From independence, freedom and truth

Politics

Pathological anatomy of a democracy (II)

Fernando del Pino Calvo Sotelo

December 19, 2023

In the first part of this article, I reflected on the political situation in Spain and wondered whether, beyond the psychopathy of its Prime Minister, the shortcomings of a mediocre Constitution and our historical inferiority complexes, the crisis we are experiencing also reflects a crisis of democracy itself. Has democracy —etymologically speaking, the government of the people— become a fiction? Are elections a fraud if the candidate lies through his teeth about his true intentions? Do we really have more personal freedom today than half a century ago or, on the contrary, are we subject to the tyranny of political correctness, to censorship, to the prohibition of everything by default or to the need to ask permission from the State to carry out the most trivial activities? How to prevent the people from electing a tyrant and, if so, how to limit the tyrant’s power of destruction? In short, are the Western democracies of the 21st century achieving their ideal of freedom, tolerance, justice, and peace or, in the words of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, have we idolized a god that has failed us?

Goddess democracy

If these questions seem blasphemous to you, it is because democracy has indeed ceased to be a political system to become a goddess. Here I intend to present it for what it is, a mere system created by human hands, fallible, contradictory, and limited, clearly better as a political system than other alternatives if it meets a series of requisites, and worse, if it does not. Moreover, turned into an object of worship by a priestly caste whose power depends precisely on our belief in its divine character, democracy can easily lead us to tyranny under the alibi of the popular vote, used as a justification for a despotic exercise of power. Can we aspire to something better than two weeks of lies -the electoral campaign-, an instant of democracy -the fleeting instant of voting, reduced to a mere ritual-, and four years of dictatorship in which the “elected” government does practically as it pleases without feeling constrained or conditioned by any promise or rule whatsoever? Do we have to give up to the idea that John Adams, the second president of the United States, saw with such clairvoyance: “When elections end, slavery begins”?

In many countries, democracy has been mistakenly considered synonymous with freedom. However, the founding fathers of the US clearly understood that democracy and freedom were far from synonymous and insisted that, precisely in order to protect liberty, they were creating a republic, in which the political power emanating from the majority had limits that it could not overstep, and not a democracy. Given that the system emanating from the 1787 American Constitution originally became one of the best experiences of freedom in history, it seems sensible to pay attention to them.

Vox populi, vox Dei

In this sense, it is essential to define the concepts well. Democracy implies unrestricted majority rule. It applies, therefore, the famous dictum vox populi, vox Dei, first mentioned in 800 A.D. in a pejorative way: “Those who are accustomed to say that the voice of the people is the voice of God should not be listened to, for the debauchery of the vulgar is always close to madness,” wrote Alcuin to Charlemagne. The Roman historian Titus Livy had expressed himself similarly eight centuries earlier: “There is nothing vainer and more inconstant than the crowd.”

Vox populi, vox Dei has three corollaries that make it a dangerous belief. The first is that it assumes that the people have a single voice (“the people have spoken”), when in fact it is a heterogeneous and amorphous sum of a myriad of individual, different and vague voices (and silences). The second is that, if it really is the voice of God, “the people” can decide what is right and what is wrong beyond any moral norm, any natural law, the Ten Commandments, or the Declaration of Human Rights (the secular Decalogue). The third and final corollary is that if the voice of the people is indeed the voice of God, then we must accept that the people share the attributes of God, namely omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence: the people can act with absolute power from a purported absolute knowledge of all things and be present, as power, everywhere.

The tyranny of the majority

In the words of the founding fathers of the United States, democracy is equivalent to two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner tonight; that is, a system in which the majority can vote on the rights of the minority: two Nazis over a Jew; two whites over a black; or two communists…well, the communists won’t even feel the need to vote, since they have always practiced violence without further ado. Remember that, far from being exaggerations, all these examples are historical.

