Government Is Not What Makes a Country Great

Can you distrust the government and yet still be loyal to your country? I say yes.

I spend quite a bit of time in Europe. Friends “across the pond” are always incredulous about some dumb thing the U.S. government has done. They expect me to be defensive; in fact I’m usually able to supply some detail or additional outrage they hadn’t heard yet.

Someone will take me aside later, and ask if I am thinking of moving to another country. After all, if I am that scornful of the U.S. government, how can I stick around?

Wait. I can be a patriotic American, but also think that U.S. politicians are ninnies. Both can be true: our country is great, and our government is terrible. To be fair, European political officials are a pack of clowns and thugs, too.

Become a Great Country

Countries are great when they can overcome bad politicians, because the core rules and the values of the citizens are bulletproof. Citizens must somehow have both the ability and the courage to face down governments when that government becomes too oppressive or too arbitrarily focused on the personal power of temporary leaders.

That, I think, is where my Euro-friends disagree. The reverence for “democracy”—by which Europeans mostly mean “majority rule”—is almost unknown here. Many of our government institutions—the Senate, the Supreme Court, the Electoral College—are explicitly and intentionally anti-majoritarian. It has never been clear to me why this faith in majorities is so strong in countries that love government.

If you start with one person, too dumb to be able to choose what size soft drink to buy or to buy lunch from a food truck without government help, and gather a whole pack of them into a poorly informed and undisciplined mob, then they can make extremely complex decisions about foreign policy that affect the entire world.

H.L. Mencken, in Notes on Democracy, (1927) shared my skepticism. Or, to be fair, I guess I share his:

[In the electorate,] one hears, lies a deep, illimitable reservoir of righteousness and wisdom, unpolluted by the corruption of privilege. What baffles statesmen is to be solved by the people, instantly and by a sort of seraphic intuition…. The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.

This notion, as I hint, originated in the poetic fancy of gentlemen on the upper levels - sentimentalists who, observing to their distress that the ass was over-laden, proposed to reform transport by putting him into the cart.

One might object, of course, that the problem is not the lack of information voters possess, since the very idea of anyone knowing enough to organize or plan a society is ludicrous.

Societies that work organize themselves, using higher level rules that structure their interactions and allow innovation. As Mises and Hayek argued, the notion that planning can be achieved through “calculation,” either by experts or by voters, is both eternally appealing and dead wrong.

Mencken said something else about democracy, something that I can’t help thinking about in the aftermath of…well, of pretty much every election in my lifetime. There is a fatal internal contradiction in seeing “democracy” as being nothing more than majority rule, rather than a set of restrictions on majority rule:

Does [democracy] exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by 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 laborious and virtuous men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776, and continue to survive.

In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government, and even to civilization itself — that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not know: I report only that when the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilarating.

But I am, it may be, a somewhat malicious man: my sympathies, when it comes to suckers, tend to be coy. What I can’t make out is how any man can believe in democracy who feels for and with them, and is pained when they are debauched and made a show of. How can any man be a democrat who is sincerely a democrat?

Much of the genius of the U.S. has always been that we are not a majoritarian system.  A naïve faith in the racist, greedy, homophobic, and immigrant-hating majority is no basis for government.

Trust Not Authority

Sure, elections and majority rule are the best tools we have to curtail tyranny, but we don’t have to worship our tools. People didn’t vote to end segregated schools; the Supreme Court overruled the will of the majority in Kansas, and President Eisenhower sent elite troops, the U.S. 101st Airborne, to force voters to do that which they didn’t want to do: treat all children equally.

But the U.S. is now becoming more like Europe, in the sense that we are trusting more and more of the authority to use force to naïve majority rule. When President Obama said, “Elections have consequences, and I won!” he was elevating elections over rule of law.  When he said that he had a pen, and he had a phone, and could use those to govern through executive order rather than depending on the Congress, the rule of law took another hit.

Since November 2016 several Duke University colleagues have come into my office, closed the door, and said, “Okay. You were right. Are you happy now?” Since the U.S. response to 9/11, with the Patriot Act and expansive use of executive power, I had been complaining.

What if a tyrant is elected? What if these huge new powers fall into the hands of someone you disagree with? The problem is that the exceptions to the rule of law persist, but the policies you want will be obliterated.

Well, in the minds of many that “what if” is no longer hypothetical. And much of what made the U.S. distinctive has been heedlessly destroyed. We are conflating loyalty to our elected leaders with patriotism, and it scares me.

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Michael Munger

Michael Munger is Professor of Economics at Duke University and Senior Fellow of the American Institute for Economic Research. His degrees are from Davidson College, Washingon University in St. Louis, and Washington University.