Democracy, freedom, consent and minarchy
Posted by aogFriday, 27 December 2002 at 16:20 TrackBack Ping URL

I'm not all that big a fan of democracy and "freedom". Democracy, as has been said before, is two wolves and a sheep voting on dinner. Democracy is a useful tool for constructing governments, as it tends to be less susceptible to most governmental pathologies, but it's just a means, not an end. Our Founding Fathers wisely made our nation not a democracy but a republic with democratic infrastructure. This has been so successful that most people today who refer to "democracy" really mean a democratic republic like the US, where pure democracy is constrained by limited government powers.

As for "freedom", I put that in quotes because it is a word that has almost opposite meanings across the political spectrum, or even in the same place. One need only look at FDR's "Four Freedoms" to see this. Some (like "freedom of speech") are things that where making people leave other alone suffices while others (like "freedom from want") require enslaving some for the benefit of others but allow none to escape. All of the freedoms do, however, constrain someone's freedom to act. Conversely, one can plausibly argue that total freedom is the Hobbesian state of nature where in practice few indeed can act freely.

What, then, do I look to as a guide? I go with consent. I view the goal of government as being to maximize the amount of consent in a society. This is very similar to what libertarians mean by freedom. This is the ability to do as much by choice as is possible. However, because more freedom for some can mean less for others (in either the Hobbesian jungle or the welfare state), we have to accept the tragic vision that a perfectly consensual society is impossible. We must settle for something less. That is why I formulate the goal as "maximizing" rather than just a "concensual society". Not only does this allow the impossibility of perfection but also implies (as I believe) that it is an ongoing process as our society grows and changes. Moreover, our imperfection means that not only can't we have a fully consensual government, we can't even know what the maximum possible is. While we can tell in broad brush more from less consensual governments (e.g. the US vs. Cuba), rational people can reasonably come to different conclusions about which of two governments has more consent (e.g. US vs. Hong Kong in 1996).

So I don't look for a system of government that is perfect, but one that it as concensual as possible, or at least close. If we look at the amount of consent vs. the power of the government, we see that there is a peak between anarchy (where there is little consent except for a priviledged few) and totalitarianism (where there is little consent except for a priviledged few). My understanding of the world leads me to believe that the peak is much closer to anarchy than totalitarianism. For instance, I think that the US is on the "too much" side of the peak. The technical term for this is "minarchy", the belief that less government is generally better but that no government is worse.

But won't people make bad choices and hurt themselves? Won't they make choices that harm not only themselves but others? Yes. But I haven't seen any other government or societal structure prevent that, except for the ones that make the bad choices for the people, which hardly seems an improvement. The question is wehther the effort to prevent such choices costs more than it benefits. I measure both of those in how much, in general and overall, people can truly make their own choices. Sometimes the efforts to prevent the bad choices removes too many non-bad choices so that it is a net loss. We have to accept that while we can't have complete freedom, we also can't make everyone always doing the "right" thing, that we must have policies that we know will lead some people to personal destruction. I accept that. I also believe that while people aren't perfect, that overall they tend toward good much more than evil. Otherwise it's difficult to see how any society could exist. However, like any talent it becomes much better with practice and structure, so some socieities are far more nuturing of the best in people. I think that societies under consent based governments do better at this because more totalitarian governments (particularly welfare states) cause the moral sense to atrophy through disuse. Nothing destroyed black familes in America like the beneficent hand of government that knew what was good for people.

A consensually organized government provides the structure in which people can make their own decisions, without trying to make those decisions for people, leaving to society to provide the guidance people need to make better choices. Maximizing consent is the proper role of government, but not for society. A key difference is the society can have its outcasts, but government cannot. Let us use force only where we must, and guidance where we can.