Will Joe Biden Be a Dictator?
This might look like a ridiculous question to ask about a soft-looking near-octogenarian who signals his virtue by repeating the inclusiveness mantra. But not so much if you define “dictator” as a political ruler who imposes on the whole population some shared preferences of the minority who brought him or keeps him in power. A more inclusive definition would replace “minority” by “majority short of unanimity.”
Biden was elected by 51% of the American voters. If, to be inclusive indeed, we include the third of the electorate (that is, of Americans of voting age) who did not vote, Mr. Biden’s support shrinks to 34% (51% × 66%). Now, consider that many who voted for him probably did so only or mainly because they thought that his adversary, Donald Trump, was even worse: half of these voters is not an unrealistic hypothesis, so we are down to 17% of the electorate. If Biden imposes the preferences of 17% of the electorate on 83%, or even of 34% on 66%, he will be a dictator.
An interesting article that bears on this topic is John G. Grove’s “Numerical Democracy or Constitutional Reality,” Law & Liberty (our sister website), November 12, 2020. Grove argues that the United States is a limited, compound republic, not a numerical democracy, and that the whole check and balance structure is meant to prevent a numerical majority from bulldozing the preferences of the rest. From this perspective, each side has a right to have its preferences incorporated in the winner’s legislation; and an adverse electoral result is not, for the losers, a catastrophe to be reversed at all cost.
By the very nature of government, however, it is not easy to prevent winner-take-all results: a law is enforced against everybody, especially against individuals who did not agree with it. It seems that, on the basis of an individualist philosophy, only a near-universal consensus could justify radical change.
One disturbing implication is the following. Grove’s idea is a two-edged sword. When we start from several decades of a collectivist legislative and regulatory drift that has trammeled the minority of individuals who want to be largely left alone, even a new numerical majority may not and could not rapidly change course. Ronald Reagan, with his many good ideas (and a number of bad ones), did not bring much change and perhaps no lasting change. But for the same reason, thank God, Trump was not able to do more damage than he did.
James Buchanan, the Nobel economist, understood the conundrum: How can one reverse dictatorship without being a dictator himself? The solution, Buchanan argues with Geoffrey Brennan in their book The Reason of Rules: Constitutional Political Economy (Liberty Fund, 2000), is a “constitutional revolution.” That is, we—“we” classical liberals and libertarians—need to promote radical change to which our fellow citizens can unanimously consent, at least in theory. This pedagogical and abstract task is not an easy one.
Corrigendum: I have deleted the last sentence of my first paragraph, which read: “(Note that my definition of the term is not very different from the one in Kenneth Arrow’s famous Impossibility Theorem).” Arrow’s definition of a dictator technically applies to one person only and would not consider dictatorial a minority of, say, 34% that rules over 66% if the next largest minority (for another candidate) is 33%.
W M Connolley
Feb 16 2021 at 10:39am
Umm, you suddenly pulled 17% out of a hat. Did you mean to say “suppose we halve that 34%”?
As to the general tenor of the post: these are not new ideas.; it seems a weird co-incidence that you’d write them at the start of the Biden presidency (or even name the president; the ideas are generic); is it odd that you didn’t write something similar at the start of Trump?
I don’t think you *have* defined the term “dictator”, in any kind of operational useable way. “imposes the preferences of” is too vague: is passing and enforcing even one law sufficient (in which case all US prez’s were dictators, probably not a useful defn), or would the entire programme of the 17% (which doesn’t exist) have to be passed? And indeed, it isn’t the Prez who makes law, so what does your “imposes” mean?
Feb 16 2021 at 2:12pm
Indeed, this post just uses dictator as clickbait and then rehashes the known dilemma of implementing policies in an electorate that is a subset of the polity and with heterogeneous preferences. The interesting part is barely touched upon- how do we reverse years of drift?
Feb 16 2021 at 2:30pm
Daniel: Your last criticism is what my last paragraph was all about. It’s not an easy question but you may want to make us benefit from your ideas.
