the electorate was limited. With each expansion of the electorate (unlanded men, age reductions, votes for women, etc.) the electorate has been diluted more and more by net tax consumers who are quite clearly, obviously and logically going to vote for things THEY want and for which THEY don’t have to pay for.

    World War 1 and to a greater extent World War 2 expanded the size of the state and the amount of money needed to pay for them. Although there were post war reduction in both the size of the state and the taxation needed to pay for them, these were never going to be reduced to the level prior to the wars.

    The monumental folly of the 1945 Labour administration is a case in point, we are still paying for this administrations horrors today in the form of the bloated and poor performance of the NHS.

    In all of this democracy has played a defining role in compounding the folly, so to say that democracy is innocent is a lie.

  • Snorri Godhi

    People have been debating these issues since the time of Plato, of course.
    There is also the issue of what counts as “democracy”. A case could be made that only Switzerland counts as a democracy nowadays, and there ain’t much growth of the State in Switzerland, when compared to, for instance, the rest of the world.
    But actually, I doubt that even Switzerland can be said to be a democracy as Plato defined the word, since majorities do not have absolute power in Switzerland … or in any other place.
    Historically, it seems to me that export-oriented capitalist oligarchies, especially the Venetian Republic, have been the most stable forms of limited government. They tend to turn into democracies, however, and then the State grows faster. Plato saw this, too. So I think that a stable democracy on the Swiss model is preferable to a stable capitalist oligarchy. This hypothesis will be falsified if and when the Swiss government starts to grow seriously.

  • A Williams

    “Nuke” Greys 3 perils of Democracy are actually not limited to just democracies. They are the 3 perils of Politicians looking to manipulate the mob and are just as likely to be found in dictaorships, monarchies and rule by self appointed “elites”.

  • RRS

    To repeat some sad symptomatic pedantry:

    Democracy is a process, not a condition. It is true, however, that the term is used to describe the conditions necessary and sufficient for the process.

    True the label is often applied to the conditions necessary and sufficient for the process, but the process remains what it is.

    The conditions resultant from the process are determined, and vary, by the nature of the social order in which the process occurs.

    The nature of the social order derives from the many and variables forces which formed and maintain it; and, from the human interactions within it that are changing and constantly reordering it; sometimes almost imperceptibly, at others radically and disruptively.

    More later, perhaps.

    .

  • Alisa

    Democracy is a process, not a condition.

    Yes, but when a process is prolonged and consistent, it becomes a condition.

    The conditions resultant from the process are determined, and vary, by the nature of the social order in which the process occurs.

    But that nature is subject to change mandated by the process.

    the many and variables forces which formed and maintain it; and, from the human interactions within it that are changing and constantly reordering it

    AKA ‘the process’:-)

  • lucklucky

    He is not right.
    Because Totalitarian Democracy doesn’t happen only with Taxes.
    You can have a flat rate for everyone but other rules, law can be increased and expanded to limit much of the freedoms we have. They are already.
    Besides 50% taxes to everyone is still Totalitarian.

    We are already entering in to Totalitarian Democracy.
    I call it Totalitarian Democracy and not just Democracy, because i think Democracy is still necessary. It just needs to have much less power than it currently has.

  • RRS

    LuckyLucky,

    [Democracy] just needs to have much less power than it has.

    OR

    Our social order has reached a a certain condition of relationships within it where the process produces undesirable (to whom?) effects – as indeed it has done in man’s past (and ongoing?) historic experience.

  • RRS

    Ah! Alicia, you have dragged me into your net.

    It’s always comforting and reassuring to cite or refer to some authoritative intellect, particularly if well-known and widely regarded. While not possible in exact terms here, but from a mentor (70-odd years ago) in advanced logic:

    “One must take care in defending a proposition when the response to the statement begins: ‘yes, but –‘ or one may find oneself swimming in the semantic sea.”
    That was in reaction to a graduate student’s challenge. Not the sort of exchange occurring here.

