Liberty and democracy


In 1930 a Labour MP gave his wife and daughter two rail travel vouchers from a pack issued to him (only) for travelling between his constituency and Westminster. The ticket inspector pressed charges and that was the end of the MP’s career.

Over a single century, serious corruption in Westminster has moved from virtually unheard of to routine; “the virtually unheard of" bit now refers to disciplinary action. The same goes for abuse of power – recent examples include Jack Straw’s refusal to release records of how the Iraq war came about (it would “damage democracy") and Harriet Harman’s reaction to Fred the Shred’s pension (“it might be enforceable in a court of law but it’s not enforceable in the court of public opinion and that is where the Government steps in"). It’s not that many years since our Harriet was a NCCL activist!  (Shades of her colleague Patricia Hewitt, who actually wrote a book called Abuse of Power, more recently stooping to calling for “heat maps" linking potential hospital closures to non-Labour constituencies.)

This decline coincides (but not coincidentally) with the rise of total taxation over the last century or so from about 5% of GDP to about 50%.

The motivations for a Parliamentary career have changed radically, from a strong wish to do good to exercising power for its own sake and the corruption of the system for personal gain. This fits precisely Hayek’s explanation of “why the worst get on top" .*

But we ain’t seen nothing yet. My knowledge of history isn’t exhaustive, but I suggest we’d be hard-put to find a democracy that lasted as much as 500 years. Of course there is room for doubt about what a democracy actually is, which is one reason why Churchill’s famous remark “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried" is little more than a sound bite.

An unlimited democracy in which all decisions can be settled by a majority vote is essentially the same as two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. A “representative" democracy is potentially even worse, with government itself taking all decisions in an elective dictatorship, such as those of Hitler and Mussolini. Modern Britain is getting ever closer to this position.

What is needed above all else is a constitution, listing all the areas which are off limits for either government or majorities to settle (such limits, both personal and economic, being based in particular on the bulwark of private property in its widest sense).

Not one of the original constitutional documents of the USA (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights) mentioned the word democracy.  These documents are themselves bulwarks, but over a period of time “representative" government dismantles them or disobeys them without fear of retribution.

The politicos are always referring to “democracy" alongside others “good" phrases, like “peace" and “economic growth", whereas in fact neither is available under untrammelled democracy.

If history is anything to go by, the picture is bleak indeed.

* See Chapter 20 of The Constitution of Liberty, Routledge,1960