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Monday, September 1, 2008

Sad Democracy

During this presidential election year, it’s commonplace to sing paeans to the wonders of democracy. I, though, have never been able to join in this chorus. The principal reason is that I put no intrinsic value on democracy; what I value intrinsically is individual liberty. Democracy might have instrumental value if it is part of an array of social institutions that promote liberty (although, as the works of my colleagues James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock make clear, that case is far from obvious), but democracy as an end in itself has always left me cold.

This confession often brings harsh reactions. A typical response is, “What?! Don’t you think that people are capable of choosing wisely for themselves?” (The unstated subtext is that I am either an elitist or that I have sympathies for Robert Mugabe-like tyrants.) And my answer is always the same: “Of course I think that people are capable of choosing wisely for themselves—which is why I want to minimize the subjection of individuals to any outside force, including the majority.”

I trust my neighbor to know what size toilet tank is best for him and his family. I trust my neighbor to know whether or not he should smoke cigarettes (or pot); to wisely choose how much to save for his retirement; to decide if the car made in Korea is a better deal for him than is the car made in Detroit; to educate his children. For these and countless other decisions my neighbor does not need the forced “assistance” of me and others. My criticizing the use of democracy for the vast majority of issues to which it is today applied is a defense of personal ability and responsibility.

Another reason democracy leaves me uninspired is that it is aesthetically grotesque. The sights and sounds of candidates pandering to voters have all the appeal, to me at least, of watching washed-up celebrities on late-night television making obviously phony pitches for reverse mortgages and magical mattresses.

But there’s this difference: relatively few people—even those who fall for the pitches—regard the celebrities as anything more than paid mouthpieces. In politics, though, the Barack Obamas, Hillary Clintons, George Bushes, John McCains, and Ronald Reagans are too often treated as selfless divines, secular faith healers whose will and touch will cure incurable problems.

How else to explain the ever-present reaching out of hands by crowds of people who long for just a touch of the president? How else to explain the thunderous applause that typically erupts from audiences whenever a famous politician pronounces the most banal platitude? How else to understand the widespread desire for the president to appear personally at disaster scenes and to hug (for the cameras!) a handful of victims’ relatives?

Political Delusion

I recently got an unexpected glimpse into the abyss of political delirium after an article of mine was published in the May 24 edition of the Wall Street Journal. In that article, I pointed out what struck me as an obvious contradiction in Hillary Clinton’s campaign rhetoric—namely, I argued that Senator Clinton’s complaint that her bid for the Democratic nomination was thwarted by sexism is at odds with her insistence that she would be a stronger candidate than Barack Obama in the general election.

I expressed no preference for Senator Obama or for Senator Clinton; nor did I offer a plug for or against the GOP candidate, John McCain. My point was a logical one. It was political only insofar as exposing any candidate’s inconsistencies helps to reveal the true nature of politics.

But my oh my! Within 48 hours my e-mail inbox was filled with over 300 responses from strangers. All but one was negative. (I didn’t think that this outcome was statistically feasible, but, well, I was wrong.) What follows are just four of the responses—and only ones that are fit for inclusion in a family-friendly publication:

Your educational background is in economics. So I have to tell you, your opinions in this area should have never seen the light of day. You want to comment on this topic, have a sex change operation, and live in this world for 10 years. Then, and maybe then, I will listen to your opinion. In the mean time, please shut up.

One of the biggest tactics of sexists is to dismiss a woman’s point of view and that is just what you are trying to do. . . . You should look more deeply into yourself and ask yourself “what is so threatening to me about a woman in power that I have to try to diminish her and her concerns?” Be a real man and be honest with your fears of powerful women and maybe this world can move a little step closer to equity for all.

Sir, and I say “Sir” with great reservation as I believe the homeless person on the street deserves more respect than you. I can only wonder what the men in other countries think of the male attitude in this one. It’s attitudes like yours that contributes to battered women. I keep thinking it will change, but until we manage to elect a President like Hillary, it likely will not happen.

Rise Hillary Rise!!!!!!!!

Biases of Politics

I cannot read such things without experiencing profound sadness—for it is sad that many people avoid challenging an argument on its own merits and, instead, treat any perceived lack of enthusiasm for their favorite candidate as a sign of either intellectual failure or moral turpitude. It is sad that so many people believe that secular salvation is possible through the election of a particular man or woman to political office. It is sad that so many people still believe that collective interests exist for all persons who happen to share the same kinds of genitalia or who happen to share the same skin color—and that men have interests fundamentally opposed to those of women and that “whites” have interests fundamentally opposed to those of “blacks.”

It is sad—extraordinarily and searingly sad—that so very many people seek salvation through politics and refuse to understand that many individuals, myself included, want neither to be saved nor persecuted by the state. We just want to be left alone by busybodies so that we can be part of building a great spontaneous order of free and prosperous people.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.