Mises, Lane, and the Question of Democracy

Libertarians, naturally, do not agree on all issues. How far we want to push the frontiers of liberty is a question that will need continual answers in this ever-changing world. One such issue is how libertarians and classical liberals feel about democracy.

In the late 1940s, two of the most influential libertarians of the 20th century, economist Ludwig Von Mises and writer Rose Wilder Lane, had a debate, through correspondences, on the subject of democracy. While FEE’s archives do not house these letters (they can be found at the Grove City College archives) it does contain other letters pertaining to this interesting debate. One example, which can be found here, is a letter dated September 15, 1950 from Rose Wilder Lane to Leonard E. Read expressing her apologies, for being too rough on Professor Mises, and her frustration with Mises’ refusal to grasp, what she called, the American political principle; which in her view was anti-democratic.

Lane detested democracy. She believed that the founders of this country formed the American government in opposition to democracy. In her famous libertarian work, the Discovery of Freedom, she even went as far to say, “ The superstition that all men have a right to vote is a triumph of Old World reasoning… extensions of the franchise are dangerous to individual liberty and human rights.” She believed democracy is simply the rule of the people and that this majority rule would “set up an imaginary Authority armed with force,” which would, “destroy all opportunity to exercise their natural freedom.” As she said in a 1947 letter to Mises,

“as an American I am of course fundamentally opposed to democracy and to anyone advocating or defending democracy, which in theory and practice is the basis of socialism.

It is precisely democracy which is destroying the American political structure, American law, and the American Economy, as Madison said it would, and as Macauley prophesied that it would do in fact in the 20th century.”

Mises, on the other side, has made the case for the importance of liberal democracy, which can be found in his book Liberalism. He also seemed to disagree with Lane to some degree about America not being democratically founded, as she explains in the letter to Read, “He replied that Toqueville, whom he suggested I read, wrote about democracy in America, so this country is a democracy, but – his tone implied—there, there, never mind, don’t bother about such things; be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever.” But, Mises also thought Lane misunderstood what he was arguing. He said he never advocated any concrete regime of parliamentary democracy and only wanted to stress the positive fact that all societies ultimately hinge on the ideology of the masses.

Still the Mises/Lane debate was never brought to a conclusion and the question of democracy is still argued today. Today economist even argue over the efficiency of democratic systems (see Bryan Caplan’s book the Myth of the Rational Voter and his debate with Donald Wittman). All and all a conclusion has not been reached leaving us with the question: what role do you think democracy should have in a free society?

Download the September 15, 1950 Letter from Rose Wilder Lane to Leonard Read here.

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