A Simple Idea to Rediscover
by Pierre Lemieux
Those who believe in democracy because they think the majority will always agree with them don’t really believe in democracy.
As William of Ockham could have put it, entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem–“entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.” The whole question is knowing where necessity ends. Simple principles are useful, but simple ideas can also be simplistic. And the problem is much more challenging in normative statements, that is, when there is a “should.”
I want, however, to defend one simple political-normative idea that both the Left and the Right should discover–or perhaps rediscover. It’s a simple classical-liberal and libertarian idea that makes much theoretical and historical sense: the state’s powers should be limited in such a way that little damage would be done if the worst man or men came to power. Hitler would have done little evil at the helm of, say, the United States Steel Corporation. When dealing with the state, we should adopt a maximin strategy: maximize the minimum, that is, aim for the best of the worst possibilities.
Since a despotic government is productive of the most dreadful calamities to human nature, the very evil that restrains it is beneficial to the subject.
It is even more concise and beautiful “in the original French:
Comme le despotisme cause à la nature humaine des maux effroyables, le mal même qui le limite est un bien.
The fact that a state is democratic does not change that. The majority can be tyrannical. A majority of rationally ignorant voters could elect an autocrat who is benevolent, malevolent, or just dangerously ignorant or deluded. Serious advocates of democracy certainly assume that the democratic state is limited: think about John Rawls or James Buchanan, among others. Those who believe in democracy because they think the majority will always agree with them don’t really believe in democracy.
Perhaps the case for libertarianism or classical liberalism ultimately rests on the prudential need to limit the state. (If one believes that this is impossible or that any state is worse than any anarchy, one must be an anarchist.)