Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Taking Liberties since 1797

I recently read the most fascinating article on how democracy undermines liberty.

Entitled Taking Liberties (it seems that nothing is original), it was written by Craig F. Smith, who was at the time a research fellow at the University of Glasgow and has since become a lecturer in the Department of Moral Philosophy at the University of St Andrews. By chance I happen to also be reading a short summary of the works of Adam Smith to which he provided commentary.

The article begins by reminding us of one simple fact that we long seem to have forgotten. Democracy is not an end in itself, but a tool we created to promote freedom. The aim of democracy was to give to the people the power to sack their rulers (we may now prefer to see them as our delegated decision-makers, even our administrators). Such power would act as a very effective check on tyranny, for the tyrant could be easily overthrown without the need to shed blood.

What democracy was never intended to convey was sovereignty. Democracy was basically a negative power: the right to take power away from a leader. But it quickly began to mutate into a positive power, conveying a right to act in the name of the people. In the UK, a sense of “popular sovereignty” merged with the traditional sovereign powers of the monarch – exercised through his prime minister since the early C18th – to give parliament unlimited powers. Note, for example, that in the UK parliament may amend the constitution by a simple majority in both houses – unlike in the US, where a two thirds majority is needed in both houses and three quarters of the individual state legislatures. This raises the very value of the constitution; what is a constitution if it is not distinct from the general nature of law.

The idea that democracy conveys sovereignty is anathema to liberty. Let us ignore, for the moment, the flaws inherent in our form of democracy, whereby a government can be elected with a strong majority in parliament based on just 37 per cent of the votes cast and only 22 per cent of the whole electorate, which means a tiny minority of the whole population. Let us instead assume that all governments rule with the support of a majority of the people. Even so, they enable the majority to impose their will on the minority. This creates two inherent problems. As This merely ensures that a series of temporary coalitions can form around individual views, constantly marginalising new minorities. They may be marginalised because of their race (Jews, blacks), their religion (Muslims, atheists), their lifestyle (smokers, hunters) or their affluence (the very poor and the very rich). But because democracy enables governments to please all of the people some of the time, they need never please all of the people all of the time. All governments need is for most of the people to be happy most of the time.

Democracies also lead to the rise of the professional politician. These days it is axiomatic that politicians need to devote all their time to their jobs, and so should be paid a handsome salary. Without payment, only the rich would be able to afford to devote time to public office, which would lead to plutocracy. Yet paying permanent politicians has its own dangers which are often overlooked. One is that they can afford to devote time to re-election while their opponents have a proper job to do. Another is that they have the time and incentive to shape legislation to guarantee their re-election. The result is a bias towards activism; politicians want to be seen to do things, and preferably to “bring home the bacon”, to gain benefits for their constituents at the expense of the nation as a whole.

The result is that democracy actually undermines freedom. The two most obvious examples of this are the “ban culture” which prevails in Westminster, and the ever-spiralling tax rate.

Laws exist to ban things. Assuming that one accepts as a fundamental principle (and it is worth noting that this is true in Britain and America, but not in France) that everything is permitted that is not explicitly banned, then laws cannot convey freedoms (unless they repeal existing bans). Thus legislative activism naturally leads to greater limits to freedom. As Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson Nick Clegg MP has noted in a number of speeches, the Blair government introduced on average one new law every day. There are a lot of things we have been banned from doing over the past 10 years.

This is especially problematic due to a common confusion between the legislative and administrative functions of the government. The recent smoking ban is an excellent example of this. The government has an administrative role (as master of the NHS) to promote public health and to keep costs under control. Unable to do this by administrative means, it uses legislation to ban the things that it cannot control (activities leading to lung-related illnesses). It cites health and safety legislation but ignores the freedom of individuals to enter and leave premises and to take or decline jobs. In effect, it uses its supposed sovereign power to forbid activity that is disapproves of for reasons of administrative convenience.

Other examples are more blatant; it is widely accepted that the ban on hunting with dogs was largely about playing to Labour’s gallery of class warriors and urban intellectuals.

