[This is the transcript of the eponymous talk presented at the Mises Institute’s Ron Paul Symposium on November 7, 2020, in Angleton, Texas.] Hey, what a week for our sacred democracy. Wow! You know, it’s so sacred that just a few thousand votes in a few states here and there could have turned it from ...
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Hey, what a week for our sacred democracy. Wow! You know, it’s so sacred that just a few thousand votes in a few states here and there could have turned it from sacred into profane, couldn’t it? Real easy. But no, as long as it goes a certain way, it shows the wisdom of the crowd.
We’re generally told that there are three particular benefits to democracy and one of those benefits is a peaceful transfer of political power. So, that’s increasingly being questioned, but Mises wrote about this way back in the 1920s. He said this is why we need democracy. He wrote about it again in the 1940s in Human Action. He said this allows us to change from one government to another without violence. That’s largely been true in the twentieth century, and in the seventy-odd years since he wrote that, that’s largely been true.
But two of the other reasons that we’re told to revere democracy, I think, are not true, and one of them is that it creates a compromise, some sort of down-the-middle policy, so that the Far Left doesn’t get everything it wants, the Far Right doesn’t get everything it wants, but somewhere down the middle there’s a happy compromise, we all get a little bit of what we want. And of course we see that’s not true at all. The whole country’s at each other’s throats, and what we really have is a sort of bureaucratic and oligarchic overclass and just a bunch of average, regular people like us who are unhappy with the results of democracy, so I don’t see any great compromises coming from it. And then, of course, probably the worst excuse for democracy is that it represents some sort of consent of the governed. So, in a country of 330 million people that becomes entirely meaningless, and I think we all get that.
So, I hope many of you I don’t know have read Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: The God That Failed—came out in 2001. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, I wish you would. Unfortunately, we don’t own the rights to that book, or there’d be a $6 paperback of it, but nonetheless, well worth purchasing, well worth reading. There’s a PDF online which may or may not be pirated. Not by us; that’s the market, baby. So, if you have a chance to look at that book, every chapter reads very well as a standalone chapter. I encourage it. There’s a great chapter in there disabusing you of conservatism and all these other things. But the introduction to that book is all about what Hoppe sees as the turning point of World War I, when we went from what we might call the Old Right, which was a real liberalism rooted in property and self-determination, into mass democracy.
And so World War I, Hoppe says, is what changed everything, and it’s where we decided that all the benefits of Enlightenment rationalism and the Industrial Revolution would start to fray because we would turn them over into democracy. And one thing he points out is that prior to Woodrow Wilson—you remember a year ago we were talking about Edward Bernays, who was Woodrow Wilson’s propagandist who came up with the phrase “Make the world safe for democracy”—prior to Wilson’s war and World War I, most wars were actually territorial. They were about turf. And so World War I, Hoppe tells us, was the first truly ideological war in human history, and that’s the result of mass democracy and wanting to impose democracy on other countries, our way of life on other people. So, not coincidentally, Hoppe points out, there were actually far more civilian casualties from starvation and disease than soldier casualties on battlefields in World War I. I wonder how many people know that. And he says, This is not a surprise; this is what happens when you have total wars as opposed to regional or territorial wars. So, also because of ideology, the ideology of democracy, there couldn’t be any compromise with the Germans. There could only be total surrender, humiliation, punishment, reparations, and we all know what came a few decades later.
So, Hoppe’s book is about the results of mass democracy; it’s all about results. So, we think of the marketplace as producing goods and services. Governments produce bads, Hoppe says. They produce bad things; they take from us and they make things worse. So, what do we get from democracy in terms of results? Well we get bad politicians, we get bad voters with high time preferences, we get bad policy, we get war, taxes, regulations, surveillance, cultural degradation—the whole nine yards. But the other thing we get in terms of bads which the state produces in a democratic system is this centralization of state power. Hoppe describes we had thousands upon thousands of city-states and principalities and territories which used to make up Europe, and now today they’ve turned it into these managerial superstates, like we think of the modern Germany, for instance. And in the United States they turned fifty states (you know, we used to say “these United States”—well, we didn’t, but our grandparents used to say “these United States”) into basically what are glorified federal counties—shabby glorified federal counties, I might say. And it also put about 330 million people with wildly diverse interests under the boot of just a few thousand people in Washington, DC, and sometimes it’s even fewer than that. Sometimes it’s just five or seven Supreme Court justices.
So, we think about democracy producing bad results. But what Hoppe’s book doesn’t talk about, and what is so fascinating to me, especially this week, is, What about process? We think about the results of democracy, what about the process? It turns out the process is lousy too. You know, it produces another kind of bads, which is it takes the form, as we see this week and as we certainly saw in 2016, of a national psychosis, this sort of emotional breakdown of people who are emotionally invested in government and politics and the winner of these elections. And so, this kind of division which we’re living under is actually another bad result of democracy, but from the process side.
