Morality and Illiberal Democracy By Tibor Machan

Barely A Blog,Morality


Tibor R. Machan, a regular contributor to Barely a Blog, is RC Hoiles Professor of business ethics & free enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.


By Tibor R. Machan

When the term “democracy” is used loosely, as in geopolitical discussions, it is used to mean that kind of political system in which everyone can have input into decisions bearing on public affairs. What is left mostly unspecified is just what counts as public affairs.

In a totalitarian state everything counts as the public realm; in a free country there are strict limits. In most existing countries today it’s somewhere in between. Democratic decisions impact taxation, government regulation, international diplomacy, education and health policies, and whatever else the government is involved in. The idea of limiting the public realm has gone out of fashion and was never taken very seriously except by a few political theorists and even fewer politicians, let alone bureaucrats. Once in power, there is a very strong temptation to expand the reach of the power one has. People who get chummy with government tend not to like it when its powers are limited —they have agendas and such limitations could impede their efforts to carry them out.

And in democracies the politicians’ constituency often urges government to expand its power so as to provide the voters with various benefits —ones, however, that have to be obtained by confiscating other people’s resources, including their labor.

In short, democracy often tilts quite powerfully against morality. No, there is no consensus about what is the right morality for people to practice, but there are some general principles or virtues most of us support at least in the realm of private conduct. Few people champion robbing Peter so as to “help” out Paul —we usually believe that Peter needs to agree to the idea. Instead of confiscation and stealing, most would tend to endorse generosity and charity. The same is true for honesty —on the whole, other than in exceptional cases, most of us value straight talk and have contempt for liars. I think the same can be said about respecting the liberty of others —we hire them if we would like them to work for us and do not coerce them into doing such work. Millions of others do valuable labor but we tend to consider it wrong to conscript this labor for our benefit.

So while there are disagreements about various moral matters —abortion, assisted suicide, child-rearing and so forth —there is a very large sphere of agreement, too. Yet when we look at the way democracy functions in most countries, it is in these areas of basic moral agreement where a serious discord is evident. Democratic decisions do, in fact, lead to robbing Peter so as to “help” out Paul. (I use the scare quotes because one can hardly call forcing people to part with their resources bone fide help given to anyone! This is why government cannot be compassionate!) Democratic decision making routinely endorses conscripting people’s labor, limiting their liberty, making them act as they do not choose to even when they are not violating anyone’s rights, and so forth.

In short, illiberal, unlimited democracy is routinely in conflict with standards of morality or ethics.

In practical terms this means that most countries are replete with public policies that are out-and-out immoral … yet widely accepted, too. Is it so curious, then, that young people in these countries get mixed messages about how they ought to conduct themselves? If it is OK for politicians and bureaucrats to make promises they not only will not but cannot keep, who is to communicate any objections to this in how young people comport themselves toward each other and their elders? Why should they not lie when governments do so all the time? If it is OK for democratically established public policies to violate strictures of ethics —let’s take Peter’s wealth (he has too much, he doesn’t need it so much, she is using it badly, etc., and so forth) and transfer it to Paul (but take a good chunk on the way to pay for our diligent transfer efforts) —why should young people abstain from stealing? What if, especially, they get peer approval —isn’t that like democracy, after all?

Throughout the schools in most Western countries democracy is hailed day in and day out but at the same time some of the worst kind of human conduct is carried out in democracy’s name, with democratic sanction. Does this not tell those students that, well, when there is wide consensus for breaching morality and ethics, it’s just fine to perpetrate the breach? So go ahead and cheat, copy other’s tests, plagiarize, bully some kids, steal from a few, and so on. I would think it does.

It seems clear to me that if one expects the younger generation to grow up to be decent people, illiberal democracy isn’t helping to facilitate this.

6 thoughts on “Morality and Illiberal Democracy By Tibor Machan

  1. james huggins

    When government replaces morality with “social rules of convenience” we get the mess we have today.

