Those who follow my posts on American politics will probably have noticed me on a few occasions quoting with approval from Jon Chait, columnist at New York magazine. Chait makes no bones about being a partisan Democrat, but he’s often spot on as an analyst and he’s a very fine writer as well. So it’s worth having a look at a story of his yesterday that strikes me as being interestingly wrong, with an important grain of truth.

The subject is Kentucky senator Rand Paul, who represents, at least broadly speaking, the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. Paul is one of the few Republicans who seems willing to make a genuine effort to reach out to blacks and other minorities; a profile of him this week in New Republic recounts him telling an audience of black students that some sort of federal intervention to enforce civil rights was justified: “‘I’m not a firm believer in democracy,’ he explained. ‘It gave us Jim Crow.'”

Chait seizes on this line to paint Paul as distrustful of democracy – not because of segregation, but because “democracy allows the majority to vote away the property of the minority.”

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First up, I think Chait is quite right to say that attributing southern segregationist policies to democracy is “awfully strange”: the American south of the pre-civil-rights era was not a democracy, since blacks were forcibly prevented from exercising their theoretical right to vote. Nonetheless, Paul’s fundamental point is valid.

What Paul is saying is that people’s fundamental rights shouldn’t be subject to majority vote. And that’s not actually a controversial position: it’s the whole point of having a bill of rights and judicial review. Indeed even most of those who are opposed to a bill of rights aren’t opposed to safeguarding individual rights, they just disagree about the best way of doing it.

Nor is it controversial to say that property rights should be among those protected. Both the United States and Australian constitutions contain guarantees against taking property without compensation (see the fifth amendment and section 51(xxxi) respectively). There’s a thriving debate about the proper scope of those guarantees, but on Chait’s argument you’d have to say they have no proper role at all – a result that I suspect he doesn’t intend.

Paul may well have strange views about which sort of property rights should be protected, or how vigorously; Chait’s fully entitled to disagree with him there. But that’s a difference of degree, not a matter of basic principle. (Chait also has an obsession with the views of Ayn Rand, which I think he misrepresents, but that will have to be a digression for another day.)

So what’s all this got to do with democracy? Just about every democracy has a constitution that protects at least some basic rights; none of them seem to have found that there’s a conflict between that and democratic government. There’s a conflict between human rights and unlimited government, for sure: if a government has to respect people’s rights, then that’s a limitation on its powers.

But within the limits set by constitutions, courts and the rest, such a government can still be democratic. Indeed it’s very desirable that it should be, not just because democracy is good in itself (although I think it is) but because democratic governments have a much better record than authoritarian ones in respecting their constitutional limits.

So why would Paul say that his support for human rights makes him “not a firm believer in democracy”? This is where I think Chait is on the money: many libertarians have conceived a deep dislike for democracy, apparently in the belief that it’s somehow incompatible with limited government. Why?

My impression (although you’d have to trawl the archives to prove it) is that this idea started on the left. Supporters of expanded government programs, who wanted government power to be unlimited (at least in certain directions), found it rhetorically useful to tell people that they had to choose between democracy and limited government. To many of them, democracy necessarily involved the power of government to disregard the rights of people they didn’t like. Those who objected, for example, to governments expropriating their businesses could be attacked as “undemocratic”.

Unfortunately, many libertarians came to believe them. But they shouldn’t have: it’s a false dichotomy. There’s nothing undemocratic about a government that sticks to its proper functions (whatever they may be), provided that in doing so it’s responsible to the people.

There’s more to it, of course, than just innocent confusion. On the right, as Chait says, the overwhelming fear is of government money going to the “wrong” people  – “the minority that is responsible for progress and prosperity finds itself set upon by the grasping hordes.” The problem is not that the government is taking property, but that it’s doing, by their lights, the wrong things with it.

Any government redistributes resources to some extent: it’s impossible to run a government otherwise. If your conception of property rights is that they prevent any redistribution at all, then you’re out of luck. (Even getting rid of government altogether doesn’t solve the problem, although it would take us too far afield to explain why.) But when certain right-wing libertarians say they’re against “redistribution” they have something much more specific in mind, namely money ending up in the hands of the poor.

And if that’s the problem, then nobbling democracy might be a very effective remedy. If the poor don’t get a vote, they’ll be less able to influence government to look after them. But that won’t stop redistribution (indeed on the historical record it’ll probably increase it), it just means it’ll work in the interests of the rich and powerful.

There’s hardly any room to doubt that that’s the real objective of many in the Republican Party. If Paul is one of them, then his scepticism about democracy is well founded. But if he’s not – that is, if he really is a libertarian – then democracy should be nothing to fear.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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