If You Think Democracy Is Bad, You Should See Libertarianism

I differ from mainstream liberals in having some libertarian inclinations. I don’t think I’m extraordinarily unusual in this. I live in a liberal town and know other liberals that think more like me.

The reason I’m so inclined is simple. I like democracy. It appears that democracy has failed on the large-scale. The only successful examples of democracy are on the small-scale. Hence, libertarianism of a leftist variety.

That said, I wouldn’t identify as a libertarian. Not because I don’t like the label. I couldn’t care less about the label. The real point for me is the principles I hold. In principle, I’m indifferent to the argument of big versus small government. I suspect big government might be a necessary evil.

For example, there is good reason few minorities are libertarians. Colonial African slaves had to choose between Britain and America. It was no easy choice. Few of them were thinking about grand changes. They were simply seeking the best hope available to them. If they chose to fight on one side or the other, it was a very personal decision. They were more fighting for their individual freedom than they were fighting for some ideal of a free society.

It was very concrete and direct. They just wanted to be able to live their own lives and be left alone. That is freedom in the most basic sense.

Since that era, their descendents have continuouslly fought for ever greater freedoms. Yet most of the battles continued to be for very basic freedoms. And most of the battles have been fought at the local level. But almost every victory they had at the local level was reversed by local whites, almost everything they built at the local level was destroyed by local whites.

Conservatives complain about what they see as minorities love of big government. It’s not that they love big government. It’s just that they’ve learned from hard-fought experience that the only lasting change for the good they’ve gained has come from forcing change at the level of big governmment and so forcing local small governments to comply.

Black history demonstrates the failure of libertarianism. An even greater failure than democracy.

Libertarian rhetoric is a white privilege and also a class privilege. There is a reason most libertarians are wealthier whites. They already have their basic rights and freedoms protected, more than anyone else in society.

Minorities aren’t stupid. They see this privilege for what it is.

17 thoughts on “If You Think Democracy Is Bad, You Should See Libertarianism

  1. You’ll notice that you will not see very many libertarians in the developed world either, including the ones that have been on the receiving end of authoritarian governments.

    The reason why is because often they are the victims of the private sector. They know first hand what the private sector can and cannot do, or more accurately will not do because it is not profitable to do so.

    In practice, a libertarian society would lead to an authoritarian one. The very wealthy would take over and entrench themselves like an aristocracy, while kicking down the ladders to upward mobility.

    • In my utopian fantasies, the best of democracy would be combined with the best of left-libertarianism (maybe of the anarchosyndicalist variety, as Chomsky supports). Basically, it would be a society where every aspect was direct democratic self-governance. Even businesses would be owned and operated democratically by workers and local communities. I’m a dreamer.

    • If you weren’t to be practical and realistic, what would your penultimate utopian fantasy be? What are your deepest beliefs, values, principles, and ideals? If they were implemented fully and manifested perfectly, what would that world be? It is a fun exercise.

  2. I’m relatively practical.

    In all likelihood, it would end up being something similar to the Scandinavian nations, only with a gradual transition to a full blow socialist society.

    Will elaborate later.

    • How would democracy operate in that society? How much would direct democracy be allowed or be possible? How about Scandinavian representative democracy at the national level combined with New England town hall direct democracy at the local level? Are you a fan of the Milwaukee Sewer Socialists?

  3. Ideally it would end up with the following:

    1. Local direct democracy at a municipal level. This would also need to include a good-work life balance culture so that people are not overly busy and have time to attend (or else senior citizens are overrepresented).

    2. On a national level though, control would probably be a proportional representation system.

    However, there would be one barrier. Knowledge tests would be mandatory. Materials and education to pass those tests, along with civic classes would be freely provided.

    3. The scientific method would be taught at a very young age in schools, along with an emphasis on debate, critical thinking, and a very low power distance culture.

    4. Economically, society would probably enact steeply progressively taxes. There would also be much stronger enforcement of corporate taxes.

    The economy would be “mixed” with lots of state ownership, but also have a private sector. The one thing I would do differently though is to make financing a lot more easily available for startups.

    5. Intellectual property laws would be much weaker (to prevent entrenched monopolies and patent trolls).

    That would be the basics, but there’s probably more that I would want to add later.

