How Libertarian Democracy Skepticism Infected the American Right
In her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, which has been shortlisted for the National Book Award, the Duke University historian Nancy MacLean advances the surprising thesis that the hidden figure behind the contemporary libertarian-leaning political right was the economist James M. Buchanan . Buchanan is far from a household name, though he has been influential in economics and political science, and was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1986 “for his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision-making.” MacLean argues that Buchanan, animated by Southern segregationist impulses and backed by dark Koch-brothers cash, quietly and effectively sought to undermine democracy — to put it “in chains” — to keep America safe for white supremacist plutocracy.
Scholars sympathetic to Buchanan’s project have swarmed. They say MacLean’s book is a slanderous, poorly argued, thinly sourced, intellectually shabby conspiracy theory. MacLean is overly fond of Infowars-style dot-connecting, but I’m not going to pile on. Instead, I’d like to focus on a couple of big things MacLean gets right: the libertarian-influenced American right is hostile to democracy, and it is a big problem.
The fact that MacLean’s pretty badly wrong about why (she’s a stranger to the right, with a hostile agenda) shouldn’t keep us from grappling with the significance of the small-government, free-market right’s antipathy to democracy. I’d like to offer a more sympathetic, if not much less critical, account of the libertarian-leaning right’s grudge against democracy.
Republican electoral hardball and libertarian anti-democracy
A fair portion of the conservative wariness of democracy is probably best accounted for by ordinary opportunistic partisanship. There are more Democrats than Republicans in the United States. Though the Electoral College and the rules for Senate representation are rigged to favor thinly populated rural states, which tilt heavily Republican, the demographic trends over the medium term nevertheless augur ill for the GOP, as it is currently composed. That makes it seem critical to Republicans to find ways to keep Democrats from voting, and to minimize the electoral impact of the Democratic ballots that are cast.
I think this explains some of the right’s enthusiastic drive to rig future elections through congressional redistricting, disenfranchise voters with strict ID requirements (justified by specious panic about voter fraud), keep released felons from voting, and constrict the flow of immigrants likely to become or produce Democratic voters. But I don’t think mere hardball partisanship explains all of this. And it certainly doesn’t explain the shamelessness with which Republicans routinely stomp on civics class ideals of democratic participation and representation. The right’s unruffled conscience about grubby electoral realpolitik requires a justifying ideology. Some of this is bad, old-fashioned American racial ideology, of course. The Republican Party these days is more or less the party of older white people, especially white men, who don’t live in big cities. And the history of American democracy is not, to put it delicately, a history of country white folk insisting on democratic equality for others. But there’s more to it than that. As MacLean suggests, some of the right’s enabling anti-democratic ideas have distinctively libertarian roots.
But the specifically libertarian beef with democracy isn’t exactly the dark secret MacLean makes it out to be. This year, Jason Brennan, a libertarian philosopher at Georgetown, published a book called … guess what? Against Democracy. Ilya Somin, a libertarian law professor at George Mason, is the author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter, published in 2013. In 2007, the libertarian economist Bryan Caplan published The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.
It’s right out there in the open! The influence of James Buchanan and the “public choice” school of political economy certainly plays a role in this latest scholarly wave of libertarian democracy-skepticism. But this isn’t really the stuff that feeds the anti-democratic instincts of the American right, and it’s not driven by the sinister motives MacLean imagines having driven Buchanan.
The true story of the libertarian-leaning right’s distaste for democracy is simple on the surface, but complicated in the depths. The simple story is that libertarians generally think that voters tend make a lot of bad decisions at the ballot box, constantly harming their own interests and violating basic rights. The beginning of the complicated story is that libertarianism, as a political stance distinct from 18th and 19th century “classical liberalism,” evolved to serve as a radical ideological antidote to socialism in both its fascist and communist guises. Fascism and communism were tyrannical and murderous. And they were alarmingly popular throughout the 20th century. This made simple, majority-rule democracy look like a loaded gun with which liberal societies might shoot themselves in the head.
