The Lethal Metastasizing of the Sound Idea of Democracy

by Don Boudreaux on June 4, 2019

in Myths and Fallacies, Philosophy of Freedom

In my latest column for AIER I lament the fact that support for democracy has metastasized from support for using democracy to make choices that are truly collective into the lethal superstition that majority rule is an appropriate means of making whatever decisions a majority chooses to turn over to the state. Here are my concluding paragraphs:

Because no serious person wishes to subject our choices in underwear to majority rule, my narrative above might seem pointless. Yet the point becomes clear by surveying modern governments’ vast range of activities. Surprisingly few of these activities involve the provision of genuine collective goods. The great bulk of them involve the state overriding choices that each individual could and would make privately — that is, that each individual could and would make without obliging other people to consume the same good or service that the individual decision-maker chooses.

In the United States today, government superintends individual decisions to purchase imports; it prevents individuals from voluntarily choosing to patronize hair-braiders, dentists, and physicians who have no state-issued licenses; it compels each worker to save some minimum amount for retirement; it specifies many of the detailed terms on which we may and may not participate in financial markets; it dictates the maximum rate at which water may flow from our household faucets. Although each of these — and countless other — officious interventions is sold as somehow furthering the collective good, in fact each such intervention substitutes the state’s choices for the choices that individuals could make on their own without imposing their preferences on others.

In the face of this egregious officiousness, too many people remain nonchalant. Because the American government is democratically elected, there’s a widespread presumption that the actions of this government are, as a rule, the best ones possible. Yet this presumption is mistaken. It is the product of the metastasizing of a correct understanding — namely, that democracy is a sound means of making collective choices — into the lethal fiction that democracy is ethically and epistemologically superior to individual decision-making in nearly all situations.

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