Saturday, March 18, 2006

My review of "Democracy: The God That Failed"

Democracy: The God That Failed, by noted market anarchist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, is a valuable but flawed book. First I'll talk about the valuable, and then about the flaw.

First of all, Democracy is an invaluable resource (hah !) when Hoppe discusses the differences in the incentive systems of monarchy and democracy. In chapter 1, "On Time Preference, Government, and the Process of Decivilization", Hoppe explains the concept of time preference, how a future-oriented (low time preference) economy is the mark of progress, and how government, both because of its attacks against property and the legitimacy of these attacks, is inherently destructive to time preference, and thus progress. He also introduces the notion of monarchy as private ownership of government, and democracy as public ownership of government, and how the passage from monarchy to democracy raises time preference in governance, destroying all the remaining incentives for the ruling class to contain their attacks on private property.

In chapter 2,Hoppe gets into the meat of the incentive systems, and how they flow from the concept of time preference. While these chapters get a bit repetitive, they provide plenty of information on the topic. Here is a little list :
* The historical transition from monarchy to democracy (p50-54).
* The rise of the democratic income tax (p54-56) - while monarchies did not typically raise more than 5-8% of their population's resources, the income tax has brought this percentage higher than 50% in most countries.
* The rise in democratic government employment (p56) - government employees represented 3-5% of the workforce in the early 1900s, and around 15% by the seventies.
* The imposition of fiat money by democracies and the resulting inflation (p56-58) - transforming the gradual deflation under monarchies (with periodic failed attempts at fiat money) with the brutal inflation we know today.
* The absurd rise in national debts (p59-60).
* The rise in legislation and the creation of a legislative class (p61-62).
* The rise in interest rates, proving a rise in time preference (p62-65) - Between the 19th century and the rise of democracy, interest rates had attained a historic low of below 3%, while today they sit at 4-5% and higher depending on the times.
* The rise in military spending (p65) - while monarchies spent most of their budget on militaries, the amount of GDP taken by modern militaries is higher than it was in the past.
* The lower birthrates (p66) - which seems like a bizarre addition and not a very good argument, but is explained by Hoppe's conservatism, which I will discuss.
* A discussion about the numerous factors influencing crime rate, including time preference (p66-68).

This, to me, is the most valuable chapter in the book.

In chapter 3, "On Monarchy, Democracy, Public Opinion, and Deligitimation", Hoppe examines the phenomena of public opinion and how it is twisted by the democratic process. Hoppe also proposes, on pages 70-75 and 91-94, a process of deligitimation as the best solution to eliminate government. Chapter 4, "On Democracy, Redistribution, and the Destruction of Property", continues on this theme, discussing the destructive redistributive nature of democracy.

In chapter 5, Hoppe examines the concepts of centralization and secession, when one or the other can be conductive to freedom, and why secession would be beneficial in today's increasingly centralized democratic superstructures.

In chapter 6, "On Socialism and Desocialization", Hoppe changes gears completely and examines how the process of desocialization should have proceeded in former Soviet territories and how it should proceed in today's democracies.

I'm afraid this is where my praises end. Most of the rest of the book is dedicated to two main propositions : that immigration should be restricted, and that conservatism is the best social system. By conservative, Hoppe means "someone who believes in the existence of a natural order, a natural state of affairs which corresponds to the nature of things: of nature and man" (p187). While this is uncontroversial, what he really means is that a conservative believes, as an act of faith, that society should be "based and centered on families" (p201), "families, kinship relations, cmmunities, authority and social hierarchy" (p203), and that the "heads of families and households reassert their ultimate authority as judge in all internal family affairs" (p185). These are, to me, repulsive statements.

It seems he intends his conservatism to be an extension of the concept of natural aristocracy. Now let me be honest. I am not, in any sense of the word, an egalitarian, a populist, or a liberal. I agree that natural aristocracies must develop and are necessary. I am definitely "conservative" in Hoppe's general definition... but not in his more specific definition. His primitivist conclusion that family, race and community need to become the focus of society, and that family is the source of civilization, seems very unproven. Family, as Stefan Molyneux points out, is the fundamental source of coercion and collectivism. As such, the conservatism of Hoppe is no different from anarcho-syndicalism : it replaces one democratic state with a multitude of oppressive concentrated states (in this case, parenthood). Therefore his whole thesis seems futile : in trying to destroy both monarchy and democracy, he desires to create millions of familial monarchies.

In fact, it seems to me that family structures are definitely anti-aristocratic. Your family is not chosen, the "head of the household" is not chosen on the basis of merit, and neither is the right to have children. Traditionally, "reproductive rights" and familial supremacy have been associated with egalitarianism, not elitism. Historical anarchies also do not prove his thesis that familial supremacy is natural - they are definitely tribalist, but not so primitivist as to collapse back to family units as supreme. So I think Hoppe's argument fails the burden of proof and fails on the face of the evidence.

His points on immigration are also good on surface but flawed in depth. He makes the excellent argument that immigration would be much less of a problem if free trade was the norm. But from this, he uses dubious arguments about the need for distance between races and cultures to justify restricting immigration to unprecedented levels. Once again, I agree with his basic thesis - that multiculturalism is not good in itself - but once again he seems to be buying into liberal rhetoric (this time, about cultural exclusivity) to fuel his aristocratic position. It just doesn't work.

This book has extensive footnotes, sometimes dwarfing the main text, but usually for good reason. His quotes are often interesting additions to the book proper.

My final verdict is that I'm keeping the book on the basis of its first chapters, which make excellent reference material. The second half of the book is a case taken in weird directions and which lacks the rigor and justification of his excellent case that monarchies have better incentive systems than democracies. I would recommend this book to anyone who is either a family-worshipping anarchist or someone who can stand the bad parts of the book to get the good parts.

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