Mises Institute: Mises and Rothbard on Democracy and Revolution

In this piece from the Mises Institute, David Gordon examines von Mises’ statement that the only convincing argument for democracy is that it allows for a peaceful change of power. Then he discusses Murray Rothbard’s critique which says that if that is true, then the democratic government that results must exactly resemble the government that would have resulted from a violent revolution and why that doesn’t happen. Another argument comes in when a government like the US is full of un-elected bureaucrats with great power who are protected from change from an election. In that case also, you end up with a government which does not reflect what might have been obtained by violent revolution.

Ludwig von Mises rejects the standard arguments for democracy. Not for him are the alleged virtues of public deliberation. For him, there is only one argument for democracy that is convincing. He says that only democracy allows for a peaceful change of power. Every government, he thinks, rests on popular consent. If a sufficient number of people find the government no longer tolerable, it won’t be able to maintain itself in power. In a democracy, people in this situation can peacefully replace the government with an opposition party more to its liking. Without democracy, there is liable to be a violent revolution, because those in power and their supporters are likely to cling to power, even if their position is in the long run unsustainable.

Mises puts the argument in this way in Liberalism:

Government by a handful of people—and the rulers are always as much in the minority as against those ruled as the producers of shoes are as against the consumers of shoes—depends on the consent of the governed, i.e., on their acceptance of the existing administration. They may see it only as the lesser evil, or as an unavoidable evil, yet they must be of the opinion that a change in the existing, situation would have no purpose. But once the majority of the governed becomes convinced that it is necessary and possible to change the form of government and to replace the old regime and the old personnel with a new regime and new personnel, the days of the former are numbered. The majority will have the power to carry out its wishes by force even against the will of the old regime. In the long run no government can maintain itself in power if it does not have public opinion behind it, i.e., if those governed are not convinced that the government is good. The force to which the government resorts in order to make refractory spirits compliant can be successfully applied only as long as the majority does not stand solidly in opposition.

There is, therefore, in every form of polity a means for making the government at least ultimately dependent on the will of the governed, viz, civil war, revolution, insurrection. But it is just this expedient that liberalism wants to avoid. There can be no lasting economic improvement if the peaceful course of affairs is continually interrupted by internal struggles….

Here is where the social function performed by democracy finds its point of application. Democracy is that form of political constitution which makes possible the adaptation of the government to the wishes of the governed without violent struggles. If in a democratic state the government is no longer being conducted as the majority of the population would have it, no civil war is necessary to put into office those who are willing to work to suit the majority. By means of elections and parliamentary arrangements, the change of government is executed smoothly and without friction, violence, or bloodshed.

There are various points at which you can challenge this argument. For example, what if the majority of people oppose the government, but there isn’t a consensus backing a particular opposition group? (I don’t mean that the party in power won’t let popular opposition groups run. Mises when he talks about democracy assumes that elections are fair.) But even if the argument can be challenged, it seems to have much in its favor.

Murray Rothbard raises a remarkable objection to this argument that hasn’t received the attention it deserves. His book Power and Market contains a profusion of arguments, one right after the other, and this one has escaped much notice.

His argument, in brief, is that if democracy is supposed to be a substitute for violent revolution, then the democratic government must exactly resemble the government that would have won out in a violent revolution. It is most unlikely that this will happen. If so, Mises’s argument fails.

Rothbard explains what he has in mind in this passage:

There is, moreover, another flaw in the “peaceful-change” argument for democracy, this one being a grave self-contradiction that has been universally overlooked. Those who have adopted this argument have simply used it to give a seal of approval to all democracies and have then moved on quickly to other matters. They have not realized that the “peaceful-change” argument establishes a criterion for government before which any given democracy must pass muster. For the argument that ballots are to substitute for bullets must be taken in a precise way: that a democratic election will yield the same result as would have occurred if the majority had had to battle the minority in violent combat. In short, the argument implies that the election results are simply and precisely a substitute for a test of physical combat. Here we have a criterion for democracy: Does it really yield the results that would have been obtained through civil combat? If we find that democracy, or a certain form of democracy, leads systematically to results that are very wide of this “bullet-substitute” mark, then we must either reject democracy or give up the argument.

How, then, does democracy, either generally or in specific countries, fare when we test it against its own criterion? One of the essential attributes of democracy, as we have seen, is that each man has one vote. But the “peaceful-change” argument implies that each man would have counted equally in any combat test. But is this true? In the first place, it is clear that physical power is not equally distributed. In any test of combat, women, old people, sick people, and 4F’s would fare very badly. On the basis of the “peaceful-change” argument, therefore, there is no justification whatever for giving these physically feeble groups the vote. So, barred from voting would be all citizens who could not pass a test, not for literacy (which is largely irrelevant to combat prowess), but for physical fitness. Furthermore, it clearly would be necessary to give plural votes to all men who have been militarily trained (such as soldiers and policemen), for it is obvious that a group of highly trained fighters could easily defeat a far more numerous group of equally robust amateurs.

