Quite often while I’m explaining the meaning of Libertarianism to friends or acquaintances, I’m met with a response which runs along the lines of but Ozboy, government can do so many things for us more efficiently than we can do them for ourselves. I have been pondering the truth of this for some time and thought I might start a discussion on the issue.
Apologies in advance for not writing more, and sooner; there are about half a dozen threads in various stages of completion, and my health is currently a work in progress as well. But anyway: surely it’s true that such things as national defence, law courts, local roads and sewerage systems are better approached as a collective enterprise. I’m using the word collective here, carefully and deliberately: something to which all members of society must contribute through taxes, even those opposed to them. If there were no dissenting or unwilling contributors, it would be elevated from a collective exercise to a co-operative one.
Now, it’s fairly obvious in any society more populous than the desert-island scenario often used by Libertarians to illustrate its principles, you’re never going get 100% agreement on anything. A truly co-operative government is impossible, which is why most Libertarians—myself included—admit the necessity of at least some degree of collectivism for society to function at all. It’s also why the representative model of democracy has stood the test of time, whereas the truly plebiscite democracies (such as ancient Athens) failed.
Last week Luton Ian pointed us to this excellent article over at the von Mises Institute, on the meaning of political representation; or more accurately, the lack of meaning. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to do so. I countered with the point that there really isn’t a viable alternative system of democracy that has been tried and proven. We elect our representatives, partially on the basis of how they say they will vote, partly because of their party affiliation, and partly on the basis of personality. But once elected, that “representative” does not consult with the electors on specific issues, and has no accountability for his voting record save at the next election. On that basis, our political representatives in parliament are our trustees rather than our delegates. We trust them to use their good judgement as each bill comes before the parliament or congress.
I made the point then, that if you don’t like this, then you should at least be aware of the number and complexity of bills on which your representative votes. They are far more numerous than the few “hot-button” issues that attract virtually all the media attention on politics. To actually think all these issues through is beyond the scope of most individuals, and if out of convenience we have out-sourced our duty to think—to a bunch of politicians, of all people! people whose skill lies in conning the public, rather than in governing justly—then, well, we really have only ourselves to blame.
Of course, if the scope of government was reduced to that of a traditional liberal democracy, rather than that of a modern social democracy, then there would only be a fraction of the bills currently required for consideration. Citizens could then more meaningfully take an active part in a functioning democracy. But realistically, that isn’t going to happen any time soon.
Modern technology, however, opens the way to the possibility of greater participation of the citizenry in the democratic process. Here in Australia, the political party Senator Online has thought this issue right through, and offers an intriguing model of how it could be achieved. Do go take a look at their website, as I predict more movements like this are likely to spring up in other “democratic” nations where the elected leaders so often appear to be acting against the express wishes of those who put them in power. SOL’s model calls for optional voting in the upper house only, with their elected senators abstaining from all bills except those receiving a minimum quota of on-line votes from registered voters under a secure digital ballot box. SOL senators, in effect, become mere ciphers, and do not exercise any judgement or discretion whatsoever. As an interim measure, it’s a brilliant idea, as well as wonderfully subversive of the current “democracy”, but it’s precursory to the abolition of the Upper House as a chamber of parliament; after all, if every senator acted thus, the entire Senate could be replaced with a secure server, with no loss of efficiency—a rather large saving, I daresay! The one thing missing in the model, as far as I can see, is the possibility of citizen-initiated bills or referenda, as occurs in some states in the U.S.A. SOL is concerned primarily with citizen’s oversight and power of veto, rather than direct governance.
That’ll do for the moment. How involved in governance do we want to be? If we don’t like the people in power now, nor their alternatives in the next election, and we aren’t prepared to run for office ourselves, then are we at least prepared to take the time and effort to study the issues and vote on them personally? Because if we aren’t, we really do have little cause to complain about the mob we’ve got as it is.