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Guest Post: Democracy And Its Contradictions

Courtesy of Tyler Durden

The next in a continuing series (most recently: Evil and the State).

Submitted by Free Radical

Democracy and Its Contradictions

Democracy, as Churchill said, “is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” the assumption being that because the state is the only conceivable form of government (and therefore necessary for civil society to exist), the democratic state is the best state, even if it is merely the best among bad ones. This flies in the face, of course, of the godlike esteem in which democracy is held around the world, both by those who are ruled by such states and by those who yearn to be. Democracy, after all, is based on “the proposition that the legitimacy of all political power arises from, and only from, the consent of the governed, the peoplei  – the assumption being that the democratic state embodies this noble proposition. 

The problem, however, is that while the people’s consent in a democratic state is supposedly expressed through the right to vote – through the so-called “ballot” – consent has little if anything to do with the process:

Doubtless the most miserable of men, under the most oppressive government in the world, if allowed the ballot, would use it, if they could see any chance of thereby meliorating their condition.  But it would not, therefore, be a legitimate inference that the government itself, that crushes them, was one which they had voluntarily set up, or even consented to.

What does it mean, in other words, to vote within the confines of that which one had no vote in creating and when those confines, therefore, cannot legitimately – i.e., in a morally justifiable manner – rule over one? Even assuming that those confines are minimal (though none are, of course, even if they were so conceivedii), what moral authority or obligation can such confines have?  What authority or obligation, that is, can political constitutions have?

The answer, simply put, is none.  The United States Constitution, for example,

… has no authority or obligation at all, unless as a contract between man and man. And it does not so much as even purport to be a contract between persons now existing. It purports, at most, to be only a contract between persons living [long] ago. … Furthermore, we know, historically, that only a small portion even of the people then existing were consulted on the subject, or asked, or permitted to express either their consent or dissent in any formal manner. Those persons, if any, who did give their consent formally, are all dead now. … And the Constitution, so far as it was their contract, died with them.  They had no natural power or right to make it obligatory upon their children. It is not only plainly impossible, in the nature of things, that they could bind their posterity, but they did not even attempt to bind them. That is to say, the instrument does not purport to be an agreement between any body but “the people” then existing; nor does it, either expressly or impliedly, assert any right, power, or disposition, on their part, to bind anybody but themselves.


As taxation is made compulsory on all, whether they vote or not, a large proportion of those who vote, no doubt do so to prevent their own money being used against themselves; when, in fact, they would have gladly abstained from voting, if they could thereby have saved themselves from taxation alone, to say nothing of being saved from all the other usurpations and tyrannies of the government. To take a man’s property without his consent, and then to infer his consent because he attempts, by voting, to prevent that property from being used to his injury, is a very insufficient proof of his consent to support the Constitution. It is, in fact, no proof at all.

Just as representative democracy is a farce, then, so is the constitutionalism that attends it. For what constitutions are based on is not self-determination but pre-determination, which, under the best of circumstances, merely provides the means by which such consent as is presumed to have been given can accordingly be withdrawn.

Even so, the nation founded on this supposedly unalienable right no longer recognizes it. For notwithstanding the fact that there is no actual law prohibiting self-determination – up to and including secession – the United States Government has made it clear that it will pursue secessionists to the point of genocide on the presumption that preserving the Union is paramount to all other concerns. A “Civil War” was fought over this very point, after all,iii at a cost of over 600,000 lives and an untold destruction of property, at the conclusion of which the selfsame government was forced to abandon its prosecution of the secessionists’ leader, realizing that to do so would be to expose the fallacy of its argument: “The federal government knew that it could not try [Confederate President Jefferson] Davis for treason without raising the constitutional issue of secession.” iv

Nonetheless, a century and a half later, the U.S. Government staunchly maintains its position (without having to openly defend it) and does so with full knowledge that its erstwhile adversary, the former Soviet Union, and its present one, China, each cited the Civil War as their authority for using force to keep their own governments intact:

Perhaps the most dangerous legacy of the war was the Northern claim that it could use force and go to war to prevent any state from withdrawing from the Union.  This has haunted us in the past decade and will continue to do so, as the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev claimed the right to use force to hold his union together and cited Abraham Lincoln as good authority for doing so.  In 1999, the Chinese premier reminded President Clinton that he had the right to use force to hold China together, to go to war to reclaim Taiwan, and he too cited Abraham Lincoln as good authority. v

But such is the logic of the state that it seeks to perpetuate itself at any and all cost, and thus does the democratic state fall victim to its own hypocrisy. For any state that denies its people the right of self-determination is totalitarian, the more so in accordance with how far it will go to deny that right. And while 600,000 lives are but a small fraction of those lost in the lie that was the USSR, insofar as the USA fell victim to the lie of forced union, its atrocities differ only in degree, not in kind.