    But, true, the processes evolved and employed by a particular social order, though they may evolve from, or be generated by, yet other forces, are part of the overall forces which shape the nature of the social order and impact the changes that occur within it.

    A useful analogy might be the communal garbage dump and cesspool which become sources of contamination and infections to the community which produces that process of disposition of its excrements and contaminations.

    Yes, but when a process is prolonged and consistent, it becomes a condition.

    Unless we get into some subatomic particularities, democracy as a process has never been consistent over prolonged periods. Certainly not even in the short history of the social order that has evolved in the United States. The functions of the process of democracy as have evolved so far to their use here as means principally for the protection or advancement of particular interests, rather than the preservation of a system of rules (or principles) for human interactions.

    The scholars of Britannia who abound here, can attest more fully to the evolution of the inconsistent process of democracy for the purposes of government in England and the United Kingdom. The forms and limitations of suffrage are indications of the changes in the functions of the process of democracy in that social order. Universal male suffrage is less than 100 years old there; and, when and why where women finally incorporated into the processes in Switzerland, France, England and the United States? Changes in the social order change the process of democracy if it exists in that social order.

    Similar points can be made of the instances in Classical societies which had comparable processes.

    But that nature* is subject to change mandated by the process.

    *of the social order

    The democratic process has not had a function in most of the known historical social orders or social groupings, including the family, clan, tribe and coalitions. Where democracy does exist, the process has no mandate. It is often altered, even perverted, by the mandate of other dominant forces within a social order.

  • Alisa

    RRS: your original statement was: ‘Democracy is a process, not a condition.’ That is only part of the truth, that being that there are two different things to which we refer as ‘democracy’ – one of them is the process, the other is the condition (both the causal and the resultant one). But if the process is ongoing long enough and consistently enough (even while its participants change), it itself becomes part of the condition. For example, if the democratic process is defined as elections, then at least some processes that are “endemic” to elections – such as campaigning, fundraising and other kinds of politicking that don’t really stop between actual voting days – become part of the overall condition. That condition being that the electorate is maintained and manipulated by the System to support itself.

    I’d like to use that quote if I may – who should I credit it to?

  • RRS

    Alisa -

    I would have to do some research to be certain of his first name but I believe it was Charles Davenport, M.D., the former chief pathologist for the State of Connecticut and at the time of my exposure (in addition to whatever his other duties were at the University) the professor of the courses in advance and graduate logic at the University of Virginia in 1940 – 43 (at least) I was absent on other matters after that.

    Interestingly, that particular course, more of a seminar, was populated principally by current or former medical students.

    Wading a bit deeper into the weeds, I am not much of a seeker after, nor an observer of much that can be said to be the truth. The most we can observe is the determination of what is false

  • RRS

    1848 in Europe – a demonstration of democracy as a process.

    Followed by the analyses of Frederic Bastiat as to the resulting conditions – the trends to socialism.

  • Alisa

    Wading a bit deeper into the weeds, I am not much of a seeker after, nor an observer of much that can be said to be the truth. The most we can observe is the determination of what is false

    Now he’s gone all Popperian on me…:-)

  • RRS

    The injunction of the God of Isreal is that we are not to bear false witness. It is not an injunction to presume we speak the truth.

  • RRS

    That was some time before Karl Popper

  • R. Dawes

    Neither.

    Lady Democracy is midwife to tyranny and decency alike, utterly indifferent to both children, caring only that the whims of Mother Culture in either case are satisfied as best as can be, and, as she is also the enabler to those whims, is vehemently opposed to any discussion of the standards of thinking and morality under which Mother Culture became pregnant in the first place.

