One of the most widely accepted propositions among political economists is the following: Every monopoly is bad from the viewpoint of consumers. Monopoly is understood in its classical sense to be an exclusive privilege granted to a single producer of a commodity or service, i.e., as the absence of free entry into a particular line of production. In other words, only one agency, A, may produce a given good, x. Any such monopolist is bad for consumers because, shielded from potential new entrants into his area of production, the price of the monopolist’s product x will be higher and the quality of x lower than otherwise.
This article first appeared at Mises.org
This elementary truth has frequently been invoked as an argument in favor of democratic government as opposed to classical, monarchical or princely government. This is because under democracy entry into the governmental apparatus is free — anyone can become prime minister or president — whereas under monarchy it is restricted to the king and his heir.
However, this argument in favor of democracy is fatally flawed. Free entry is not always good. Free entry and competition in the production of goods is good, but free competition in the production of bads is not. Free entry into the business of torturing and killing innocents, or free competition in counterfeiting or swindling, for instance, is not good; it is worse than bad. So what sort of “business” is government? Answer: it is not a customary producer of goods sold to voluntary consumers. Rather, it is a “business” engaged in theft and expropriation — by means of taxes and counterfeiting — and the fencing of stolen goods. Hence, free entry into government does not improve something good. Indeed, it makes matters worse than bad, i.e., it improves evil.
Since man is as man is, in every society people who covet others’ property exist. Some people are more afflicted by this sentiment than others, but individuals usually learn not to act on such feelings or even feel ashamed for entertaining them. Generally only a few individuals are unable to successfully suppress their desire for others’ property, and they are treated as criminals by their fellow men and repressed by the threat of physical punishment. Under princely government, only one single person — the prince — can legally act on the desire for another man’s property, and it is this which makes him a potential danger and a “bad.”
However, a prince is restricted in his redistributive desires because all members of society have learned to regard the taking and redistributing of another man’s property as shameful and immoral. Accordingly, they watch a prince’s every action with utmost suspicion. In distinct contrast, by opening entry into government, anyone is permitted to freely express his desire for others’ property. What formerly was regarded as immoral and accordingly was suppressed is now considered a legitimate sentiment. Everyone may openly covet everyone else’s property in the name of democracy; and everyone may act on this desire for another’s property, provided that he finds entrance into government. Hence, under democracy everyone becomes a threat.
Consequently, under democratic conditions the popular though immoral and anti-social desire for another man’s property is systematically strengthened. Every demand is legitimate if it is proclaimed publicly under the special protection of “freedom of speech.” Everything can be said and claimed, and everything is up for grabs. Not even the seemingly most secure private property right is exempt from redistributive demands. Worse, subject to mass elections, those members of society with little or no inhibitions against taking another man’s property, that is, habitual a-moralists who are most talented in assembling majorities from a multitude of morally uninhibited and mutually incompatible popular demands (efficient demagogues) will tend to gain entrance in and rise to the top of government. Hence, a bad situation becomes even worse.
Historically, the selection of a prince was through the accident of his noble birth, and his only personal qualification was typically his upbringing as a future prince and preserver of the dynasty, its status, and its possessions. This did not assure that a prince would not be bad and dangerous, of course. However, it is worth remembering that any prince who failed in his primary duty of preserving the dynasty — who ruined the country, caused civil unrest, turmoil and strife, or otherwise endangered the position of the dynasty — faced the immediate risk either of being neutralized or assassinated by another member of his own family. In any case, however, even if the accident of birth and his upbringing did not preclude that a prince might be bad and dangerous, at the same time the accident of a noble birth and a princely education also did not preclude that he might be a harmless dilettante or even a good and moral person.
In contrast, the selection of government rulers by means of popular elections makes it nearly impossible that a good or harmless person could ever rise to the top. Prime ministers and presidents are selected for their proven efficiency as morally uninhibited demagogues. Thus, democracy virtually assures that only bad and dangerous men will ever rise to the top of government. Indeed, as a result of free political competition and selection, those who rise will become increasingly bad and dangerous individuals, yet as temporary and interchangeable caretakers they will only rarely be assassinated.
One can do no better than quote H.L. Mencken in this connection. “Politicians,” he notes with his characteristic wit, “seldom if ever get [into public office]by merit alone, at least in democratic states. Sometimes, to be sure, it happens, but only by a kind of miracle. They are chosen normally for quite different reasons, the chief of which is simply their power to impress and enchant the intellectually underprivileged….Will any of them venture to tell the plain truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the situation of the country, foreign or domestic? Will any of them refrain from promises that he knows he can’t fulfill — that no human being could fulfill? Will any of them utter a word, however obvious, that will alarm or alienate any of the huge pack of morons who cluster at the public trough, wallowing in the pap that grows thinner and thinner, hoping against hope? Answer: may be for a few weeks at the start…. But not after the issue is fairly joined, and the struggle is on in earnest…. They will all promise every man, woman and child in the country whatever he, she or it wants. They’ll all be roving the land looking for chances to make the rich poor, to remedy the irremediable, to succor the unsuccorable, to unscramble the unscrambleable, to dephlogisticate the undephlogisticable. They will all be curing warts by saying words over them, and paying off the national debt with money no one will have to earn. When one of them demonstrates that twice two is five, another will prove that it is six, six and a half, ten, twenty, n. In brief, they will divest themselves from their character as sensible, candid and truthful men, and simply become candidates for office, bent only on collaring votes. They will all know by then, even supposing that some of them don’t know it now, that votes are collared under democracy, not by talking sense but by talking nonsense, and they will apply themselves to the job with a hearty yo-heave-ho. Most of them, before the uproar is over, will actually convince themselves. The winner will be whoever promises the most with the least probability of delivering anything.”
[Originally published as Why Bad Men Rule, November 2004]
This article first appeared at Mises.org