Problematizing popular faith in the moral legitimacy and practical efficacy of unconstrained, majority-rule democracy thus came to seem like a matter of survival to the libertarian vanguard of the anti-socialist right. Antipathy to democracy, ranging from uneasiness to outright hostility, became part of the right’s DNA, and it still is today.
How classical liberalism became weaponized anti-socialism
The history of 20th century libertarian thought comes into focus when you view it as an attempt to preserve the humanitarian blessings of the liberal, capitalist market order against the illiberal depredations of encroaching socialism.
F.A. Hayek saw the Nazis and Soviets up close. In the early 1940s, when Hayek began writing The Road to Serfdom, the Nazis (who ruled his native Austria) were locked in a death-match for control of Europe with Stalin’s totalitarian communism and the scattered remnants of the old liberal order. Capitalist liberal democracy looked like it really might be doomed. Hayek believed that 18th and 19th century arguments for “the liberal creed” had grown stale, no longer inspiring allegiance. So he took it upon himself to restate and defend the argument for liberalism in contemporary terms against the specific threats to freedom in the age of the Soviets and Nazis.
Hayek saw democracy as a safeguard — a weak one — against the threat of authoritarianism. In The Road to Serfdom, he argued that central economic planning—an idea then much in vogue among intellectuals—requires highly concentrated political authority. This concentration of power endangers the economic institutions known to produce rising prosperity, and can easily devolve into tyranny. The advantage of democracy, as Hayek saw it, is that it disperses authority widely. The democratic representatives of the economic and political interests most likely to be directly harmed by central planning are unlikely to support it, which creates a firewall against the trend toward dangerously concentrated power.
But Hayek realized that democracy’s dispersion of authority can’t supply robust protection against the authoritarian risks of central planning if sturdy majorities persistently demand it. To serve as an effective bulwark against centralization, democratic institutions need to be governed by implicit and explicit liberal norms that constrain the scope of democratic decision-making in a way that effectively takes the central management of the economy and society off the table. Hayek believed that if “the liberal creed” is supplanted by “a collectivist creed,” which tends to demand central planning in the name of egalitarian economic justice, democracy will eventually collapse into the concentrated form of authority centralized planning logically requires. “When it becomes dominated by a collectivist creed,” Hayek wrote, “democracy will inevitably destroy itself.”
Hayek sought to mitigate the risk that democracy would destroy itself, and the golden goose of liberal capitalism, by advancing arguments for limits on the sovereignty of democratic legislatures. Like America’s classical liberal founders, Hayek championed a constitution that divides authority and limits the scope of legislative power. He also promoted the prestige of the common law—which had evolved over centuries to grease the wheels of beneficial commerce—as an independent source of authority that ought to be given serious weight by policymakers and judges.
According to Hayek, the domain of authoritative law is not exhausted by the statutes promulgated by elected officials. Legislatures don’t have the authority to rewrite all the rules from scratch. A congress or parliament is brought to life by the breath of constitutional rules, and those rules inherit their meaning and authority from a background of authoritative conventions, including ordinary social morality and the common law. A legislator who denies the authority of constitutional constraints or the background web of moral norms saws off the branch she’s sitting on. Political cultures that honor these legal rules and social norms produce voters and policymakers comfortable with limits on the scope of democracy.
For Hayek, there’s nothing otherworldly about the authority of morality, the common law, or a constitution. These things do have authority—do win our allegiance and obedience—but only insofar as we see them as legitimate and treat them as authoritative. That’s all there is to it: people following the rules because they think they should. Liberal social order is a rare flower that springs from the soil of liberal belief. But these beliefs are historically contingent, implicit in our practice, and rarely explicitly articulated or defended. This leaves liberal political and economic order, and the transformative creative freedom that it unleashes, inherently fragile and vulnerable to shifts in ideological fashion.
