Thursday, June 18, 2009

What democracy means

Earlier today, I posted a comment on Youtube where I said that for me, economic liberty is not a question of efficiency or of selfishness. Instead, it's a moral issue. I don't believe that the majority has any right to dictate what I do with my money. I will voluntarily donate to charity (which I think is a good idea by the way), but the point is that it is voluntary. By what right, I asked, does any other person hold claim to my productive output?

Now, rickelmonoggin responded, saying that what I had said was that I do not believe in democracy. That gave me pause. On reflection, it's true. We believe in different versions of democracy. His version may be loosely termed "majority rule". My version is individual liberty.

I believe the term democracy is equally applicable to both, and here's why. The word derives from the Greek demos kratos, meaning literally "people power". I think individual people should have power, rickelmonoggin believes the majority should have power. The latter view is immoral in my opinion. Taking from one person to give to another without voluntary consent is theft, no matter whether it is done by an individual or a government. I hold that no group of individuals has any more rights than a single individual in that group. Might does not make right, in other words.

So what does my vision of democracy look like? Let's take the example of roads. I'd support a system where if you don't pay the road tax, you don't get to drive on the roads. That's fair. If you don't pay the electricity bill, you don't get electricity. You have no right to demand that other people pay for services you enjoy. If they willingly contribute to funding those services, that's absolutely fine. That way, the amount of funding allocated to services is determined by the market of individual choices, rather than by a sub-committee sitting in a small room somewhere in Washington.

Perhaps an instinctive reaction to this philosophy is that it is cruel and selfish. I disagree; I think to say this is to say that man is a mean, selfish little animal, when it is perfectly clear that we're not. The richest men in the world, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are also the largest contributors to charity. They don't have to contribute, they do so voluntarily. To me, that's a fine example of the essential good nature of humanity.

Let's look at the alternative philosophy. In the philosophy of majority rule, one implicitly accepts the principle that a group of individuals may demand unearned payment from a smaller group of individuals, provided the first group is big enough to establish a majority. That is a cruel and unjust position to take. By that logic, it's perfectly acceptable to enslave others, provided most people agree that it's a good idea.

One of the distinguishing features of the United States is that it has a constitution that prevents precisely this sort of abuse of power. The constitution, in fact, exists to limit majority rule. It says that all men have inalienable rights that no decree of congress may abrogate. The only problem, as I see it, is that it doesn't go far enough.

So what do you think? Is majority rule fair, just and moral? Or is it just an excuse to pick the pockets of the wealthy minority?

2 Comments:

Anonymous Frankie said...

From a general critic of all things "blog" i have to say that i like reading you more and more.

I agree with you for the most part. Perhaps i'll agree with you in full if you can answer this question.

If you begin to use your tax system, "If you dont pay for it, you dont use it" wouldn't that have tremendous negative funding consequences for these construction projects? If the government decides to use your system then i think there will be an immediate societal response of "Hell, if i have the option not to use the roads then i just wont use them and save my money". I suspect there'd be a huge dropoff in vehicle traffic and a huge increase in public transportation, and riding bicycles. It would take out a huge chunk of public funding to maintain our highways and streets. Am i right or wrong?

4:53 PM  
Blogger David Turner said...

Thanks, Frankie :-) I don't get a lot of feedback, so hearing a friendly voice is most welcome.

To answer your question: yes, I think you're right, and is that necessarily a problem? We leave almost everything to market forces: what's available in the stores, what sort of movies are produced, and so on. Sometimes we gripe about what the market produces, but in a very real sense it's "fair": that's what most people seem to want.

So back to your example: roads would become underfunded. Therefore fewer highways would be built, and perhaps existing infrastructure would be allowed to degrade. On the other hand, trains would do exceptionally well. So would buses: you might find them building their own "busroads" to support their booming traffic.

Then perhaps some communities will notice that their local roads are falling apart, and they'll organize committees at a local level to maintain the roads. Locally organized, locally funded, again following the principle of "no-pay-no-use". Or then again, they might decide walkways are a better alternative.

I can't pretend to know how that would play out. But as a rule I'd rather have it decided by the forces of consumer choice than by the arbitrary whim of bureaucrats.

7:02 PM  

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