Libertarian Critiques of Democracy Can't be Refuted by Showing that it's Better than Dictatorship

Democracy is clearly superior to despotism. But libertarians are still right to worry about voter ignorance and advocate tighter constraints on government power.


Imagine we are holding a debate about whether Queen Cersei Lannister of Game of Thrones fame should rule the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Cersei's critics correctly point out that she is often cruel, impulsive, and short-sighted. Her defenders admit the truth of these charges. But they say it doesn't matter: What's really important is that Cersei is far preferable to Sauron, the Dark Lord from the Lord of the Rings. Relative to elevating Sauron, giving power to Cersei will result in much less oppression, enslavement, and death. Thus, all must bend the knee to Queen Cersei, the first of her name!

This defense of Cersei makes excellent sense if she and Sauron are the only two available options. But not if there are other realistically feasible alternatives. And even if we do have to go with Cersei, perhaps her authority can be constrained in various ways, so as to reduce the harm she can cause.

In this example, the choice between giving unconstrained power to Cersei and giving it to Sauron is a false dichotomy. A similar false dichotomy crops up in real-world political debates about the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. Too many people are inclined to dismiss critiques of the latter on the grounds that it is still far preferable to dictatorship. A recent otherwise laudable article on libertarian criticisms of democracy by Jason Kuznicki of the Cato Institute is an example of this fallacy. I'm a fan of Kuznicki's work. But I think he misfires here.

Kuznicki recognizes that libertarian scholars such as Jason Brennan, Bryan Caplan, and myself, are right to highlight the problem of widespread voter ignorance as a significant shortcoming of democracy. This flaw is deeply embedded within the political system, and leads to a variety of harmful and unjust policies. Indeed, you don't have to be a libertarian to recognize the significance of this problem. Prominent liberal scholars such as Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have documented it as well.

But Kuznicki believes the libertarian critique of voter ignorance is ultimately insignificant because democracy has an important advantage over dictatorship. Specifically, it ensures peaceful succession and replacement of political leaders:

Understood in the context of the systems that went before it, representative democracy was a new attempt to solve an ancient problem, and to improve on the solution given by hereditary monarchy. Under democracy, not only was the act of removing a ruler not an act of treason, but one might say that it was the very cornerstone of the system itself…. We owe our truest allegiance never to a person, and never to a family, but only to an impersonal method of choosing, one that we resolve to undertake at regular intervals, and not only when an officeholder happens to die….

One may object that ignorant voters can't reliably recognize a bad ruler, and there is certainly some truth to this. Majorities sometimes empower bad people and remove good ones. Yet if we take it as a given that rulers will change…. it seems clearly better to have a mechanism agreed upon by which changes can happen, and by which these changes can command assent without violence. If sooner or later one ruler must give way to another in any case, how shall it be done? By a bloody and opportunistic palace coup? By the rising of an angry mob? Or by counting a stack of papers on a duly appointed day? This shouldn't be a hard call to make….

Democracy does its good work—the work of keeping civil peace in a presumptive time of stress and danger—without depending at all on voters' knowledge….

It is indeed true that democracy is better than hereditary monarchy (and other forms of despotism) at ensuring peaceful succession of leaders. Kuznicki is right to emphasize that this is an important advantage of democracy. Sadly, he is also right to suggest that some libertarians are prone to forget that.

But, as a response to libertarian criticisms of democracy, this argument only works if the libertarians were themselves advocating despotism or some other system prone to violent conflict over positions of power. In reality, however, none of the writers Kuznicki is responding to advocate any such thing. Bryan Caplan argues for tighter limitations on the power of government, so that voter ignorance would have less scope to cause harm. I argue for both that and greater decentralization of government power, so that people can make more decisions by "voting with their feet," in which framework they have better incentives to become informed and minimize bias in their decision-making.

Notice that these approaches are entirely compatible with retaining regular elections as a mechanism for replacing political leaders. It's just that the officials in question will have less power than they might otherwise, and more of that power will be dispersed to regional and local leaders as opposed to national ones. Indeed, violence may be less likely to arise under a system where elected officials have less power than one where they have more. In the latter case, the losers of an election have more incentive to take up arms, because they have more to fear from a government dominated by the winners. Such dynamics have in fact generated uprisings and civil wars in all too many emerging democracies.