Classical liberalism and libertarianism: trigger locks versus disarmament
In effect, Hayek was saying that there’s no stopping a guy dead-set on suicide. But you’re less likely to shoot yourself in a fit of despair if first you have to scrounge around for the slip of paper with the combination to the gun safe, dig the trigger lock key out of the junk drawer, and climb a ladder to reach the bullets on the top pantry shelf. An ethos of individual rights, constitutional tradition, and respect for the common law works like a trigger lock on democracy. It makes it harder for a democratic majority caught in the grip of a transient ideological mood to blow the brains out of a successful liberal society.
But if democracy is a gun we might kill ourselves with, what’s so great about it? Why not just take away the gun? That’s a decent way to sum up the difference between the classical liberal and libertarian approach to democracy: gun safety versus disarmament.
Democracy, like a gun, is a tool that can be used for good or evil. James Madison, Friedrich Hayek, and James M. Buchanan were all trigger-lock democrats—as is anyone, left or right, who wants to take some issues off the table of democratic negotiation by constitutionalizing certain rights. A basic theme in the thought of market-friendly classical liberals is that robust economic rights are critical to a just, prosperous, and stable social order and deserve the same kind of democracy-constraining legal protections afforded to civil and political liberties. Hayek and Buchanan put a lot of thought and energy into tinkering with various constitutional trigger lock mechanisms that might, for example, check the unfortunate tendency of majoritarian democracies to wreck their national economies through inflation after voting themselves into unsustainable debt. Buchanan in particular probed democratic systems like a structural engineer looking for weaknesses, not because he wanted to bring them down, but because he thought democracy was indispensable, and wanted to make it work better.
At first blush, hardcore libertarians can look like classical trigger lock advocates especially concerned to keep democratic majorities from infringing property rights. But the radical libertarian conception of property rights is incredibly rigid and all-encompassing. Protecting property rights, so conceived, at the level of a constitution is lock to a trigger lock that won’t release, and a gun that can’t shoot.
Hey, but that’s great! You can’t kill yourself with a gun that won’t fire. And if you’re worried about the danger that democracy will obliterate the freedom and abundance of liberal capitalism, a constitutional political order that builds in libertarian property rights at the ground floor takes care of the problem. It’s a lot like not having a democracy at all.
Hard-core libertarian property rights leave no space for democracy
Ayn Rand’s characteristically vivid formulation faithfully captures the democraphobic view of many — maybe even most — libertarians. Democracy, she says, is “a social system in which one’s work, one’s property, one’s mind, and one’s life are at the mercy of any gang that may muster the vote of a majority at any moment for any purpose.” Robert Nozick, was a better philosopher, but not much friendlier to democracy, which he wittily called “ownership of the people, by the people, for the people.”
The popular version of libertarianism promoted by the likes of Nozick, Rand, and Murray Rothbard is based on a theory of ironclad “natural” property rights vaguely inspired by the 17th century English philosopher John Locke. This sort of hard-nosed conception of property rights implies that most of what governments actually do is morally dubious, if not outright illegitimate. Governments need resources to raise armies and pay old-age pensions. But if “taxation is theft,” it’s hard to have a government at all, and democratic bodies will be left without much to make decisions about. Libertarians of this stripe tend to see democracy as mechanism for some people to gang up on other people, press them into servitude, and steal their stuff. It’s institutionalized theft, two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner.
This is the basis for most libertarian hostility to democracy, but there’s very little critical insight about democracy in it. The gist is really that if government isn’t legitimate, then democratic government isn’t legitimate either. For those, like Rand and Nozick, who warily endorse minimal government — a sort of night-watchman state — majoritarian democracy poses an obvious and immediate threat. If we’re going to have a minimal government, and it’s going to be democratic, then what’s to keep “the people” from voting to make government more than minimal? If you give democracy an inch, won’t it take a mile?
This the worry behind the Holy Grail of minimal-state libertarianism: a self-enforcing constitution that somehow rules out the possibility of more-than-minimal government—even if absolutely everybody wants it. We can’t vote our way to authoritarian socialist ruin if we can’t vote our way to publicly funded sidewalks.