Feb 16 2021 at 2:44pm
WM Connolley: Your first point is well taken. In my numerous revisions to try and make clear what are not well-known ideas (except in public choice economics and the part of political science that followed William Riker), I mistakenly deleted what described the hat from which I took the 17% rabbit. I have now corrected that. Thanks for pointing out the problem.
On your last point, I admit that dictatorship and tyranny are matters of degree. But I would defend the usefulness of my definition, again not inconsistent with Arrow’s General Impossibility Theorem. My link to a previous Econlog post should be of help to you.
Your middle point (your second paragraph) just shows that, like 99.99999…% of mankind alas, you haven’t followed what I have been writing about Trump over the past five years. To search among Econlog posts, have a look at https://www.econlib.org/author/plemieux/. For my other articles, mainly in Regulation, an easy place to start is https://www.pierrelemieux.com/wordpress/links-to-recent-articles/. For Facebook posts and for tweets, just go to the respective websites and ask for my name and Trump.
Feb 16 2021 at 12:42pm
Biden is about incrementalism. That is the left’s specialty.
The government is attempting to normalize the discussion on ever greater claims to your income.
Feb 16 2021 at 2:56pm
Craig: It’s not just a claim on one’s income but, more generally, a claim on one’s liberty to satisfy one’s preferences. If it were just a claim on your income, you could easily sidestep it by moving to Singapore or one of the Emirates or, if you can play the apparatchik with Putin, to Russia.
Juan Manuel Perez Porrua Perez
Feb 16 2021 at 10:56pm
That is the problem. Some preferences don’t deserve to be “satisfied”; some people shouldn’t be compensated when the rest of the community prevents them from satisfying their preferences.
Feb 16 2021 at 11:22pm
Two reading ideas (short posts with links you might want to follow) related to your comment:
On ancient and modern liberty: https://www.econlib.org/is-the-state-your-father-or-your-mother/
On modern liberty: https://www.econlib.org/live-and-let-live-2/
Feb 16 2021 at 5:00pm
But can we assume that Biden has the support of none of the nonvoters? I don’t think we have any idea who they prefer—Biden, Trump, or the Tooth Fairy.
Feb 17 2021 at 2:03pm
Laura: This is not what I am assuming.
If voter X did not vote, the only thing we know is that his first choice was non-voting; we don’t know if his second choice was Biden, Trump, Jorgensen, or Tooth Fairy as a write-in. His second, third, and fourth choices could have been any of these but what we know for sure is what his first choice was: he chose not to express an opinion in favor of any, including in favor of Biden. The reasoning would be the same if Trump had won.
Incidentally, we also know something else as per the Paradox of Voting: if the 66% who chose (as they did) Biden first, Trump second, and Jorgensen third and if, none of their preferences changing, they were now (or had been) asked to choose only between Biden and Jorgensen, the result could be (or have been) Jorgensen. For a short explanation, see https://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2014/Lemieuxwe.html. My article on William Riker’s classic Liberalism Against Populism in the forthcoming issue of Regulation will explain that more at length.
Feb 17 2021 at 9:14am
Feb 18 2021 at 6:03am
Perhaps a somewhat broader remark, which is also related to the corrigendum: The subject of a sentence in natural language does not always designate an individual (I have read some sentences by the author which, in my opinion, make this step a bit quick).
But I find the general indication (this is how I interpret the text) that a high requirement for unanimity gives the status quo (even if it was achieved in a shaky way) a particularly high level of validity, absolutely correct and important.
In a certain way, this reveals an almost dialectical insight that a philosophy that is particularly geared towards the individual makes the highest demands on state and society.
Feb 18 2021 at 8:53pm
Jens: I am not sure I understand what you mean by your first paragraph.
I agree with your second one.
But I may not agree with your third paragraph if I read it correctly (at least if I put my Buchanan hat on). First, it’s the unanimity in a choice, not in “a preference” that you should be stressing. An individual makes a choice given his preferences and his constraints. (Otherwise, the choice would be to have everything.) Second, in a social context, the only thing that is required from the individual is his consent, which makes a lesser demand on an individual than his submission; for he is always at liberty to not consent (like when he walks away from a trade).
