Undemocratic “Democracy”

A major theme of my work—which I will be focusing on much more in the future—is the basic incompatibility of economic controls and political freedom. In short, there is no such thing as “democratic” socialism, because government control of the economy always requires taking power from the governed and giving it to an entrenched elite. The more you want government to do, the less you can allow the people or their representative to vote on it.

All of this is on display in a nasty little piece in Fortune about the use of a local referendum to solve a zoning dispute in downtown San Francisco. Adam Lashinsky describes the set-up.

The Wall Street Journal gave some national exposure Wednesday to a tempest-in-a-teapot issue that has been percolating in San Francisco for a while now. A local developer wants to knock over a private swim-and-tennis club to build a 12-story residential building. Neighbors—including the real estate giant Boston Properties, Fortune‘s landlord in San Francisco—are miffed that the building will spoil their views. (My view already is spoiled by another building that’s in the way.) The matter will be put before voters in dueling ballot initiatives in November.

The people who are obviously in the wrong in this case are those who are complaining that the new building will spoil their view. This sort of complaint has been popping up a lot recently, and it is an inherently tyrannical argument. It consists of asserting ownership and control, not over your own property, but over everything you can see. Like some medieval baron, the proponents of this idea declare themselves lords over all they survey. Some have even coined the term “viewshed” (a takeoff on “watershed”) to describe this imagined baronial domain.

But I agree that it is an absurdity to put the issue to a referendum, particularly because this isn’t even a law. It’s a ruling on a specific case. In anything approximating a proper system of justice, this would be resolved by a judge who would merely be applying existing laws to a specific case. The idea of putting the property rights of individuals up for plebiscite is a caricature of arbitrary, mob-rule “democracy.”

Lashinsky makes a valid point about California’s runaway referendum process.

[V]oters are asked to pass judgment on scores of issues in each election cycle about which they have no knowledge, expertise, or even opinions…. Let’s be clear. This isn’t about democracy. The founders never intended for us to have direct democracy.

But then look at what he imagines to be a valid “democratic” system:

Complicated matters like housing projects are the work of professional bureaucrats and politicians who oversee them. Their process includes opportunities for the public to weigh in. It’s the normal give and take.

Ah, yes, that’s clearly what the Founders really intended: that our property rights would be subject to the rulings of “professional bureaucrats.”

The idea that the people can “weigh in” is a fig leaf, because this merely means that there are public hearings and “comment” periods in which the public can register their disapproval before the bureaucrats go and do whatever they like. So is the idea that politicians “oversee” the bureaucrats, because for politicians to interfere with the bureaucrats’ decisions would be obviously corrupt. Some editorialist like Lashinsky would then sail in and complain that the process had become “politicized.” So what he really means is simply that bureaucrats will make all the decisions.

This shows the twisted results we get when we throw property rights out the window and grant the idea that our wealth can be disposed of by the government according to the “will of the people.” Either we go ask the people directly what they want, which leads to the kind of jungle “democracy” in which every economic decision is subject to a ballot initiative, or we take the choice away from the people and give it to unaccountable bureaucrats.

There is no way to regulate the economy that is compatible with political freedom and the American system of government. Which makes sense: America’s political system and its economic system were born together, supported by the common principle of individual rights. They can only survive together.

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