The Will of the People Meets the Man in the Moon
By Pierre Lemieux
by Pierre Lemieux
The basic reason why there is no such thing as “the will of the people” is that there is no people to have a will.
I don’t know enough about the Middle East and foreign policy to take a position on the propriety of moving the United States embassy to Jerusalem. I now admit that, contrary to what I once thought, foreign policy – relations with foreign Leviathans – is a distinct and justifiable field of analysis and government action.
I am still seduced by Lysander Spooner’s stirring words on this general topic, but I don’t think they are the final word. Yet, if the Supreme Court, in District of Columbia v. Heller, could cite Spooner on slavery and the right to keep and bear arms, I must be allowed to quote him on foreign affairs:
On general principles of law and reason, the treaties, so called, which purport to be entered into with other nations, by certain persons calling themselves ambassadors, secretaries, presidents, and senators of the United States, in the name, and on behalf, of “the people of the United States,” are of no validity. These so-called ambassadors, secretaries, presidents, and senators, who claim to be the agents of “the people of the United States,” for making these treaties, can show no open, written, or other authentic evidence that either the whole “people of the United States,” or any other open, avowed, responsible body of men, calling themselves by that name, ever authorized these pretended ambassadors and others to make treaties in the name of, or binding upon anyone of, “the people of the United States.” Neither can they show any open, written, or other authentic evidence that either the whole “people of the United States,” or any other open, avowed, responsible body of men, calling themselves by that name, ever authorized these pretended ambassadors, secretaries, and others, in their name and behalf, to recognize certain other persons, calling themselves emperors, kings, queens, and the like, as the rightful rulers, sovereigns, masters, or representatives of the different peoples whom they assume to govern, to represent, and to bind. The “nations,” as they are called, with whom our pretended ambassadors, secretaries, presidents and senators profess to make treaties, are as much myths as our own. …
Our pretended treaties, then, being made with no legitimate or bona fide nations, or representatives of nations, and being made, on our part, by persons who have no legitimate authority to act for us, have intrinsically no more validity than a pretended treaty made by the Man in the Moon with the king of the Pleiades.
As an economist and a student of politics, however, I can say something about the “will of the people” that Ambassador Nikki Haley invoked in her United Nations speech on the embassy decision. She said:
President Trump finally made the decision to no longer deny the will of the American people.
She made other statements conveying the idea that “the people” has an easily ascertainable meaning:
- The Jewish people are a patient people.
- The American people are less patient.
- The American people have overwhelmingly supported that position…
This last statement and the plural verb in all three suggest that “the people” may perhaps be conceived in an individualist, as opposed to collectivist, way; I know Americans who are patient, others who are not. But “the will of the people,” an expression that has proved a convenient excuse for despotic revolutionaries, is pushing the envelope too far. Even Jean-Jacques Rousseau used “the general will” (la volonté générale) more often than “the will of the people.”
The basic reason why there is no such thing as “the will of the people” is that there is no people to have a will. The people is made of separate individuals who each has his own individual will. Indeed, Americans are divided on Middle East policy. And there is no way to aggregate these individual wills into a single social will except if all individuals are identical or if (as is the case in reality) some impose their wills on others or vote results cycle in an inconsistent way. Regarding inconsistency, opinion polls found that 81% of Americans think that the U.S government should keep or expand its commitment to Israel, while 39% think that it should decrease its military presence in, or completely withdraw from, the Middle East, and 64% that military aid to Israel should be decreased or stopped altogether.
A second reason is that the individuals who make up “the people” have precious little idea of what they are supposed to “have overwhelmingly supported.” A voter has no incentive to learn about complex issues because his single vote can have no influence. A March 2016 Gallup poll asked Americans about the proposal to “recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.” Twenty-four percent agreed, 20% disagreed, and a full 56% admitted they “didn’t know enough to say.” The general lack of knowledge on international issues is well-known.
Two recent books, one by political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, and the other one by philosopher Jason Brennan, provide data and perspective on voters’ ignorance and their behavior as “the people.” For example, Achen and Bartels provide statistical evidence that in 1916, voters punished Woodrow Wilson (the incumbent presidential candidate) in the New Jersey beach counties where shark attacks had recently occurred. Similarly, evidence shows that voters regularly punish incumbents for recent droughts or floods.
Finally, consider that when at most two-thirds of citizens participate in an election (it was 61.4% in the 2016 presidential election) and split their votes roughly equally, the winner incarnating “the will of the people” is supported by one-third of the electorate.
There are good arguments for democracy, provided that its power is limited. But democracy does not represent or create anything like a “will of the people.”