Saturday, August 2, 2014

Is Income Inequality Causing American "Democracy" to Go the Way of Athenian Democracy?

The Left's crusade against "inequality"—i.e., against liberty—takes many forms. Oxford University professor Stein Ringen has one. In Is American democracy headed to extinction?, Ringen argues that Athenian democracy collapsed because the rich gained too much political power, and American democracy is headed for the same fate:

It took only 250 years for democracy to disintegrate in ancient Athens. A wholly new form of government was invented there in which the people ruled themselves. That constitution proved marvelously effective. Athens grew in wealth and capacity, saw off the Persian challenge, established itself as the leading power in the known world and produced treasures of architecture, philosophy and art that bedazzle to this day. But when privilege, corruption and mismanagement took hold, the lights went out.

Ringen starts with a false premise: While Athens was a democracy, America is a constitutionally limited republic (not a "representative democracy," as Ringen describes it). What's the difference? In a republic, the power of the majority is limited by the principle of individual rights. Not so in democracy, where the majority has absolute power.

I'm not too familiar with ancient Athens, so I can't judge Ringen's claims about what caused its collapse. But I will say that under the original conception of America, in which rights are inalienable and the government's only purpose is to protect those rights, the term "the people" means something entirely different from what it means under democracy. "The people", in America, means qua individual. In a democracy—representative, direct, or otherwise—"the people" means qua the majority; the group; the mob.

In America, to "rule themselves" means for the people to live their individual lives by their own judgment, free of coercive interference by other people, including people in their capacity as government officials—i.e., as representatives of the electoral majority. In a democracy, the individual exists at the pleasure of the electoral majority (or its representatives), and has no rights, only "privileges." The people "rule themselves" as a gang dominates its members. In America, the "just powers" derived from the "consent of the governed" is limited to rights-protecting functions. In a democracy, the powers granted by the governed is theoretically unlimited.

Ringen ignores these distinctions, and in fact doesn't even mention individual rights. That's because he doesn't have a problem with gang rule. He just has a problem with which gang rules. The problem, he asserts, is “concentrations of economic power that have become politically unmanageable”:

In the age of mega-expensive politics, candidates depend on sponsors to fund permanent campaigns. When money is allowed to transgress from markets, where it belongs, to politics, where it has no business, those who control it gain power to decide who the successful candidates will be — those they wish to fund — and what they can decide once they are in office. Rich supporters get two swings at influencing politics, one as voters and one as donors. Others have only the vote, a power that diminishes as political inflation deflates its value. It is a misunderstanding to think that candidates chase money. It is money that chases candidates.

If Ringen were concerned about the future of American "democracy," he would recognize his own implications. Yes, money belongs in markets, not politics. And what political-economic system separates money—i.e., economics and business—from politics? It's not democracy, but its antitheses; laissez-faire capitalism. If money chases candidates, then why? Because the government has so much power over the economy. True, money doesn't belong in politics. But politics doesn't belong in markets, either. The problem is not "politically unmanageable" economic power. The problem is politically managed economic power, as such.

When politics "is allowed to transgress into" markets—e.g., redistributionist taxes, regulations, anti-trust laws, etc.—money is drawn into politics. The consequence of that transgression is that economic interests have a triple incentive to seek political power: to gain economic favors from government at the expense of other economic interests; to hamper or destroy competitors through regulations; or to protect themselves from the first two. Politics, not economics, is the impetus for the deterioration Ringen laments.

Keep in mind that economic power is the benign and life-lifting power of production, attained through voluntary trade. Political power is the power of physical force. Economic power is not a threat, but a benefactor. Political power is a threat, when and if it is used for any purpose other than eliminating criminals, repelling foreign enemies, or mediating domestic disputes; i.e., protecting individual rights.

A mixed economy provides a path to turn economic power into political power. The problem is not economic power, whatever the concentration. The problem is coercive domination by political power of one economic power over others. A mixed economy features a revolving door of dominators, based on the politics of the moment—or, as Ayn Rand put it a cold civil war of pressure groups. Ringen isn't against domination, as such. He's against domination by the rich—as against, domination by whom? The poor, the needy, or the "proletariat"? Not anymore. Apparently, those are obsolete. Today, it's democratic rule by envy.

Of course, by Ringen's own premises, "democracy" in America has worked just fine. Just look at the size of the welfare state, government spending, and the national debt, which keep growing under both Democrat and Republican administrations. Apparently, for Ringen, democracy doesn't work well enough. Since free markets foster economic inequality—by virtue of human nature, which is to the moral credit of free markets—our markets are still too free.

And this gets to the essentials of Ringen's article. Ringen's concern is not for the poor. His real target is income and wealth inequality. His crocodile tears over democracy is really a camouflage for a call to cut down the "rich"; i.e., the productive, self-reliant citizen. Apparently, Ringen can't stand democracy when the vote goes against his egalitarian designs; i.e., when the American voter doesn't exhibit a level of envy and resentment sufficient enough to elect politicians to cut down the rich. So he tells us that we're doomed—not because we tax, redistribute, and regulate enough—but because we don't attack achievement viciously enough.

Is American democracy headed to extinction? Let's hope so.

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