A few weeks ago, as an introduction to an economics class, I asked students to think about what made civil government legitimate. Why, I asked, is civil government considered legitimate by the vast majority of Americans while the Mafia is not?
Responses varied. Some pointed out that the civil government provides beneficial services, and I reminded them that the Mafia does, too — protection from aggression from other gangs, for example. There are also plenty of private firms and charitable organizations that provide beneficial services, and we don’t call them governments or grant them judicial powers. Another student mentioned that the government was restrained by a constitution. But wouldn’t the content of the constitution matter more than the mere fact of its existence? Would a country that legalized genocide in its constitution be legitimate?
Eventually the class seemed to settle on the idea that public participation legitimized government. I reminded them that the democratic process does not guarantee liberty. Tyrants like Adolf Hitler were elected, after all. In our own country, numerous restraints on freedom have sailed through the political process, all sanctified with the stamp of supposed popular approval.
I could accomplish very little in the time I had in class that day. I wished that I could spend weeks on the topic and require the students to read, cover-to-cover, James Bovard’s excellent new book, Attention Deficit Democracy. His thorough research has supplied an effective antidote to the craven democracy-worship I have observed among some of my students, friends, and acquaintances. I will be pestering people to read Bovard’s evisceration of democratic politics for years to come.
Painlessly Chipping Away at Freedom
Representative government, Bovard argues, cannot sustain liberty when the voting public fails to pay attention. Politicians are all too ready to take advantage of our gullibility to loosen the restraints originally placed on them by the Constitution. Give constituents handouts, cater to special interests, and tell them what they want to hear. No one will notice if another freedom is removed.
Shrouding loss of liberty in speeches about democracy makes Americans positively happy about their increased dependence on the state. Carrying out a worldwide crusade to impose democracy adds to our feelings of national moral superiority. If politicians have to violate a few basic freedoms to get the world to see the beauty of democracy, so be it.
Bovard’s assessment of voter awareness is not flattering. Americans seem willfully ignorant and quickly forget government lies and abuses. Politicians fear no repercussions when they make groundless allegations about foreign threats, ignore and violate the law, repeatedly contradict themselves, or autocratically redefine key policies. The “sheeple” faithfully tag along with confidence that the political system basically works.
As a nation, we are easily deluded by political rhetoric that is the polar opposite of the truth. In a chapter on government lies, Bovard has compiled a few of the lies of presidents and their various associates. He favors no political party — both Republican and Democratic liars receive their fair share of exposure. Many of the lies are bald-faced, easily discovered, and have terrible consequences. Yet many Americans do not seem to notice or care, and repeating the lie seems only to add believability. The media play along, for the most part, to keep their access to politicians for career-boosting interviews.
To some neo-conservatives, lying is believed to be necessary to good statesmanship. Bovard traces the idea of the “noble lie” in the Bush administration back to philosophy professor Leo Strauss, who promoted the idea that the elite may need to lie to the people for their own good. Some Bush appointees and advisers like Paul Wolfowitz studied under Strauss, and apparently absorbed his views.
Though Bovard hardly mentions Bush’s Christian Right constituency, many in that group have become just as afflicted with Attention Deficit Democracy as the rest of society. In conservative Christian circles, Bush is generally adored. Cars in parking lots at churches and Christian schools in my part of the country are covered with pro-Bush, pro-Republican, and “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers. Little attention is paid to the dismantling of freedoms that Bush has overseen, the rapid expansion of federal powers and federal budgets, and the rampant deception that has characterized his administration.
Maybe Kerry would have been worse, but that does not mean Christians should turn a blind eye to the Bush administration’s problems. Christians should be harsh critics of statism and tyranny wherever it is found, instead of being the dupes of politicians who drop a few catch-phrases about liberty, God, “values,” or prayer while undermining our most essential freedoms.
The Democracy of Ignorance
Bovard shows that the democracy of ignorance has stifled real debate and even suppressed criticism of politicians. Those who question Bush are somehow allied with terrorists, by undermining our troops or “giving encouragement to the enemy.” Or we are political idealists who are blind to the realities of post-9/11 America. Or we just don’t like Bush and don’t care about the sacrifices of Americans in uniform.
