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Deneen on Elitism

Last week, I discussed the way in which Patrick Deneen misreads John Stuart Mill in his book Regime Change. I’d like to continue the assault on Regime Change this week by looking at an argument he makes against libertarianism. Libertarians, Deneen alleges, are elitists. They think that ordinary people need to be ruled by an elite class of experts. They favor restrictions on democracy in order to entrench laws about property rights that benefit the rich at the expense of the masses.

Deneen tells us that

throughout its history [liberalism] has sought to preserve the idea of a knowledgeable class in advancing progress against the threat posed by the backwardness of ordinary people. Liberalism was a philosophy that posited the theoretical equality of humankind in order to justify a new aristocracy, an arrangement in which one’s status was achieved not by birth, but by achievement. (emphasis original)

Rothbardian anarchocapitalism rejects the premise that underlies Deneen’s claim about liberalism. Deneen says that classical liberals favor rule by an informed elite over the masses, but the Rothbardian position isn’t about who should rule. Rothbard holds that people have the rights of self-ownership and property acquisition and that force or the threat of force may be used permissibly only in defense of these rights.

In Ethics of Liberty and other works, he claims to establish this view of rights by argument. If you disagree with Rothbard about rights, then you need to show what is wrong with his arguments. It isn’t sufficient to raise a different question, “Who determines the scope of personal and property rights—the elite or the masses?” For Rothbard, rights are a matter for discovery, not for decision.

Deneen might respond in this way. “Doesn’t Rothbard agree with Ludwig von Mises that economics is a difficult subject that most people don’t understand? If economic policy should be guided by correct economic principles, isn’t he implicitly calling for control in this vital area by a knowledgeable elite trained in Austrian economics?” This response makes the same mistake that was just discussed. The primary question for Rothbard and Mises is, “What are the correct principles of economics?,” not “Who decides which economic policies should be put into effect?”

Deneen might answer that even if there are true principles of political morality and true economic principles, questions about the legal system and about economic policy are matters for decision within particular societies. But doesn’t the issue that Deneen has raised then confront us? Who makes these decisions? The objective truth of morality and economic principles doesn’t obviate the need for decisions but rather enables us to evaluate particular decisions as correct or incorrect.

That’s true, but Rothbard’s answer to the “Who decides?” question rejects elite control. He favors persuading people that the libertarian views he defends are correct. Rothbard’s stance is antipodal to “We are going to cram a libertarian society down your throat, whether you like it or not, because we know what’s best!”

Deneen is correct that some classical liberals do favor restricting democracy because they think that an intellectual elite is better able to rule than the masses. But Deneen stumbles when he explains the position of a leading advocate of this notion, Jason Brennan. Deneen says,

Preferring a government that largely advanced policies securing economic and personal liberty, and therefore mistrustful of populist interferences in both domains, libertarian thinkers such as Jason Brennan of Georgetown University have issued frank broadsides against the disadvantages of widespread political participation by ordinary people.

In his 2016 book Against Democracy, Brennan celebrated declining levels of political participation and low levels of voting. . . . Brennan echoes the arguments of a generation of classical liberals who interpret lack of political participation as powerful proof of “tacit consent,” arguing that people act rationally and essentially consent to the status quo when they eschew political involvement. Brennan’s argument aims to increase this implicit form of tacit consent of ordinary people by decreasing their practical engagement to effect changes in politics.

Deneen’s comment is a fantastic misconstruction of Brennan’s argument, and I don’t have in mind the slip in the first sentence of the passage just quoted (if Brennan and others wanted to restrict mass voting, they would issue broadsides against the advantages of widespread political participation, not against the disadvantages of it). The misconstruction is that Brennan’s argument isn’t based on a theory of tacit consent and that Brennan, like most libertarians, rejects consent theories of political allegiance.

Further, the “tacit consent” argument, as Deneen presents it, is stupid. Tacit consent arguments maintain that if you live in a country, this shows that you agree to the government’s authority over you: if you didn’t, you would leave. This isn’t a good argument, but it’s understandable why someone might suggest it. But it makes no sense at all to claim that by failing to participate in voting, you have consented to the government. This would be analogous to arguing that by leaving a country, you have tacitly consented to the government’s legitimacy.

Deneen suggests that nonvoters are affirming the status quo. By failing to vote, they are implicitly saying that the existing situation is all right. But voters need not want change, and those who want the status quo preserved have as much, or as little, a reason to vote as those who want to alter it. A better tacit consent argument than the one Deneen suggests (though, again, not a good one) would be that by voting, you have tacitly consented to the institution of voting in your society.

In one area, though, Deneen and Rothbard agree. Like Deneen, Rothbard thinks that Progressive Era intellectuals did view themselves as an elite who should guide the masses toward social salvation. Not even Deneen can get everything wrong, although he deserves credit for trying.

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