It was this potential tyranny of the majority that caused the fathers of the American Constitution to be so critical of democracy: “Democracy is the vilest form of government; they have always been spectacles of turbulence and strife; they have always been found incompatible with personal safety or property rights and have generally been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths,” wrote James Madison. For this reason, the U.S. Declaration of Independence itself recognized —not granted— the inalienable rights and liberties of citizens, pre-existent to any form of government and immune to any majority rule.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that democracy by universal suffrage, in which the right to vote only depends on reaching a minimum age (quite immature), is a very recent political experiment. Indeed, in most countries it is no more than 50 or 75 years old: examples are Italy (1945), Canada (1960), Australia (1962), USA (1965), Switzerland (1971), Portugal (1976), Liechtenstein (1984) or Brazil, a country where illiterates were banned from voting until 1988. In fact, only two generations ago, the mere idea that the vote of an immature 18-year-old would have the same weight as that of an experienced 65-year-old, or that the vote of the foolish and uninformed would have the same weight as that of the wise and well-informed, or that the vote of the person who lives voluntarily at the expense of others would be worth the same as that of the person who provides for him through his work, would have been considered weird.

Demystifying the vote

Given the propensity of our glutton rulers to sing the praises of the popular vote in order to use it as a justification for their subsequent feast of power, it is worth demystifying it on the basis of empirical evidence. The ideal vote should be a perfectly informed, rational, meditated action, unbiased by any manipulation and, therefore, free, and imply a certain contract between the promises of a candidate and his voter. However, this is fiction. The real vote has three main characteristics: it is frivolous, inertial and ignorant.

Voting is frivolous in the sense that superficial and inconsequential features such as a candidate’s smile, his tone of voice, a closing line in a debate, his likability or even his physical appearance play no small role in the ultimate decision to vote. On the other hand, and perhaps contradictorily, it is also inertial, since on many occasions the individual votes for the same party he has voted for all his life, regardless of his record of successes and failures, or of honesty and corruption, or the candidate it presents. Logically, in systems with closed electoral lists (as is the case in Spain) this tendency will be more pronounced.

However, the main characteristic of the vote is that it is ignorant, as any survey on the level of knowledge of the average citizen on issues of public interest -economic policy, foreign policy, etc.- shows. As Churchill said, “the best argument against democracy is a fifteen-minute conversation with the average voter”. This ignorance need not reflect laziness or indolence, but a simple logical argument, Downs’ so-called “rational ignorance effect”. As the economists of the Public Choice Theory have studied, it is not worthwhile for the voter to spend the time necessary to form his opinion well, knowing that his individual vote —one millionth of the total— will not alter the result. If the future of history depended on his vote, what a difference that would make. And yet, as Thomas Jefferson said, the preservation of freedom depends on the masses being “educated and informed”, just the opposite of what is being achieved by the education in Spain, a country today much more ignorant than it was forty years ago.

The power of propaganda

Moreover, the vote is far from being free, since it is subject to the brutal manipulation of propaganda, which has evolved in parallel to psychology much faster than the level of knowledge of the population on how to combat it to the extent that the poison is today much more potent than the antidote. Thus, the average voter becomes an uninterested and uninformed poor soul at the mercy of actors who do have an enormous interest in getting elected and who use all kinds of tricks and gimmicks to achieve it.

In this context, the vote is decided by the competition between unscrupulous manipulators of opposing sides, and its outcome depends on the arsenal that one or the other has at their disposal, particularly on the number of mass manipulation media they control. It will also depend on the dominant hegemonic thinking, which can facilitate their task or make it extremely difficult. Hence, ceteris paribus, the parties that have invested more in influencing the dominant hegemonic thinking will win elections more easily and frequently than those that have not. In Spain, since 1982, the Socialist Party (PSOE) has governed for exactly twice as long as the Popular Party (PP).

On the other hand, voting is not only influenced by reason, but also by emotions, a very powerful engine that has the capacity to temporarily bypass the capacity for judgment. Therefore, power junkies exploit emotional arguments much more than rational ones, since they only need the voter to support them at the moment of casting their ballot. Their subsequent feelings once the spell of manipulation is shaken off, including their possible regret, are indifferent to them, for they know that the voter’s memory is short and that their anger will subside and extinguish like a flickering flame exposed to the winds of time.

