Democracy won't save you

The fashionable concentration on democracy as the main value threatened is not without danger. It is largely responsible for the misleading and unfounded belief that so long as the ultimate source of power is the will of the majority, the power cannot be arbitrary. The false assurance which many people derive from this belief is an important cause of the general unawareness of the dangers which we face. There is no justification for the belief that so long as power is conferred by democratic procedure, it cannot be arbitrary; the contrast suggested by this statement is altogether false: it is not the source but the limitation of power which prevents it from becoming arbitrary. Democratic control may prevent power from becoming arbitrary, but it does not do so by its mere existence. If democracy resolves on a task which necessarily involves the use of power which cannot be guided by fixed rules, it must become arbitrary power. 

No, this isn't Hannah Arendt. It's the final paragraph of Chapter 5 of Friedrich Hayek's book The Road to Serfdom. The emphasis is mine. 

Hayek, child of his time, was warning about the dangers of socialist collectivism and central planning. But his words could equally apply to today's nationalist conservatives. These sentences from the same chapter could have been written about the mess that the UK's elected politicians managed to make of leaving the EU: 

The inability of democratic assemblies to carry out what seems to be a clear mandate of the people will inevitably cause dissatisfaction with democratic institutions. Parliaments come to be regarded as ineffective "talking shops", unable or incompetent to carry out the tasks for which they have been chosen. 

The inevitable result of such ineffective chaos is that power is taken away from elected Parliaments and given to unaccountable bureaucrats and professional elites. 

For sure, those we elect to Parliament are amateurs. Indeed, that is why we elect them: we, the people, are amateurs, and they represent us. And much of the material presented to Parliament for approval is very long, very dense, and extremely technical. It is not surprising, therefore, that those who prepare the documentation prefer Parliament to be merely a rubber stamp - that MPs should not even be given the time to read the documentation thoroughly, let alone the opportunity to debate it. So MPs were given a bare three days to read and debate 1,246 pages of a draft UK-EU trade agreement before being whipped through the lobbies to support it. Now it is in force, it is becoming painfully clear that lots of them had no idea what it said. 

Nor was this the first time that Johnson had restricted Parliamentary time to prevent MPs changing or obstructing his proposals. In fact this has been his principal modus operandum from the start of his tenure in no.10, both for Brexit-related legislation and for laws mandating restrictions on business and personal freedoms to control the spread of Covid-19. In his eyes, and those of his close supporters, Parliament's role is not to decide what the law should be, it is to pass the laws decided by his team. Thus democracy gives way to authoritarianism. 

But if you think that Boris Johnson's government is the first to try to evade Parliamentary scrutiny of its policies, you couldn't be more wrong. Hayek cites H.J. Laski's article "Labour and the Constitution", written in 1932:

It is common ground that the present parliamentary machine is quite unsuited to pass rapidly a great body of complicated legislation. The National Government, indeed has in substance admitted this by implementing its economy and tariff measures not by detailed debate in the House of Commons but by a wholesale system of delegated legislation...

"Henry\VII power" and statutory instruments were already being used in 1932 to minimise parliamentary scrutiny of government economic and trade policies. 

Far from pointing out the dangers of watering down the responsibilities of Parliament, Laski goes on to advocate that Parliament should become merely a forum for "the ventilation of grievances and the discussion of general principles" of measures introduced by Government. A far cry indeed from democratically-elected representatives of The People delivering their Will. 

To be sure, "The Will Of The People" does not depend on parliamentary democracy. Indeed it may actually be at war with it. Every authoritarian ruler claims their decisions are The Will Of The People. Many even claim to be democratic, because they hold rigged elections in which they are the only possible winner. "People's Republic" is the preferrred name of authoritarian states all over the world. 

Even when "The Will Of The People" is expressed through a referendum, if it is brought about by undermining and sidelining democratic structures and processes, it is not democracy. Nor does democracy necessarily have to deliver The Will Of The People. If there were to be a referendum in the UK tomorrow on bringing back the death penalty, there would be a clear majority in favour. Yet every Parliamentary free vote on the death penalty has resulted in an overhelming majority rejecting its return. Elected representatives of the people do not have to do what the majority of The People want. They represent us, but they are not our slaves, existing only to do our will. Indeed, it is important that they are not. The Will Of The People can be brutal to those whom the majority despises and fears. The fact that elected representatives represent us all, not just the majority who voted for them, is an important check on the tendency of the majority to tyrannise minorities. 

