Assuming Control

Should libertarians ‘do politics’? No. There you go, problem solved. Easy. Next! But, on the off-chance you want, like, an argument or something…

Running parallel to the really big philosophical question (“why is there something rather than nothing?”) is the really big political question: Why is there government rather than nothing? There’s both (to push what’s already a tenuous link to breaking point) material and ideal interpretations of this question, and they should be kept separate. The empirical, historical answers are well-known and well-documented. In what follows I’ll stick to the purely rational stuff that Anthony de Jasay is so good at. (That’s an incredibly subtle hint that you should check out Anthony de Jasay, reader.)


© Graeme Maclean

What is politics, then? Politics is a way of reaching binding decisions where there is not unanimity among those who are to be bound by those decisions. But are such collective choices necessary in the first place? Can they be justified?

Every collective choice must overrule an individual choice. For if there were unanimity, why would we need politics to come to our rescue? Say, for instance, I don’t want to fund the building of a new library, but the political decision is made to build it. I must hand over some money, like it or not. For the more strict type of liberal alarm bells should be ringing at this point. But if they aren’t, keep in mind that politics, by its very nature, is nothing but the continuous overruling of choices made by individuals.

So why should men and women agree to be bound by political decisions? The usual answer is that politics is a way of avoiding conflict. As everyone knows, the big selling point of democracy is precisely this. Unfortunately, this is the opposite of the truth.

Again, let’s say that building a new library is proposed. A majority is for, a minority is against, but the majority can’t (or don’t want to) fund the project themselves. Now knowing what we do about politics, does the library get built? Of course! The minority are forced to cough up, and a horrifying future where people lie book-less in the street is avoided. Look a bit closer, however, and you’ll see that this democratic miracle is an illusion. All that is needed for harmony to prevail is for the majority to accept that they can’t afford a new library. In other words, all that is needed is that the majority refrain from aggressing against the minority. No political institution whosoever is required to obtain this peaceful result. In short, democracy actually creates conflict where none would otherwise exist. Democracy, by victimising dissenting minorities, institutionalises conflict.

What about the way we decide the way we decide? To be legitimate, collective choices must take place according to a rule. The democratic rule (loosely – but not too loosely) is that the majority is right. A choice made by the political authority in a democracy is legitimate if, and only if, the majority supports it. How is this possible?

Let’s say a society is at the point of deciding to become democratic. How do they go about doing this? Do they have a vote and go along with what the majority says? But at this time the minority hasn’t agreed to be bound by the democratic rule. So if the majority votes for democracy, why should the minority acquiesce? And more importantly, why would a majority vote be binding at all, unless the democratic rule was already accepted?

Now if, rather than following the wishes of the majority, this society decided to go along with the minority; or if they didn’t bother with having a vote and just went with the decision of, say, the richest, or the tallest, or the most handsome, or whatever, these problems would remain. The foundation of politics – all politics, any politics – is a completely arbitrary decision. Ultimately no collective choice can be legitimate; there can be no such thing as ‘rule by laws’, only ‘rule by men’. For liberals this is somewhat problematic.

  5 comments for “Assuming Control

  1. Jun 3, 2014 at 8:40 am

    Democracy is not supposed to avoid conflict, the purpose of democracy is to avoid war. You have confused the object with its species.

    As such, the majority is chosen (rather than the tall or handsome) because the it is seen that the majority would win in a war. Handsomness is less intrinsically valuable in war.

    Also, the post is interesting if you want to be entertained, but it is totally useless. What are you actually suggesting we do differently?

    For example, are you actually suggesting that the likes of Steven Baker, Douglas Carswell, Dan Hannan, Harry Aldridge, Paul Tew, who have office or seek it resign or abandon their life choices because mob rule is an arbitrary selection criteria? But it isn’t, see above, and I’m not convinced your argument would hold much force if it were true.

    Let’s assume for a minute that you are correct and democracy was arbitrary, and also that this fact was well understood by the electorate. Now imagine a referendum was held to decide how the electorate now wanted to make decisions collectively and put anarcho-capitalism and democracy on the ballot, then democracy would still score higher. Why? Because altruism, and because assuming altruism then Rousseou was right about the need to vote to discover the general will.

    • Jun 3, 2014 at 5:01 pm

      I think you’re being misled by Hobbes. If a majority is to attempt to expropriate a minority, it must overcome the costs. There are physical, financial, social, and moral costs – these are “natural” barriers, as it were. There is also the fact – and the knowledge of this fact – that the attempt might not be successful. That is, in the absence of politics, 1) expropriation may or may not be attempted, and 2) expropriation may or may not occur. However, once politics is introduced, the bare fact that a majority exists means expropriation will occur. What is more, expropriation will occur on a massive scale (we call it “redistribution” nowadays) because the costs have been reduced to effectively zero. This is the function of politics; this is the entirety of politics.

      I’m not sure what you mean by the Rousseau and altruism stuff.

  2. Jun 3, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    Libertarians “should not do politics” – covers a lot more than democracy it covers any political system. If libertarians do not “do politics” other people still will – and libertarians will have politics done to them.

    Those who do not live by the sword can still die by the sword – and they do.

    Force (the sword) can not be wished away. Force must be met with counter force – and that is “doing” politics.

    • Jun 3, 2014 at 5:35 pm

      Politics is impossible without the expropriation of innocent people; politics is impossible without the enslavement of innocent people. Politics is not force, it is aggression.

  3. Jun 3, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    For a better treatment of this topic than my fumbling effort here, see

Comments are closed.