“Most citizens are not doing us any favor by voting. Asking everyone to vote is like asking everyone to litter.”
—Jason Brennan, Against Democracy
No, the title is not a typo: I mean the opposite of the quip many people use after elections: “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.”
The romantic view of democratic government is the idea that we all come together, display our values and give our say, and through the miracles of aggregation we receive a responsible government that somehow reflects those values. And for the next four years, we can happily spend our time on what really matters in life, while our appointed representatives carefully and competently steward our shared public goods in the best interest of our nation.
If you didn’t sneer while reading the previous paragraph, you have either never participated in a democracy or you are in for a brutal shock once you lift your nose from that fairytale-like view. One most astute critic of democracy, Jason Brennan, opens his book Against Democracy by summarizing how his view differs from most others:
Many of my colleagues entertain a somewhat romantic view of politics: politics brings us together, educates and civilizes us, and makes us civic friends. I see politics as doing the opposite: it pulls us apart, stultifies and corrupts us, and makes us civic enemies.
The big promise of democracy and universal suffrage is that you—yes, you!—can make things better if you just get your buttocks off the couch, inform yourself, and go vote. In every election cycle we are told that it’s sooo important to “get out the vote”—which is weird, because in many states in America’s electoral system it’s completely pointless to vote and because why in the world would a candidate say “Go vote!” unless they meant “Go vote … for me”?
The overlooked flipside of democracy’s promise is that you—yes, you—might make things worse. For what do you know about tax rates or environmental legislation or how to structure healthcare or infrastructure needs or what ought to be taught in public schools? How could you possibly have any reasonable grasp of military procurement or how much the federal government ought to spend on x? (Well, the last one does have a reasonable answer: zero.)
I always find it peculiar that those in love with democracy are always so excited and serious in the months leading up to an important election—and always so disappointed afterward. Their candidate didn’t win, and now they must reconcile that consequence with their own (clearly mistaken) worldview. The people didn’t want what we were selling—how odd.
Three common reactions are
The opposition stole the election (“It was Russia’s fault!”). While the Russia story in America or Britain in 2016 never made much sense, it was a convenient scapegoat for those who couldn’t rectify their devotion for democracy with the terrifying outcomes it had just delivered. For well-educated, coastal elites it was much easier in 2020–21 to ridicule the evil Trumpers for pursuing this avenue in the January 6 attacks, even though the shoe had been on the other foot in 2016 ( … and 2000). Democracy is about hurling crap at your opponent, while conveniently forgetting that you yourself are full of it.
We need more education and to “get the message out.” Clearly, our campaign slogans weren’t good enough or our candidate(s) didn’t resonate with the electorate or there is some ignorance or misunderstanding among the voting public. Because they, like all good and honest people, share our conviction of what’s important. It couldn’t possibly be that many others disagree with our assessment of the world, the values we espouse, or the “obvious” policies we say we wish to pursue?
I hate my fellow countrymen! How could they be so stupid? Don’t they understand that Trump/Hillary/Corbyn/Johnson/Macron/Le Pen is so clearly incompetent and dangerous and dumb and that a Good Society™ requires my candidate to progress?
What’s so interesting about all these reactions is that they betray the foundational premise of democracy—the aggregation of the public’s will into one whole. The basic idea of democracy is that we put our values in a (black) box and go with the majority’s candidate. That implies, of course, that there will be dissenters and minorities, and the system requires them to subject themselves to the rule of that majority. If you really supported democracy, you’d be equally thrilled regardless of which side wins.
I have yet to see such a logically consistent person—which tells me that democracy-loving campaigners’ devotion to democracy is faux, and their desire to rule over others is everything.
This all comes to mind as Viktor Orbán, the longest-serving European head of state and poster child for populism and illiberal democracy, once again conquered his political opponents in a landslide election in Hungary. For every erudite, well-educated, right-thinking person inside and outside of that central European country, it’s a blow to their view of the world—a cognitive dissonance waiting to unravel.
Western news media calls the victory “crushing” and “a landslide”—which, one would think, should be celebrated as good news by all the world’s democrats: a clear mandate from the people, with voting turnout at record highs, the opposite of a “vote of no confidence.”
Of course, nobody sees it that way, pointing to all the ways in which Orbán and his corrupt cronies have undermined democratic institutions, stacked the courts, picked fights with supernational corporations, and gerrymandered their constituents for maximum influence. The losers complained that the winners spread “hate and lies.” Does any of that ring a bell for other democracies closer to home?
The prime objection thus becomes that Hungary isn’t a “real democracy,” an objection that is particularly ironic in a former Communist country that has long regarded airy dreams of “The Soviet Union wasn’t real communism!” as an insult to their collective history.
On the contrary, this is the most real instantiation of democracy one can imagine—popular characters spewing vitriol at their opponents, rallying masses against (imaginary?) enemies foreign and domestic, and saying things that aren’t true. Again, tell me which democracies aren’t doing things like that. The difference between Hungary’s disastrous democracy and those of its troubled Western counterparts is merely one of degrees—and the fact that we have a massive blindside to the English, American, or Scandinavian version of similar shortcomings.
All democracies trend the Hungarian way, sooner or later, as democracy is a system that selects for stupidity and cruelty: the worst get on top, the logic of interventionism grows the state’s intrusion larger and larger, and freedoms get devoured. On that I recently remarked that
the curious thing about democracy is that somehow the worst get on top. Despite all the high-flying words, the mass campaigns, the public debates, the mass pilgrimage to the voting booths, and the many promises about greener, fairer, better, more just worlds, we somehow end up with bloated bureaucracies, unjust policies, squandering of resources—and not so seldom in mass graves. The state, Robert Higgs taught us, is simply too dangerous to tolerate.
Yes, democracy is the delusion that everyone can live at the expense of everyone else, but the larger problem for those genuinely supporting democracy is to hold two contradictory principles at once: your own view of what’s good policy and what is the best candidate, and your superseding belief that democratic voting makes for the best governance. When your preferred candidates lose to truly despicable types, it takes a very strong conviction (and spine) to say, “My country wants it, so that’s all OK!”
Terrible things happen when democracy dies, I agree; but terrible things happen, too, while democracy lives.
If you truly think democracy is the best of all possible systems, participating in it (i.e., voting) should settle the difference: the people have spoken, the miracle of aggregation has worked its magic. How, then, can you complain about the outcome?