Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hayek 6: Dangers of majority rule

May 23, 2006

Isn't the "rule of the majority" a good thing? That democracy is good for society? Unfortunately, Dr. Hayek said "Not necessarily". In Chapter 7, "Majority Rule", he started with a discussion about the difference between liberalism and democracy. He wrote,

"Liberalism (in the European 19th century meaning of the word) is concerned mainly with limiting the coercive powers of all government, whether democratic or not, whereas the dogmatic democrat knows only one limit to government -- current majority opinion... Liberalism regards it as desirable that only what the majority accepts should in fact be law, but it does not believe that this is therefore necessarily good law.

"To him (doctrinaire democrat), majority rule is unlimited and unlimitable. The ideal of democracy, originally intended to prevent all arbitrary power, thus becomes the justification for a new arbitrary power... demagogues began to argue that since the power was now in the hands of the people, there was no longer any need for limiting that power."

For me, this is a very powerful warning. Not because the majority wants something, they are right and what they demand will be sustainable over the long-term. Consider a situation where the majority wants all forms of subsidies to make their lives "humane", so they want full education subsidy for their children, full nutrition subsidy, partial if not full subsidy in health care and hospitalization, housing, public transportation, communication, recreation and travel, and so on. Those wants for various subsidies are enacted into laws and implemented.

You will possibly have a society that encourages large families and irresponsible parents as almost everything that their families need have been transformed from "parental responsibility" to "social and government responsibility". And woe unto the productive and hard-working sectors of society who carry the full burden of high taxation to finance those subsidies. Pretty soon the ambitious and hard-working ones will either become lazy too, or migrate to other lands where personal responsibility is more treasured than "collective" responsibility.

Hayek also noted that "the conception that government should be guided by majority opinion makes sense only if that opinion is independent of government... the case for democracy and the case for freedom of speech and discussion are inseparable." This is to give allowance for various ideas and opinions, some of which may be dissenting to the majority opinion and government bureaucracy. To give allowance to spontaneous and independent views that run counter to the desires of the majority. Why is this leeway and allowance necessary?

Because, according to Hayek, "Advance consists in the few convincing the many. New views must appear somewhere before they can become majority views. There is no experience of society which is not first the experience of a few individuals... It is because we normally do not know who knows best that we leave the decision to a process we do not control. But it is always from a minority acting in ways different from what the majority would describe that the majority in the end learns to do better... The imposition of the will of the majority's coercive, monopolistic, and exclusive character destroys the self-correcting forces which bring it about in a free society that mistaken efforts will be abandoned and the successful ones prevail."

So, what is now majority opinion was minority opinion in the past. Its evolution from being a "distant" idea many years ago to "contemporary" idea of the current decades should have been a tumultuous one. Or conversely, certain minority opinions in the past have not achieved the majority opinions of the present yet. Either way, the main and common reason/s for them are the various layers of dogmas and taboos in society -- political, philosophical, religious, cultural, sub-cultural -- that inhibit the early emergence of a superior idea. It is not easy to disregard those dogmas because there are stiff penalties, from minor to fatal ones, that correspond to non-obedience to those dogmas.

And why is it so? Because ideas are non-material, unlike chairs, houses, cars and other material things. Ideas are by nature, revolutionary and evolutionary, and they spread through the minds, the written words, and policies of various institutions, both voluntary and involuntary (ie, government).

Hayek continued with this explicit observation: "A phenomenon which is now familiar to us is that of governments which start out with the proud claim that they will deliberately control all affairs and soon find themselves beset at each step by the necessities created by their former actions."

Yes, the root of all government interventions is government intervention itself. A temporary lack of supply of a certain commodity due to various reasons (natural disaster, change in tastes and preferences of consumers, technological modernization, etc.) is declared as "market failure" by government, and it proceeded with creating a regulatory body that will intervene whenever supply substantially increases or decreases, or the same changes in the demand side. Such continued and endless intervention and regulation either slows down adjustment of supply and demand dynamism, or it creates an army of corrupt and theft administrators who know perfectly that their signatures and approval are needed by suppliers and consumers of said commodities.

Later on, government has to create various oversight and anti-corruption bodies and in the process, appropriate more funds (and create new taxes to finance these new expenditures) to hire more bureaucrats, maintain new offices, to find out how much money have been wasted or stolen already, to see how much distortions in the economy and society have been created already. One oversight body's findings (say from Congress) can be contradicted by another oversight body (say from the Executive branch or from a constitution-created body), and the spiral of confusion and interventions continue endlessly.

Intellectuals (academics, think tank and media leaders, among others) have the burden of dissociating themselves from the grinds of daily realities, according to Hayek. They need to step back and generalize, to gather those pieces of facts and form an abstraction out of those details and material realities. He wrote, "The influence of the abstract thinker on the masses operate only indirectly... The influence of the political philosopher may be negligible. But when his ideas have become common property, through the work of historians and publicists, teachers and writers, and intellectuals generally, they effectively guide developments... Changes in political and social beliefs filter slowly downward from the top of a pyramid, where the higher levels represent greater generality and abstraction and not necessarily greater wisdom. As ideas spread downward, they also change their character."

So, how should political philosophers and intellectuals respond to majority opinions? Again, Hayek made this rather discomforting advice: "If opinion is to advance, the theorist who offers guidance must not regard himself as bound by majority opinion. The task of the political philosopher is different from that of the expert servant who carries out the will of the majority... he will often serve democracy best by opposing the will of the majority."

I would say that among political philosophers and intellectuals themselves, there are the majority and the minority. On the issue of whether governments should retain (if not increase) their current level of intervention, subsidies and taxation, or not, I think the majority of intellectuals are on the former. You can see many of them working as consultants and staff of various government (national and local) and foreign aid institutions, while you will hardly find them advocating drastic tax cuts and subsidy cuts.

Are the laws as embodiment of majority opinion, and administrators/implementors of those laws, one and the same? That is, the laws will apply to both the governed and administered, and governors and adminstrators? And the latter will not mess around with the laws entrusted to them by the majority to be implemented properly? Unfortunately, the answer is No. See Hayek's observation:

"The individual has little reason to fear any general laws which the majority may pass, but he has much reason to fear the rulers it may put over him to implement its directions. It is not the power which democratic assemblies can effectively wield but the powers which they hand over to the administrators charged with the achievement of particular goals that constitute the danger to individual freedom today... The most enthusiastic supporters of such unlimited powers of the majority are often those very administrators who know best that, once such powers are assumed, it will be they and not the majority who will in fact exercise them."

Finally, the man concluded the chapter with a definition of "limited government", as well as the limits of democracy. He wrote:

"Democracy will remain effective only so long as government in its coercive actions confines itself to tasks that can be carried out democratically... Though democracy is probably the best form of limited government, it becomes an absurdity if it turns into unlimited government. Those who profess that democracyis all-competent and support all that the majority wants at any given moment are working for its fall."

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