Democracy: The God That Failed by Hans Herman Hoppe (Book Review) | William Yarwood
Professor Hans Herman Hoppe has been one of the most controversial figures in modern libertarianism over the last two decades. One the one hand, Hoppe is decried by his critics to be a xenophobic and homophobic bigot who is more akin to being a ‘fascist’ than a libertarian, while supporters laud his work as the best libertarian writings that have appeared since Murray Rothbard passed away, who Hoppe was close with and worked with. Personally, I am more in the second camp and I have enjoyed Hoppe’s work and have followed him closely since I was about 17, which is when I began to take my libertarianism a little more seriously.
However, to my shame, I have only previously read his articles from the Mises Institute as well one of his smaller works ‘A Short History of Man’ and listened to a handful of his lectures and speeches. Thus, over this summer I elected to read at least one of his larger and more influential books and naturally I ended up choosing the book that he is most infamous for – ‘Democracy: The God That Failed’.
The differences between monarchism and democracy and what is better for libertarianism and civilisation is the main crux of the book and is what I will predominantly discuss. Hoppe writes at great length and intelligence with a vast array of citations from different academic works to boot, which only lends more credibility to his arguments. Hoppe’s citations are far and wide and show the interdisciplinary nature of this work and indeed Hoppe himself as he cites work concerning sociology, biology, history, political theory and economics in order to make his arguments and exposes the reader to a great many writers, books and journals that they would have not been previously aware of, such as the works by the French political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel who Hoppe cites a great deal.
Hoppe’s thesis is that the west’s transition from being dominated by monarchs to democratic republics created an environment whereby society becomes more present oriented which means that the future is disregarded in favour of the here and now. He uses the economic term ‘time preference’ to describe this change, in order to show how those under monarchical rulership and even the monarchs themselves are typically inclined to having lower time preferences meaning they wish to sacrifice potential present gains for future wealth and wellbeing. Hoppe states that this low time preference, accompanied by the saving and the formation of durable capital and consumer goods that would accompany this low time preference, would allow for the ‘process of civilisation’ to occur. Hoppe writes that:
“the saver-investor initiates a “process of civilization.” In generating a tendency toward a fall in the rate of time preference, he – and everyone directly or indirectly connected to him through a network of exchanges – matures from childhood to adulthood and from barbarism to civilization.”
Hoppe argues that this process towards civilisation caused by low time preferences enables people to be able to look towards the future and expand their plans to the horizons rather than just dealing with the reality and circumstance that they are currently in. Contrary to the Hobbesian state of nature nightmare thesis that many pitch, Hoppe argues that this notion is essentially bunk as a low time preference society, accompanied by a respect for property rights and voluntary agreements, transforms an individual’s life from being ‘short, brutish, and nasty’ to becoming ‘longer, increasingly refined, and comfortable’.
For Hoppe, low time preferences and the respect for property rights and voluntary agreements are what enable humans to build civilisation and create wealth, peace, and prosperity. So, what threatens this process of civilisation? Hoppe lays the blame at the feet of the God that he believes has failed, democracy.
Hoppe states that contrary to popular belief historical belief the transition to democratic republicanism from the monarchism that preceded it cannot be seen as a liberating civilisational process but instead as a trend towards ‘decivilisation’ – namely because democracy increases time preferences as it enables the state to ever increasing in size and power which inevitably leads to it intervening in all areas of economic and social life. Democracy, Hoppe writes:
“is incompatible with private property (individual ownership and rule). No form of taxation can be uniform (equal), but every taxation involves the creation of two distinct and unequal classes of taxpayers versus tax receiver-consumers. Property and property titles are distinct entities, and an increase of the latter without a corresponding increase of the former does not raise social wealth but leads to a redistribution of existing wealth.”
If individual ownership, private property and the low time preference that both of those are created by is interfered with, society becomes corrupted by short termism and a general social and economic deterioration takes place.
Hoppe shows how democratic republics institute welfare states so that the money of the productive (low time preference individuals) can be redistributed to those within society who haven’t earnt it themselves (high time preference individuals) which then creates a class of people who clamour for ever more money and resources from those at the top – setting the precondition whereby socialism becomes a popular idea and platform for politicians to run on. In addition, Hoppe laments at the way in which democratic republics, due to the fact that it is a public owned system of governance rather than private owned system of governance, allows for ruthless careerists and demagogues to enter the democratic machine as a representative; whereby they will seek to exploit and parasite off of private wealth via the introduction of ever more taxes, violate ever more property rights in the name of ‘public health’ or ‘egalitarianism’ and build up ever more public debts that exceed the total GDP of the country as a whole. According to Hoppe, the politicians of democratic states have the time preferences of children who ‘must have the fun right now’, due to the notion that the politician is more concerned about whether they might lose their seat at the next election. The politician, Hoppe writes:
“has no interest in not ruining his country. For why should he not want to increase his exploitation, if the advantage of a policy of moderation – the resulting higher capital value of the government estate – cannot be reaped privately, while the advantage of the opposite policy of increased exploitation – a higher current income-can be so reaped?”
