How should libertarians face democracy, when democracy rejects libertarianism?

Jason Kuznicki is the editor of Cato Books and of Cato Unbound, the Cato Institute’s online journal of debate. His first book, Technology and the End of Authority: What Is Government For? (Palgrave, 2017) surveys western political theory from a libertarian perspective. Kuznicki was an assistant editor of the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. He also contributed a chapter to’s Visions of Liberty. He earned a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins University in 2005, where his work was offered both a Fulbright Fellowship and a Chateaubriand Prize.

Radical political movements of any type are bound to have a complicated relationship with democracy. After all, democracy has chosen something other than endorsing them.

The libertarian approach to this difficulty has been to respond with some degree of skepticism about democracy itself. There are at least two ways that this might be explained to an outsider.

First, libertarians are commonly guided or informed by public choice economics, which tells us that 1) politicians obey incentives that have little or nothing to do with the will of the people and 2) voting is rarely worth an individual’s time, regardless of the individual’s convictions. I think both of these things are generally true, and that they constitute real limits on voting as a force for good in society.

One costly and thus effective way to signal one’s loyalty to public choice economics is to decline to vote in a loud and obvious manner. The costs are in the form of reputational losses to non‐​libertarians; the benefits are in reputational gains to the chosen in‐​group. It’s a lot like putting a gang tattoo on your face, if you like.

I find public choice economics rather difficult to argue with. (If you find it easy to argue with, you probably don’t understand it. Demonstrative libertarians may or may not help you here, but reading Gordon Tullock will. Please read Gordon Tullock.) Still, I question whether signaling one’s allegiance to it in this manner is a wise strategy.

Second, we libertarians tend to view the market process and politics as radically opposed to one another, and if I may say so myself, we have some fairly solid reasons for this outlook. In modern America, the market tends to run according to established rules — some of them, yes, established by previous politics, point granted — and it runs until the political process intervenes. Usually the effect of intervention is to curtail consumer choice in the name of consumer benefit, which strikes us as nonsensical. Or it’s to allocate public resources toward a private end, which strikes us as corrupt. Only occasionally does intervention correct a genuine abuse.

But it’s worse than that. For hundreds of years at least, the great goal of politics in the west has been to try to converge on one outcome — a General Will, or something similar, into which we can all dissolve our inferior particular wills. The General Will stands at the center of society and orders everything, and it all works out for the best.

That alone will give a group of individualists, market‐​oriented or otherwise, a strong urge to flee.

Libertarians rightly observe that society doesn’t always need a General Will, and that the circumstances are abundant in which a General Will is downright silly, harmful, or counterproductive: No, Senator Sanders, we do not need a wise and virtuous legislator to tell us which underarm deodorants we as Americans may use.

The tendency to think that democracy can and should produce a General Will is a strange political tic of modern liberalism. For reasons that I won’t get into at the moment, a democracy in fact cannot produce or settle upon a General Will; it is in fact mathematically impossible; and even the originator of the concept of the General Will, Jean‐​Jacques Rousseau, would have correctly scoffed (and did) at democracies’ attempts to find it through the electoral process. It just can’t be done.

And even if we could use democracy to divine the contents of the General Will, we should doubt whether the General Will is always the best solution to questions of individual taste and circumstance, as are posed and answered in the marketplace.

It’s good, in short, that libertarians are pushing back on the silly tendency to deploy democracy for everything.

These are just some of the particulars of our own complicated relationship to democracy. As I said at the outset, though, the problem is not unique to libertarians. American democracy likewise rejects radical socialism and neo‐​Nazism. Each of these groups has to some degree acknowledged the fact of rejection and has in its own way made a place for it ideologically. Even if we certainly don’t share their politics, we share the rejection that they experience, and it may be instructive to give them both a brief glance.

Neo‐​Nazis have never been lovers of democracy. Of course. They are hardly surprised that a group of purportedly inferior people would outvote the master race, and they would appear to experience democratic rejection as a badge of honor. This is relatively uninteresting to me, as is just about everything from neo‐​Naziland, although two things do stand out.

First, libertarians will do well to remember that all nominally right‐​wing movements that are even occasionally critical of democracy will tend strongly to be assimilated to one another in the minds of outsiders. The price of signaling one’s allegiance to public choice theory can therefore be higher than we may appreciate, even if public choice theory remains basically true (which I think it is).

And second, libertarians should not allow a well‐​founded skepticism about the proper extent and epistemological power of the democratic process to shade over into contempt for a set of institutions–democracy, in the broad sense–that appears capable of delivering both individual liberty and peaceful security of property rather better than most. We must take care not to become the enemy that our other enemies think that we are.

Which brings us to socialism. Radical socialists have a different solution to the problem of democratic rejection. They simply declare that socialism is authentically democratic, the results of liberal democracy notwithstanding.

Socialists know well that the generic outcome of liberal democracy is not socialism. Rather, it’s a mix of the free enterprise system with a good deal of state action on behalf of special interests, particularly large corporations. Democracy does not yield socialism; it yields what socialists call neoliberalism.

In rather uncomfortably the same way that we do, socialists have a variety of theories to explain the difference. They point to corporate influence over the democratic process. They invoke false consciousness and cultural hegemony. They even observe how identity politics and particularism tend to fracture the working class and thus destroy the solidarity that socialism would need for success.

You may find these ideas convincing or not, but structurally, they serve a purpose identical to that served by public choice theory for libertarians. Both attempt to explain the fact of democratic rejection in a way that does not entail the abandonment of radicalism.

What’s possibly interesting and valuable here to libertarians is as follows: Socialists are happy to go on calling themselves democratic. Loudly. All the time. They put “democratic” the names of their organizations and even in the names of the rank dictatorships that they have sometimes established. Socialists have elaborate theories that explain why actually existing democracy rejects them. And they wear the name of democracy all the same.

Many of these people are not democrats in any sense that we would care to endorse — many of them are vastly less democrats than we libertarians are — and yet somehow they manage embrace, and profess to love, democracy.

That’s an interesting contrast, is it not? Come to think of it: How many libertarian countries have we managed to set up?