Jason Brennan advocates "epistocracy," a system of voting that would be more heavily weighted towards citizens with greater knowledge of public policy. I have significant reservations about his theory. But it too is entirely compatible with regular, peaceful replacement of leaders through an electoral process. Indeed, we already put some epistocratic constraints on the franchise, for example by barring children, incarcerated felons, some of the mentally ill, and immigrants who can't pass a civics test that most native-born Americans are likely to fail.

Brennan, Caplan, and I could be wrong for any number of reasons. But our concerns about democracy and voter ignorance are not refuted by citing the superiority of democracy over dictatorship. Just as Sauron is not the only possible alternative to Cersei, so democracy, as it currently exists, is not the only possible alternative to dictatorship. Democracy combined with greater decentralization and tighter constraints on government power is one such alternative. Epistocracy might be another.

What is true of Kuznicki's article is also true of other efforts to dismiss libertarian concerns about democracy by emphasizing its superiority over despotism. In a 2013 post, I addressed another variation of this type of argument, advanced by conservative political commentator Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.

Arguments like those of Gobry and Kuznicki are related to, but distinct from, a different concern about libertarian critiques of democracy: even if valid, they are reprehensible because they give ammunition to dangerous illiberal authoritarians. Whatever flaws democracy might have, we shouldn't air its dirty laundry at a time when liberal democracy is under serious threat from populist nationalists and other enemies. I responded to that type of concern here, building on an earlier post on the same subject by Jason Brennan. Far from helping illiberal forces, inquiry into the dangers of public ignorance can potentially help counter them.

Democracy does indeed have important advantages over despotism. Libertarians (and others) who tend to forget or ignore that would do well to remember it. But we should also remember the importance of avoiding false dichotomies.

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  1. I see Prof. Somin is pushing his political literacy test for voting rights (wonder who’ll write it) again. Still expecting him to call for a poll tax any day.

    1. Yes. Bear in mind that his friend Bryan Caplan’s idea of ignorance is disagreeing with Bryan Caplan.

  2. Just out of curiosity, who is (seriously) arguing for unconstrained democracy? Even the British do not, in actual practice, let their elected Parliament do whatever it wants.

  3. It seems to me that if you are arguing for incremental improvements, or what you think are improvements, in democracy you certainly have a reasonable case. You don’t need to be a libertarian to recognize that there could be improvements.

    But that’s not what I get from libertarians. Instead we have all the near-anarchy, taxation is theft, etc., etc. wild stuff. Indeed, Brennan’s “epistocracy” is pretty crazy, IMO.

    Knowledge of public policy? If you are ask voters to name, say, Supreme Court justices, that strikes me as useless. If you are going to ask them about real policy issues you inevitably bias the results towards the test setters’ opinions. I can’t think of a single politician, left or right, I would trust to design a good test, or to pick a group to do so.

    1. It’s the usual tactic of the advocate – ‘look here’s a cost to what you’re doing, this other thing doesn’t have that cost so lets do the other thing.’

      Yes, government programs have the cost of increasing the burden of ignorance in the electorate that governs them. But to fail to look at the benefit, or to look at the cost of the policy alternative of not having those programs, is hiding the problem.

      These side arguments just muddy the thesis further.

      1. I don’t see it as a failure to look at the benefit vs the cost, but that with a more powerful government the operating principle is concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. The more powerful the government gets, the more areas in which it exerts significant control, the more beneficial it is to a particular interest group to lobby for their program. I have long called my self a proponent not of small government but of limited government. There would be far less incentive to spend millions (billions?) obtaining control of the government if it were powerless to do the things you wanted it to do. Meanwhile, fifty states trying various iterations of programs and policies, (one might even call it the laboratories of democracy), would be in a position to come up with solutions to the problems they face rather than a one size fits all. Easier to implement, easier to change, and doesn’t require Sauron or Cersei to oversee. And, as pointed out above, if you don’t like their solutions you can always go to another state and try theirs.