Bovard demands a higher level of political argument. Many Americans believe that repeating mantras like “support our troops” should squelch all questions about whether Iraq was actually connected with Al Qaeda, whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, or whether military intervention is reducing the terrorist threat or increasing hostility toward Americans.
Such is the intellect of American democracy. Instead of actual debate, we get mindless slogans and a false “with Bush or with the terrorists” dichotomy. Patriotism is not a game of follow the leader. The reality of post-9/11 America, Bovard points out, is that politicians thrive on and encourage public fears. A fearful populace calls on politicians to be their saviors, and will grant massive and unprecedented powers to anyone who says they can protect them. A panicked public searching for security from terrorists forgets that security from an unrestrained domestic government is of vastly greater importance.
Bovard’s book brings together such a collection of government abuses that it is hard not to be alarmed. And maybe we should be. For over a century, tax dollars have been spent to support foreign fiascos that are supposed to promote democratic reform, but actually install tyrants, crush hapless foreigners, and foster hostility toward Americans. As Bovard shows, American foreign adventures, from the Philippines after the Spanish-American War to modern-day Iraq, have included atrocities committed by the U. S. government in the interest of promoting democracy.
What’s more, Americans have failed to make the connection between foreign policy changes and the loss of important civil rights at home. The government now has an unprecedented legal and technological ability to spy on Americans. The legal restraints that protect suspects from torture have been loosened. Anyone, including an American citizen, can be declared an “enemy combatant” and thereby have his rights removed.
Nobel-Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek once wrote, “The magic word democracy has become so all-powerful that all the inherited limitations on governmental power are breaking down before it.”1 But some will ask, is Bovard against democracy per se? Would he prefer a monarchy or oligarchy? No, and he is careful to address this possible misunderstanding:
The fact that democratic governments violate liberty does not prove that democracy is uniquely or inherently evil. Instead, this is simply what governments do. In the same way that a political candidate’s lies don’t create a presumption that his opponent is honest, the fact that democracies routinely violate rights and liberties creates no presumption that other forms of government would not be worse.2
“It is better that government be representative than non-representative,” he writes. But respecting liberty is more important than how leaders are chosen.
Economists have argued for decades that voters will be “rationally ignorant.” That is, an individual voter will not invest in gathering information when a single vote is not likely to have any impact on the political outcome. This is another reason to limit the reach of the state and depend more on the individual, the family, and the church.
Our Daily Peril
Bovard’s work is a crucial book for Christians who want to be politically astute, though some Republican Christians will probably be put off by Bovard’s criticisms of Bush. Left-wing Christians will be dismayed by Bovard’s cynical view of the state. Libertarians and Constitution Party types, of course, will love the book. But it needs to be read now. Bovard writes,
Citizens must recognize the daily peril they face from the power of a traffic cop to handcuff them for a seatbelt violation, the power of an IRS agent to seize their bank accounts based on a wrongful suspicion of tax evasion, the power of the City Council to seize their home and render the land underneath it to a campaign contributor, or the power of a president to immerse the nation in endless foreign conflicts. The question is not how many citizens are being coerced or wronged by the government at any specific time. The issue is the constantly growing arsenal of legal penalties the State can deploy against the citizen.3
There are some problems in the book, mostly stemming from its functional agnosticism. A Christian edit of the book would have to include consideration of the limits on civil government in passages like Romans 13. True liberty will be found in a return to Biblical constraints on government, which would be a product of spiritual renewal.
Bovard is also too sanguine about the results to be expected from a more attentive (and still sinful) voting public. Calling on Americans to simply sit up and pay attention assumes our ability to recognize and seek after good. It ignores what we know about human depravity. Humans are naturally inclined to be enslaved to evil, and we should not be surprised when political choice results in slavery to an evil state.
1 James Bovard, Attention Deficit Democracy (New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2006), 242.
- Timothy D. Terrell
Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.