However, ever since I starting reading Mencken lately I realized that there have been and continue to be a few willing dissenters.
Mencken was among a depressingly small minority of thinkers who understood the perils of an unregulated democracy. Of course, the classic definition of democracy is "rule by the majority." This however begs the following question: How does the majority rule under democracy? This underscores the fact that there can be degrees of democracy. Under pure democracy, all things, including individual rights such as rights to liberty and private property, are subordinate to majority will. The standard individualist argument against pure democracy is as follows:
-Pure democracy is a social system where the recognition of individual rights (including those to liberty and private property) is contingent upon majority will (Majority agreement regarding the recognition individual rights is a necessary condition for the actual recognition of individual rights within a pure democracy)
-Any social system where the recognition of individual rights is contingent upon majority will is an anti-individualist social system
-Pure democracy is an anti-individualist social system
The hypothetical problems of pure democracy are well-known among free-market advocates. For example, if a majority realizes the extent of its power under a pure democracy, then what's to them from stealing (either through overt violence or through voting) the money possessed by those of the minority? Such conduct would be morally reprehensible, yet it would nevertheless be lawful under a pure democracy. Mencken was frank when it came to his opinion of most people. According to Mencken,
"The great masses of men, though theoretically free, are seen to submit supinely to oppression and exploitation of a hundred abhorrent sorts. Have they no means to resistance? Obviously they have. The worst tyrant, even under democratic plutocracy, has but one throat to slit. The moment the majority decided to overthrow him he would be overthrown. But the majority lacks the resolution; it cannot imagine taking the risk. So it looks for leaders with the necessary courage, and when they appear it follows slavishly, even after their courage is discovered to be mere buncombe and their altruism only a cloak for more and worse oppressions. Thus it oscillates eternally between scoundrels, or, if you would take them at their own valuation, heroes. Politics becomes the trade of playing upon its natural poltroonery - of scaring it half to death, and then proposing to save it."What explains this totalitarian propensity among the average man, the inferior man? Within Notes on Democracy, Mencken argues that the inferior man's preference for statism over liberty exists because "What he longs for is something wholly different, to wit, security. He needs protection. He is afraid of getting hurt. All else is affectation, delusion, empty words." Mencken also quotes Sir Francis Galton as saying, "The vast majority of persons of our race have a natural tendency to shrink from the responsibility of standing and acting alone." In one respect, freedom is frightening, for how should one use one's freedom? How does one support oneself financially under a state of freedom? What decisions should one make when one is free? Freedom does not guide people in making decisions, it merely enables the decision-making process. Such guidance is the province of ethics, not political philosophy.
People have two choices: Either they can value self-governance or they can value governance by others. If they value self-governance, then they'll tend to value freedom; if they value governance by others, then they'll tend to value statism. By extolling self-governance over governance by others, then we can mitigate the inclination towards despotism exhibited by the masses. Notes on Democracy is the first step in such an endeavor.
Picture via The Mises Institute