        1. Prof. Somin’s general thesis about rational ignorance in the electorate is that it’s a problem best addressed by minimizing government power and devolving all you can to the state and local level.

          But you are not wrong – rent-seeking is indeed a problem as government grows. Again, though, look at the alternative – nothing concentrates benefits and socializes costs like unregulated markets. Mergers and acquisitions mean you can assume complete control without bothering with that whole lobbying step.

          Of course, markets do that efficiently, which ain’t nothing. It’s huge, actually. There are some exceptions (Medicare), but the government’s attenuated efficiency incentive ends up being a bigger problem than rent-seeking all told, IMO.
          I am all about regulated markets, or governmental market-like instruments for just about all consumer goods. But markets are a bad vehicle to deliver public benefits from national infrastructure to basic research to the fundamental social responsibility of caring for its sick, old, and weak.

          1. You conveniently ignore the source of most of those mergers is new regulations from government, not free market pressure.

            1. Unregulated markets rush towards monopoly; that’s basic economics.

              1. No unregulated markets don’t generally rush toward monopoly, or even move that way slowly. Most monopolies are granted or protected by the government (the protection being sometimes intentional and sometimes just benefiting incumbents with laws, regulations, and rules intended for some other purpose).

                In cases where the government dosn’t support a monopoly, at least when your talking about a broad and profitable market. Monopolies or near monopolies tend to lose their market share over time.

                Standard Oil is a good example of this. It had been losing its (still very large) market share for many years before it was eventually broken up.

                Its possible that the network effects for something like Facebook or Google could be different, but probably not in a very durable way (with them being as dominant in social networking and search as they are now over generations). Even in something as relatively new as widespread use of the internet formerly dominant companies have already fallen.

          2. Oddly, people know even less about their state and local leaders and government though. To the extent they know about government, it is the national leaders and policies that are covered in the national media they watch.

            1. From reading Prof. Somin, I believe his argument regarding that issue is that devolution limits the harm of bad policies and eases ‘voting with your feet’.

  4. What if your third option increases the probability that Sauron will beat Cersei ?

    1. That scenario has the Ring of truth.

  5. Personally I think if you work for the government you should not be allowed to vote or be allowed to create a government employment union. Robert A. Heinlein Starship Trooper hit it on the nail about this issue.

    1. What about people that receive government aid? What about people that work for businesses that get government contracts?

      You can always make a case for some group of people to not be allowed to vote, but whether those cases are strong or weak is not to be decided by the government itself (even through a majority of voters). The most important limits on a democratic government are limits on deciding who gets to vote, who gets to run for office, and, of course, limits on regulating free speech and free press.

      1. How about granting one vote for every thousand dollars (net) you pay the government? Then make taxes voluntary.

    2. TFW you find yourself agreeing with a parody of fascism…

  6. Democracy works, but not if women, low IQ people, government employees, and welfare users are allowed to participate.

    1. I have to laugh at this. “Democracy works, but not if people I disagree with get to vote!”

      1. It’s not a matter of disagreeing. People who vote for free stuff paid for by other people are not doing so because they sincerely think it’s better for society, but because they want their free stuff. Women have a need to be “nice” and “compassionate,” which doesn’t work in government.

        1. Democracy works, but not if women,

          Women have a need to be “nice” and “compassionate,” which doesn’t work in government.

          JFC what century are you living in? Talk about not being qualified to vote.

          Fuck off with the sexist bullshit. I can’t believe this even has to be said, but here we are. And people lament that there aren’t more libertarian women when we should be astonished there are any at all.

        2. “People who vote for free stuff paid for by other people are not doing so because they sincerely think it’s better for society, but because they want their free stuff.”

          Voting for lower taxes on yourself means that someone else is going to pay more unless government spending is also cut. Here in Florida, we passed a couple of amendments to our state constitution that will lower certain taxes. One was an increase to the “homestead” exemption, meaning less property tax, and another added second homes and businesses to those getting such exemptions from property tax. But how many of the people that voted for these tax breaks will also accept less money spent on roads, police and other first responders, schools, etc.?

