civitas’s naivete on democracy

On North Carolina’s Civitas Institute’s blog, Cameron Harwick provides a clear and concise description of the libertarian approach to democracy: democracy is bad because it is collective:

we have a mechanism for giving people what they want – and that isn’t the political process: it’s the market…. The more things we subject to the political process, the more people lose. And that is unambiguously bad.

In other words: deciding by fiat that there is no social or common good leads very directly to the subsidiary claim that democracy itself is bad. But in many of the examples offered in the post, individual decisions have nonreducible social effects. Perhaps the most immediately relevant of these is the health care mandate, since uninsured individuals represent social costs both because they tend to show up for care when sick even if uninsured, and because of the moral hazard problem. But busing for desegregation, taxing for public goods, and so on are all examples where democratic decision making may well result in a better decision than aggregate individual decision making, even from the perspective of individuals. Harwick’s post lays out this position nicely, and thereby demonstrates the silliness of the libertarian approach. It’s a very similar argument to that in Pincione and Teson’s absurd book, Rational Choice and Democratic Deliberation, which pursues very much the same argument: that deliberation is bad because democracy is bad.

Note that this question goes directly to the other conversation going on here, since the tenability of the libertarian position rests on the question of whether collectivities are ever more than the sum of their individual parts. Generally, sociological theory and research suggest that, indeed, they are often more than the sum of their parts. It is therefore reasonable to expect sociologists to reject this libertarian position at greater rates than nonsociologists.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

6 thoughts on “civitas’s naivete on democracy”

  1. >Note that this question goes directly to the other conversation going on here, since
    >the tenability of the libertarian position rests on the question of whether collectivities
    >are ever more than the sum of their individual parts. Generally, sociological theory and
    >research suggest that, indeed, they are often more than the sum of their parts. It is
    >therefore reasonable to expect sociologists to reject this libertarian position at greater
    >rates than nonsociologists.

    That’s a fair point and it may have a lot to contribute towards explaining the general ideological leanings of sociologists.

    Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that:
    a) there is a certain kind of libertarian who takes autonomy as a moral position (eg, Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, the person you quoted) but there are also those who see expansive government action as almost inevitably problematic in practice but not necessarily wrong in principle (eg, George Stigler, Gordon Tullock, FA Hayek). I see your idea of sociology being incompatible with libertarian assumptions as mostly speaking to the former sort of libertarian
    b) as you said, this is about a mismatch between a certain kind of libertarian position and sociology, but it doesn’t explain why, if anything, social conservatism is more marginal to sociology than is libertarianism. to a man from Mars, it would seem like social conservatives should actually be a pretty good fit with a discipline that rejects methodological individualism and thinks that social institutions matter.
    c) sociology has always rejected methodological individualism but in the last few decades the ideological composition of the discipline’s membership has become much more decoupled from the ideological distribution in the general population. any complete reckoning is probably impossible but should at least take a stab at explaining the time trend

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  2. I wonder if, in the past thread, part of what is going on are differences in the prototypic “conservative” people have in mind for a question like “why aren’t there more conservatives in sociology?” I think the prototypic conservative in my mind is more of a social-religious conservative, and maybe-possibly Andy’s is more of a markets-not-government conservative.

    At least, the idea the intellectual content of sociology causes sociologists to be more liberal makes more sense to me for something like “what is the role of markets in society?” than “is abortion murder?” And the idea that it isn’t exactly discrimination to hold somebody’s stance on markets against them makes more sense to me, in the same way that certain kinds of economists might say that somebody who supports the minimum wage must not be much of an economist. Whereas there are other issues one could make an analogous assertion about that would feel to me uncomfortably close to discriminating against people for their religious beliefs.

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  3. “I think the prototypic conservative in my mind is more of a social-religious conservative, and maybe-possibly Andy’s is more of a markets-not-government conservative.”

    Put me in Dr. Perrin’s category when defining true conservatives. The use of government is to improve social opportunity, not to impose your worldview on others who do not share it. (The result will be that you can either compete in the world because your ideas are better or you will lose better people who will know better–see, e.g., the recent discussion among the Belmont trustees, spurred by firing their very capable women’s soccer coach, of whether they want to stay in their pond/cesspool or try swimming in the ocean.)

    On topic, the problem identified is the same one that has led economics astray–the strange conceit that macro events must mirror micro behavior, even when micro behavior (as game theory perpetually demonstrates it will) by itself will produce suboptimal results.

    Brad DeLong’s physics comparison abides. Libertarians can’t create democracy–the crowd cited above don’t even pretend to do so–and so are left to deny the evidence before them.

    The implication of the above is that, if you are a philanderer, you should marry a libertarian b/c s/he will be more likely to believe you instead of the evidence. This explains much about Ayn Rand, even before she decided that being rich was more important than being “right.”

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  4. Andrew, you’re about to get reported to the Society for the prevention of Cruelty to Straw Men. Libertarians reject democracy because its collective? That’s absurd. They believe in the usefulness of all sorts of collective entities which employ democratic procedures (i.e. families, firms, clubs, associations, etc) precisely because they result in better decisions than aggregate individual decisions. The difference is that they see democracy as problematic because the state possesses a monopoly on the use of force. It leaves no room for what Hayek calls “competition as a discovery process” which they believe is far superior to any sort of so-called “deliberative democracy.” They would also says that your notion of democracy rests on a notion of an omniscient state capable of knowing and implementing the preferences of millions of people on countless issues.

    The tenability of your position rests on the question of whether the “tenability of the libertarian position rests on the question of whether collectivities are ever more than the sum of their individual parts.” That’s just not the case.

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    1. I am happy to replace “the libertarian position” with “this libertarian position” if that will keep the straw man from harm. I intend this as a critique of the particular argument on the site, not libertarianism in general, though I think the error is committed by many libertarians including Pincione and Teson.

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