Locked in the Monkey Cage
Democracy is the last sacred cow of a nation and a people that normally take great pride in shipping ’em to the slaughterhouse for Big Macs and Bruno Maglis at the first opportunity. It is, as our public high school civics books taught us, one of the things that Makes This Country Great. And yet… well, let’s just say that as I reflect on that first sentence, I worry that my choice of metaphor slanders cows.
Democracy’s good PR often makes things difficult for us limited-government types, because we’re rather keen to do away with the vast majority of its products. This makes folks suspicious: “You want to undo the results of our marvelous democratic process? Why, by golly, our forefathers fought and died to preserve the sacred right of the people to blah blah blah…” You’ve probably heard it too. Why is such a palpably awful way to make almost any sort of decision so very popular? Alexis de Tocqueville — from whom I intend to shamelessly lift whatever genuine insight this rant contains — hit the nail on the head way back in Democracy in America, the last book to come out of France that’s actually worth a damn.
Democratic theory, Tocqueville saw, flatters us with the notion that Joe Schmoe is as qualified as Thomas Jefferson to plot the course of political life. Little wonder, then, that Joe Schmoe takes umbrage at any criticism of democracy. Consider who we elect. We’ve handed supreme executive power to an aging frat boy who couldn’t cut it in the private sector, even when companies were handed to him like party favors. Congress is a comforting assortment of utter mediocrities: N’Sync with grayer hair and uglier teeny-boppers to shag.
That is not to say, mind you, that Americans are terribly interested in taking much part in our Noble System. The great benefit that Tocqueville saw in democracy was that, because most politics took place at the local level, citizens were engaged in and knowledgable about the issues with which they grappled. Those days are long gone: now, a new raft of statistics is released every few years to show that Americans are about as interested in intelligently exercising their little hundred-millonth portion of electoral power as I would be in… well, an N’Sync concert. Shortly after the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, to pick one rather egregious example, less than half of us knew who Newt Gingrich was. Which is fair enough: we have lives. But that does have the unfortunate side-effect of allowing politicians to ponce about doing more or less as they please.
Thank God for apathy, though: we’d be in far worse shape if people really did pay attention. Polls regularly show that the electorate would be only too happy to use the Bill of Rights as so much expensive toilet paper if given half a chance. Even the folks who bandy about the word “democracy” the most don’t seem to care much for it really. “Undemocratic,” as best I can tell, is Leftese for “my buddies and I don’t like it.” Because when it turns out that the average guy does not, in fact, want his SUV banned and all his income “redistributed,” these priests of the popular will twist themselves in knots worthy of a boneless contortionist trying to show that if not for “false consciousness,” everyone would agree with them, after all.
But if not democracy, what? Plato’s famous idea was to have Philosopher Kings, which sounds appealing until you actually look at the candidates. I had the pleasure of working with two absolutely brilliant philosophers on my undergraduate thesis, neither of whom I’d like to see within midget-toss distance of political power. One made his name arguing that failure to send 90% of your paycheck to UNICEF is morally indistinguishable from strangling Ethiopian babies with your bare hands; the other just co-authored a book entitled The Myth of Ownership. Even “our guys” wouldn’t necessarily be an improvement. Ayn Rand would’ve nuked the Soviet Union on principle, and dismissed anyone who tried to dissuade her as “anti-life.” I’m sure that follows from “A is A” somehow or other, but still…
Bad as democracy is, most of the “archies” – from oligarchy to anarchy – don’t seem much better. The only thing more depressing than Democracy In Action is how appallingly bad the alternatives are. My last hope is that improving technology will increase the mobility of people, capital, and information enough to make possible what I call “Pedocracy.” No, no, that’s not “rule by members of NAMBLA,” but rather the “rule of feet.” It works like this: we slice up political power into tiny Balkanized bite-sized bits — keep governments, but don’t give any one too much terrain. States would be fine, counties better, and my apartment ideal.
Nothing inspires education better than having to deal directly with the consequences of one’s own ignorance. And should the local majority decide that Social Justice requires massive wealth transfers and trade barriers, well, one can easily look for a less psychotic neighborhood. That’s the other half of what anti-globo folks mean when they say that international markets “undermine democracy.” That is, “democracy” — or any other means of exerting coercive power — is a lot less fun when the people you’re planning to leech off won’t be good sports and stick around for it. So bollocks to democracy, and here’s to mobility.