          The fact is that it is much easier to find voters willing to lower taxes than to find voters willing to cut spending by the same amount. All kinds of voters, left, right, poor, and rich, will push to have someone else pay for the government that they want (especially at the federal level, hence our exploding debt). Your focus on the “free stuff” that the poor receive is just showing your biases.

          1. I criticize the failure of the Republicans to cut Social Security and Medicare just as much. But the fact is, the American people as a whole won’t accept cuts to their free stuff. I voted for all of those Florida amendments, not because I think they’re a good idea, but because I want to starve the beast, at all levels.

            1. There’s a surprise, ActualRightWingPatriot = Florida Man…

  7. I call to mind Winston Churchill’s statement about democracy: “It’s the worst form of government ever, except for all the others that have been tried.”

  8. I think that Prof. Somin is wrong to argue that “voting with their feet” is preferable to voting at the ballot box. He is presuming that it is actually easy to do so, but relocating just to move to a place with “better” state and/or local government isn’t so easy, particularly for the poor. Fiction often uses the trope of the character looking to “escape” their small town or poor neighborhood. People can relate to that precisely because it isn’t easy to just pick up and go somewhere else for a better life. (Some places have economic and other advantages that have nothing to do with the quality of their government, as well, such as being close to natural resources, having a good climate, and so on.)

    But voting is (or should be) easy. It is also something that the rich and poor alike can do with equal effectiveness. Limiting government power as a way to mitigate the problems with democracy is great. But elections are still preferable to “voting with their feet”.

    1. Not his argument.

      You are comparing voting with your feet to winning at the ballot box.

      You may be happy with all your elected officials and laws, but I expect a majority of people are not.

      He is saying that is is good to be able to vote with your feet in addition to voting, or are you anti-immigrant?

  9. Once again, Somin’s peculiar notion of a world of freedom-loving individuals, all thriving without aid of government, as they confront without means unchecked corporate power. Ordinary people have enough experience to suspect that is a problem. Against that, Somin seems to offer only re-iterations of theory which that experience already calls into question. And from Somin, never so much as a nod in the direction of that experience.

    1. Indeed. Which is why libertarianism so often comes across as Communism for the right. Lots of wonderful theory that is quite useful as critique, but is also allergic to reality, to lived historical experience, because that would complicate things too much. The failure and contradictions in reality must be a failure of the people?it’s never been properly tried, say the Communists and the libertarians?not the ideas, because it all makes sense in the perfectly ordered models of the mind.

  10. One major issue with the idea that Democracy > Monarchy or Dictatorship is that it is assumed without evidence.

    Not that I thing dictatorships and monarchies are all that good, but I do think that its fairly unproven that democratic government is sustainable in a way that is superior to a lineal monarchy. The only good examples we really have are England and the USA. Everywhere else it is very short on data that is good for democracy (French Revolution, South America, Arab Spring, etc) or it is currently stable in a country that more or less is a pseudo-colony of the British-American zeitgeist (all of western Europe).

    The evidence we have is that if you have an attenuated democracy, with heavy Anglo-American influences, and strong diplomatic ties to America in the Pax-Americana era then it is a fairly stable situation.

    1. Hello! The Netherlands (democracy since 1581) and Switzerland (democracy since 1307 or so) say hi.

  11. The irony is that you assume that political knowledge is vital.

    Quite a few people who are deeply involved and obsessed with politics and information are some of the biggest imbeciles on the planet.

    All of those politicians criticized so frequently? They are exceptionally well-versed in politics. Political ignorance is not their problem. It is that their ideas suck.

  12. Necessary corollary – if you want to argue against something and not be tarred with the things worse than it, you need to offer a counter-proposal that you argue is better. Not a sin here – all three of the named writers do have counter-proposals. But it’s definitely a sin elsewhere. A ‘reject democracy’ position without a specific positive advocacy really is advocating for despotism. (Many of the ‘reject capitalism’ fanatics have had this problem ever since communism became synonymous with mass murder).

  13. Hereditary rulers may be good or bad, but they are trained since birth to take a long term view of governing. Periodic elections of democratic rulers mean that no one has any long term stake in how things turn out.

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