Does Democracy Promote Prosperity or Ruin?

“Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” (John Adams)

Each age holds a set of cherished beliefs that are elevated to a sacred status wherein questioning them is deemed heretical. For many centuries it was the dogmas of Christianity that held this position in the West, but over the past several centuries with Christianity in a decline, a new dogma has risen to take its place. This being the belief that democracy is the ultimate form of government.

In Western nations children are taught from an early age that democratic rule is far superior to all forms of government that preceded it and that much of the good in Western societies is a result of democracy. But is democracy really as desirable as we are led to believe?

Hans-Hermann Hoppe, a philosopher and economist, examines the desirability of democracy in his book From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy: A Tale of Moral and Economic Folly and Decay, and in so doing reaches what most will view as a startling conclusion: Democracy, he suggests, is not only severely flawed, but it is in fact inferior to the monarchical rule that preceded it. It must be stressed that Hoppe does not view monarchical rule as the best form of government, nor does he desire a return to rule by kings and queens, rather his suggestion is merely that it is superior to democratic rule.

Hoppe is an anarcho-capitalist and therefore believes that the best form of governance is one based on private property rights where police and judicial activities are provided by the free market. However, in this article, we will not concentrate on this aspect of his thought, but rather concentrate on his arguments concerning the flaws of democracy. (Those interested in how Hoppe believes free markets can satisfactorily provide security services can refer to his book The Private Production of Defense available for free here.)

Some may think Hoppe’s view on democracy can be dismissed out of hand due to the fact that over the past several centuries, as the West has become increasingly democratic, it has also seen a dramatic increase in wealth. Hoppe acknowledges and addresses this issue by reminding people that correlation does not equal causation and that this unprecedented rise in wealth should not be attributed to democracy but to other factors such as the Industrial Revolution and the spread of free markets:

“Yes, the present world is richer than people were in the Middle Ages and the following monarchical age. But that does not show that it is richer because of this development [i.e., the transition from monarchy to democracy]. As a matter of fact. . .the increase in social wealth and general standards of living that mankind has experienced during this time occurred in spite of this development, and the increase of wealth and living standards would have been far greater if the development in question had not taken place.” (From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy, Hans-Hermann Hopp)

Hoppe’s work offers a systematic argument concerning the superiority of monarchy over democracy and to provide a taste of his critique of democracy we will look at three examples of why democracy is such a flawed system.

The first of these flaws is an aspect of democratic rule which most people view as a positive thing – namely that in a democracy there is free entry into the political system. This is in contrast to monarchical rule where entry is limited to the family and those with personal ties to the monarch. Hoppe, explains why this “free-entry” is not in fact a good thing:

“. . .only competition in the production of goods is a good thing. Competition in the production of bads, such as taxation and legislation, is not good. In fact, it is worse than bad. It is sheer evil. Kings, coming into their position by virtue of birth, might be harmless dilettantes or decent men (and if they are “madmen” they will be quickly restrained or, if need be, killed by close relatives concerned with the possessions of the royal family, the dynasty). In sharp contrast, the selection of state rulers by means of popular elections makes it essentially impossible for harmless or decent persons to ever rise to the top. Presidents and prime ministers come into their position not owing to their status as natural aristocrats, as feudal kings once did . . .but as a result of their capacity as morally uninhibited demagogues. Hence, democracy virtually assures that only dangerous men will rise to the top of state government.

In addition: Under democracy the distinction between the rulers and the ruled becomes blurred. The illusion even arises that the distinction no longer exists: that with the democratic government no one is ruled by anyone, but everyone instead rules himself. Accordingly, public resistance against government power is systematically weakened.” (From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy, Hans-Hermann Hoppe)

This blurring of the distinction between rulers and ruled in a democracy is the next major flaw we will examine. As Hoppe states in the passage just quoted, the blurring of the distinction between rulers and ruled weakens public resistance to government. What makes this even worse is that under democratic rule while the people may believe they are ultimately in charge, the fact is that they are not, and their ability to influence government is severely limited. Rather in a democracy there emerges a class of people, which Hoppe calls the plutocrats, who are the true wielders of power. The plutocrats are able to act in a largely unrestrained manner because the masses are deluded into believing that their vote is ultimately what determines the course of events. The ability to vote pacifies the masses and prevents them from directing their anger at the real wielders of power, i.e., the plutocrats. In contrast with a monarchy it is clear who is in charge, so when a king or queen oversteps their bounds the people know exactly who to hold responsible. Hoppe explains how these plutocrats operate:

“Democracy produces and brings about a new power elite or ruling class. Presidents, prime ministers, and the leaders of parliament and political parties are part of this power elite . . . But it would be naïve to assume that they are the most powerful and influential people of all. . .The true power elite, which determines and controls who will make it as president, prime minister, party leader, etc., are the plutocrats. The plutocrats . . . are not simply the super-rich – the big bankers and the captains of big business and industry. Rather, the plutocrats are only a subclass of the superrich. They are those superrich big bankers and businessmen, who have realized the enormous potential of the State as an institution that can tax and legislate for their own even greater future enrichment and who, based on this insight, have decided to throw themselves into politics. They realize that the State can make you far richer than you already are: whether in subsidizing you, in awarding you with state contracts, or in passing laws that protect you from unwelcome competition are competitors, and they decide to use their riches to capture the State and use politics as a means to the end of their own further enrichment.” (From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy, Hans-Hermann Hoppe)

The third flaw of democracy we will look at relates to the delirious effect that democratic rule has on warfare. As was stated, defenders of democracy are quick to attribute all the goods things that have happened in the West over the past several centuries to the rise of democratic rule, but they rarely address the dramatic change in warfare that has also occurred over this time. Hoppe suggests that democracy has in fact contributed to the rise in total war which is defined as “military conflict in which the contenders are willing to make any sacrifice in lives and other resources to obtain a complete victory” (Encyclopaedia Britannica), as Hoppe explains:

“Democracy radically transforms the limited wars of kings into total wars. In blurring the distinction between the rulers and the ruled, democracy strengthens the identification of the public with the State. Once the State is owned by all, as democrats deceivingly propagate, then it is only fair that everyone should fight for their State and all economic resources of the country be mobilized for the State in its wars. And since public officials in charge of a democratic state cannot and do not claim to personally “own” foreign territory (as a king can do), the motive for war instead becomes an ideological one – national glory, democracy, liberty, civilization, humanity. The objectives are intangible and elusive: the victory of ideas, and the unconditional surrender and ideological conversion of the losers (which, because one can never be sure about the sincerity of the conversion, may require the mass murder of civilians). As well, the distinction between combatants and non-combatants becomes fuzzy and ultimately disappears under democracy, and mass war involvement – the draft and popular war rallies – as well as “collateral damage” become part of war strategy.” (From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy, Hans Hermann-Hoppe)

These are but a few samples of the arguments that Hoppe puts forth in making his case for the inferiority of democracy as compared with monarchy. While many may dismiss Hoppe’s argument solely due to their “heretical” nature, if one gives his work serious consideration they may be surprised by what they learn.