The Democratic Argument
Common Anti-Libertarian Fallacies
The purpose of these pages is to chronicle fallacious arguments that are repeatedly brought against libertarian philosophy and explain why they fail. Each page deals with a different fallacy. Check the index of fallacies for more.
The Democratic Argument
This fallacy consists of dismissing libertarian complaints about government control by citing a democratic system of government as a source of consent. In essence, it is the “We voted for it” argument. Proponents of the fallacy will use it in many particular situations. Socialists usually deny the claim that taxes are morally equivalent to theft by noting that a burglar does not take a vote before confiscating property. A vote, they say, is a legitimate and consensual way to determine how to allocate resources, including taking them from people. Authoritarians also frequently invoke the argument as a justification for prohibitions and mandates regarding sexuality, drug consumption, or other similar phenomena. They insist that individuals must conform to society’s norms, which they claim they can infer and understand either through a pure democratic or representative process. To allow individuals to spend their own money as they please, or consume substances as they please, or engage in sexual activity as they please, provided that they do not harm others in the process, is deemed illegitimate if it conflicts with a majority opinion. That majority opinion is then labeled “the will of the people” as the rulers game for some sort of appearance of having that elusive consent of the governed.
Why It Fails
This argument encounters crippling problems on several levels. At the most basic level, it ignores the actual definition and nature of consent. One individual does not give his consent to a mandate or a robbery simply by virtue of being in the same universe as lots of other people. A certain group of people cannot vote themselves the consent of another group of people no matter how much they wish to do so. Democratic governments do not have the consent of the governed. In the most favorable interpretation, they have only the consent of the majority; in other interpretations, they in fact have the consent of a small, wealthy ruling class with many weapons. Either way, it is clear from a simple observation of the nature of choice that choice is not democratic. The American whites enslaving the blacks was certainly favored by a majority, yet no one today claims that the government which allowed and even required slavery had the consent of the governed.
On another, and perhaps more personal level, this argument fails because it is quite simply a lie. The people who promote it do not themselves even believe it. Suppose you are a liberal. Remember George W. Bush’s decisions to invade Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction which were never found, his enormous tax cuts for the rich, and his infamous No Child Left Behind Act which Freakonomics proved actually increased cheating in schools and most certainly left many children behind? Now suppose you are a conservative. Remember Barack H. Obama’s decisions to nationalize the auto industry, the health insurance industry, the banking industry, and the student loan industry, dramatically raise the capital gains tax, and regulate many major investors right out of business? When these two presidents were pushing their tyrannical agendas, did either the liberals or conservatives stand up and say, “Well, we had a vote, and this guy won, so I can’t complain”? Of course not.
The bottom line is that the actions taken by politicians are either moral or immoral, and that cannot change based on a majority vote. Your neighbors cannot come to your house and vote you out of having your car, even if they constitute a majority. Congress cannot vote you out of your right to smoke marijuana or have a life partnership with whomever you wish, no matter what they claim the “will of the people” is on that particular day. Any action that is taken by one party against another is either consensual or nonconsensual, and the line between the two is clear and unambiguous.
This does not, in itself, render all government actions to be illegitimate. It is left for philosophers and authors to show why consent is a moral imperative for any interactions between parties. This is something the classical liberal moralists have demonstrated quite thoroughly in works such as The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Democracy: The God That Failed, and Philosophy: Who Needs It?. What this does demonstrate is the compelling need for intellectual honesty when discussing libertarian philosophy. Arguments that begin with the premise that a 51% vote – or any other fraction, for that matter – can thrust consent onto the other portion ought to be dismissed outright. When statists defend statism as what it is – an initiation of force – then libertarians must refute that. When they do not, however, no such refutation is necessary.
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