[Paleopsych] Independent Institute: The Case Against the Democratic State

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The Case Against the Democratic State

    [28]VOLUME 9 NUMBER 1
    SUMMER 2004

                                        [  -Volume 9 Number 1 Summer 2004]

    Title:       The Case Against the Democratic State
    Author:      Gordon Graham
    Published:   Charlottesville, Va.: Imprint Academic
    Price:       [29]$17.90 (paperback)
    Pages:       96
    Reviewer:    [30]James R. Otteson
    Affiliation: University of Alabama

    This slim volume is part of a publishing program called "Societas:
    Essays in Moral and Cultural Criticism," which is advertised as an
    attempt to revive the tradition of thoughtful political pamphleteering
    that reached its zenith in seventeenth-century England. Its purpose is
    for scholars to discuss important "moral" and "cultural" topics by
    communicating with the educated lay public, not just with other
    scholars. The editorial advisory board of the series includes figures
    such as John Gray of the London School of Economics, and the five
    volumes already published include two by Gordon Graham, one by Anthony
    Freeman, one by Tibor Machan, and one by Graham Allen. Although the
    advertisement's claim that "each book should take no more than an
    evening to read" is a bit optimistic for Graham's Case Against the
    Democratic State, certainly the book can be read over a weekend, and
    in any event the series generally and this book in particular are
    welcome additions to academic publishing on political and cultural

    As befits the intention of this series, Graham's thesis can be put
    simply: the arguments typically thought to justify democracy as the
    best form of government in fact fail to justify it, and indeed some of
    the central conceptual commitments that people assume support
    democracy turn out to support far different sorts of government.

    The book begins impressively: "The history of the last two hundred
    years, at least in Europe, is a story of the immense and relentless
    growth of one social institution at the expense of the others. I mean
    the State" (p. 1). This declaration is a promising start for a several
    reasons. First, it draws attention to a spectacular feature of human
    social life in recent history, a feature that has been unaccountably
    underinvestigated and even ignored by most political theorists.
    Second, it asks the reader to pay attention to empirical matters, with
    which many contemporary political theorists are too little concerned.
    And third, it capitalizes the S in state. Graham retains his practice
    of capitalizing that s throughout the book, subtly suggesting to the
    reader that the state might be a single phenomenon with a single
    central nature that, despite superficial variations, can itself be
    investigated, analyzed, and understood.

    Beginning the discussion in this way also introduces an ongoing theme
    of Graham's book, which is that people's beliefs about political
    matters are often riddled with misperceptions and even falsehoods.
    This reality is reflected first and foremost, according to Graham, in
    their misunderstanding of the true nature of the state. What is its
    true nature? "I shall define its essential character in this way: the
    State is the monopolist of legitimate coercion" (p. 6). Despite its
    varied appearances, Graham argues, the state invariably has as its
    essence the exclusive claim to use or threaten force. This nature of
    the state thus immediately calls for an answer to a question rarely
    raised among contemporary political theorists: Is a state justifiable
    at all? Graham not only takes up this question but argues that most of
    the arguments used to justify the state in fact fail.

    It is not true, for example, that absent the state all social life
    would be warfare, for, if it were so, then "the officers of the
    State--i.e. the police--could do little to counteract this" because
    the police would be unable to stop systematic inclinations toward
    "anti-social" tendencies, no matter how many of them there were (p.
    11). Here Graham might also have mentioned that an assumption of
    systematic antisocial inclinations among human beings would also have
    to include the police, who are after all human beings, too; hence,
    asking the state to counteract such a tendency would not solve the
    problem, but rather would only relocate it. Graham argues further that
    it is simply not true that what prevents most individuals from acting
    in an "antisocial" way is fear of punishment; instead, he contends,
    most people prefer to act in ways that extend and strengthen sociality
    rather than in ways that destroy it (p. 11). Moreover, in those few
    cases "where trust breaks down," Graham claims, "recourse to
    law--litigation--is a very imperfect remedy, and generally serves to
    make matters worse" by encouraging people to view one another as
    adversaries requiring legal accountably rather than as fellow human
    beings whom we should trust until we have reason not to (p. 12).
    Finally, Graham points out that "the existence of the State does not
    put an end to criminal activity" (p. 12, emphasis in original). He
    does not make the bolder if more contentious claim that state activity
    itself constitutes "criminal activity"--that, for example, the state
    lives on property stolen from citizens and on labor coercively
    enforced (though he hints at such an argument on p. 19)--but rather he
    offers the more straightforward point that no state, however "strong
    and efficient," has ever completely eradicated "theft of property,
    fraudulent transactions, kidnapping, violence against the person and
    so on" (p. 12).

    The latter point is instrumental in Graham's larger argument that when
    engaging in political theorizing, one must keep one's nose to the
    empirical grindstone. Imagined ideals are always going to be superior
    to any actual state, so it is pointless and even dangerous to engage
    in mere a priori reasoning about how one might ideally like the world
    to be. One must look instead at possible alternatives and compare them
    to one another. Proper political thought thus engages in "relative
    judgement[s] between good and less good," which means that a judgment
    about what system of political organization ought to be recommended
    "must turn on empirical evidence on the balance of probabilities" (p.
    13). This statement may seem like common sense, but it is in fact a
    refreshing departure from the practice of most political philosophers,
    who rarely avail themselves of actual historical and empirical
    evidence and who in some cases expressly disdain reliance on actual
    facts on the grounds that these facts might muddy the waters of
    pristine a priori philosophy. Facts do have a way of muddying the
    waters, but political thought by its nature concerns, or should
    concern, actual human beings living in an actual world. Political
    thought is not logic or mathematics, and human beings are not
    disembodied rational intellects. Graham is right to insist that
    political philosophy must deal with the real world, and his book is a
    needed reminder of that requirement.