So, we have this election result still in limbo. I think that Biden is going to prevail, however you want to call that prevailing, but we have maybe 100 million or more Americans whose entire psychological well-being over the next couple weeks is bound up in this process over which they have no control. You know, a few tens of thousands of people in a few swing states will determine two completely different narratives for the next few years. It’ll be like, Well, our sacred democracy: the Americans were too smart to be fooled again by this strange orange reality-show conman and they wisely chose Joe Biden. Or it’ll be, America is this fascist reprobate state. Just a few tens of thousands of votes are going to make the difference in that narrative.
That doesn’t make any sense to me. So, the process doesn’t work; the process itself is dysfunctional, and millions of Americans like us, they just don’t accept the process as legitimate anymore, any part of it, from the vote counting to the recounts, to the campaign spending and the PACs and the dark money groups, to the voter registrations, the mail-in ballots, the deadlines, some of these dubious electronic systems. I was thinking, Press the button and behind it it’s like that game, Operation, where the clown’s nose lights up and it doesn’t go anywhere. I don’t know. You press a little button, who knows where it actually goes, right? It might just be a bare wire back there. And so, people are also not going to accept the recounts and legal challenges—the whole process. And if you think about it, it would actually be hard to design.
If some sadist wanted to design a process every four years that would produce more bads than our current system, I don’t know how you’d do it. Division, hatred, distrust, waste, and yet all of it at the end of the day settles nothing. It doesn’t produce some sort of lasting compromise or sense of finality to it. The next four years are going to just be one side saying “not my president” all over again. So, the process does do one thing, though, for the state. It hides the bad results. The process becomes the thing, so we’re so preoccupied with politics and these votes, we forget about what we ought to be thinking about—the overseas wars, the debt, the devaluation, the surveillance—all the result side of democratic voting.
So, the question becomes, What do we do? That’s always the question, that’s always the frustration. That’s what people ask me over and over and over, what should we do, where do we go? First of all, you have to start with this: everybody in this room has an advantage when it comes to this national psychosis. Everybody in this room has some natural antibodies, I think, to this whole thing. We’ve already recovered, we’re already immune. We understand and recognize what millions of Americans are just starting to understand, namely that it’s not just that mass democracy doesn’t work, but that it can’t work. So, we don’t have any illusions. That’s our benefit, that’s our bonus. We have a head start, so to speak, on this national psychosis, and I really think that’s a form of power which we all ought to employ in our personal lives and in our emotional well-being.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife happened upon an essay from 1978 by Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident leader who was also the first president of the Czech Republic after the fall in 1989, and this essay is called “The Power of the Powerless.” It was new to me. My friend Pete Quiñones told me last night that it’s actually been circulating in the blogosphere for several years. It’s really a fascinating essay, about eighty pages. And so, he’s writing this in the ’70s when the former Czechoslovakia is still under Soviet domination but not as much Soviet domination as the USSR itself, perhaps. So, I’m reading this essay (and Vaclav Havel was also a literary guy and a poet, so he’s a tremendous writer, and you guys should all find this, “The Power of the Powerless,” easy to find), and I’m struck by the fact that the parallels between the Eastern Bloc situation he’s describing (the former Soviet Bloc) and the atmosphere in the US today are so striking. And I don’t mean to imply that we face anything close to the hardships that they did, but it’s striking. It’s still striking, and it’s ominous. It is happening here, and we can feel it; I think we can feel it. Not everything can be verbalized and intellectualized. Sometimes it’s just a feeling.
So, the good news is that he’s writing this as a dissident in 1978 and not too much later [in 1993] there was actually a happy outcome in the creation of the first Czech republic. So, sometimes when things look particularly dark, maybe you got to keep on moving forward and something good is going to happen if you do so. So, Havel talks about how the Czechs didn’t live under what we think of as a form of actual physical dictatorship. It was sort of a soft totalitarianism. In other words, he says, Well, it took the form of this almost hypnotic secularized religion where the metaphysical and existential realities of the world, they succumb to ideology. And that’s what we think of when we think of the Soviet Union. We think of people who tried to just command human energy into something new, to create a new man and also to ignore, for example, the laws of economics—that this could be willed, that this could be done by fiat or by legislative action. And so, when we think of communism, we think it ignores certain underlying metaphysical realities and realities of human nature. That was one of the big criticisms of Soviet communism. So, he says, Well, you know, this is happening here, but he talks about how people would just sort of purposely lie to themselves and their friends and family to remain in good standing in both society and with the party in Czechoslovakia.