    Lady Democracy is a despicable coward, masquerading as an exponent of liberty, both by way of not simply her refusing to pass moral judgement upon Mother Culture but also her berating those who do, under the pretext of dispassionate professionalism. In this fashion she hampers decency and assists tyranny, even though formally not aligned with either. Decency currently prevails (and only precariously so) not because of her but despite her, and yet, because of her actions in criticising those who make judgement, tyranny gains the upper-hand through worming its way into the heart and womb of Mother Culture and determining what whims that Mother Culture demands to have satisfied during her pregnancy with it, which Lady Democracy diligently seeks to satisfy.

    I despise Lady Democracy. Lord Reason needs to grab Lady Democracy by her hair and bodily throw her out of our fine mansion, and in her stead have the good Doctor Republic tend to the proper needs of both Mother Culture and her children, together not letting Mother Culture indulge in whims that she should not.

  • Alisa

    Brilliant, RRS – I have an even better quote now.

  • CaptDMO

    Beginning in say…1776.
    How many variations of eligability/prohibition re: U.S. voting on public affairs, at various “levels” of citizenship”, been “nudged” by “pressure of popular opinion(by any other name)?
    When exactly did that become “reinterpreted” to include private affairs as well?

    When was “democracy” reinterpreted as “loudest”, or ” threat of anti-socal violent tantrum” if unicorns, eating rainbows and shitting FREE Skittles, were NOT to be provided?

  • veryretired

    The founders and designers of the American republican government were certainly not democrats (small “d”), and expressed serious reservations about the idea of mass popular rule.

    The Constitution is specifically designed to prevent many of the worst features of a populist democracy, as they were foreseen, and its attempt at limitations and divisions of power are directed towards blocking the political expression of temporary mass enthusiasms by forcing all political decisions into a tortuous, cumbersome process that tends to prevent sweeping legal changes.

    Obviously, to our detriment, this set of limiting factors has been circumvented and violated in serious ways over the years. But, even then, many of the changes have come by way of the “salami slice” process, in which small changes have accumulated over time to become major elements in the populist tendencies of the modern state.

    The American system is incremental by its very nature, and any attempt at enormous, fundamental changes are very difficult, if not impossible. Even major programs like obamacare are only a continuation of previous political decisions and programs.

    The unwinding of the authoritarian administrative state, which is where we are now, back down to more limited and less coercive state, will take careful work over time to both remove collectivist programs while simultaneously reassuring the general public that they are not being deprived of something that is rightfully theirs.

    The latter goal can only be realized when the educational and media structures in our social network are revitalized to support liberty instead of collectivism. Those cultural elements are a major factor in any potentially successful project to reduce and rationalize the state and its powers.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Laird:The US was not a democracy in its early years, but rather a federal republic… Only with the diminution of their power (thanks largely to the 17th amendment) did the federal government begin to seriously expand.

    The Federal government expanded considerably long before the 17th Amendment, which had very little practical effect. Many states had advisory popular elections for the Senate, which were automatically ratified by the legislature. At the other, states which retained legislative often failed to elect anyone. Some Senate seats were vacant for years, which was of course complete loss of representation by the state in any form.

    Also, in those early years the franchise was limited. Women did not have the vote, or slaves (of course), and in many areas it was also restricted to property owners which eliminated many more from the electorate.

    All states had adopted manhood suffrage early in the 1800s, long before the expansion of the Federal government.

    … direct popular election … of presidential electors…

    Adopted by all states except South Carolina by 1832.

    The claim that the expansion of the Federal government was driven by changes in the political system of the U.S. seems very dubious to me.

    There are much more important real-world factors to be looked at. One is the enormous improvements in communication and transportation, which expanded interstate commerce and related activities as a proportion of U.S. commerce, requiring an expanded Federal role. These same improvements also made it possible for the Federal government to take that role. They also increased American interaction with the rest of the world, another area of Federal responsibility.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    A. Williams, I don’t think that aristocracies would be trying to enforce ‘equality’! And i don’t think that other forms of government, which don’t have elections, have the problem of the political mandate. So I still maintain that these are dangers peculiar to Democracies.

