Friday, October 5, 2012
Democracy and the illusion of public ownership
Today, in a shower, I put a finger on what I subconsciously understood to be wrong with democracy. And so I hurry to share it with my (potential) faithful audience.
What's wrong with democracy is that it is an actualization of the legal fiction of public ownership. Let me explain what I mean.
Imagine that 500 people presumably own some public property: let's say, a central square. That's our premise.
Now, by 'ownership' I mean 'legitimate control'. When I own something I can control it (and we agree that I am doing so legitimately): I can decide what its fate is: I can use it, leave it alone, allow others to use, or forbid others from using it (even if I am not using it at the moment myself). A funny counter-example is a story of Ludwig Wittgenstein who once told him that he would give me some trees growing nearby as a present, as long as the student agrees never to use or alter them in any way or prevent the previous owners from using them in whatever way they wish. The point was to illustrate what ownership is: it's legitimate ability to exercise control over something and prevent others from doing so. If you don't have that, then your "owning" of something is merely academic.
Next comes democracy.
People elect a mayor of the village who will decide what happens to the public square. 251 people vote for Bob, while 249 vote for Bill. Bob becomes the mayor and decides to plant a tree in the public square, against the wishes of 400 people. But, they can't do anything about it, because Bob was elected through a democratic process. 'Next time we will be wiser', say the 400 people (or, at least those that voted for Bob) and walk home.
Let's see what happened here. There were two acts of aggression:
1. When 251 people imposed Bob as the village mayor on the 249. The argument that had it been the reverse (with Bill becoming the mayor), it would be worse, may be true, but it doesn't refute that electing Bob was an act of violence.
2. When Bob decided to plant a tree against the people's wishes.
So, first we had an act of oppression of the minority at the hands of a majority (249 vs. 251), which in itself created the oppression of majority at the hands of a minority (the villagers vs. Bob). But since the first act is meaningless in and of itself (if by the village's constitution, Bob couldn't do anything, then his election would not be a meaningful act of any sort), the essence of representative democracy, as we have discovered, is the same old oppression of majorities at the hands of minorities, which we had back when we had monarchy.
The difference is that the majority of the people get to decide who the jerk on the throne is going to be*. The difference between monarchy and representative democracy is, therefore, what I call 'economic'. It's not a principled difference, it's a difference of the expected practical outcome. Sometimes the 'economic' expectation works out, sometimes it doesn't. (Certainly, publicly elected officials have done more damage than the kings, but perhaps that's because they had better technology and more people at their hands.)
The same goes for constitutional democracy: the basis for preferring it (an expectation that it would somehow curb the abuses of the elected 'jerk') is economic. Sometimes it proves to be true; sometimes it doesn't. Certainly American constitutional democracy has proven to be a failure to a large extent. Today, most people don't even understand what constitutionality means.
So what then? Direct democracy? Well, first of all, as all of you thought the moment you read these words, it's economically unfeasible for a large number of reasons. Second, it creates the same oppression of the minority at the hands of the majority (although, true, it doesn't create the second step of the new oppression of a new majority at the hands of elected minority).
So, at least under absolute monarchy, there are no illusions: the king owns the land, and he decides what happens on his property. End of story.
Of course, economically, it's better if there are many small private owners (each deciding what's going on on his property, and private competing judicial 'authorities' arbitrating arising disputes), but that's another discussion.
But this is what I thought about in the shower: what's particularly funny about the above situation with the villagers and the central square is that the whole time they are being oppressed (by either majorities or minorities) the people live under an illusion that they somehow own the public property. In reality, however, the elected official owns it, at least to the extent that the tolerance of the people will allow him (directly or through some constitutional mechanism).
Imagine the following scenario: a family of five decide to buy a dinner. They vote for milchiks vs. fleishigs, and four out five decide to get a pizza. The fifth person has to go along, and when they are eating the pie, he complains about the taste. One of the four looks at him and says: "Well, don't complain now -- you bought it!"
* A more sophisticated reader may point to the idea of government with consent. So, the difference between a democracy and a monarchy is that in the first case, people in charge govern with the consent of the majority. But that again is fallacious: how do you know that every decision is made with the public's consent? We don't make an argument that the king rules with the consent of the governed: we check it, through elections (and the elections show that it's difficult to predict, without actual verification through voting, whom the majority supports). But if we are going to verify through voting that the president and Congress have the consent of the majority for every law they pass, then we might as well have a direct democracy!
Otherwise, we are back to the situation where every time the government passes a law, it goes against public wishes (or at least without any evidence of public agreement) regarding what should be done with the public's presumed property.