The Elusive Goal of Political Stability
By Arnold Kling
Political history is a cycle between benevolent rulers, democracy, anarchy, and tyranny.
The use of force is the essence of the state and the logic of the state, and you would want it that way. The alternative, as Thomas Hobbes argued in Leviathan, would be chaos and revolution. The state must wield enough force to overawe resistance and to crush noncompliance. These acts of violence are not abuses: they are the thing itself.
Two recent books, by Michael Anissimov and Michael Munger, respectively, argue for a disenchanted view of democracy. Anissimov claims that monarchy would be superior. Munger, a frequent contributor to Econlib, respects democracy but wishes that his fellow citizens were less disposed to believe in the wisdom and benevolence of public officials.
Allow me to modify Anissimov’s four stages of government. Following Douglass North, Barry Weingast, and John Wallis,3 let me replace “benevolent rulers” with “limited-access order.” That is, a government comprised of a narrow set of elites. Following those same authors, let me replace “democracy” with “open-access order,” meaning a government that allows broad participation in elections and relatively equal access to official positions. I wish to replace “anarchy” with civil war, and keep the term “tyranny.”
What I want to suggest is that none of these four stages is stable. Each has a flaw that can cause it to move to another stage.
The flaw in limited-access orders is that the elites face constant pressure to broaden access to the political process. The king finds that he needs the support of more groups in the population, and to obtain their support he must concede rights and political opportunities to a broader and broader segment of the population. This is the process by which a limited-access order evolves gradually into an open-access order.
One can argue that the United States at the time of its founding was a limited-access order. Women could not vote. Men without property could not vote. Most African-Americans could not vote. Over time, these restrictions could not stand. As excluded groups came to be seen as contributors to society, politicians decided that those groups were entitled to participate in the political process. For example, the service of African-Americans during World War II created strong moral pressure for voting rights. Similarly, during the Vietnam War, the fact that 18-year-olds could be drafted was used to justify giving them the right to vote, also.
Anissimov cites Hans-Herman Hoppe to express his concern with open-access orders:
Hoppe says [that] public governance eliminates the clear line between the rulers and the ruled and thereby systematically weakens our opposition to the expansion of government. By giving us the illusion that we are ruled by no one but instead we all rule ourselves, everyone has an imaginary piece in the franchise of government, and cheers it on as it grows to displace the private sector.
In other words, the government becomes like a commons that is overgrazed because nobody owns it. Government will become over-extended as it tries to satisfy the incompatible demands of multiple constituencies. When it is unable to do so, finances may break down and civil war could result. The failures of the Weimar government in Germany resulted in intense political violence between Communists and anti-Communists in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The failure of the Russian provisional (Kerensky) government in 1917 was followed by a civil war in Russia. More recently, civil war erupted in Libya and Iraq after democratic governments were unable to obtain sufficient popular support.
Civil war gives rise to a hunger for order, which can lead people to accept tyranny. Communist tyranny has followed civil war in Russia, China, and Vietnam. Anti-Communist tyranny followed civil war in Spain and Indonesia. Tyranny also has arisen following civil war in various countries in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.
Tyranny’s fatal flaw is that it arouses bitterness and hostility in the population. It can only last as long as the tyrant has more willpower and military strength than the opposition.
Thus, each form of state has a built-in flaw that makes it unstable. Limited-access orders need to broaden their base of support, open-access orders cannot resist over-promising and then imploding, civil war is exhausting, and tyranny provokes opposition.
“In America and in Western Europe, we have come to view democracy as a stable end-state.”
In America and in Western Europe, we have come to view democracy as a stable end-state. However, that may be contingent on governments remaining fiscally solvent, which is far from assured. If Greece loses access to foreign credit and to the financial institutions of the European Union, will it remain democratic, or could it lapse into civil war? Would Spain remain unified in the face of a financial crisis? Italy? Will the European Union as a whole hold together?
What holds a political system together is what political theorists call “legitimacy,” also known as the “Noble Lie.” Hundreds of years ago, the noble lie was that the king was divine. Munger writes,
The modern version of the “Noble Lie” is told to all of us, every day: The reason we have powerful governments is that the people in government are working not for themselves but for the people.
For more on these topics, see the EconTalk podcast episode
See also North, Wallis, and Weingast, by Arnold Kling, EconLog, May 17, 2009, “Democracy is a Means, Not an End”, by Michael Munger and “The Conundrum of Crowned Democracies,” by Pedro Schwartz, August 4, 2014, Library of Economics and Liberty.
When a government lacks legitimacy, it is vulnerable to upheaval and civil war. What Munger argues is that there is also such a thing as too much legitimacy. That is, when people have too much faith in the wisdom and benevolence of government officials, they encourage those officials to seize excessive power, leading to bad outcomes. He writes,
The solution is a citizenry that understands the economic and political forces that make government inherently incapable of carrying out the tasks we want to assign to it.
Anissimov despairs of having such a citizenry. He argues that a limited-access order will run a country more carefully.
The proposal for private rather than public government, at its core, is extremely simple: for something to be properly valued and taken care of it, it must be owned. That includes government. If we want a government that is properly taken care of for the long term, it must be owned by someone. That means no democracy. Does this mean we’re sacrificing our “freedom”? No, because I don’t define freedom as being able to cast one meaningless vote among millions in an election.
The way I think of his proposal for monarchy is to imagine that the monarch stands in a voluntary contractual relationship with respect to citizens in the same way that a landlord-tenant relationship is contractual. However, because the landlord is the government, there is no enforcement mechanism. Rather, the only recourse that a tenant has if the landlord-monarch fails to comply with the contract is to leave and find a different landlord-monarch.
It could be that the landlord-tenant model is workable, because landlord-monarchs have to worry about their reputations. A landlord-monarch who drives away many tenants may end up with no tenants whatsoever, and therefore no income.
However, Anissimov does not address the problem that makes limited-access orders unstable. It is tempting for others, either inside or outside the kingdom, to overthrow the monarch in order to obtain title to the rents. In order to reduce the incentive to be overthrown, the landlord-monarch will have to obtain a broad base of support. This eventually will lead to an open-access order.
Ultimately, it is the cultural beliefs of citizens that determines whether a limited-access order or an open-access order can remain stable. For a limited-access order, the necessity is for citizens to give enough legitimacy to the monarch to enable the monarch to rule without having to give way to an open-access order. For an open-access order the necessity is for citizens to withhold legitimacy from the government when it tries to expand too much. As Munger puts it,
… we need to see the line dividing private and collective choices and defend it fiercely.
Michael Anissimov, A Critique of Democracy: A Guide for Neoreactionaries. Zenit Books, February 5, 2015.
Michael Munger, The Thing Itself: Essays on Academics and the State, Mungarella Publishing, February 14, 2015.
Douglass C. North, Barry R. Weingast, and John J. Wallis, Violence and Social Orders: A Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. Cambridge University Press, February 26, 2009.
For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.