    I do have an even more practical alternative, one that you will probably disagree with.

    • Not bad. I could go with that. But some other things might need to be added.

      You mentioned both a “need to include a good-work life balance culture” and “Knowledge tests would be mandatory.”

      In order for that to work, a basic income would probably be necessary, something the Canadian experiment showed to be an effective strategy. Or failing that, a high minimum wage with a 30 hour or 4 day work week and a strong social safety net.

      Civic engagemment would require that no citizen existed in desperate poverty. People would also need plenty of free time. This might require such things as making elections national holidays.

      For good measure, there probably would need to be some basic level of universal healthcare.

      So, what is your “practical alternative”?

    • To my mind, “a more enlightened version of the Chinese government” might be a more extremely utopian vision than democratic anarchism. The two parts, “more enlightened” and “Chinese government”, are inherently opposed and contradictory.

      It is like the monarchs in the past who attempted enlightened monarchy. In the end, the enelightened part fails or the other part fails… or else both parts mutually destruct.

      I think I understand the utopian vision you propose. It is interesting in theory, basically a paternalistic technocracy I suppose.

      The problem is such a government has never existed and we have no reason to believe it ever will. But I wouldn’t mind seeing some society attempt it. I’m all for experimentation.

  4. I think it might be a necessity to have some paternalism.

    The big problem of course is that there will always be some degree of corruption at the top and nepotism. Such a society needs leaders that are genuinely acting the national interest.

    I have indicated elsewhere why I think East Asia has risen so rapidly after WWII. Japan in particular is not a democracy that we would define it, although since WWII, it has worked hard to persuade people in the West that it has adopted a Western style democracy.

    The net effect seems to have been a society with moderate degrees of corruption, but low enough that it has not had a severe impact on living standards.

    Singapore could argued to be another example, although it is much more blunt about its authoritarian bent.

    China I think too is like that in this regard. Although there is a great deal of corruption, the system is oriented in a manner that has on the whole, delivered immense growth to the general population. The big question is environmental destruction.

    In other words, what we need is the best system possible given human nature. To me it seems that Western democracy is very vulnerable to being co-opted, perhaps much more so than the alternative. But the alternative demands relatively well intentioned people on top.

    • “The big problem of course is that there will always be some degree of corruption at the top and nepotism. Such a society needs leaders that are genuinely acting the national interest.”

      But that is what the Chinese government has always been. That is what their Confucian tradition is all about. Maoism was just a modernized Confucianism. The Cultural Revolution was all about bringing enlightenment to the people.

      The problem with a country like the US is we lack such a tradition. It wouldn’t work here. I’m not sure any Western country has a similar tradition that is as well established. It just isn’t part of Western culture. China seems like a much more stable authoritarian system than either Nazi Germany or the USSR ever was, although Russians are the closest Western equivalent to China.

      You have to make a government match the local culture. For good or bad, American culture would never make possible that kind of government. An effective ideology can’t be forced onto a population. It must emerge from within the culture.

      There are forms of paternalism that would work in American culture. But it would have to a paternalism that allows for much freedom at the personal level.

  5. I’d agree with that.

    But if you think about it, there’s a much more dangerous form of paternalism right now – corporate and financial sector paternalism with all of the drawbacks and none of the advantages.

    • The problem I see with paternalism is the basic issue of authoritarianism. Even if you have an enlightened leader, that leader will one day die or be deposed.When an authoritarian system is set in place, it inevitably becomes more oppressive and despotic.

      China is a good example of that. The present government began with an enlightened leader. The society was transformed. It was seen as communism, but it really was just a new form of an old Chinese tradition. A new generation has shifted that supposed communism to state capitalism. The Chinese are moving toward fascism/corporatism from the opposite direction as the United States.

      The problem is that, in both China and the US, there is a lack of democratic controls in place: transparency, accountability, and autonomy. Both governments demonstrate that it isn’t the ideology that is the specific problem, but the authoritarian power structure itself. No one has yet found a way to separate paternalism from authoritarianism.

      As a different perspective on paternalism, consider some of the longest lasting monarchical systems in the West. I’m thinking of contries like the UK and Sweden, both still kingdoms with reigning monarchs. Until a decade ago, Sweden’s nobility was still tied into the government.