And again, the analogy today: I’m sure you’ve seen this going around, that 2 + 2 = 5. Does 2 + 2 = 4? Well, it depends because mathematics, like everything else, is not some hard science or some branch of logic where we just simply describe a reality which already exists and which is underlying and we’re trying to grapple and figure it out. No, no, no. 2 + 2 might equal 5, depending on your outlook, depending on your identity and the circumstances, and maybe the color of your skin or your religion, or the country you come from. And of course, this is a recipe for disaster. This is a recipe for eliminating any basis of social cooperation amongst us, for having markets, for having prosperity, and of course it results in just somebody having to have the power to enforce 2 + 2 = 5.
Ideology enforced by the state becomes the only animating force in society. So, Havel gives an interesting example. He demonstrates this 2 + 2 = 5 mentality by talking about how in Czechoslovakia shopkeepers would dutifully put up the little sign that says Workers of the World Unite. They would just sort of dutifully do this. Like how back in the day people used to put up pictures of the presidents in their living rooms, and if you travel to foreign countries, oftentimes people still do that: in Latin America; in Turkey, you’ll see pictures of Erdogan and sometimes you’ll see pictures of Ataturk on the walls. So people revere these figures. So he said, Nobody actually believed this, “workers of the world unite.” The grocer didn’t do this because he means it, it was just an act of rote conformity on his part, it was a signal. It’s a signal of acquiescence, and since all the other shops do it, you do it too. This is what it meant to be a greengrocer in Czechoslovakia in 1978. And we see this in America today. We see the same kind of signaling, the same kind of acquiescence of things like masks or some of these goofy signs, All Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter or Back the Blue. These are signals, and people put them up in their yard. There’s that one that says This House Believes X, Y, and Z, and it’s this sort of hectoring thing which is supposed to prove what a great person you are in that house. So, we have the same thing happening in America today.
Most people in this room, though, are prepared to be dissidents today. Most people in this room are not willing to just go along with this stuff, and most people in this room already consider themselves the real resistance, not the fake kind where you have all the support of the political parties and the mainstream media and academia and Hollywood and corporate America. That’s not a resistance. So, we’re already past any of these illusions about democracy or politics or constitutionalism. I would argue that we’ve reached the point where loving our country requires us to identify and begin to separate the various nations which are within it. I think there’s nothing more important today.
So, if you get an opportunity to read Hoppe’s book, I think you will find it enlightening. I think you will identify a lot of the problems which he identifies, and I think you will come away with a better understanding of really what a radical experiment mass democracy really is. It’s not what we imagined it to be. There’s no sort of 51:49 electorate which gives anything legitimacy, because oftentimes votes are won with fewer than 51 percent. Bill Clinton became president because of Ross Perot, with less than 51 percent of the electorate. Even the Reagan revolution in 1984, where he won every state, forty-nine states, except for, I guess, Mondale’s Minnesota and the District of Columbia—forty-nine-state route, something like 60:40 in the raw numbers, and yet what we think of as an absolute landslide, one of the biggest victories in electoral history in the United States for president, something like 24 percent of all Americans voted, cast an affirmative ballot for him. So, if you begin to look at the numbers a little differently, you begin to question all of this, and you begin to wonder where it came from, and you begin to hope that people can start to think again a little bit more about having fifty states. In other words, what happened last Tuesday, there were fifty state elections. There wasn’t one national election, there were fifty state elections. Yes, people were voting on who’s going to hold a national office known as the president, but it wasn’t a national election. Those are two different things.
So, I want to leave you with this great quote from Havel. He says, “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity.” How many libertarians get their identity from goofy libertarianism? “It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity and of morality while making it easier to part with them.” Told you this guy’s a poet. “It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization and their adaptation to the status quo.” I think that’s just an absolutely phenomenal way to put things, because I really believe that liberty, in the political sense, is not an ideology which you impose on other people; it’s the absence of ideology. It’s what happens when you leave people alone, when civil society and marketplaces are allowed to function and flourish. It doesn’t need to be imposed on anyone—it’s the state which is the imposer—and of course it’s the natural condition of social cooperation. Mises almost called his book Human Action, his magnum opus, Social Cooperation. He says it’s the only way you can organize society peacefully. But we have no choice, all of us here today, but to recognize that millions of Americans, millions upon millions of Americans—maybe a majority of Americans—simply don’t see the world the way we do. That’s a fact. So, the goal of this national psychosis, which they produce and impose on us every four years, is of course demoralization, more than anything. Don’t let that happen. Thanks very much.