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Thoughts on Democratic Choice

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In my latest column for AIER I argue that the noble classical-liberal value of according to each and every individual maximum possible freedom of choice has morphed, in many people’s minds, into the dangerous ‘Progressive’ value of according to majority coalitions maximum possible freedom of action [2]. A slice:

Yet there are at least two problems with leaping from the classical-liberal idea to the (very different) modern “liberal” idea. The first is that when an individual makes private choices, such as which flavor ice cream to eat or where to vacation, that individual doesn’t thereby impose those choices on other individuals. Jones can eat whatever flavor of ice cream he likes regardless of the flavor chosen by Smith.

The second problem with leaping from the classical-liberal idea to the modern “liberal” idea runs deeper. It begins with the fact that the choices that we make as individuals are always made in a dense, vast network of social and legal constraints. When you or I as individuals make choices for ourselves, we do so incrementally, seldom aiming to fundamentally alter our own lives, and much less to fundamentally alter society. And even on those rare occasions when you or I do make decisions that are life-altering – say, when we choose to have a child, or to move to a new city thousands of miles away – we do so constrained by countless social norms and legal rules. These norms and rules not only give us important knowledge about what to expect as a result of our choices, they also minimize the negative impact that our choices have on third parties.

I know, for example, that if I choose to have a child I must assume a vast array of parental responsibilities. I know also that I’m unable – without subjecting myself to harsh social and legal penalties – to unilaterally shove those responsibilities onto third parties.

The freedom of choice that classical-liberal institutions accords to individuals is not remotely unconstrained.

Yet when today’s electoral majority seeks to impose its will it seeks to do so largely without constraint. Not only does the majority today demand minority acquiescence even when its margin of victory is razor-thin, it is also constrained by far fewer of the social norms and legal rules that always constrain the choices of individuals. And just as no individual can be expected to choose wisely when he or she is unmoored from the obligation of heeding social norms and legal rules, a majority cannot be expected to choose wisely when so unmoored. (Indeed, the majority is likely to choose even more recklessly than an individual, if for no reason other than that, as my colleague Bryan Caplan explains [3], politics fuels irrationality in voters. But the topic of voter irrationality is for another time.)

Freedom of choice is wonderful, and democracy – properly understood and constrained – can be a blessing. But democracy becomes a heinous curse when its ethos is reduced to nothing more than the belief that the majority is free to choose whatever it fancies unconstrained by higher law, such as a constitution, and by social norms that protect the rights of all, both as individuals and as members of minority coalitions.