Is it true, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed, that Congress is a temple of democracy (“U.S. Capital Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick, who died after assault on Capitol, Protected With a Kind Touch,” Washington Post, January 8, 2021)? She said:

The violent and deadly act of insurrection targeting the Capitol, our temple of American Democracy, and its workers was a profound tragedy and stain on our nation’s history.

This invites a reflection on how Congress, democracy, and the state work. Any moral value attached to these institutions must be consistent with, although not limited to, their likely functioning and consequences.

Anthony de Jasay is one of the many economists who, over the last eight decades of so, have tried to understand the state (the whole apparatus of government). For him, the state is, in positive reality, a redistributive machine that favors some individuals and harm others. One’s ultimate judgement on the state depends also on moral values related to what the state should do. If it is considered good to harm some individuals in order to benefit others (and if de Jasay’s positive analysis is correct), then the state is good. If coercively harming some for the benefit others is morally rejected, then the state is morally bad.

Could we, de Jasay asked, imagine a sort of state that would not be a redistributive Leviathan, that would not be in the business of redistributing pleasure and pain, happiness and submission, but would instead only aim at preventing invasion by, or evolution of, such a state? A sort of state that would not aim at governing? This minimal state, he calls the “capitalist state.” It has never existed anywhere near its pure form but some systems of political authority have been farther from it than others. Many anarchist theorists such as de Jasay think that the capitalist or minimal state cannot survive because it would, by its very logic, soon grab the redistributive function in order to reward its supporters at the cost of other (less loyal) subjects. The state who democratically steals from Paul to give to Peter because the Peters are more numerous than the Pauls is one instantiation of that.

In this perspective, the temple of democracy appears more like a den of thieves and a gang of bullies. It is often difficult to distinguish the state from an organized and heavily armed mob. Although I have come to believe that Lysander Spooner’s attack on the state on that basis is weak, it is still worth reading his 1870 pamphlet The Constitution of No Authority, which describes the democratic state of being “a secret band of robbers and murderers.”

The economic and philosophical issues involved are more complicated than they may appear at first sight. For example, suppose that the state is far from the capitalist state but does prevent the installation of another state that would be even worse—or that it prevents the descent into violent anarchy, as Thomas Hobbes feared. Many politicians commenting on last week’s troubles seem to believe, strangely, that, hic et nunc, anarchy is a more pressing problem than tyranny. (In the Washington Post, David Ignatius even uses an oxymoron: “the Trump anarchists”!) The mob was in effect calling for more state power even if some of its participants may have been duped into believing the contrary.

Little exercise: Why is it easier to be duped on the political market than on ordinary economic markets?

And all this is not speaking of what sort of democracy Pelosi is referring to. If it is majoritarian democracy, which majority do specific electoral methods and institutions favor? What happens when the majority wants both A and non-A, as the paradox of voting and Arrow’s impossibility theorem show is unavoidable? If it is not majoritarian democracy, which minority rules? Does the specific sort of democracy used pursue an illusory “will of the people”? On these questions, economics and, in its wake, political science have had much to teach over the past few decades. (Many of my Econlog and Econlib pieces have been concerned with these issues.)

At any rate, it is not sufficient to simply assume that glorified individuals (“lawmakers”) voting laws thousands of pages long (without knowing what’s in them except for their pious labels and professed intentions) constitute a temple of democracy.