If democracy produces welfarism, social decadence and unsustainable debt all the while enabling ideologies such as socialism to flourish, is monarchism really any better for civilisation? Hoppe thinks so, albeit not enthusiastically.
Unlike publically owned government (democracy), privately owned government (monarchy) does not have the same kind of ‘decivilising’ process, although it is still ‘decivilising’, for a multitude of reasons including by not limited to; careerists cannot exist and parasite off of private wealth as entrance into privately owned government is virtually impossible, the monarch is a long term caretaker of a given territory rather than a short term one like a prime minister or president, a monarch will seek to increase their capital and thus maximise more wealth for future needs etc.
Monarchs will practice moderation in regards to not only economic spending and taxation of their citizenry but even in regards to going to war and expanding their power the monarch does not act as democratic state does, as they do not wish to rock the boat of long term stability and wealth in favour of potential short term gain. As Hoppe evidences, unlike the parasitic politician the monarch will, in order to preserve and enhance the value of his land, people and rulership:
“systematically restrain himself in his exploitation policies. For the lower the degree of exploitation, the more productive the subject population will be; and the more productive the population, the higher will be the value of the ruler’s parasitic monopoly of expropriation. He will use his monopolistic privilege, of course. He will not not exploit. But as the government’s private owner, it is in his interest to draw parasitically on a growing, increasingly productive and prosperous nongovernment economy as this would effortlessly also increase his own wealth and prosperity and the degree of exploitation thus would tend to be low.”
While Hoppe clearly states that he is ‘not a monarchist’ but a proponent of anarcho-capitalism, he believes that if one must have a state then choosing a monarchy over a democracy is more in line with the protection of liberty, economic freedom and property rights as the general process towards ‘decivilisation’ is far slower and less damaging to society than a democratic state as a monarch will not wish to expropriate, warmonger and increase its remit as a democratic state would.
While this is not all there is to Hoppe’s argument in the book – which I leave up to you to find out – the points which Hoppe highlighted that I have discussed are enlightening and even liberating; especially for someone who finds the lauding of democracy as a bastion of liberty, by both libertarians and non-libertarians alike, to be nauseating. This book provides a libertarian the tools to be able to criticise democracy from a uniquely ‘pro-liberty and ‘anti-state’ outlook, which is reassuring for those libertarians who are dismayed when they only come across illiberal and statist criticisms of democracy in political theory.
The book, in later chapters, discusses the necessity of secessionism and decentralisation and the libertarian strategy by which these can come about. Hoppe also takes his famous stance against open borders in this book in two essays concerning the libertarian argument for restricting immigration and the social and economic reality of immigration as a whole. Hoppe also presents a brilliant demolition of both classical liberalism and conservatism, labelling the former as containing various ‘monumental errors’ (especially in regards to their justifications for a state) and the latter as essentially being no better than a right wing form of socialism, which will lead to all the processes of ‘decivilisation’ that conservatives proclaim to be against. Hoppe perceives the ‘combination’ of ‘socialism and cultural conservatism’ as something that ‘could hardly end happily’.
Hoppe’s arguments against conservatism continuously made me laugh with glee and punch my fist in the air with joy but after finishing the book a few days ago I realised that that feeling of glee was with me throughout it. Hoppe’s uncompromising radicalism, straightforward prose and unremittingly brutal attacks against socialism, classical liberalism, conservatism, left-libertarianism and democracy leaves one feeling joyous at the fact that Hoppe has left no rug unturned, no orthodoxy not smashed and no politically correct taboo adhered to – which is gold to any young intellectually curious person who is perturbed by the lack of idealism and intellectual radicalism and rigour of their fellow ‘politically engaged’ youths.
This book will make your socialist friend shiver with fear, turn your classical liberal friend into an anti-statist radical, make your conservative friend look like an economically illiterate fool and it will leave your left libertarian friend crying and babbling like a child on the floor, screaming out epithets like the crypto-social justice warrior that he is. But most importantly, it will make you realise that Hoppe is one of the foremost important libertarian intellectuals of our time and that both his detractors, and indeed many of his fans, have actually neither read him nor truly understand him and the brilliance of his work. This book is a must read for any liberty lover, intellectual radical or even any conservative or classical liberal that wishes to see the error of their ways.
In ‘Democracy: The God That Failed’ Hoppe effectively drags democracy down from the heavens and throws it down into the pits of hell to be amongst the other decadent anti-liberty ideologies of communism, fascism and social democracy that it created.
Photo owned by the Mallard.