Jason Brennan: Our relationship to democracy is nonconsensual

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Democracy Doesn’t Rest on the Consent of the Governed

By Jason Brennan

There’s a popular idea—an idea you might get from middle school civics classes—that democracy is based on the consent of the governed. Now, democracy is more responsive to what people want than other forms of government, and it gives the governed a large say in what happens. However, it’s a mistake to say that the relationship individual citizens have to their government in a democracy is consensual. Let’s think about why.

Recently, I purchased a Marshall JVM amplifier from a dealer. It was an archetypical consensual transaction. It had each of the following features:

A.       I performed an act that signified my consent. In this case, I ordered the amplifier. The outcome—that I lost money but gained a JVM—would not have occurred but for my performing the act that signified consent.

B.       I was not forced to perform that act—I had a reasonable way to avoid doing it.

C.       Had I explicitly said, “I refuse to buy a Marshall JVM at that price!” the exchange never would have taken place.

D.       The dealer was not entitled to take my money unless it sent me the amplifier—it had to hold up its end of the bargain.

Now, imagine that any one of these conditions didn’t happen. Suppose, instead of A, that the dealer just extracted money from my bank account and sent me the amp, even though I’d never placed an order. In that case, that would be strange kind of theft. The dealer would have taken my money without my consent. Suppose, instead of B, the dealer (or someone else) had said, “Buy this amp or I’ll murder you.” In that case, we still wouldn’t call it consensual—it would be a weird form of theft. Suppose, instead of C, I tell the dealer, “I absolutely refuse to buy a JVM!,” but the dealer just sent it to me anyways. In that case, it would have been like it had given me a gift without my consent. If they then sent me a bill, I wouldn’t have any duty to pay it, since I’d told them I didn’t want to buy the amp. Suppose, instead of D, the dealer takes my money but never sends the amp. In that case, it would be fraud. In each of these cases, the transaction would not be consensual.

In general, our relationship as individuals to our government doesn’t look much like a consensual relationship.

If you don’t vote or participate, your government will just impose rules, regulations, restrictions, benefits, and taxes upon you. Except in exceptional circumstances, the same outcome will occur regardless of how you vote or what policies you support. So, for instance, I voted for a particular candidate in 2012. But had I abstained or voted for a different candidate, the same candidate would have won anyways. This is not like a consensual transaction, in which I order a JVM and the dealer sends me the amp I ordered. Rather, this is more a like a nonconsensual transaction in which the dealer decides to make me buy an amp no matter whether I place an order or not, and no matter what I order.

If you actively dissent, the government makes you obey its rules anyways. For instance, you can’t get out of marijuana criminalization laws by saying, “Just to be clear, I don’t consent to those laws, or to your rule”. This is unlike my relationship with my music gear dealer, where “no” means “no”. For government, your “no” means “yes”.

You have no reasonable way of opting out of government rule. Governments control all the habitable land, and most of us don’t have the resources or even the legal permission to move elsewhere. Governments won’t even let you move to Antarctica if you want to. At most, a privileged few of us can choose which government we live under, but the vast majority of us are stuck with whatever government we’re born with. This is unlike buying an amp from Sweetwater.com, which, by the way, I highly recommend as a dealer.

Finally, governments require you to obey their rules, pay taxes, and the like, even when they don’t do their part. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the government has no duty to protect individual citizens. Suppose you call the police to alert them that an intruder is in your house, but the police never bother dispatch someone to help you, and as a result the intruder shoots you. The government still requires you to pay taxes for the protection services it chose not to deploy on your behalf.

So, in summary, it looks like in general our relationship to our governments lacks any of the features that signify a consensual transaction.

None of this is to say that governments are unjust or illegitimate, or that we ought to be anarchists. There are other reasons to have governments. Nor is it to say that democracies are not in some way special. Democracies in fact do a much better job than alternative forms of government of responding to their concerns and interests of most of their members. But it’s a stretch to say that democracy rests on the consent of the governed, or, more precisely, it’s a stretch to say that you consent to democratic rule.

Check out Jason Brennan’s recent post on Why Smart Politicians Say Dumb Things.

Jason Brennan is Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of Markets without Limits, with Peter Jaworski (2015), Why Not Capitalism? (2014), Compulsory Voting, with Lisa Hill (2014), Libertarianism (2012), The Ethics of Voting (2011), and A Brief History of Liberty, with David Schmidtz (2010). He is currently writing Against Democracy, under contract with Princeton University Press, and Global Justice as Global Freedom, with Bas von der Vossen.

Chris Hedges interviews Sheldon Wolin on The Real News.com

Journalist Chris Hedges of The Real News.com sat down with political philosopher and author of Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, Sheldon Wolin for a three hour interview to discuss the relationship between democracy and the citizenry. Broken up into roughly twenty minute segments, the first of eight interviews can be seen below.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ij-Pa0pemSM#t=113]

 


bookjacket

Democracy Incorporated:
Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
Sheldon S. Wolin
With a new preface by the author

Winner of the 2008 Lannan Notable Book Award, Lannan Foundation

In Honor Of Those Who Have Served

It’s Veteran’s Day! In honor of those who have bravely fought to protect our country, the Press is taking a moment to thank those men and women who have risked their lives for this amazing country and its people. On such an occasion, it only makes sense to share some of our titles with you all that highlight the wars we’ve fought and the democracy we’ve worked so hard to build, neither of which would be possible without people to protect and defend us.

Thank you to all those who have served!


