While libertarians are right to be skeptical about simple majoritarianism, we shouldn’t dismiss democracy, for it is the only viable alternative to authoritarianism.

Two Cheers for Democracy

Andy Craig is a staff writer at the Cato Institute, where he is the associate editor of Cato Policy Report. Prior to joining Cato in 2018, he worked as a campaign consultant and writer for Gov. Gary Johnson, and studied political science at Hendrix College.

Libertarians have a long history of skepticism of paeans to democracy, for good reason. Inalienable individual rights are in tension with the idea of pure majority rule. Rights aren’t rights if they can be revoked by the say‐​so of a majority of your neighbors. Majoritarian democracies contain many pathologies that cut against libertarian policy preferences, from populist demagoguery to special‐​interest rent seeking.

When mainstream society speaks of the importance of democracy, libertarians retort that liberty is what matters. Elections for officeholders who wield arbitrary power and violate people’s rights is nothing to celebrate.

But should libertarians be so indifferent—or even hostile—to democracy? The January 6 U.S. Capitol attack is a lesson on why, perhaps, we shouldn’t so quickly dismiss conventional wisdom’s emphasis on the importance of free and fair elections.

“Democracy is the worst form of government,” Winston Churchill remarked, “except for all those other forms that have been tried.” There’s wisdom here that advocates of liberty and limited government should consider, even those who’d be happier with no government at all.

Though often called just “democracy,” what most people mean is liberal democracy: a system of elected representatives writing laws within a constitutional framework protecting fundamental rights and with courts empowered to strike down laws that violate them. These rights don’t usually extend as far as libertarians might like, particularly property rights. Taxes and regulations are real, personal freedoms are often unjustly abridged. But liberal democracy includes a bundle of important rights nonetheless: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, equality before the law, and the idea of a private sector and civil society outside of the government, among others.

It is this system, and not unlimited majority rule, that was pioneered in the West and has spread to other parts of the world seeking to emulate its success. And the results, for all their flaws, compare favorably to despotism and dictatorship. Those tyrannies, not libertarian utopia, are the real‐​world alternatives vying to replace liberal democracy.

It is tempting for any political philosophy to imagine a sort of enlightened autocracy that will impose one’s policy preferences regardless of public opinion. But it doesn’t pan out in practice.

A few dictatorial regimes embrace more or less free markets, eager for the prosperity they bring. Most don’t, instead displaying cronyism and corruption beyond the worst democracies. And these regimes invariably fare poorly on other libertarian metrics of freedom. Speech and association are harshly limited. Censorship and suppression of dissent is inevitable. Minorities are scapegoated and repressed. Parchment limits on government power quickly wither away.

The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises saw this problem well. In his book Socialism, he wrote the following (“Liberalism” here means what we’d today call classical liberalism or libertarianism):

Always and everywhere Liberalism demands democracy at once, for it believes that the function which it has to fulfil in society permits of no postponement. Without democracy the peaceful development of the state is impossible. […] Even where for an indefinite time to come it may expect to reap only disadvantages from democracy, Liberalism still advocates democracy. Liberalism believes that it cannot maintain itself against the will of the majority; and that in any case the advantages which might accrue from a liberal regime maintained artificially and against the feeling of the people would be infinitesimal compared to the disturbances that would stay the quiet course of state development if the people’s will were violated.

There is no anti‐​democratic path to liberty. The majority will ultimately have its way, and the alternatives to getting it through democratic means are much worse. There’s no shortcut around persuasion. History is littered with examples of governments that tried to rule without free and fair elections and the result is only growing authoritarianism, a system of might makes right, and ultimately chaos protecting the rights of nobody.

Libertarians are right to prefer a government limited by constitutional rules. Bringing power under the rule of law is one of the great libertarian accomplishments. But that does not mean we should be indifferent to the means of selecting those who do wield government power, however limited it may be.

The attempt to overthrow the 2020 election–and with it the Constitution and all its protections–wasn’t a smaller‐​government revolt against the federal behemoth. It was an attempt, however unsuccessful, to keep in power a president who was neither the choice of the American people nor a man committed to any sort of libertarian policy agenda. And that’s the choice we face. It’s why scholars and leaders at the Cato Institute and other libertarian organizations were so quick to condemn the putsch.

It is only in electoral democracies that anything approaching the libertarian vision has been accomplished, even partially, and preserved for any length of time. The feedback loop of elections might be no ideal free market but it provides an approximation that imposes some real constraints on the rapacity of the state. Incentives matter, and elections along with constitutional checks and balances are an imperfect but still crucial incentive structure for governance. In a world where some form of government is the foreseeable reality, libertarians should defend constitutional liberal democracy as the preferable way to structure that government.

The temptation to disenfranchise ideological opponents or classes of people is a dead end. It also violates the libertarian principle of legal equality, making it an ugly contradiction for libertarians to advocate. You don’t end up with a system more protective of freedom that way. Instead, you end up with a system where people whose rights are violated have little recourse except violence, revolution, and the disorders and illiberal impulses that come with both.

Even the rare occasions of a successful liberalizing revolution—America in 1776, Eastern Europe in 1989—are built on preserving or creating democratic institutions. It’s no coincidence that encroachments on the autonomy of colonial legislatures were among the most prominent complaints in the Declaration of Independence. The demand for free and fair elections and multi‐​party democracy proved to be the rallying cry that brought down Communism. The desire for economic reform was an important but secondary and less widely shared motive.

A peaceful society depends on the peaceful transfer of power and a government responsive, however imperfectly, to public opinion. Attacks on that system are attacks on all the benefits for freedom it protects. In the world today, liberal democracy is the only bulwark against unrestrained authoritarianism and the only system that has ever succeeded as a viable alternative to absolute dictatorship. In that battle, the place for libertarians is firmly on the side of liberal democracy, warts and all.