Perhaps my answer to Jose will complete this.
Feb 18 2021 at 2:15pm
Only 46% of Americans are aware that each state has two senators,
75% of Americans don’t know the length of their terms.
Only 36% of Americans can tell which party controls the Senate and the House.
Only 35% can name one of their two senators. Only 16% can name the two of them.
Obviously, you cannot rationally expect this kind of “average voter” knowing before voting, the laws that Biden or Congress were going to implement during their mandates. Less so to understand their “real” consequences.
Even congressmen (and congresswomen) don’t read (and don’t understand) the content of most of the laws they approved (if not of all of them).
Even the most brilliant economic professors disagree on the consequences of the “unread” laws proposed or approved.
We can not even agree on which technology is to blame for the power cuts in Texas (the main predictor of the answer being the political faction you belong to).
How can anybody infer, from this “reality” that a majority of people with this kind of “political knowledge” voting for Candidate A means that Candidate A has a morally legitimate “mandate” to impose on me, using coercion, any new law?
Considering that the voter’s choices are deeply uninformed and, also, the profound shared ignorance on the consequences of any given policy, you can only conclude that even “the unanimity” in a preference does not provide any morally valid “mandate” to legislate without being a “dictator”.
Feb 18 2021 at 9:53pm
Jose: I agree with much that you are saying, but… It is easy to prove that Biden will be a dictator like Trump if “ordered anarchy” (an expression dear to James Buchanan) is possible without the state. What is more difficult to show is that even if the state is required for ordered anarchy, it makes sense to call Biden a potential dictator–which is what I tried to do in a Buchananian perspective.
In this perspective, let me push back a bit on your last paragraph. We agree that unanimity is not theoretically possible on any specific social, political, or economic event. Your neighbor might not like that you have a property right in your house and paint it pink and green. But it is possible to imagine that, in order to have the benefits of society, individuals (even badly informed) can agree on general rules that will constrain their interactions (thou shall not kill, for example). You may agree with everybody else with some abstract rules that you think will turn out to have more benefits than costs for you. I suggested that, in this case, it’s difficult to imagine that everybody could possibly have agreed with rules that a president elected by 17% of the electorate or even 51% could bulldoze his own peaceful activities and lifestyle.
Although Buchanan is very challenging, he is worth reading: see my “Lessons and Challenges in The Limits of Liberty,” Econlib, November 5, 2018. I have come to think that a serious anarchist response is given by Anthony de Jasay’s theory: for a summary, see my “An Unavoidable Theory of the State,” Econlib, June 4, 2018. And it is true that the abyssal ignorance of much of the public—think QAnnon or, well, Donald Trump—two centuries after the Enlightenment is worrisome.
Feb 18 2021 at 11:27pm
Yes, we can agree in some general rules that have more benefits than costs and that respond to some kind of “ethical intuitionism” (á la Huemer).
But what is difficult to believe is that you need a full-time elected President + 535 full time congressmen in order to constantly review at an astonishing rate, this set of general rules (that should have a very limited “churn ratio” … as implied in general and in abstract).
I understand your position, but I still think that the real debate is not whether a 17% (or a 51%) of the voters can provide any kind of mandate that rules out “dictatorship”. There is no numerical support (even unanimity) that can justify the hyperactivity and futility of passing an average of 1 new bill per day (out of more than 5 per day introduced).
There is no intellectually respectful way of translating a vote for a President or a Representative into a valid mandate for passing one specific new bill per day. And there is no way that one new bill per day can be required to update any package of general principles that are indeed general.
Passing one new bill per day (and introducing 5) can only be interpreted as the dream of a dictator even if the dictator is elected by unanimity. If the dictator pretends that he is only trying to set some general rules we can all agree on or that he has a valid “mandate” for this kind of bloated desire for ruling, he is just adding insult to injury.
Comments are closed.