Do People Want Liberty?
By Pierre Lemieux
That most people desire individual liberty was an hypothesis on which the rise of liberalism in the 18th century was predicated. But here is a question: Is that hypothesis true?
“What people really care about is who gets to tell them what to do,” writes David Runciman in How Democracy Ends. In Democracy for Realists, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argue that what counts for people is group or partisan loyalty, and that individuals align their opinions on their political party as much as, or more than, the latter follow their members’ opinions.
In a free-market society, there are private ways for people to be told what to do if that’s what they want. They can choose to belong to a sect, adhere to an organized religion, enter into a religious order, earn their living as employees, or just follow what others do in another social tribe to which they belong.
However, the original question remains because some people may want to be told what to do by political leaders (who will ipso facto tell others what to do: that’s the difference between following a political leader and choosing private ways of belonging). Public choice theorists believe that the domination of special interests and government bureaucrats can be ended by a voters’ takeover. But what if voters want to “take over” the government only in the sense of electing somebody from their own partisan tribe to tell them what to do?
The current partisan climate in the United States seems to confirm this. From the results of the last presidential election, we observe that one third of the electorate want to be told what to do by Donald Trump or the Republican Party—the latter changing its traditional stances to follow the former. Another third of the electorate want to be told what to do by the Democratic Party and whoever leads it. The last third—those who don’t vote—don’t care, or perhaps they are happy to be told what to do by whoever is in power.
The rising populist movements in the world, which are typically illiberal, also seem to confirm the desire of large chunks of voters to blindly and loyally follow strong political rulers.
What is the proportion of the population who share the 18th-century dream of individual liberty for all? And how does this affect the prospects of liberty?