The other inherent bias in the system is towards escalating taxation. Democracy enables the majority to impose their will on the minority. If the majority is poor and the minority rich, democracy acts as the great leveller (generally levelling down!), forcing the rich to give their money to the poor in direct transfers or by buying them services. As long as more people benefit than lose the measures will receive democratic support, even though the amount lost by the losers must equal the amount gained by the winners (in fact, the losers will lose more than the winners gain, as the inefficiencies of the system will lead to waste). Thus governments are inclined to continually raise taxation so as to dole out political favours to the masses at the expense of the productive few.

If this sounds doubtful, the following graph may be of note, demonstrating as it does the inexorable rise in Government expenditure in seven of the world’s leading democracies following the massive expansion of the franchise in the late C19th and early C20th.

The result is particularly hard to reverse because it generates a dependency culture, an addiction to the state as the solution to all our problems. “Liberty means responsibility,” observed George Bernard Shaw. “That is why most men dread it.” Throughout my lifetime every crisis – natural or man-made, financial, physical or moral – has been met with the demand that politicians take action. ‘Somebody should do something about this’ is a common cry among those who have lost the habit of asking ‘What can I do about this?’ So instead of buying our groceries in local shops we demand that regulators throttle the supermarkets; rather than choose a smoke-free pub we demand that smoking is banned in public places; rather than find a better job or undergo training we vote for tax-credits.

Democracy, as Churchill noted, “is the worst form of government except all the others”, and it is not my purpose nor is it Smith’s to argue that we should abandon democracy. But we need to remember that democracy exists to serve liberty – not vice versa. There is a reason why some of us consider ourselves Liberal Democrats. Of course there is a role for the state: classical liberalism is about limiting, not eliminating, it. We must uphold and even defend democracy, but we must be open minded about it, too, and ready to recognise its flaws. We have allowed democracy to run away with itself, and it has taken our freedom with it.

Craig F. Smith has some suggestions for how to restore liberty within democracy – though he admits that they may be pie-in-the-sky and will certainly not be easily accepted. However, there a more fundamental lesson to learn. We have given up too much of our freedom by perpetuating the myth that in choosing who leads us we invest them with unlimited power. We must limit the power of parliament and the executive and re-focus responsibility in society on individuals. Bernard Shaw was right that freedom worries people and places great responsibilities upon them. But I hope Thomas Jefferson spoke for us all when he stated that he “would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.

NOTE: The title of this article borrows from the film Taking Liberties since 1997, but refers to the first imposition of Income Tax in Great Britain.


Kit said...

Excellent post but I can't resist asking are you saying "Liberal Democrat" is an oxymoron?

Bishop Hill said...

Definitely post of the day for me. I was interested to see another classical liberal connection to St Andrews too.

I will have to read Craig Smith's papers in more detail, but having glanced through his recommendations for constitutional principles, I think he misses a trick. Defining what government can't do (via a Bill of Rights) is actually a weak and potentially even a dangerous step. Many would say it would be much better to define what it can do and leave it at that. Then your right to (say) free speech is protected because it doesn't appear as an area the government is entitled to legislate in.

Tom Papworth said...


Not at all. A "Liberal Democrat" is one who recognises the need to limit democracy to prevent it from infringing on the freedom of individuals.


I think you have a good point. I have half written my summary of the companion paper, in which I reiterate the point that everything is allowed unless it is specifically forbidden.

The reverse is true for government: everything should be forbidden unless specifically permitted.

Jock Coats said...

One thing we cannot seem to escape though is what David Hume described as the "recommendation of antiquity". We are far too timid when it comes to proposing constitutional reform, and it comes down to "wonks" like Smith and dare I say it some of the sort who read your blog to make proposals that we know have little chance of success as Smith says of his.

How do we convince a critical mass of people that the current system is broken if men are "governed by authority not reason"?

Tom Papworth said...

It’s a huge problem. I have begun to realise that a lot of people really don’t want freedom.