It's telling that Laski's article effectively advocating the subverting of democracy to authoritarian ends was published in 1932. Hayek blames the socialism of the Weimar republic for the rise of Hitler:

By the time Hitler came to power, liberalism was to all intents and purposes dead in Germany. And it was socialism that had killed it.

But I fear he conflates socialism with authoritarianism. In its latter years the Weimar government became increasingly authoritarian, as governments all too often do when faced with a deep economic crisis and popular unrest. It was authoritarianism, not socialism, that killed liberalism in Germany. 

And that same authoritarianism brought Hitler to power. He never won an outright majority in a Parliamentary election, but was nevertheless appointed Chancellor by President Von Hindenburg after some shady political manoevring by former Chancellor Von Papen. The Enabling Act which made Hitler Germany's dictator was passed by the German Parliament after all those who might have opposed it had either been arrested or frightened into compliance. 

Last month, a U.S. President of distinctly authoritarian frame attempted to overturn the democratic processes that lost him his position, firstly with legal challenges and allegations of electoral fraud, and when those failed, by whipping up popular support for a coup d'etat. The U.S.'s famous system of checks and balances was tested to the limit: the survival of democracy in the U.S. eventually depended on one man, Vice-President Pence, who honoured his oath of office at the risk of his own life. Had he faltered - or had he regarded loyalty to his President as more important than the Constitution - there would now be a dictator in the White House. The entire world should be thankful that when it really mattered, a man who had never previously opposed his President somehow developed a spine.

President Trump's behaviour seems to have encouraged other totalitarian forces to overturn more fragile democracies. Myanmar's General Election in December resulted in a landslide victory for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and heavy defeat for the military's preferred party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In an echo of President Trump's "Stop the Steal" campaign, the USDP launched a legal challenge to the result, claiming that there was widespread voter fraud. When the legal challenge was rejected, the military took over the country. Myanmar is now once more under military rule and the country's democratically-elected politicians are under arrest. Thus dies democracy. 

But in Britain, the movement towards totalitarianism is more subtle. Johnson is not trying to overturn democratic processes: rather, he is subverting them. For Brexit, the subtle message is that if Parliament does not approve the laws and policies proposed by his government, it is denying The Will Of The People.  For Covid-19, the (rather less subtle) message is that The People must comply with the laws and policies of his government even against their will. The cognitive dissonance is quite something. I don't know how he and his ministers sleep at night.

It is not socialism that has threatened democracy in the U.S. and is subverting it in the U.K. It is a force we have not seen before: National Conservatism. Like National Socialism, it is authoritarian, discriminatory and brutal. And if you think that the trappings of democracy will save you from it, you do not understand the nature of the beast. When the will of the majority assigns to its elected leaders tasks that cannot be delivered by democratic means, those leaders will find ways of overturning, undermining or subverting democracy. They will do so regardless of their ideology. And like the proverbial boiling frog, The People will not realise their "democracy" is a sham and their Will is merely a political convenience until it is too late. Thus dies democracy. 

Hayek was right to warn about the dangers of "The Will Of The People", but wrong to focus on socialism as the enemy. It is not socialism we should fear, but authoritarianism, whether of the Left or the Right, and nationalism in all its forms. 

Related reading:

The Road to Serfdom - Friedrich Hayek

The Origins of Totalitarianism - Hannah Arendt

Totalitarianism in the age of Trump - Zoe Williams

The extent of evil

The terrible price of austerity

Two takes on the tyranny of democracy



  1. Maybe Weimar would not have turned authoritarian if it had been competent in the first place. Brüning's policies had to be authoritarians given that they were producing chaos.

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  3. Good article. I’ve also long been irritated by the way the word “democratise” is tossed around, as if it’s some sort of magic cure for all ills. For example, while I’ve supported Positive Money almost since its foundation, I object to their repeated use of the word “democratic” e.g. in this 400 word introduction to their organisation.

    Plus there’s Mary Mellor who has written three books on money and banks in the last ten years and the central conclusion at the end of the third book is that we need to “democratize” the bank system, whatever that means.

  4. People with a Hayekian liberal agenda insulated the economy from the supposed "tyranny of the majority".

    The long-term result has, ironically, been Trump and a wave of authoritarian nationalism.

    "Boy, did we screw up!" - Charles Koch.

  5. "coup d'etat" is by definition a planned act of a regime's armed forces against the ruling group of the same regime. Only a fool or a paid hack calls an almost funny demonstration of a few unarmed ordinary citizens to send a signal to a facist system, and also take some instagram shots, a coup!


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