      Sweden, in particular, is a very paternalistic society that is still based on a ruling elite. Yet it has balanced this with social democracy and a fair amount of personal freedom. More importantly, it seems to have avoided the ugliest forms of authoritarianism, at least in recent history.

      Sweden is also an example of paternalism being carefully held in check. For the last several centuries, the nobility have been increasingly constrained and have lost power, but the influence of a ruling elite is still strong. China, on the other hand, has a paternalism that is unconstrained and so allowed to be fully authoritarian. Sweden has only made social democracy possible through a careful balance of paternalism and freedom, a not easy balance to maintain, one that few other countries could hope to accomplish.

      I just don’t see the US being able to follow either the Chinese model or the Swedish model. I’m not sure what other varieties of paternalism are available. The US is moving toward an authoritarianism, but it is a unique American form. It is moving closer to the Chinese model than the Swedish model, which is sad.

      More than anything, the US is becoming a neocolonial empire. The danger is we don’t have any tradition of monarchy, nobility, or Confucianism to offset the worst aspects of raw centralized power. We are a young country with few if any well established traditions, besides capitalism.

      I’m not sure what potential toward good governance is available within American culture. The two ways Americans have dealt with overwhelming societal problems is through revolution and civil war. We aren’t good at slow, effective reform. It isn’t our culture.

  6. As it stands, the reason why I think Japan, China, South Korea (under Park), and Taiwan were able to move forward was because although very paternalistic and at times, corrupt, their leaders in general acted in the best interests of society.

    They have not been perfect. Corruption is a source of resentment in all of those nations. Environmental destruction is another serious issue. But overall, they have managed to raise living standards from developing world to approaching developed (in the case of South Korea and Taiwan) and near the top (in the case of Japan). China seems to be following along that trajectory. Also worthy of note is that Japan is compared to most Western nations, quite egalitarian, almost comparable to Sweden.

    By contrast, in the US, the corporate and political elite (who are one), have largely acted against the best interests of the average American to enrich themselves with no regards for the best interests of society. It is not a democracy in a sense that the average person has control, it is surely decided by those on the top.

    The destruction of American manufacturing, middle class living standards, the decay of infrastructure, education relative to the rest of the world, and scientific leadership has been met by indifference, if not outright derision by the American financial elite.

    In many regards, the 0.1% have effectively become a parasite on society, transferring society’s wealth for themselves. At the same time, I think that America’s traditions are in many ways working against it. The “frontier” anti-intellectualism in particular is a huge problem.

    It would seem that “benevolent paternalism” seems to give the best of results. Perhaps democracy simply cannot work with an excessively heterogeneous population.

    • “It would seem that “benevolent paternalism” seems to give the best of results. Perhaps democracy simply cannot work with an excessively heterogeneous population.”

      You know my views on this. What makes Sweden and Japan different? They are small countries with small populations. That is how they make social democracy work. If we wanted to make social democracy (paternalistic or otherwise) work in a similar fashion, our best hope would be to be to divide the country up into separate nation-states around the size of Sweden or Japan. But that would mean giving up the American Dream of being a neo-colonial empire.

  7. Japan technically is not small (about 40% the population of the US), although it is relatively homogenous.

    I suspect that a red-state, blue-state split would be enough as a start. Certainly some areas would go to one or the other (Ex: Appalachia in blue state areas would go to the red states).

    • “Japan technically is not small (about 40% the population of the US), although it is relatively homogenous.”

      Japan is both smaller in population and most importantly smaller in size, in terms of land territory. When you have people concentrated together, it creates an entirely different social dynamic.

      So, maybe it isn’t the size of the population that is as important for a social democracy, but the size of the territory and hence the concentration of that population. Research has found that, where Americans are more concentrated (in big cities), they are more socially liberal and tolerant.

      Still, just the population part could be significant. If we got rid of 60% of the US population, maybe that would be a more manageable size.

      “I suspect that a red-state, blue-state split would be enough as a start. Certainly some areas would go to one or the other (Ex: Appalachia in blue state areas would go to the red states).”

      Regionalism is important to understand for US politics. There is much more homogeneity in any given region, state, or area. If too much diversity is a problem, that is all the more reason to bring power down to the relatively more homogenous local level.

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