06 March 2008

Democratic Legitimacy

I said before that I think democracy is a trick, but a necessary trick: a free prosperous people will attempt to overthrow the government unless they think they control it.

I don't think they really can control it, because the class interests of politicians are so much in conflict with those of productive people that they overwhelm other distinctions. They only situation in which a government can genuinely act in the interest of a class wider than just politicians is when there is a larger class of relatively powerless people - slaves or peasants - who would be a threat to a divided ruling class. That is the characteristic of democracies before the twentieth century.

Any stable government must therefore either fool the people into thinking they have control, or else deny them the freedom and prosperity which makes them capable of temporarily taking over.

The point of democracy's illusion of control is not to make people think the government is good (there are limits even to illusion), but to make people think it is legitimate. Legitimacy buys government the tacit support of the indifferent, and makes it very difficult to overthrow.

If the population were both informed and rational, they would reject the concept of legitimacy, but would tolerate government unless it were sufficiently bad as to be worth paying the (very high) cost of a revolution, just to replace it with another government that would be no more legitimate, but possibly less bad.

What I am afraid of, therefore, is not that people will become informed. I am afraid that people will correctly reject the legitimacy of democratic government, while incorrectly hanging on to the concept that government should be legitimate. That is the stage that would produce a fruitless and hugely destructive search for a genuinely legitimate government.

Government is not the servant of the people. It would be nice if it were, but it would be nice if internal combustion engines ran on water. Any theories about what government should do to best serve the people, whether good or bad, are of no more relevance to the real world than are strategies for playing video games. In the real world, governments are gangs of thieves, and cannot be anything else.

This line of thinking is as usual influenced very strongly by Unqualified Reservations, but I like to think I was beginning to head in this direction already.

No comments: