Democracy: The God That Failed

Democracy: The God That Failed

A provocative title for a provocative book.

Hans-Hermann Hoppe attempts to accomplish what Walter Block calls defending the undefendable. He challenges democracy and defends monarchy in a period (the 21st century) when you probably see democracy as a theology.

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Audience: The book is very niche, well-known in libertarian circles, but it’s definitely too much for academia. This is a major reason for reading it.

The Book in 1'

As disciple of Murray N. Rothbard, Hoppe's position on natural (or individual) rights is inflexible. Property and life are kind of sacred. Starting from this assumption, the overall balance between the defense of natural rights has been eroded by democracy, he contends.

The liberal and classical liberal turns which viewed democracy as empowerment of the individual and as movement towards more freedom, stronger check and balances, and the rule of law just missed the mark.

That tradition actually legitimized more government, the stealing of private property for the necessity of the disadvantaged, and bigger wars. In the end, the rule of the many (democracy) is not any better than the rule of one. It's even worse. Nowadays, anyone could run for elections and then steal and redistribute your property, while before there were at least some standards to be met.

Considering that democracy – as understood by Hoppe – represents nothing more and nothing less than tyranny of the majority, the distinction from monarchy is simply that there is now greater competition for the privilege of being rulers. And this has dire consequences for the economy and for natural rights.

Top 5 Lessons

Here are the most interesting lessons from the book. Further than these, I would say, don’t expect too much.

1. Monarchies died with WWI

When the US entered the war, WWI became an ideological war, according to Hoppe. It became the war of democratic paradigm vs. monarchical paradigm.

Austria started the war.

Austria was a monarchy.

The US ended the war and won.

The US was a democracy.

Hoppe interprets the end of WWI as a paradigm shift. The saying goes that winners usually write history, and the new paradigm had been delineated by the US, a democracy. Monarchies all but vanished after WWI. Every state involved in the war adopted a form of "democratic republicanism" in its aftermath.

We transitioned from a private form of government ownership (monarchy) to a public form of ownership (democracy).

2. Monarchy maximizes Productivity; Democracy maximizes Incomes

When something is privately owned, it requires you to be farsighted and to calculate resources and investments. Rulers in a monarchy would rationally calculate their resources and how much they can extract from their subjects. Your realm will be inherited by your children; therefore, the goal is not to maximize present value but to focus on productivity so that it can increase across years and give higher returns in the long term.

When something is publicly owned, it requires those who happen to administer it to be accountable and responsible for just their presidential term, which is usually 4 years. They don't need to be as farsighted as monarchs are. They don't need to plan and take responsibility looking at decades, centuries, or millennia. Politicians in a democracy can be even more short-sighted, as everybody knows that subjects are immediately responsive to government public investments. They just need to maximize the country's income and their income for those four years.

3. Democracy hides Class Consciousness

In a democracy, anyone can become a member of the ruling class, even the President. The distinction between rulers and the ruled is blurred, and the class consciousness of the ruled becomes unclear. The illusion arises that such a distinction no longer exists: everyone now thinks they rule themselves.

Far from being progress, the transition from monarchy to democracy weakens the possibility of public resistance, as the ruled now believe they are ruling as well. Being taxed at 60% and working for the state for more than half of the year seems to represent the will of citizens, in a democracy. While expropriation and taxation before may have appeared oppressively and clearly evil to the public, they seem much less so.

You may think privileges have vanished in democracy, but this is merely an illusion. Personal privileges of kings and nobles have merely assumed a different guise. They are now functional privileges that are accessible to all and can be exercised by anyone who happens to be in government.

4. From 1 threat to 1,000,000 threats

With democracy, everyone becomes a threat. Since entry into government is essentially free, everyone is allowed to openly express their desire for others' property. This is now considered a legitimate sentiment and behavior. Everyone may openly covet everyone else's property, as long as they appeal to democracy, and everyone may act on their desire for another person's property, provided they gain entrance into the government. Voting becomes a major source of legitimacy.

5. Democracy and Private Property

Democracy is incompatible with private property. No form of taxation can be uniform, and there will always be taxpayers and tax receivers-consumers.

Governmental property rights violations are continuous and become institutionalized. The acceptance of government is inconsistent with the fundamental liberal principles of self-ownership, original appropriation, property, and contract, Hoppe argues. A constitutionally limited government is a contradiction in terms; it will inevitably expand. Every minimal government has the inherent tendency to become a MAXIMAL GOVERNMENT.


My Take Today

Rousseau is the mark of our times, not Hobbes.

There are tons of pushbacks you can move against Hoppe and his final take that monarchy is better than democracy – such as the fact that democracy is something broader than public ownership of government and majority rule. That democracy includes same moral standing, same social respect. Eventually, you may come to appreciate granting everyone the opportunity to run for government, as it signifies an acknowledgment of moral equality.

And blah blah blah.

ANYWAYS, I'll focus here on Hoppe’s notion that democracy fades out "class consciousness," the distinction between ruled and rulers.

Thomas Mann in his Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man wrote:

“For more than a century and a half, everything that has been understood in a more intellectual sense by politic goes back to Jean Jacques Rousseau; and he is the father of democracy because he is the father of the political spirit itself, of political humanity.”

The notion of “general will” makes accountability fade away. As everyone thinks they are ruling themselves through the “general will,” those who are actually ruling cannot be seen anymore. The king (i.e., the majority party) is masked in anonymity and it is seen just as a major organ within a system that is per se legitimate as it represents everybody's will. This is essentially the way we look at politics and democracy today. As everything that is decided by means of voting is legitimate because we want it too, we authorized it, in some ways.

With this insight about class consciousness, it is clear why Rousseau, instead of Hobbes, is the mark of our times. In the Leviathan, Hobbes imagines the sovereign (an assembly or one sovereign) as clearly distinct from those who signed the social contract (the subjects, the citizens). Class consciousness is still strong and alive in Hobbes.

As Michael Oakeshott points out in Introduction to Leviathan, “There is in this association no concord of wills, no common will, no common good; its unity lies solely in the singleness of the Representative, in the substitution of his one will for the many conflicting wills.”