The Confidence Trap
The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present

By: David Runciman
In this wide-ranging, original, and compelling book, David Runciman tells the story of modern democracy through the history of moments of crisis, from the First World War to the economic crash of 2008. A global history with a special focus on the United States, The Confidence Trap examines how democracy survived threats ranging from the Great Depression to the Cuban missile crisis, and from Watergate to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It also looks at the confusion and uncertainty created by unexpected victories, from the defeat of German autocracy in 1918 to the defeat of communism in 1989.

Five Days in August
Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War

By: Michael D. Gordin
Most Americans believe that the Second World War ended because the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan forced it to surrender. Five Days in August boldly presents a different interpretation: that the military did not clearly understand the atomic bomb’s revolutionary strategic potential, that the Allies were almost as stunned by the surrender as the Japanese were by the attack, and that not only had experts planned and fully anticipated the need for a third bomb, they were skeptical about whether the atomic bomb would work at all. With these ideas, Michael Gordin reorients the historical and contemporary conversation about the A-bomb and World War II.

Nothing Less Than Victory
Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History

By: John David Lewis
The goal of war is to defeat the enemy’s will to fight. But how this can be accomplished is a thorny issue. Nothing Less than Victory provocatively shows that aggressive, strategic military offenses can win wars and establish lasting peace, while defensive maneuvers have often led to prolonged carnage, indecision, and stalemate. Taking an ambitious and sweeping look at six major wars, from antiquity to World War II, John David Lewis shows how victorious military commanders have achieved long-term peace by identifying the core of the enemy’s ideological, political, and social support for a war, fiercely striking at this objective, and demanding that the enemy acknowledges its defeat.

How Wars End
How Wars End

By: Dan Reiter
Why do some countries choose to end wars short of total victory while others fight on, sometimes in the face of appalling odds? How Wars End argues that two central factors shape war-termination decision making: information about the balance of power and the resolve of one’s enemy, and fears that the other side’s commitment to abide by a war-ending peace settlement may not be credible. How Wars End concludes with a timely discussion of twentieth-century American foreign policy, framing the Bush Doctrine’s emphasis on preventive war in the context of the theory.

Paying The Human Costs of War
Paying the Human Costs of War: American Public Opinion and Casualties in Military Conflicts

By: Christopher Gelpi, Peter D. Feaver & Jason Reifler
From the Korean War to the current conflict in Iraq, Paying the Human Costs of War examines the ways in which the American public decides whether to support the use of military force. Contrary to the conventional view, the authors demonstrate that the public does not respond reflexively and solely to the number of casualties in a conflict. Instead, the book argues that the public makes reasoned and reasonable cost-benefit calculations for their continued support of a war based on the justifications for it and the likelihood it will succeed, along with the costs that have been suffered in casualties. Of these factors, the book finds that the most important consideration for the public is the expectation of success.

Our Army
Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations

By: Jason K. Dempsey
Conventional wisdom holds that the American military is overwhelmingly conservative and Republican, and extremely political. Our Army paints a more complex picture, demonstrating that while army officers are likely to be more conservative, rank-and-file soldiers hold political views that mirror those of the American public as a whole, and army personnel are less partisan and politically engaged than most civilians. Our Army adds needed nuance to our understanding of a profession that seems increasingly distant from the average American.


Two for Tuesday – Political Bubbles and Champagne Bubbles

bubblesFrom financial and political bubbles to bubbles that tickle your senses, we have you covered with two books just published. We invite you to read their Introductions online.

Political Bubbles: Financial Crises and the Failure of American Democracy
by Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole & Howard Rosenthal

Behind every financial crisis lurks a “political bubble”–policy biases that foster market behaviors leading to financial instability. Rather than tilting against risky behavior, political bubbles–arising from a potent combination of beliefs, institutions, and interests–aid, abet, and amplify risk. Demonstrating how political bubbles helped create the real estate-generated financial bubble and the 2008 financial crisis, this book argues that similar government oversights in the aftermath of the crisis undermined Washington’s response to the “popped” financial bubble, and shows how such patterns have occurred repeatedly throughout US history. The first full accounting of how politics produces financial ruptures, Political Bubbles offers timely lessons that all sectors would do well to heed.

Nolan McCarty is the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Politics and Public Affairs and chair of the Department of Politics at Princeton University. Keith T. Poole is the Philip H. Alston Jr. Distinguished Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Georgia. Howard Rosenthal is professor of politics at New York University and the Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences, Emeritus, at Princeton University.
Introduction online: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i9934.pdf

Uncorked: The Science of Champagne (Revised Edition)
by Gérard Liger-Belair
With a new foreword by Hervé This

Bubbly may tickle the nose, but Uncorked tackles what the nose and the naked eye cannot–the spectacular science that gives champagne its charm and champagne drinkers immeasurable pleasure. Providing an unprecedented close-up view of the beauty in the bubbles, Gérard Liger-Belair presents images that look surprisingly like lovely flowers, geometric patterns, even galaxies as the bubbles rise through the glass and burst forth on the surface. He illustrates how bubbles form not on the glass itself but are “born” out of debris stuck on the glass wall, how they rise, and how they pop. Offering a colorful history of champagne, Liger-Belair tells us how it is made and he asks if global warming could spell champagne’s demise. In a brand new foreword, renowned chemist Hervé This places the evolution of champagne within the context of molecular gastronomy and the science of cuisine, and in an original afterword, Liger-Belair updates the reader on new developments in the world of bubble science and delves even more deeply into the processes that give champagne its unique and beautiful character.

Gérard Liger-Belair is a physics professor at the University of Reims, located in the Champagne region of France.
Introduction online: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i9939.pdf