Arguments

This Anti-Democrat Wants Your Vote

In lieu of the normal Friday round-up, the third and final installment in my close-reading of David Brat.

By Nathan Pippenger

What is David Brat’s political philosophy? That’s a grandiose way to phrase the question, but it’s no overstatement to say that a certain anti-democratic attitude (tinged, occasionally, with mild paranoia) bubbles up in the 2011 article I’ve been covering this week.

Brat’s professed concern, as I noted on Wednesday, is the (alleged) loss of liberty that has resulted from the public provision of health care, welfare, education, pensions, and unemployment benefits. The problem with these proliferating “positive rights,” Brat says, “is that someone else must pay for the benefits that are received.” The “key issue” of his essay, therefore, is that “We have continually voted to force some to pay for the benefits of others.” In doing so, Brat concludes, Americans have crossed “a key line in ethics”—abandoning the liberty of the Founding era, when individuals, unburdened by tax-based coercion, were capable of living as freely-choosing moral agents. That, he suggests, is no longer the case. In this era of tax-funded services, individuals are “forced” by the state to be moral. But a person who is forced to be moral is no longer making any kind of moral choice, so they can no longer be called moral at all.

The massive assumptions proliferating here almost confound analysis. Chief among them is a common move in Tea Party rhetoric: the idea that “someone else” is always stuck with the bill for services received by other citizens. Taxpayers and beneficiaries therefore form two mutually-exclusive groups—the “makers” and “takers” of Paul Ryan’s imagination. Of course, this isn’t true: graduates of public schools grow up to pay back into the system; workers who pay into unemployment benefits may use those benefits if they are laid off; and over time, anybody on a payroll eventually benefits from their own contributions to Social Security. At different times, all of us are beneficiaries—direct or indirect—of tax-funded services paid for by “someone else” and by ourselves.

What’s more noteworthy is the bizarre theory of democracy Brat advances in the article. He gives no concise formulation, but a rough version might be: When a democracy votes to publicly distribute some good (like education), it by definition forces all its dissenting citizens to conform to the majority’s definition of morality. This is a form of coercion underpinned by the state’s monopoly on violence, and since none of us would, as individuals, be comfortable personally forcing our friends and neighbors to adhere to our version of morality—using violence, if need be—we have no moral standing to do the same through democratic political action.

At least, this is what’s strongly implied if you combine Brat’s various musings on democratic decision-making and state power. “Let me ask you as an individual a question,” he says, addressing the reader. “Are you willing to force someone you know to pay for the benefits for one of your neighbors? Will you force them?” Anticipating discomfort, Brat continues:

Some will not even answer the question, because they see where the logic clearly leads […] We vote for justice. It has become easy. We vote to force others to act as we want them to act. […] I know about Locke’s tacit consent and majority rule and all of that, but if you are not willing to force someone at the micro level, those distinctions fall away.

“Majority rule and all of that” aside, there are plenty of differences between individual and state power. The conferral of authority on a government by its citizens is no small matter. If I grant my neighbor sovereignty over me, she might have a claim to force me to act. As it happens, I have granted her no such right—but I have granted it to the government, as long as it remains legitimately based in popular consent. And we have a pretty obvious way of deciding things by popular consent, as Brat understands well (he notes—repeatedly—that we have voted to for these onerous taxes. And I hate to be the bearer of awkward news, but he’s also running for office himself this fall).

The fun doesn’t stop there. After suggesting that there’s no difference between a legitimate government forcing me to obey the laws and the same action being performed by my neighbor, Brat goes on to imply that there’s only a very fine line between coercion by losing-a-vote and coercion by violence:

Let me add one more definition to the picture to heighten this tension. In economics and political science, it is common to define the government as the entity that holds a monopoly on violence. […] If you refuse to pay your taxes, you will lose. You will go to jail, and if you fight, you will lose. The government holds a monopoly on violence. Any law that we vote for is ultimately backed by the full force of our government and military. Do we trust institutions of the government to ensure justice? Is that what history teaches us about the State? […] The State’s budget is currently about $3 trillion a year. Do you trust that power to the political Right? Do you trust it to the Left? If you answered “no” to either question, you may have a major problem in the future. […] So now, I hope you are feeling even a bit more ill at ease.

I’m not. Consent and legitimacy are real problems of political philosophy—and the state’s monopoly on violence is the backbone of sovereignty—but these issues are treated here with all the subtlety (and breathlessness) of a late-night dorm room conversation that has long passed its peak. The argument jumps from assertion to dubious assertion on the way to its sweeping conclusion: losing a vote necessarily leads to coercion; there’s no real difference between actions taken by a legitimate government and similar actions taken by private individuals; the state’s monopoly on violence should frighten anyone who is, or could someday be, in a democratic minority. The conclusion follows straightforwardly enough: because the fearsome, thinly-veiled violence of the state lurks behind all democratic decisions to distribute—bending dissenters into line—no distribution can possibly be legitimate, and so the state should retreat from the goal of providing any kind of public service.

This isn’t standard-issue libertarianism; it’s something much more paranoid and radical. Brat’s rejection of government action isn’t based in pragmatic arguments (i.e., it’s inefficient), and he’s not advocating the minimal state as the most preferable option among a series of potentially-legitimate systems. Instead, the provision of any tax-funded service is portrayed as coercion, plain and simple, and the obvious point—that not all coercions are equally bad—is ignored altogether. That’s no idle rejoinder: it’s the very premise on which constitutional government is based. The idea that core freedoms (of religion, the press, assembly, and so on) can be preserved alongside majority rule is what makes democracy compatible with liberty. Brat’s argument suggests that your right to a low tax bill is as fundamental as your right to free speech—especially since, on his logic, any unwanted tax bill is so coercive that it renders the majority’s decision morally illegitimate. If we’re taxed to pay for these programs, Brat seems to suggest, we are coerced, plain and simple—even we are part of today’s minority on this vote, and tomorrow’s majority on some other. I don’t know if these arguments can be boiled down into a bumper sticker, but it would be interesting to see somebody try, since David Brat is probably the biggest democracy-skeptic running for Congress this fall.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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