The emotions that the power junkies most often aim to stir are not the positive ones, but the negative ones, particularly fear. Indeed, fear has an amazing ability to override the individual’s capacity for reasoning and even to silence the voice of his conscience, making it an extraordinary tool for the voter to forget the corruption, ineptitude, lies and psychopathy of one candidate, and to focus exclusively on fearing the other. As we saw recently during the covid totalitarian experiment, fear can even cause the population to submissively accept a dictatorship, get a jab of an experimental gene therapy and forget their most elementary rights.

Unfulfilled promises

In principle, the voter votes for a candidate in exchange for his electoral promises, but this is not a binding contract. In countries where social ethical standards are high, lying is considered unacceptable and unforgivable and is politically punished. On the contrary, in countries where morals have decayed, truth will not be respected nor demanded, and all the actors will take for granted that the candidate is lying and that his promises are a worthless piece of paper, which turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hence, a pathological liar like Mr. Sánchez, with clearly psychopathic traits, has been able to be reelected, something incomprehensible in morally healthier societies.

The importance of the truth is such that the US founding fathers alluded to civil disobedience or even insurrection if the candidate lied. Alexander Hamilton put it bluntly: “If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, then there is no recourse but the exercise of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government”.

Therefore, the sacralization of the vote cynically extolled by the power junkies to justify their abuses meets the formidable obstacle of reality, for how are we to revere the vote if the citizen who makes the decision to vote does so manipulated, inertially, with frivolity and ignorance, and under the coercion of fear?

The self-interest of the voter and the candidate

What guides the voter? Public Choice Theory realistically defends that what guides the voter is self-interest and not the common good, concepts that are not necessarily at odds in the spontaneous order of a free market, but that may be so when the distorting interference of the State takes hold. We must understand this self-interest of the voter as net of personal costs to him. As one of these costs is to be socially stigmatized if one votes for a certain candidate, the demonization of the opponent is a frequent political weapon, as efficient as it is dangerous, for it promotes confrontation and even hatred of those who think differently —based on an exaggerated fear, artificially created—. Therefore, political polarization, far from being an element alien to democracy, is a consubstantial element of it, a natural consequence of its electoral processes, particularly if any of the contenders believes to be in a desperate situation. In the case of Spain, given the historical hegemonic thinking of this country, being perceived as belonging to the extreme right (you know, the extreme left appears not to exist) or blamed that because of the “useless” vote “the other” wins, is an effective instrument to dissuade from abstention or from voting for third parties. Nobody wants to be ostracized.

If the voter votes seeking his own interest, the candidates will never demand anything from him, neither efforts, nor virtuous behaviors nor sacrifice, but will tend to offer him an open bar. When, exceptionally, they have no choice but to propose some sacrifice, they will use the force of envy to the detriment of another minority segment of an artificially compartmentalized population (rich and poor, etc.). This is the genesis of progressive tax rates, which have nothing to do with justice, since the fair tax by definition is the proportional tax (with a vital minimum exempted): if you earn more, you pay more, in absolute terms. Progressive taxation, on the contrary, is not only unfair, but opens the door to arbitrariness. How much higher does the others’ tax have to be? The clever invention of progressive rates has allowed a constant increase in the tax burden on the population, since tax increases have always been justified by even higher increases “to the rich”, that permanent minority.

Another trick of the self-interest game on which elections are based is to separate the beneficiary of an electoral promise from the one who actually pays for it. In this sense, the candidate will generally try to ensure that the benefits are concentrated in one group and that the costs are diluted, diffuse, in the ocean of the indefinite, for example, by promising the construction of a highway or a high-speed train without the cost being borne by its beneficiaries.