There’s no end run around politics
But this can’t really solve the problem. Hardcore property-rights libertarians are chasing a fantasy—a legal perpetual motion machine capable of reinforcing and protecting the institutions of liberal capitalism by keeping politics from happening. A theory of rights that shrinks the scope of democratic choice to nearly nothing might seem like a clever way to resolve the worry that we will vote our way into serfdom. But it doesn’t resolve anything, because there’s no escape from politics. We don’t get to decide not to have it. The contingency and fragility of the liberal order, which so worried Hayek, never goes away. It’s symptomatic of an ineradicable condition of political life. If most people don’t buy into the system, won’t accord it legitimacy, and badly want something else, then by hook or crook they’ll toss it over and replace it with something else.
Liberalism was forged in the crucible of the wars of religious toleration as a practical tool for accommodating and managing disagreement and conflict over the nature of God’s law. Liberalism is an answer to a political question: how can we possibly live together when we disagree about how to live? Representative democratic government eventually emerged as the critical liberal institutional mechanism for negotiating our differences in a way that sustains the legitimacy, stability, and peace of the political order. A theory of pre-political rights that answers all the important questions before the hurly-burly of politics can even get started denies the gravity of the problem of disagreement and ultimately undermines liberalism by forgetting the problem it solves.
Hayek saw that liberalism’s challenge lies in maintaining the perceived legitimacy of liberal limits on democracy in the face of inevitable challenges from alluring, popular, illiberal ideals. Radical libertarianism tried to meet the twin challenge of nationalism and socialism by offering a powerful, anti-collectivistic counter-ideal. However, as I argue in an earlier essay, thinking about politics in terms of ideal social systems leads us to look past the evidence at hand—in this case, the evidence that people and freedom flourish under trigger-lock liberal democracies—when our gaze is fixed on the utopian horizon. That’s why radical libertarianism, which effectively denies the legitimacy of every existing, more-than-minimal government, is unfit to shore up the popular reputation and authority of real liberal institutions, and tends instead to act as yet another corrosive ideological force, the mirror image of radical socialism, eating away at the practical foundations of our prosperity and freedom.
The great virtue of liberal democracy is its capacity to manage and smooth disputes that would otherwise spill over into civil strife. But liberal democracy chokes on utopia-or-bust ideologies, such as radical libertarianism and radical socialism, which dream of an end to politics and refuse to accept the legitimacy of a democratic political system that facilitates the messy compromises that radicals invariably see as unacceptably unjust. For radicals, if the system doesn’t move us ever closer to the utopian target, then the system is corrupt and doesn’t merit our allegiance. And this gives the radical permission to undermine it, heighten its contradictions, or plot to replace it, whether by slow coup or sudden revolution.
Libertarian anti-democracy after the Cold War
The threat of authoritarian socialism collapsed with the Soviet Union thirty years ago. The end of the Cold War led to a period of rapid democratization and increased respect for liberal rights around the world. Meanwhile, the soft-socialist liberal democracies undertook “neo-liberal” reforms, which have left strongly egalitarian countries, such as Denmark and Sweden, no less committed than the United States to open, lightly regulated markets.
Libertarian thought was thus released by History from its defensive anti-socialist mandate. But libertarianism just is classical liberalism ideologically fortified against socialism with a theory of rights that morally criminalizes redistribution. Giving up on it would have meant reverting to an updated version of classical liberalism that accepts the legitimacy of taxes and government transfers. That wasn’t in the cards because fortified libertarian rights theory had already taken on a life of its own as a positive ideal. People had built their identities around it, and they weren’t about to declare total victory in 1991, decamp from the bunker of neo-Lockean property rights theory, and stop bitching about the violence and theft embodied in city streets and Medicare.
Fervent advocates of “small government” never saw themselves as vessels for a counter-ideology engineered to hold the line against the socialist onslaught in defense of actually existing, liberal-democratic capitalism. That’s why the end of the Cold War seemed more like a victorious battle than the end of hostilities. The forces of liberal capitalist freedom had held their ground, but there was still a great deal of ground left to take. Libertopia was still a long way off. The welfare state remained ubiquitous, picking our pockets, too socialist to bear.