  2. Kell

    The biggest problem with democracy, and this goes for most organizations where people have a fearless leader, is that people stop asking question and thinking for themselves. It is far easier to let the leaders think and make decisions. In an ideal world, this would be fine as we would all be able to get along with doing our jobs and focusing on the things we need to in order to perform at ideal levels.

    However, it seems that most leaders tend to lose sight of their (apparent) original goals once the money , power and influence comes rolling in. They then often abuse their power and influence to enrich themselves at the expense of their followers. In some organisations (such as churches and clubs) this is mitigated by the fact that the followers can leave at anytime they please (unless of course they are muslim in which case they would be best off withholding their wealth from their rabid and evil leaders). However, democratically elected and unelected officials are untouchable until their next term, especially in South Africa. In theory one could force a re-election, but the ruling party is far too immature to allow that to take place, and there are too many sheep bleeting “four legs good, two legs bad” (or in the South African version “Black skin good, white skin baaad!”).

    This problem is magnified by the fact that a huge portion of the South African population acts as a collective where their leaders are all powerful and untouchable. Democracy is not really geared to tackle these types of collective bodies and these type of collective bodies have no place in democracy. Evidence of this can be seen simply by looking north to the conflicts between muslims and europeans throughout Europe.

    Perhaps the only way for a democracy to work is to have a strong and objective constitution that is enforced by law, and watchdog organisations to ensure that the constitution is not breached by laws passed convieniently by the ruling party. The constitution should represent a contract between the various people of a country and a breach in this contracts is a declaration of war by the leading party on the rest of the nation.

    [You omit a component highlighted again and again in my writing about the horrible adventure in Iraq, and which has not sunk into the American consciousness: not all cultures are conducive to democracy. As I said here: “only a radical, oblivious to reality, would conclude that, because all people seek safety and sustenance for themselves, they’ll allow those they disliketo peacefully pursue the same.”]

  3. Dan Maguire

    I think the author lowballs the number of people who champion theft. He writes:

    “Few people champion robbing Peter so as to “help” out Paul—we usually believe that Peter needs to agree to the idea.”

    I think he’s wrong. I think that there are large numbers of people – the majority, really – who champion theft. In their view the theft they champion is benign, well-intentioned theft, but theft all the same. I have argued with all sorts of people about Social Security, Medicare, affirmative action, the minimum wage, foreign aid, even the theft of farms in South Africa, and my opponents are always shocked at my immorality for arguing the positions I do. They are shocked, SHOCKED, that anyone would deny the proper power of government to right past wrongs, and distribute wealth so as to attain a proper distribution of wealth. As far as they’re concerned, theft is good so long as it’s a Robin Hood style theft.

    So I think I disagree with the author. He appears to believe that the practice of democracy violates what we learn in school. On the contrary. What we learn in school supports the practice of democracy, with all its vices, kickbacks, and open thievery.

  4. Eric Zucker

    For a democracy to act morally requires a population that acts morally including following the Tenth Commandment admonishment against coveting thy neighbor’s stuff. Paradoxically democracy discourages its citizens from acting morally by rewarding theft and coveting so long as it involves the ballot box.

    So democracy rewards and encourages the destruction of the very values necessary to its moral foundation.

  5. Eric Zucker

    That’s why democracy must be severely limited in scope.

  6. John Danforth

    To further extend Mr. Maguire’s point:

    Just think of how many people you’ve known throughout your lifetime who consider themselves moral people, but who would willing buy items that were very likely to have been stolen. Usually they rationalize the purchase because it’s such a deal, and because if they don’t buy it, then someone else will, or perhaps it was stolen from a huge impersonal corporation.

    I tell them they are paying the thief to steal from an innocent victim, and that anyone who pays a thief to steal someone’s property should be shot in the knee, same as the thief. It’s a good way to generate a blank stare.

    This is very widespread.

    –John Danforth–

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