A Thought on Democracy

by Don Boudreaux on May 19, 2004

in Current Affairs

In today’s Wall Street Journal, David Hale, an expert on China, has a bracing observation about that country. It’s inspired by the recent election outcome in India:

there is little doubt that if China had a truly open and competitive election, it would produce a populist party opposed to many recent economic reforms. It would demand the restoration of guaranteed employment in state-owned companies, coupled with the free health care, education and pensions which they traditionally provided. China’s huge peasant population also would support candidates promising to raise farm prices, limit foreign competition and restore the social services which existed in the countryside 30 years ago.

I have always felt awkward expressing my sincere thoughts about democracy, but here goes: Democracy is poorly understood and vastly overrated. Americans knee-jerkily think of it as being synonymous with freedom, or at least as a damn reliable guarantor of freedom. It is neither.

Many reasons explain this false equation of “democracy” with “freedom.” Perhaps the most important is the simple-minded assumption that democracy gives “voice” to “the people” and, hence, that it gives the people what the people want. What freedom-loving, civilized person objects to letting adults have what they want, even if what they want appears to that person to be foolish?

The problem is that this way of thinking about democracy treats millions of disparate voters as if they are a single person. When thinking about democracy, we transfer all of our civilized and liberal tolerance of individual choice to “the People,” as if “the People” is a person with goals, preferences, perceptions. This move is illegitimate. Put bluntly, “the People” do not exist. It is an abstraction. Each of us, as individuals, exist. We do not become “one” when we yank levers in voting booths; we do not, in voting booths, morph together miraculously to achieve the moral or intellectual character and bearing and worth of an individual.

In addition to classic works in Public Choice economics, I recommend Geoffrey Brennan & Loren Lomasky’s Democracy and Decision, as well as the insightful, creative, and important work of my colleague Bryan Caplan.

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