Could Mises respond to this argument? He might have said that even if Rothbard is right that democracy isn’t a perfect substitute for the results of a violent revolution, it’s close enough to merit our support, given the costs of violence. But I’m sure Rothbard would have had a counter for that as well. Murray had an amazing ability to counter any argument against him, and I’ve never met his match in this.

Mises: Mercantilism, Merchants, and “Class Conflict”

Conceived in Liberty is a book authored by economist Murray Rothbard, detailing the revolutionary USA’s founding struggle between liberty and power. The excerpt below is from the book, briefly discussing mercantilism and class conflict. It seems relevant in this day as Democrats and Republics alike squabble over the spoils of a strong government intervening in economic affairs. Conceived in Liberty is available as a free pdf download from Mises or as a hardback book.

Mercantilism, Merchants, and “Class Conflict”

[This article is excerpted from Conceived in Liberty (1975), volume 1, chapter 32: “Mercantilism, Merchants, and ‘Class Conflict.'”]

The economic policy dominant in the Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries, and christened “mercantilism” by later writers, at bottom assumed that detailed intervention in economic affairs was a proper function of government. Government was to control, regulate, subsidize, and penalize commerce and production. What the content of these regulations should be depended on what groups managed to control the state apparatus. Such control is particularly rewarding when much is at stake, and a great deal is at stake when government is “strong” and interventionist. In contrast, when government powers are minimal, the question of who runs the state becomes relatively trivial. But when government is strong and the power struggle keen, groups in control of the state can and do constantly shift, coalesce, or fall out over the spoils. While the ouster of one tyrannical ruling group might mean the virtual end of tyranny, it often means simply its replacement by another ruling group employing other forms of despotism.

In the 17th century the regulating groups were, broadly, feudal landlords and privileged merchants, with a royal bureaucracy pursuing as a superfeudal overlord the interest of the Crown. An established church meant royal appointment and control of the churches as well. The peasantry and the urban laborers and artisans were never able to control the state apparatus, and were therefore at the bottom of the state-organized pyramid and exploited by the ruling groups. Other religious groups were, of course, separated from or opposed to the ruling state. And religious groups in control of the state, or sharing in that control, might well pursue not only strictly economic “interest” but also ideological or spiritual ones, as in the case of the Puritans’ imposing a compulsory code of behavior on all of society.

One of the most misleading practices of historians has been to lump together “merchants” (or “capitalists”) as if they constituted a homogeneous class having a homogeneous relation to state power. The merchants either were suffered to control or did not control the government at a particular time. In fact, there is no such common interest of merchants as a class. The state is in a position to grant special privileges, monopolies, and subsidies. It can only do so to particular merchants or groups of merchants, and therefore only at the expense of other merchants who are discriminated against. If X receives a special privilege, Y suffers from being excluded. And also suffering are those who would have been merchants were it not for the state’s network of privilege.

In fact, because of (a) the harmony of interests of different groups on the free market (for example, merchants and farmers) and (b) the lack of homogeneity among the interests of members of any one social class, it is fallacious to employ such terms as “class interests” or “class conflict” in discussing the market economy. It is only in relation to state action that the interests of different men become welded into “classes,” for state action must always privilege one or more groups and discriminate against others. The homogeneity emerges from the intervention of the government in society. Thus, under feudalism or other forms of “land monopoly” and arbitrary land allocation by the government, the feudal landlords, privileged by the state, become a “class’ (or “caste” or “estate”). And the peasants, homogeneously exploited by state privilege, also become a class. For the former thus constitute a “ruling class” and the latter the “ruled.”1 Even in the case of land privilege, of course, the extent of privilege will vary from one landed group to another. But merchants were not privileged as a class and therefore it is particularly misleading to apply a class analysis to them.

A particularly misleading form of class theory has often been adopted by American historians: inherent conflicts between the interests of homogeneous classes of “merchants” as against “farmers,” and of “merchant-creditors” versus “farmer-debtors.” And yet it should be evident that these disjunctions are extremely shaky. Anyone can go into debt and there is no reason to assume that farmers will be debtors more than merchants. Indeed, merchants with a generally larger scale of operations and a more rapid turnover are often heavy debtors. Moreover, the same merchant can shift rapidly from one point of time to another, from being a heavy net debtor to net creditor, and vice versa. It is impermissible to think in terms of fixed persisting debtor classes and creditor classes tied inextricably to certain economic occupations.

The merchants, or capitalists, being the peculiarly mobile and dynamic groups in society that can either flourish on the free market or try to obtain state privileges, are, then, particularly ill-suited to a homogeneous class analysis. Furthermore, on the free market no one is fixed in his occupation, and this particularly applies to entrepreneurs or merchants whose ranks can be increased or decreased very rapidly. These men are the very opposite of the sort of fixed status imposed on land by the system of feudalism.