In a reverse of the liberal maxim that everybody should have the maximum freedom possible without infringing the freedoms of others, I find that most people want to the maximum latitude to impose their beliefs on others that is possible without the consequent burden of others’ impositions becoming unbearable.

Thus people would rather ban smoking than avoid smoky pubs, even though it violates the freedom of individuals to smoke and the freedom on private landlords to decide who may do what in their private establishments. They care more about foxes than people so they will jail those who hurt foxes. Go for a walk in the clothes God gave you and they’ll call you a pervert, set the police upon you and even beat you up.

And when some petty regulation disrupts their life they rail against politicians and “the system”, without realising that this is the very system that they are so thrilled to use against those with whose lifestyles they disapprove, and to which they have give both tacit and explicit assent.

I can see no way out of the ties with which we have bound ourselves. Democracy is now considered to be an end in itself, and freedom only expressible through a ballot box. As long as people think that freedom lies in collective action and majoritarianism, we are doomed to a tyranny that few of us can even see.

Joe Otten said...

Er, am I missing something here?

1. "Democracy bad for liberty" => "tyranny good for liberty".

2. "tyranny good for liberty" is false.


3. "Democracy bad for liberty" is false.


Tom Papworth said...

Er… Yes, you are.

Tyranny is the opposite of liberty. It is not the opposite of democracy. It is quite possible to have a democratic tyranny (Hitler was elected, and the Algerians voted for in 1991 for a party that was likely to abolish democracy)

The point of this article is that even when democracy functions perfectly, it naturally leads to legislative proliferation, a “ban culture”, rising taxation and more regulation. This is not liberal; it is the tyranny of the majority.

Not of a particular majority, mind, but a series of temporary majorities that coalesce around support for one oppressive measure or another (e.g. prohibition), force their will on the minority, and then dissipate, to be replaced by a new and differently constituted majority that demands a different coercive measure (e.g. compulsory cycle helmets).

The point is not (as I’m sure I explained) that we should abandon democracy. The point is that we must make sure that it cannot be used as a tool for tyranny. Therefore it must be a liberal democracy, with a limited State, guaranteed freedoms and so forth.

I will post some suggestions for that can be affected this evening.

Jock Coats said...

No, democracy becomes its own form of tyranny. And those who elevate democracy to an end rather than a means are complicit.

It's not about democracy being the opposite of tyranny. It's as that Churchill quote in the article says that democracy is the worst form of government apart from all the others. I would venture that all forms of "government" lead to tyranny of some kind, because "government" is the opposite of freedom. Less government is less opposed to freedom and more government is more opposed to freedom.

ISTM that government is always someone thinking that they know better than everryone else and wanting to impose that on everyone else.

But I was wondering - can a libertarian stand for political office without upsetting Sean Gabb?

Jock Coats said...

Sorry - that was "no" to Joe, not Tom!

Tom Papworth said...

I think we probably guess that, Jock :o)

My guess to the Sean Gabb question is "no". He'd see the office-seeker as a sell-out.

What does "ISTM" stand for?

Joe Otten said...

ISTM = It seems to me

Anyway, yawn, Hitler was not elected, he only ever got 15% of the vote. He was installed by the mainstream right-wing party which was elected. (I would guess many UK conservatives wanted to do something similar with Moseley.)

But getting back to the point, if people elect a tyranny, then democracy is over. Democracy is the ability to remove leaders (Popper), and this ability can hardly diminish liberty.

Yes, in theory, a democracy could behave tyrannically, and still be re-elected. In theory there could be a libertarian dictator. Show me a good example of either. There are good reasons why in practice it happens the other way round.

If all you are saying is that some democracies are freer than others - that liberal democracies are better than social democracies, fine. Of course that's true.

But frequently this debate, particularly in the US, seems to include an imaginary third option - a government constitutionally limited, so that whether it is democratic or not it cannot be tyrannical.

The US is of course anomalous in having had a very good constitution a long time ago, and can be excused for imagining that this sort of manna from the heavens is natural.

