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"To challenge democracy is brave. To do it in print is heroic."
Doug French, Senior editor of Laissez Faire Books

10 Reasons why democracy fails

Frank Karsten - March 14th, 2017

Democracy is reportedly the best possible political system and is equated with peace, freedom and prosperity. Then why do so many Western democracies suffer from high public debts, unemployment, economic stagnation and social tensions? Here are ten reasons democracy does not deliver.

1. Short-termism is built in to democracy

Elected politicians are in power for only a few years. So they know that if they overspend, overtax, print or borrow even more money, they themselves experience the temporary benefits. But their successors, who might even be their political opponents, suffer the long-term disadvantages. Unfortunately, they also have the same harmful incentive to kick the can down the road.

So politicians behave like careless tenants instead of responsible owners. Our democratic rulers have wrecked the economy, squandered our liberty, neglected our security, sold out our autonomy, inflated the currency, weakened our borders, and ruined public finances. Clearly they do not care or are unable to act responsibly. They sweep problems under the carpet, trivialize them, buy them off with extra spending, or respond with even more laws and regulations.

2. Democracy is not politically neutral

One would think that democracy can go either way, left, right, liberal, socialist or conservative. But democracy is essentially collectivist. It is the idea that basically everything can be (and increasingly is) decided collectively, and that the outcome of that process is binding on every individual, including those who were against it.

So in a democracy a person is subservient to the wishes or alleged needs of the collective, just as with communism and fascism. In his book Free to Choose economist Milton Friedman noted that much of the US Socialist Party election program from 1928 has been implemented, even while that party has never seen significant electoral success.

3. Democracy is totalitarian

The problem with democracy is that there is no fundamental limit on the kinds of questions about which the majority, or the state may decide. Whether it’s about working conditions, floors in restaurants, wages, health, education, gender neutral bathrooms, soft drinks in large bottles, smoking in one's car, democracies have laws for it.

Democracy allows the government to micro manage our lives, to control us, to spy on us and to steer us. All with the excuse that it’s in our own interest. Whoever disobeys can expect a fine or imprisonment. No money, property or individual liberty is safe from the democratic state. Constitutions are a paper tiger that have proven to be unable to limit state power.

4. Democracy is a giant redistribution machine

In a democracy everyone can try to live at other people's expense. People generally vote to put their personal wishes on the collective tab. Politicians understand this well. Explicitly or implicitly they say "Vote for me, and I will take away other people's money and rights in your favour."

This redistribution is not necessarily from the rich to the poor, it can be the reverse too, as we saw with the bank bailouts. But it's generally from the powerless, productive and responsible people to the powerful, unproductive or irresponsible.

5. Democracy leads to moral decline

The democratic redistribution machine, and particularly the welfare state, punishes successful people through higher taxes and gives the money to people who are in trouble. Unfortunately whatever you tax, you get less of, and whatever you subsidize you get more of.

The redistribution machine thereby promotes hedonism, laziness, antisocial behavior, irresponsibility and discourages virtue. It weakens family ties and the community spirit. It replaces self-reliance with dependency. In a free society (without forced redistribution) an individual must be responsible and honest to be able to depend on the support of family, friends, neighbors and colleagues.

But dishonest, lazy or irresponsible individuals who are unable to find or hold a job are helped out by our welfare state with social workers, subsidies and benefits. The same goes for parents who raise their children badly, or antisocial individuals who cause trouble. The organizations within the welfare state do not spend their own money but that of others, so they benefit from more, not less dependent 'customers'.

6. Democracy is not about minority rights

It is often thought that the protection of minorities is a basic principle of democracy. This is incorrect, for democracy is about majority rights. The basic principle of democracy is that the majority decides. However, the majority may grant certain rights (or often privileges) to minorities, but this is subject to fads, not morality. Minority groups that are vocal, intimidating or aggressive can secure more rights or privileges, sometimes even to the detriment of the rights of the majority.

For example, smokers enjoyed much freedom, but nowadays they are not even allowed to smoke in private bars where everybody agrees to smoke. Historically gays enjoyed little protection, nowadays Christian bakers had better not refuse to bake cakes for their weddings. Small business owners and entrepreneurs on the other hand have always been a minority and must therefore suffer the ever increasing regulatory burden and tax burden. Individual liberty, not democracy, is about minority rights, because the individual is the smallest minority.

7. Democracy protects the rulers from the people

Democracy does not protect the people against the rulers, but vice versa. Our elected politicians can start devastating wars under false pretenses, break election promises, print money until no more trees are left standing, they never end up in jail. Their excuse is that the outcome was of the democratic process and that this was their interpretation.

If they spend 5,000 dollar tax money on themselves they endanger their position. But they can safely squander five billion on a megalomaniac project. The worst thing that can happen to a failing government is that people stop voting for that party, but the options are very limited, and another vote is only effective in the extremely unlikely event that it changes the outcome of an election. Democracy is simply a bad way to control, steer or limit political power. No wonder democratic states are constantly growing in power.

8. Democracy makes moral what was immoral

If someone robs someone else on the street we consider that highly immoral. Surprisingly the same involuntary transfer is called ‘okay’ or even ‘social justice’ when 51% of the electorate does the same through the ballot box. But 'majority' does not equate to 'justice' or 'morality'.

Morality is determined by principles of right and wrong, not numbers. If 99% of people consider homosexuality wrong it should still be allowed. If 99% think that someone's money should be taken it is still robbery.

9. Voting in a democracy is useless

Are voters the useful idiots of a democracy? Not only is voting wasted energy but it also gives the false impression that those in power are legitimate. In a big election your chances of dying in a traffic accident on the way to the polling station are higher than your vote having any effect on the election results.

And even if your vote happens to make a difference in one representative more or less, it probably has no effect on policy anyway. For politicians can break election promises with impunity. Voting is about as effective as cheering for your favorite team during a Super Bowl match.

10. Democracy leads to oligarchy

If a citizen can only vote for one party, as in North Korea, we call it a dictatorship. But if one can effectively choose out of two parties, such as in the U.S., it is seen as freedom. A single vote already carries little weight, but a vote for a small party makes it weigh even less.

Therefore, people often vote strategically. They do not choose their preferred party but the least bad big party, one which at least has a real chance of coming to power.

This usually leads to two (duopoly) or three (triopoly) large parties that form a kind of oligarchy. For political newcomers it has proven to be very difficult to break through that barrier, irrespective of any election threshold.

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Not convinced yet? See another ten reasons in the next installment

About the author

Frank Karsten is co-author of Beyond Democracy and co-founder of Mises Netherlands. As spokesperson of Free Private Cities Ltd. he promotes the privatization of the three basic services of a government - to protect your life, liberty and property.