Crucially, the end of the Cold War didn’t end the anti-socialist alliance of libertarians and conservatives. “Fusionism” did not come unfused. On the contrary, American conservatism continued to grow more ideologically anti-redistributive—and more skeptical of the legitimacy of redistribution-enabling democratic institution—as libertarian-leaning donors, intellectuals, and politicians gained influence in the Republican Party. The Speaker of the House is an Ayn Rand fan. Ron Paul’s son is a senator.
The right’s sense of the problem with democracy did shift when the red cloud had finally cleared from the horizon. The trouble with democracy was no longer that it might lead to the nationalization of industry or ruinous expropriation and redistribution in the name of egalitarian “social justice.” The trouble with democracy was just that it wasn’t going to deliver the sort of idealized free society that the anti-socialist right had become accustomed to defending. Taxation was still theft. Democracy was still two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner. The problem, at bottom, is that most voters are always going to be too ignorant to grasp this. Therefore… so much the worse for most voters.
This is not a perspective that bestows dignity upon democracy and the common citizen’s democratic role. But it is manifest in hifalutin libertarian democracy skepticism, as well as in the take-no-prisoners politics of the Republican Party. Broad swathes of the American right continue to see democracy as a form of systemic corruption, and tend to doubt the legitimacy of majoritarian rulemaking—especially when majorities seem disposed to support redistributive policies in conflict with libertarian theories of inviolable property rights.
Vestigial Cold War politics and the rot on right
So Nancy MacLean’s not wrong. The ideological “small government” faction of the Republican Party is effectively committed to undermining majoritarian democratic processes and equal democratic representation to prevent precisely the sort of leveling redistribution that progressives, like MacLean, think justice requires. But this isn’t motivated primarily by a desire to fortify white supremacy or rig the game for the plutocrats, even if that’s a result.
What MacLean and many other progressives miss is the depth of the right’s ancestral fear of the Red Menace. Intellectuals with socialist sympathies have a tough time acknowledging that this was a reasonable fear, and not simply pro-plutocracy reaction. But it was reasonable. Still, paranoia about our progress down the road to serfdom ought to have been unlearned by now, and it hasn’t been, because it’s unrecognizable as a reaction to a threat that has passed. It’s been reified as a high principle, a timeless truth about the inviolability of property, and fused into American conservatism’s ideological spine.
That’s why standard redistributive policies of successful modern states, gladly embraced by Europe’s establishment conservative parties, seem beyond the moral pale for many on the American right. And that’s why ideological free-market conservatives tend to be so accommodating to, if not exactly comfortable with, populist white identity politics. In their minds, mundane left-right differences about tax rates and the generosity of the welfare state are recast as a Manichean clash between the light of free enterprise and the darkness of socialist expropriation. This, in turn, has made it seem morally okay, maybe even urgently necessary, to do whatever it takes—bunking down with racists, aggressively redistricting, inventing paper-thin pretexts for voting rules that disproportionately hurt Democrats, whatever—to prevent majorities from voting themselves a bigger slice of the pie.
From their perspective, if any of this exacerbates economic inequality and systemic racial bias, that’s tolerable, but that’s not the point. The point is … well, there’s the problem.
The point of weaponized anti-redistributive ideology was to save actually existing liberal-democratic capitalism from radical socialism. But that mission was accomplished back when the parents of today’s College Republicans were rocking out to Jamiroquai. The traces of libertarianism that survive in contemporary fusionism have left many conservatives with a Jacobin’s indifference to the norms and institutions of successful liberal-democratic polities, and an unpopular vision of prosperity as freedom from redistribution.
Now, crooked ethno-nationalist populism is eating the Republican Party, and American democracy, from the inside out. Yet most small-government conservatives are helpless to explain what’s wrong with it, barely seem to notice that it’s devouring them, and lurch robotically toward tax cuts for rich people, benefits cuts for poor people, fraudulent voter fraud commissions, and doom.
Will Wilkinson is Vice President for Policy at the Niskanen Center