  • Midwesterner

    Rich, there are several problems with your assessment. For example,

    Many states had advisory popular elections for the Senate, which were automatically ratified by the legislature.

    And in the event that an advisory election split 51/49, they had the option of substituting a more moderate candidate or, as in many cases, when the 51% party refused a moderate candidate, sending none at all.

    Another example -

    Some Senate seats were vacant for years, which was of course complete loss of representation by the state in any form.

    This is very misleading. In these states that didn’t have Senators, the states were so closely divided that they were unable to pick one or the other. After the 17th Amendment, states that previously were hung up within a couple of percentage points, sent two Senators from the 51% party and none from the 49% party. In that case, I think honest people regardless of party loyalty, would consider no Senators more fair than leaving nearly half of the electorate unrepresented in the Senate.

    You say that the federal government expanded long before the 17th Amendment, but that is just incorrect.

    Regarding your statements regarding universal male suffrage beginning early in the 19thC, poll taxes were not found unConstitutional until the 1960s and were high enough in some cases that they would seriously change voting patterns regardless of whether their intended consequence was ethnic or economic in impact.

    The Harper ruling was one of several that rely on the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment rather than the more direct provision of the 15th Amendment. In a two-month period in the spring of 1966, Federal courts declared unconstitutional poll tax laws in the last four states to have them, starting with Texas on 9 February. Decisions followed for Alabama (3 March) and Virginia (25 March). Mississippi’s $2.00 poll tax (equal to $14.33 today)[when?] was the last to fall, declared unconstitutional on 8 April 1966, by a Federal panel in Jackson, Mississippi.[2] Virginia attempted to partially abolish its poll tax by requiring a residence certification, but the Supreme Court did not accept this.

    I’m a little confused how this statement –

    One is the enormous improvements in communication and transportation, which expanded interstate commerce and related activities as a proportion of U.S. commerce, requiring an expanded Federal role.

    fits into the ‘necessity’ of this use of the Commerce Clause. Or for that matter, any of the New Deal usurpations of States’ prerogatives under the Constitution?

  • Paul Marks

    Yes even collectivists need a legal figleaf – and a few loose words have given it to them.

    “regulate interstate commerce” rather than “there shalll be free trade within the United States” .

    And “general welfare”.

    It is the mania for preambles (lawyers know how destrutive peambles are) – just say “the Congress shall have the power to….” and then list the specific powers (as Article One, Section Eight does) do not start off with an explination of what the specific powers are for “the common defence and general welfare”.

    If you do that (if you go down preamble road) then collectivists, sooner or later, are bound to say “we can spend money on X – because it is for the general welfare”.

    Then a Constitution is not worth the ink it is printed with.

    There is also a preamble at the start of the Second Amendment (and others) – think how destructive that preamble has been “oh so the right to bear arms is FOR…….”

    And it will get worse.

    For example, the Mexican Constitution accpets that people have a right to have firearms in their homes – but it allows the govenment to regulate the sale of firearms.

    Guess how that has ended up?

    One legal gun shop.

    In a Mexico City military base – go past all these armed guards (looking aggressively at you), fill in all this paper work (how many times have you touched yourself in a secual area today and ……).

    And your “Constitututional Right” can be exercised – Barack Obama and Cas “Nudge” Sustein would love it.

    In practice it means only government security forces and criminal gangs (often the same people) have firearms.

    And the murder rate (in cities that go on both sides of the Mexican-Texan border and are hispanic on both sides) is TEN TIMES higher on the Mexican side than the Texan side.

    Want to break into someone’s house – murder them and rape their children?

    Do that in Texas and they might shoot you.

    Do that in Mexico – and you are protected by “gun control”,

    You (as a policeman – gang member) will have a firearm – but the people crying in the house will not.

    But their “Constitutional Rights” have not been violated.

    Never leave the door open (not even a crack) for government.

    Never explain a right.

    Never qualify a right.

    Or it will not remain an active right for long.

    Just state things baldly – without explinations and without qualifying statements.