Schumpeter and Knight on Democracy

9 February 2008 at 10:35 pm 6 comments

| Peter Klein |

With the US primaries in full swing, and “democracy fever” sweeping the land, it’s perhaps a good time to share a couple of my favorite quotes on democratic governance:

Thus the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. (Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 3rd edition, pp. 262-63.)

The probability of the people in power being individuals who would dislike the possession and exercise of power is on a level with the probability that an extremely tender-hearted person would get the job of whipping master in a slave plantation. (Frank H. Knight (1938), quoted in F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, p. 152.)

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Classical Liberalism.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rafe Champion  |  10 February 2008 at 10:59 pm

    This is an opportunity to ventilate two of my favorite prejudices (apart from using cricket as the model of society), first the fundamental problem with democracy defined as majority rule and second the waste of resources in election campaigns that would be better used on social programs directly (cutting out the government as the middle man).

    The principle of majority rule extends to participatory democracy with the idea that everyone should have a say on everything. It is fundamentally flawed like all theories of sovereignty that aim to answer the question “Who should rule?” it is paradoxical, because if you settle on the rule of the Wise, the wise might decide that the Strong should rule, or the Majority might vote for a Dictator.

    The answer in principle is to aim for an institutional regime, supported by appropriate traditions, where the rulers have the minimum of opportuities to do damage (that means a minimum state) and they are turned over at regular intervals by a non-violent process that enables the ruled to have at least the appearance of choice in the matter. Hence the process of elections. Mises, Schumpeter and Popper never regarded parliamentary democracy as a deep philosophical answer to anything, just a pragmatic way to keep the leadership turning over without violence.

    Within that minimum state framework, people get to exert their choices on the things that immediately affect them, without having to become experts on every damn thing under the sun in order to make decisions about the comparative merits of two big baskets of policies which are a mix of good, bad and indifferent.

    On the waste of resources in election campaigns, I would like to see the dollar value of campaigns, including the time devoted by volunteers free of charge, and contemplate what would happen to the problems in health, education and welfare if all the people who cared went out and found some sick, poor and sorry people to help directly in the most appropriate manner for their particular circumstances (including handing out money). That would actually demonstrate how many people really care, as opposed to people who are addicted to the political process.

  • 2. REW  |  11 February 2008 at 11:05 am

    H.L. Mencken (Notes on Democracy, 1926) may not have the gravitas of Schumpeter and Knight, but he writes more delightfully.

    “One of the merits of democracy is quite obvious: it is perhaps the most charming form of government ever devised by man. The reason is not far to seek. It is based upon propositions that are palpably not true – and what is not true, as everyone knows, is always immensely more fascinating and satisfying to the vast majority of men than what is true. Truth has a harshness that alarms them, and an air of finality that collides with their incurable romanticism… I have spoken hitherto of the possibility that democracy may be a self-limiting disease, like measles. It is, perhaps, something more: it is self-devouring. One cannot observe it objectively without being impressed by its curious distrust of itself – its apparently ineradicable tendency to abandon its whole philosophy at the first sign of strain [see Patriot Act, DNC, …]… The highest function of the citizen is to serve the state, but the first assumption that greets him, when he essays to discharge it, is an assumption of his disingenuousness and dishonor. Is that assumption commonly sound? Then the farce only grows the more glorious.
    I confess, for my part, that it greatly delights me. I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence, incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to decent men.”

    BTW, Mencken was familiar with the economics of his age. Read his skewering of Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, The Theory of Business Enterprise, and The Instinct of Workmanship in Prejudices: First Series 1919.

  • 3. teageegeepea  |  11 February 2008 at 8:48 pm

    Rafe, what if a minimal state is impossible?

  • 4. Rafe Champion  |  11 February 2008 at 9:38 pm

    Point taken! But others might say “we are all minimum statists now” (remember the other Clinton?). But there are differences of opinion on the size of the minimum state.

  • 5. General Specific  |  11 February 2008 at 10:34 pm

    Have any good quotes on the lower level of mental performance exhibited by bloggers around election time?

  • 6. slie  |  8 May 2008 at 11:59 am

    democracy is a vague subject that requires an unpacked descussion of its impications to the people governed by it first before we seek to describe what it is itself.

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