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IPFS News Link • Voting and Elections

TGIF: "We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us"

• by Sheldon Richman

Kelly adapted the line from a U.S. naval commandant who, during the War of 1812 against Great Britain, reported to his superior, "We have met the enemy and they are ours." Kelly did the parody for the first Earth Day in 1970, a pro-state, antimarket, antihuman occasion.

More constructively, we can apply Kelly's slogan to a bigger matter, namely, who's to blame for the bad policies that representative democracy turns out? Is the culprit an elite group of politicians, bureaucrats, and Big Business/Big Labor cronies, that is, a ruling class that conspires against the public interest? Or is the culprit " us," or, more precisely, the voters?

Most libertarians, like most progressives, would reply "ruling class," although David D. Friedman, a leading libertarian free-market anarchist, has been a major exception. (See The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to Radical Capitalism, 3rd ed., ch. 38, free online.) So too is economist and anarcho-capitalist Bryan Caplan.

Two important libertarian thinkers, Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) and Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), also dissented from the common view that democracy is routinely hijacked. "One striking feature of the Bastiat-Mises view," Caplan writes, "is that politicians are actually tightly constrained by public opinion. On their account, democratic competition keeps elected officials in line; if they deviate from majority preferences, they lose elections and their jobs."

In his classic work The Law, Bastiat, the fantastic French classical-liberal political-economic essayist, pointed out that in a democracy with universal suffrage, the main potential threat to liberty and property would come not from a ruling elite but from the voters, who previously had no voice in the government.

If voters know nothing about economics and are antimarket to boot, watch out! They will want the politicians to interfere with market relations, not realizing that intervention is harmful because it has significant opportunity costs: all the good things that would have been produced had the government not engaged in "legal plunder." The benefits of free markets are counterintuitive, and understanding requires knowledge, which the voters lack. So they favor import restrictions, business and farm subsidies, regulations, heavy spending, and other apparently free benefits.