Democracies, Republics, and Other Unnecessary Evils

Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson

August’s drinks event at the Rose and Crown co-incides with the 236th anniversary of the signing of US Declaration of Independence on August 2nd 1776. This lesser known date trailed its publication by almost a month but was a key ritualistic step in the creation of the world’s first nation founded upon an idea. The Republic born on that day is a pre-eminent example of the value of liberty, and the dangers it suffers. Two hundred years later and that nation is on it’s last legs, it’s core ideas have been dismissed and disregarded by misinformed mobs so many times that only an intellectual revolution will save it.

Some have argued that democracy can be tweaked, and the franchise restricted in order to preserve the balance of incentives in favour of liberty. Jan Clifford Lester, a scholar and author with a 30 year record of defending and promoting liberty, has another solution and will join us at the Rose and Crown to share part of his research for his forthcoming Dictionary of Anti-Politics in which this solution is to be found.

The event will begin with drinks at 7pm and the talk beginning shortly after 8. on August 2nd.

You want the Rose and Crown, Colombo Street, Southwark. A map and options to RSVP can be found on Meetup.com.

Why should libertarians participate in the electoral system?

Some of you may be aware of my efforts to create a new libertarian political party. My aims for this party are simple. 1) Get registered with the Electoral Commission; 2) Get members; 3) Get activists; 4) Get libertarians elected to councils across England, Wales and Scotland.

The structure and indeed the name of the party will become more public in the not-too-distant future, but the fact that I want to see libertarians active in the community and elected to office is no secret.

© Tom Page

There are plenty of freedom think tanks, forums and societies in existence in this country, and they play an important part in allowing for the discussion of the ideas of liberty and libertarianism. However, in spite of this valid role, it is my view that such organisations aren’t really reaching outside of their respective bubbles. Rather than engaging with the public, they by and large instead attempt to influence so-called professionals or the already converted.

This is where the idea of a new libertarian political party comes into play. It is my desire to see active libertarians out in the community – working to promote the ideas of liberty to the masses as a challenge to the Statist indoctrination they are fed on a daily basis. It is then from this foundation of strong, community activism that I want to see libertarians standing for election to their local authorities to a) further the brand recognition of libertarianism and liberty; b) train libertarians in how to become effective campaigners by them actually doing it; and c) get libertarians elected to office.

It is my view that for the libertarian movement to become a valid option for others within our communities, libertarians themselves must become active in the real world of everyday life; the world in which our family, friends and neighbours live. This real world is full of that inescapable thing called politics, and with it comes democracy.

Unfortunately, there are some libertarians who claim it is somehow unlibertarian for anyone to participate in the electoral process; that standing for election is an endorsement of the system and ‘power’. Though I can see the validity in this argument, it is, in my opinion, a tiresome assertion as it actually ignores real life.

Even those who reject the so-called democratic system we have in this country in reality participates within it on a daily basis, whether it’s accessing state-provided healthcare or education, or applying for a passport or driver’s license to travel. Life is one set of compromises, so surely compromising a little to promote liberty to the masses isn’t such a bad thing?

It is my opinion that to do nothing is not an option, and I don’t see too many publicised alternatives taking place either, for example, libertarians taking part in or encouraging public acts of civil disobedience; nor a flourish of agorist activity to demonstrate voluntary market alternatives. Therefore, the only other option to further the cause of liberty is to participate in the political sphere.

It is has always been my view – even when I was an active Liberal Democrat member – that political activism should start at the community level. If we’re serious about influencing change, we need to present a trusted, local face to the ideas we’re advocating.

At first, many libertarian ideas can sound overwhelming to people who haven’t encountered them before. They fear for the vulnerable in society, or hold the belief they will lose all the services important to them. After a while however, and in particular if we present a real human face to the ideas, people start to realise there are alternatives to the current way of doing things. They may not agree with everything that libertarianism is offering, certainly not in the early days, but the drip-drip of ideas soon starts to have an effect, particularly if those ideas can be related to local, more tangible issues. This is where having a local activist base, and in particular libertarian elected representatives, helps.

The benefits of having elected libertarians

I believe libertarians elected to local office can play an important part in a) holding the establishment to account; b) challenging existing ideas and practices; c) acting as advocates for others; d) promoting the ideas of liberty to a wider, and potentially more attentive audience.

As a Liberal Democrat, a Liberal Democrat (Libertarian) and then Libertarian Party councillor on both Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council, I’ve stood up and argued for many things that are considered unorthodox, but which have received media coverage and more importantly, recognition and respect from colleagues and constituents, who still might not even agree with you on all or some of what you might be advocating.

As a councillor:

  • I’ve opposed the introduction of Alcohol Restriction Zones, instead calling for improved local policing rather than blanket criminalisation;
  • I’ve called for a review to introduce a prostitution tolerance zone in Stoke-on-Trent to help improve safety for the workers;
  • I’ve refused to apply for a Criminal Record Bureau check at the request of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, on the basis that my constituents are my employer, not the City Council;
  • I’ve been an advocate for local businesses and free enterprise by encouraging, eventually, self-financing business groups; and supporting individual business owners against undue pressure and persecution by the authorities; and attempting to remove council policies that hinder the free market;
  • I’ve introduced people to the ideas of asset release with a view to transferring currently public-owned assets to community or private control, like commercial and residential property, bowling greens, allotments and neighbourhoods themselves;
  • I’ve argued for the reduction of the number of principle authority councillors, the abolition of Special Responsibility Allowances and for all-out elections; together with the introduction of local community councils, in order to bring more responsibility and power down to the individual;
  • I’ve promoted alternatives to government provision of leisure facilities, schools and residential care for the elderly at times when government sees fit to close such facilities, in order to highlight that the government can’t always be trusted to provide the services individuals want;
  • I’ve stood up against populist and hypocritical nonsense by, for example, refusing to sign the National Holocaust Memorial Book on the grounds that our own government sends troops overseas to kill innocent people;
  • I’ve supported private property rights by actively promoting the abolition of the Conservation Area section of the City Council, whilst arguing for the introduction of voluntary conservation associations;
  • I’ve called for greater financial accountability by calling for all the City Council’s accounts to be published in (as far as is possible) layman’s terms so they can be viewed at any time by the taxpayer; and pushed for the accounts to be audited by third parties like the Taxpayers’ Alliance;
  • I’ve consistently said that I wish to return as much power as possible to individuals in order to make myself and other politicians redundant.

Now, with all this and more, I’ve seen both success and failure; experienced satisfaction and frustration. It would be great to win every battle, but honestly, life isn’t like that.

However, regardless of whether or not I succeeded in overturning a council policy or improved accountability, the one consistent is that I was able to get media coverage as a liberty-leaning/libertarian councillor far easier than a non-elected resident would. If elected, libertarians can help local residents and business owners whilst at the same benefitting from increased media exposure. To me, this is a win-win.

Increased coverage, both in your council ward or division as the elected representative, and through the media means increased chances of getting new liberty-minded individuals on board. More people means more donations, more helpers, more activity and potentially more libertarians elected to councils. And remember, once libertarians hold fifty-one percent of the council seats, they control the council. When this is the case, there is greater freedom to implement, inform and educate.

So, to do nothing or to do active, grassroots libertarian politics? Which will you choose to see greater liberty in your lifetime?

The Myth of Majority Rule

There is a popularly accepted belief that is sorely in need of debunking. This belief is basically in the validity of the following argument:

  • P1: A government is legitimate if it has been elected by the majority of the governed, and thus authorised to make decisions by, or rule the entire populace on behalf of, that majority
  • P2: British governments are elected by the majority of the governed, and are thus authorised by those majorities to make decisions or rule on their behalf
  • Therefore British governments are legitimate.