The rest of us have to worry about where such a constitution might come from, and what would give it legitimacy. Of course only a democratic process would give it legitimacy. Guys, we are back to the need to win the political arguments for the kind of government we want. And we are a million times more likely to get it thanks to democracy.

Tristan said...

Excellent post. It articulates some things I've been thinking about recently.

The Bishop's talk about saying what governments can do is interesting. To an extent that's what the US Bill of Rights and constitution attempted with Amendment 10:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

Of course this has been ignored and the meaning of the constitution twisted so as to make it irrelevant.

Government will always grow it seems...

Tom Papworth said... a cancer :oD

Edis said...

The New Yorker of 5 July discusses Bryan Caplan’s book “The Myth of the Rational Voter” which I am still trying to come to grips with.

Tom Papworth said...


You still appear to be labouring under the delusion that this article is condemning democracy, as opposed to criticising it.

Of course we have a greater chance of liberty under democracy, but we still see our liberty impinged upon every day by governments claiming to have "democratic mandates".

I agree with Popper: democracy is the power to sack one's leaders, not the transfer of sovereignty to them.

We will of course have to struggle to win support for liberalism in a society that has been conditioned to socialism (I lament this point at the end of my follow-on post: Hopefully we can get people to agree to limit the power of the government to do whatever today's majority wants.

If that is not our aim, but instead we are simply trying to get our policies enacted by whatever majority we can muster against the will of a minority, then our "liberal democracy" is no better than "social democracy" or "compassionate conservatism"; just a bunch of do-gooders trying to coerce the unwilling to do what we think is right.

Joe Otten said...


You seem to be using the word 'socialism' in much the same way as this guy:

But it is quite wrong - socialism does not mean 'whatever the state does'.

I hope we do get the kind of limiting constitution that you are talking about, but I am not at all clear that your thinking is correct.

The majority of the day will often want to pursue the wrong policy. Right. Therefore we need an entrenched constitution which rules out certain kinds of wrong policy? Sorry, no I don't follow the logic. All that will do is systematically impose the will of the majority of one day on the will of the majority of another day. It is saying that the present is wiser than the future.

Yes, such a constitutions would be good, but not by virtue of being a means to oppose majority opinion. Minorities get it wrong too, and many who complain of a tyranny of the majority may be seeking a tyranny of the minority.

Tom Papworth said...


I have a tendency to use "Socialsim" as a shorthand for the combination of statism, collectivism and egalitarianism under which we laboured (should that have a capital "L"?) during the C20th. I accept this may not be a purist definition, but I need something to call it!

(I can't help noticing that there are a few too many 'isms in that paragraph. I'm sure it's a sign of sloppy writing.)

I think you have got to the nub of the matter, which is the degree to which a limiting constitution is a statement of the fundamental principles underlying a society, as opposed to being simply the older generation bequeathing its prejudices to the next.

I believe that there is a fundamental difference between these underlying principles of society (which must exist before any society can be said to exist, even if they have not yet been codified) and the policy of the moment.

I entirely agree that we should not simply enshrine policy in a constitution so that future generations are bound by our whims. That is why the 18th Amendment was such a disgrace, and why I fear that a British constitution would make (say) tax-funded, state-managed, near-monopoly provision of health care “Free at the point of delivery” a right enshrined in the constitution, where as it should be a matter for simple statute.

But the fundamental freedoms of individuals, that exist prior to the forming of communities – let alone governments – should not be so easily dispensed with. The purpose of a constitution is to limit government, after all – it should do more than just lay out structures and procedures.

There is also a practical issue here. There really is no point in having a limiting constitution if it can be amended (as at present) by a simple majority without having to seek so much as a counter-signature (Her Majesty aside, and she’s not refused for three centuries!). If you “hope we do get the kind of limiting constitution that you are talking about”, but you do not agree with my logic, what is your justification for limiting the majority?

BTW: I hope when you and I debate I don’t come across as quite as condescending as they guy you highlighted!

Right. The last word is yours, as I’m off to Crete! (How is Sheffield, btw ;o)