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Will Joe Biden Be a Dictator?

Summary:
This might look like a ridiculous question to ask about a soft-looking near-octogenarian who signals his virtue by repeating the inclusiveness mantra. But not so much if you define “dictator” as a political ruler who imposes on the whole population some shared preferences of the minority who brought him or keeps him in power. A more inclusive definition would replace “minority” by “majority short of unanimity.” Biden was elected by 51% of the American voters. If, to be inclusive indeed, we include the third of the electorate (that is, of Americans of voting age) who did not vote, Mr. Biden’s support shrinks to 34% (51% × 66%). Now, consider that many who voted for him probably did so only or mainly because they thought that his adversary, Donald Trump, was even

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This might look like a ridiculous question to ask about a soft-looking near-octogenarian who signals his virtue by repeating the inclusiveness mantra. But not so much if you define “dictator” as a political ruler who imposes on the whole population some shared preferences of the minority who brought him or keeps him in power. A more inclusive definition would replace “minority” by “majority short of unanimity.”

Biden was elected by 51% of the American voters. If, to be inclusive indeed, we include the third of the electorate (that is, of Americans of voting age) who did not vote, Mr. Biden’s support shrinks to 34% (51% × 66%). Now, consider that many who voted for him probably did so only or mainly because they thought that his adversary, Donald Trump, was even worse: half of these voters is not an unrealistic hypothesis, so we are down to 17% of the electorate. If Biden imposes the preferences of 17% of the electorate on 83%, or even of 34% on 66%, he will be a dictator.

An interesting article that bears on this topic is John G. Grove’s “Numerical Democracy or Constitutional Reality,” Law & Liberty (our sister website), November 12, 2020. Grove argues that the United States is a limited, compound republic, not a numerical democracy, and that the whole check and balance structure is meant to prevent a numerical majority from bulldozing the preferences of the rest. From this perspective, each side has a right to have its preferences incorporated in the winner’s legislation; and an adverse electoral result is not, for the losers, a catastrophe to be reversed at all cost.

By the very nature of government, however, it is not easy to prevent winner-take-all results: a law is enforced against everybody, especially against individuals who did not agree with it. It seems that, on the basis of an individualist philosophy, only a near-universal consensus could justify radical change.

One disturbing implication is the following. Grove’s idea is a two-edged sword. When we start from several decades of a collectivist legislative and regulatory drift that has trammeled the minority of individuals who want to be largely left alone, even a new numerical majority may not and could not rapidly change course. Ronald Reagan, with his many good ideas (and a number of bad ones), did not bring much change and perhaps no lasting change. But for the same reason, thank God, Trump was not able to do more damage than he did.

James Buchanan, the Nobel economist, understood the conundrum: How can one reverse dictatorship without being a dictator himself? The solution, Buchanan argues with Geoffrey Brennan in their book The Reason of Rules: Constitutional Political Economy (Liberty Fund, 2000[1985]), is a “constitutional revolution.” That is, we—“we” classical liberals and libertarians—need to promote radical change to which our fellow citizens can unanimously consent, at least in theory. This pedagogical and abstract task is not an easy one.

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Corrigendum: I have deleted the last sentence of my first paragraph, which read: “(Note that my definition of the term is not very different from the one in Kenneth Arrow’s famous Impossibility Theorem).” Arrow’s definition of a dictator technically applies to one person only and would not consider dictatorial a minority of, say, 34% that rules over 66% if the next largest minority (for another candidate) is 33%.

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