The argument is logically valid; the conclusion follows from the premises. Therefore a refutation of the conclusion requires a demonstration that one or both premises are false, and therefore cannot support the conclusion. Here, I will just demonstrate that the second premise is false: majority rule in the UK is a myth. The UK is a system of minority rule.

This position sounds controversial, after all people are used to resisting the claim that the UK is a tyranny by declaring, “Come on! The British government is elected.” But let’s start with that: Governments are not entities by themselves. They are people. So, how many people constitute the government? It’s hard to tell, but adding some 520,000 civil servants to all the armed forces, all the police force, all the teachers, all the NHS, and all local government employees, we get some five million people. Add 300 Quangos and any employees in state owned businesses and the number is beyond six million. Meanwhile, there are 650 elected MPs. That means that the total number of employees in the government actually elected by sections of the electorate is one thousandth of one percent. Viewed this way, the idea that we elect the government seems a bit tenuous.

Still, people will probably object that referring to all state employees (not to mention all of the contractors to local and central governments departments and agencies) as the government is a mistake. Perhaps what defenders have in mind is more the ruling party, that it is actually they that form the government.

The way the British parliamentary system works is that different candidates for Parliament run in each constituency, and the candidate that gets the most votes in the constituency gets to take up one of the 650 or so seats in parliament. Then the custom is that the leader of the Political Party who’s candidates have won a greater number of seats than those of others gets to become Prime Minister and form a government. The Prime Minister may then select, from his party’s MPs, personnel to form a cabinet, each selected person becoming a Secretary of State, to whom each government department is nominally accountable.

Whilst private members bills can be introduced, the principal source of new proposed legislation is from the new government. Each new law, once introduced to parliament (a lot goes on first) is debated and voted on by Members of Parliament, who are each compelled by the party whips to try to toe their party’s respective lines. The same process is undertaken in the second chamber, the House of Lords. If a new law passes three readings in each house, it is signed into effect by the queen.

So, that is the theory. What is the reality? Well, the first thing to note is that, in this process, the claim “the public elected the prime minister to do X, Y, and Z” is false. As we will see, the truth is that only some of the public ever elects anybody, but this is even less true with Prime Ministers: None of the electorate votes for them. Voters can only vote for their preferred MP. The Prime Minister is the leader of the party that gets more seats in Parliament than any other party, and that party leader is elected by some of the members of that party, not by the general public. In fact, then, if the claims are true that Ed Miliband was effectively made leader of the Labour Party this year by the votes of the trades unions, then that means that, were Labour to win the next general election, the Unions will have decided who gets to be the next leader. All the general electorate may get to decide is who gets to be the MP for a local constituency, and many voters may vote for a local MP because they like how that MP has served their constituency rather than because they hope their MPs party will form the next government. They could even hate the party leader, but like their local candidate for parliament.

Just as the general populace does not elect the prime minister, nor do they elect the cabinet. The cabinet, to each of whom each department of government is ultimately accountable, are not elected by the electorate but are selected by the Prime Minister, a person who, we have just seen, is also not elected, but selected by their party.

Beyond this, we have the rest of the governmental, or state apparatus. Judges are unelected. Police officers, customs officials, military officers, bureaucrats in the treasury, civil servants, and local chief executives are all unelected. Why is this significant? Well, firstly, because these people all have influence as special interests, with lobbyists on their behalf; but secondly, because much of the actual governing of the country is up to them. Anybody who has watched Yes, Minister knows this to be true! Beyond this, it is plain that while a new government is being elected, things carry on as usual, seen to by this unelected civil service. The actual creation of a new bill raises new problems, too: Each new law is actually written by unelected bureaucrats, and then given a final polish by a committee that includes only a handful of MPs. New laws are usually passed on a nod – an average of one a day under New Labour. MPs are not obliged to vote on a new law. Many may not even be in Parliament when the law is read and voted on – only forty are required for there to be a quorum.