    The bulk of Graham's book is aimed at making cases for three principal
    claims: one, anarchism has much greater appeal philosophically than is
    commonly thought, and the obvious objections to it fail (chap. 1);
    two, the arguments typically adduced in support of democracy also fail
    and indeed contribute to what Graham calls the "democratic myth"
    (chaps. 2-4); and three, the best of the realizable forms of
    government might turn out to be a kind of republicanism (chap. 6).
    Graham's discussions are engaging and thought provoking, and they
    contain a number of interesting insights. Especially useful is his
    undermining of the idea that democracy is justified because it rests
    on the consent of the governed. Citizens of a democratic society
    cannot be said to have consented to their state and to what it does
    because, Graham argues, voting actually has no causal efficacy (chaps.
    3 and 4). His sobering claim is that no single person's vote ever
    determines or affects the outcome of an election, so if voting is to
    have any purpose at all for a person, that purpose cannot be to elect
    or remove any candidate. This point alone goes some way toward making
    the case against the democratic state.

    I have a few quibbles with some of Graham's claims, but I mention here
    only two worries about a single suggestion he makes. When discussing
    "alternatives to democracy," Graham recommends republicanism, which he
    defines somewhat idiosyncratically as "any form of government in which
    the political system works in such a way that serious constraints are
    put on the use of State power" (p. 84). He argues plausibly that this
    definition is preferable to other, more common definitions of
    republicanism because it focuses on what really is important about
    states--namely, "how political systems work in practice and not how
    their constitutions say they ought to" (p. 85). On his view, it does
    not matter whether a state is officially "democratic," "monarchical,"
    and so on, or whether state power is constrained "institutionally";
    what matters is whether limitations on state power are "realized,"
    regardless of how (p. 85). Although this way of thinking papers over
    some issues, the distinction between institutional and realized
    limitations nevertheless has considerable merit. The annually released
    report Economic Freedom of the World, by James Gwartney and Robert
    Lawson (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute), presents evidence that
    supports the notion that what matters is what policies are actually in
    place, not what is officially espoused.

    The first question I have about Graham's discussion of republicanism
    and alternatives to democracy, however, is, Why did he not reconsider
    here the anarchism for which he argued earlier in the book? Why not
    simply argue that no state can be legitimate--period? In the first
    chapter, Graham accepts a Hobbesian argument that the state is
    necessary to solve prisoners' dilemma-style coordination problems, but
    the work of writers such as Robert Axelrod and Bruce Benson, among
    many others, has suggested that a coercive state in fact is not
    necessary to solve those problems. Graham unfortunately does not
    mention these arguments. The case for his republicanism would have
    been stronger had he done so.

    The other worry is that Graham's republicanism is liable to the same
    or at least to some of the same objections that Graham raises to
    democracy. As mentioned earlier, one part of the "democratic myth,"
    Graham argues, is that voting in a democracy actually gives people
    some say. Graham correctly points out that "the belief that elections
    give power to the people is an illusion. There is no coherent
    conception of action and will that can show `the people,' either
    individually or collectively, to be choosing a government, or throwing
    one out of office when they cast their votes" (p. 86). By contrast, he
    claims, his republicanism not only allows the electoral process to
    "disperse" power (p. 87), but also gives voting an "expressive" if not
    a "causal" purpose (p. 89). The argument here is somewhat opaque. If
    voting in a "democratic" government is pointless because no person's
    vote has any causal efficacy, then it would seem that the same point
    applies to voting under a Grahamsian republican government, even if in
    the latter case the intent is to "disperse" power rather than to
    concentrate it. The capacity to disperse power would seem to require
    causal efficacy as much as the capacity to concentrate it does.
    Moreover, it is not clear exactly what "expressive" ends voting really
    serves. Perhaps officially it is claimed to show patriotism or
    solidarity or community, but Graham has asked us to pay attention to
    actual effects, not aspirations. From this perspective, it would
    appear that if voting has any function at all, it is to give some
    people power over others, precisely what Graham hopes to avoid.

    One suspects that in a longer book Graham would have provided cogent
    responses to these questions, but The Case Against the Democratic
    State is not intended to be a comprehensive treatise. Rather, it is an
    invitation to think harder about such matters than most people are
    commonly inclined to think. The student, the intelligent layman, and
    even--perhaps especially--most academic specialists would profit
    greatly from encountering arguments that plausibly question widespread
    political pieties and that introduce empirical investigation where it
    is clearly appropriate. Graham's little book is an excellent candidate
    for inclusion on an undergraduate syllabus or on the reading list of
    anyone wondering what exactly the nearly universal prejudice in favor
    of democracy is actually based upon.

    James R. Otteson
    University of Alabama


   30. http://www.independent.org/aboutus/person_detail.asp?id=589
   31. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/090784538X/theindepeende-20
   32. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/090784538X/theindepeende-20

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