The voter’s self-interest is usually myopic, that is, focused only on the short term. The candidate also pursues his own self-interest and, given that the electoral cycle is also short, he will also focus on the short term. This has very harmful consequences, especially in the economic realm. As Hazlitt wrote with his unsurpassed capacity for synthesis, “the art of economics consists in considering the more remote effects of any political action or measure and not merely its immediate consequences; in calculating the repercussions of that policy not on one group, but on all sectors”. Therefore, the short-termism and clientelism intrinsic to the democratic system, especially in modern Welfare States, incentivize the structural making of pernicious economic decisions, resulting in lower growth, higher deficits, and public debt -a reflection of the fact that there will always be more promises than money to finance them- and higher inflation. Just as the popular vote is the alibi used by the ruler to do his holy will for four years, the provision of public services of the Welfare State is his alibi to constantly raise taxes and make the gigantic level of squandering with which he manages public money go unnoticed.

The agency problem

Finally, any political system is subject to the agent-principal problem, i.e., the potential conflict of interest between the representative and the represented, between the principal and the agent, when there is asymmetry of information. The agency problem has been studied primarily as applied to conflicts of interest between the managers of a company and its shareholders, but it can be perfectly applied to the ruler and the ruled. In the case of corporations, shareholders at least meet and vote once a year in the Shareholders’ Meeting and may be directly represented on the Board of Directors. In politics, however, the country’s “shareholders” can only meet and vote once every four years with a staggering level of misinformation, as we have seen above. This is the major argument in favor of a more direct democracy via referendum, as is the case in Switzerland, for the representatives seem to only represent themselves.

A recent example of the agency problem is the shameful negotiation the Catalan separatists, in which PM Sánchez has only defended his personal interests, completely opposed to the general interests of the country. In that meeting, who was defending the interests of Spain? Nobody.

Liberty is at stake

A political order does not function with the hope placed in the aptitude and morality of whoever reaches power. This messianic hope, applied to politics, is a puerile concept that leads to frustration. In politics, hope lies in the existence of a constitutional order, a set of rules and an incentive system that avoids the abuse of power and facilitates decision-making processes that are more favorable to the general interest and the common good. Such a legal order will take great pains to avoid the concentration of power and its scope, since it will always bear in mind the pathology of power, that is, its capacity to corrupt the morals and judgment of those who hold it and its irresistibly attractive nature for the psychopath, who can take over the reins of a country at any given moment with devastating effects (see the case of Spain).

Laying bare the enormous challenges posed by democracy with universal suffrage is no easy task, for it is an experimental and enormously fragile political system. Its two great attributes -the participation of the ruled in the election of the rulers and the peaceful alternation of power- can be compromised by a mistaken praxis. In reality, democracy per se guarantees nothing: it can be the best or the worst of systems, for its distorted version, far from being synonymous with freedom, invariably leads to tyranny.

Thus, for democracy to be truly protective of freedom and human dignity, defender of tolerance in a pluralistic society, facilitator of economic progress, creator of an orderly society and custodian of a justice system that brings peace, it must meet a series of requirements.

The first is a strong rule of law, “a government of laws, and not of men,” in the words of John Adams, for more important than the method of election of political representatives is the rule of law, just, objective, and non-arbitrary. The second is a constitutional order based on Montesquieu, since “in order that power may not be abused, it is necessary that, by the disposition of things, power should restrain power”. The third is the limitation of political power, since every human endeavor is imperfect and fallible, and every constitutional system, however well designed it may be, becomes corrupt with the passage of time, and it must be foreseen that, just as iron ends up rusting, a bad ruler ends up coming to power in a system weakened by its flaws. This can only be achieved with a small government with minimal powers, as was generally the case in the West until the mid-twentieth century. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “a wise and frugal government, which will prevent men from injuring one another, which will give them liberty to regulate their own activities, and which will not take from them the bread they have earned by their labor”.

In the opposite direction, Welfare States practically guarantee a drift towards tyranny and even totalitarianism: they vitiate electoral processes by turning them into an auction of votes, they take more and more parcels of freedom in exchange for a false promise of security, and they create a perverse incentive system.

Democracy also needs an educated and informed population, aware of the pathologies of power and the tricks of propaganda, diligent in defending its rights and freedoms and exposed to a variety of sources of truthful information. Finally, democracy must be based on immutable moral rules based on something that does not depend on the fickle opinion of men. Without the north of good and truth, without any of these requisites, democracy will become a failed experiment. Our very liberty is at stake.

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