Moreover, insofar as forced union in America enabled the rampant statism that soon included the fraud of centralized, fractional-reserve banking, the death toll from decades of government-induced poverty might well be in the millions. After all, the Great Depression – which, contrary to the received truth, was both perpetrated and perpetuated by the U.S. Government’s own policies – caused the premature deaths of countless Americans, to say nothing of how many lives will be needlessly foreshortened and otherwise ruined by the time the present economic calamity – also a direct result of the U.S. Government’s own policies – finally exhausts itself.

To its credit, the government of Canada did not prevent one of its constituent provinces from holding a referendum on secession. And no matter that the referendum failed (except, that is, to the 49.42% who voted in favor of it), the fact that it was allowed at all is commendable. Ask any official of the United States Government whether its citizens have this right, however, and they will be at a loss for words,vi  knowing that to deny the right is to deny the nation’s founding principle, while to affirm it is to open the floodgates of the Government’s demise and thereby jeopardize the official’s sustenance through “the political means.” 

Many will argue, of course, that the contradictions of any particular democratic state are insufficient to deny the validity of the democratic ideal. And while the cynic might reply that just because the democratic state doesn’t work in practice doesn’t prove that it can’t work in theory, let us eschew cynicism and simply ask the question that Thoreau asked: “Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last possible improvement in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?”

Of course it is, and it begins with the recognition that the right of self-determination is just that – a right of the self and thus of the individual, the real, present, and perpetual acknowledgement of which is the only constitution that has any moral authority or obligation.  For only then does “the consent of the governed” have any genuine meaning; only then can “the action of the organs of the state” be held in check; and only then can the stage be set for what would otherwise be impossible – “The Transition to a Free Society” – which we will address in my next submission.


i  Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order & Freedom, ICS Press, 1990 (Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 220.
ii  “It is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power. … Our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no further, our confidence may go. … In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” --Thomas Jefferson: Draft Kentucky Resolutions, 1798.
iii  There is no denying that slavery was an important issue, nor is there any defending the institution itself. Neither is there any denying, however, that the nation’s new president held slavery inviolate in the states where it was still practiced or that he was as racist as any other American of his time, Northern or Southern.
iv  Charles Adams, When In the Course of Human Events, Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, Chapter 12, “The Trial of the Century that Never Was,” p. 178.
v  Ibid., pp. 228 and 229.
vi  With one notable exception, of course.

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  1. Dear Free:
    If the point is that there exists no perfectly representative nor perfectly just form of government, you are cutting down straw men, because it is hard to imagine anyone disagreeing with you.
    If your point is that a truly representative government would have to obtain the consent of the govern in realtime, to wit: "the real, present and perpetual acknowledgement [of the legitimacy of said government] of which is the only constitution that has any authority or moral obligation", you are logically correct and no more.  In practice, this formulation is worse than impractical; it is useless, because it assumes a range of impossibilities:  perfect information in realtime on the part of the governed, perfect understanding of this information, adequate judgment to convert the information to decisions appropriate for the society, and a properly equilibrated moral sense.  I wouldn’t hold my breath.
    The Constitution of the United State has safeguards designed to protect againt a tyranny of the majority.   But the notion that a constitution is only "representative" if it represents the continuous realtime consent of every single person subject to it contains a vanishing small whiff of reality, and is certainly no guide to action.
    It is an interesting exercise in rhetoric, but it ignore the long, brutal, unjust sequence of most of human history — the problem that the founding father were trying to ameliorate — , and denigrates the efforts of those who founded the U.S. republic with the hope of improving upon that history.  I believe they succeeded.
     It is incumbent upon every generation to assist in the evolution of the Republic, both morally and materially  [as in the case of the 30 million American dead in the War between the States, which eliminated slavery] rather than seek its complete demise in favor of idealized and absolutist formulations, such as "to each according to his needs, from each according to his ability."
    Which latter formulation didn’t work out too well, as I hope you agree.