The idea that how the country is governed is an expression of the will of the people, then, seems completely fallacious. But, beyond this, simply looking at who elects MPs should reveal the extent to which majority rule is a myth. In 2001, for instance, Tony Blair claimed to have a clear mandate from the people, after winning a landslide victory. He claimed he was elected by “the people” – a claim which, if true, means that anybody who voted against him (ignoring the fact already stated, that nobody votes for the Prime Minister) were not people! In reality, he was not elected by “the people” but by only some of the people.

Of course, the response is that this is known – I am supposed to be arguing that there is no majority rule in Britain, not that prime ministers lack unanimous approval, a claim much more easily defended. So, the defence would presumably be that whilst Tony Blair was elected by only some of the people, it was surely most of them, right, thus giving us majority rule? Wrong. In 2001 Labour won 10.7 million votes. The majority of voters, over 15 million, including 8 million Conservative voters, voted against Labour. That means that, whilst he continued as Prime Minister, 30% more people voted against him rather than for him.

On top of this, there was a very low turn out in 2001. There were about 45 million registered voters in Britain at the time and only 60% of them voted. This means that there was an even larger majority, 18 million, that couldn’t be persuaded to vote for Labour or anybody else. In 2001 Labour were supported by less than 24% of the electorate.

But beyond that, not everybody is registered to vote. The population of Britain, the entirety of which the government claims a right to rule over, and the entirety of which the government claims to represent, is over 60 million people. When we express the Labour vote as a percentage of that we can see that Labour actually got the backing of less than 18% of the British people.

This is nothing special about Labour, though; many “landslides” are like this. Margaret Thatcher won a “landslide victory” in 1983. However, no fewer than 162 of her MPs, over 40%, failed to win a majority in their constituencies – more people voted for some other guy than voted for the MP that entered parliament. Labour faired even worse, with as many as 68% of their MPs failing to win a majority in their constituencies. Yet all these people went to Westminster, awarded themselves fat salaries and expenses, and claimed to be the representatives of the people!

One-Person-One-Vote is an underlying assumption in the idea of majority rule. However, even the issue that even the fact that MPs, whether in the government or not, are elected by a minority of both the electorate and the general populace, can be muddied by observation of the fact that, in the UK, each member of the electorate may only have one vote, but some votes are worth more than others. As Eamonn Butler explains,

The fact is that most of us electors do not count for very much. We live in parliamentary seats that rarely change from one party to another between ballots. Elections are won or lost in the marginal constituencies, perhaps just thirty or forty of them, out of more than six hundred. And within those marginal constituencies, it is the marginal voters who will make the difference: not the majority who have solid party allegiances and are unlikely to change their vote, but the minority who have no set loyalties and may not even decide how to cast their vote until they have the ballot paper in their hand.

The votes of marginal voters are quite literally worth more than the votes of the rest of us: Political parties are willing to spend much more to try and get them than they are on votes from the rest of us. They pour resources into the marginal constituencies, and, with huge energy and precision, research and canvas the views of the waverers, the undecideds. They then print election material designed to match or reinforce these views. This process can be so precise that leaflets will turn up in the letter box of the floating voter, whilst his or her neighbour, who has fixed voting habits, will get none.

The effect is such that Eamonn Butler has concluded that “elections are decided by perhaps one or two percent of the electorate.” So much for majority rule!

In conclusion, return to the argument presented earlier:

  • P1: A government is legitimate if it has been elected by the majority of the governed, and thus authorised to make decisions by, or rule the entire populace on behalf of the majority
  • P2: British governments are elected by the majority of the governed, and are thus authorised by those majorities to make decisions or rule on their behalf
  • Therefore British governments are legitimate.

I have demonstrated that P2 is false, and therefore the argument cannot sustain the conclusion “British governments are legitimate.” Anybody wanting to defend the rule of a British government, to defend the claim that their rule is legitimate, is going to need to use some other grounds than the pretence that they are a product of majority rule.

Rich