libertarianism and democracy

In  the Washington Post, Michael Chwe argues that the “beliefs and values” of James M. Buchanan “conflict with basic democratic norms.” Buchanan (1919-2013) was a hugely influential public choice economist. Chwe is intervening in the debate about him that has been provoked by Nancy MacLean’s recent book Democracy in Chains. Although I haven’t read MacLean, I want to offer a theoretical point.

If freedom means non-interference, and if democracy means equitable decision-making in groups, then freedom and democracy are in tension.

“Non-interference” means not being told what to do or what not to do. “Equitable decision-making” means a process that yields a result binding on the whole group, based on everyone’s input. It need not mean majority-rule; democratic processes can be more complex and demanding than that. But democracy does yield binding outcomes, which may interfere with what individuals want to do. Therefore, democracy as equitable decision-making conflicts with freedom as non-interference.

This means that libertarians and classical liberals should own up to the fact that they are critics of democracy. Yes, they favor certain forms of liberty and equity, but those don’t equal democracy. Libertarians are leery of binding decisions by non-voluntary groups.

For their part, strong democrats–people who want to defend and expand the scope of democratic decision-making–should admit that they are critics of freedom as non-interference.

But one can compromise. I happen to think that non-interference is a real good. People rightly don’t like to be told what they may and may not do, except when it is strictly necessary. I also happen to think that democratic decision-making is a real good: people should deliberate and shape their common world. If the two goods trade off, then we can design institutions that offer elements of democracy along with strong constraints to protect individuals from unjust interference by the group. For those who favor a compromise, Buchanan’s work is full of important insights and cautions, but is not a satisfactory political theory all by itself.

Two important complications:

  1. Non-interference is a problematic concept. We tend to think of a person as free from interference insofar as she goes about her everyday life without anyone else making explicit commands or threats. But that person lives in a world shaped by institutions, norms, and powerful decisions by other people, starting with her parents and including her employer, competing companies in the marketplace, celebrities who shape the culture, etc. It’s not clear that she is more free if she faces fewer explicit, immediate rules.
  2. There are other kinds of freedom, besides non-interference. In a post that still draws daily traffic, I summarized six types. I actually omitted an important seventh type on which Philip Pettit is an expert: freedom as non-domination. This means freedom from any other person’s arbitrary will or discretionary choice. One can be highly limited by rules that are non-arbitrary, or one can be subject to arbitrary decisions that happen not to be very consequential. If you think that arbitrariness (rather than constraint) is the main threat to liberty, then you can favor strong democratic institutions. But they can’t be simply majoritarian. Instead, they must be aimed at producing non-arbitrary decisions: decisions that are justified by reasons, influenced by all opinions, and consistent with rules. I find this very promising, but I also believe that we must attend to the insights of Buchanan and others about how real institutions fail to honor such abstract principles.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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