The covenant of the mob

Whenever the United States is referred to as a “democracy,” there are inevitably objections to the term.  The Founding Fathers were very suspicious of “democracy,” which they viewed as the consensus of the mob – “two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch,” as Ben Franklin is widely, but mistakenly, quoted as saying.

It is commonplace in modern conversation to use the term “democracy” as a shorthand term for representative republics, because the D-word rolls more easily off the tongue.  The differences between a democracy and a republic are profound, however.  The excessive regard for “democracy” is an act of conceptual voodoo that relies upon our method of selecting representatives as a blanket excuse for their actions.

This is more than just a fine point of order.  Americans, along with much of the Western world, have been persuaded to replace their old understanding of lawful, restrained government with a new Covenant of the Mob, in which popular support is the only authority required by the State.  But even that formulation doesn’t properly describe the new covenant, which really states that only sustained popular opposition can deny the State a power it desires.  It is quite possible for the political class to push through massive laws that never enjoy anything like majority support from the public, with ObamaCare standing as the most obvious example.

Too many of us have come to reject the notion of arbitrary limits upon government power.  If something really needs to be done, why should the benevolence of the State be thwarted by some silly old laws from the powdered-wig era?  The Covenant of the Mob replaces the original model of a strictly limited federal government with something like this: “Let politicians do whatever they think necessary, and if they really screw up, we’ll vote them out of office.”

It’s incredibly foolish to trade tough legal restraints on government for punishment at the ballot box.  This seems to be the “progressive” tendency of all Western government, ever since the industrialized world fell in love with the supposed efficiency of certain highly centralized, technocratic governments from the early 20th Century – a love affair most statists would rather not discuss any more, although some of them can still be caught making puppy eyes at authoritarian China.

It became commonplace on the Left to believe that only powerful, centralized government can wisely and effectively manage a national economy.  This power would be morally sanctified through the sacred ritual of the democratic vote.  Federalism, the most direct and practical expression of the “consent of the governed,” would be discarded, because no refuge from the wisdom of central planners could be tolerated – no one could be allowed to withdraw their consent from the national agenda.  As long as the ruling class must occasionally face the wrath of voters, liberals reason, they cannot be “tyrants.”  Therefore, anything they do has been properly authorized by voters.

You can hear this line of thought echoing through assertions that a political leader, particularly the President, has a “mandate” for implementing sweeping policies – always requiring the growth of government, naturally – if he won by a sizable margin in the last election.  Conversely, if the margin of victory was narrow, it might be said that no such “mandate” exists.  But nothing in the Constitution says that the powers of the executive or legislative branch scale with the margin of victory in elections.  An elected official gains no special powers because he won with more than a certain percentage of the popular vote.  This is the Covenant of the Mob imposed upon the vestiges of our representative republic.

Look at it this way: a properly limited government shouldn’t be doing anything that somehow requires a certain level of popular support, because the rights of a 20 percent dissenting minority should not be any less secure than the rights of a 49 percent minority.

The “ballot box discipline” model of democracy naturally leads to more bloated government, because it provides more tools for manipulating voters.  It is much more difficult to vote a politician out of office because of his unacceptable performance on a single issue, when dozens of other issues will be weighed by the electorate.  Survival does not depend upon pleasing any sort of majority, particularly when the rather low rates of electoral participation by American citizens are considered.  Socialism is all about providing focused, highly visible benefits to selected constituencies, while imposing diffuse, hidden costs upon everyone else.  That’s the perfect formula for continued political success under the Covenant of the Mob.

One other factor contributed to the breakdown of this system, making a mockery of the idea that political ambition can be controlled through electoral punishment: large-scale deficit spending.  The diffuse costs of socialism could now be laid upon people who weren’t old enough to vote yet – the purest expression of “taxation without representation” since the American Revolution.  A vital method for assessing the judgment of the ruling class was erased when they were given unlimited credit cards.  By the time it becomes truly possible to judge the success of a Big Government program, it has calcified into an unbreakable entitlement.  The 18-year-olds of 2020 will regret not being around to vote against the 2012 failures they’re expected to pay for.

It was always a terrible mistake to make a fetish of how our representatives are selected, instead of focusing upon what they are allowed to do.  It was wise of America’s founders to place so many affairs beyond the reach of national politics.  Under the Covenant of the Mob, too much is permitted for a ruling class that enjoys semi-permanent incumbency.  They are allowed to make too many moves that can never be reversed.  We have invested too much authority in a single figure, the President, who was supposed to be the executor of legislative decisions, but instead has come to be viewed as an avatar of the popular will.  Far too much of our federal apparatus lies forever beyond the reach of ballots, with vast powers exercised by people the voters are barely aware of, never mind permitted to vote against.  An excess of wealth, and precious liberty, was surrendered in exchange for vague promises that we’ll be allowed to vote on the distribution of spoils every few years.

The result is not a government that somehow expresses the popular will.  That was always a silly notion.  Large populations rarely reach a “consensus” on matters of significance, and free people should not be required to reach one.  The problem with “democracy” was always its lack of respect for the rights of dissenters.  Just ask the lamb, before the wolves have a chance to vote on the lunch menu.