Consider political wars of religion, which I define as confrontations about whose preferences and values will be imposed on other individuals. They are not what any friend would wish you for 2021! President-elect Joe Biden does not seem to understand this as he declared (quoted by Deanna Paul, “Republican Electors Cast Unofficial Ballots, Setting Up Congressional Clash,” Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2020):
Respecting the will of the people is at the heart of our democracy, even if we find those results hard to accept.
First, the United States (or perhaps more exactly, the US government) is not a democracy, but a republic, as John Grove argued in his article “Numerical Democracy or Constitutional Reality?” (Law and Liberty, November 12, 2020). Indeed, the Founders were not influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s conception of democracy, where the “will of the people” or “general will” is paramount. Second, and contrary to what populists of the right or of the left believe, the “will of the people” has no rational, ascertainable meaning. It is not without reason that Rousseau has been called the “prophet of national populism.”
It is remarkable that populists of the left (such as Elizabeth Warren) and populists of the right (such as Donald Trump) both claim to represent or incarnate the will of the people. The reader interested to go a bit further on this topic may have a look at my recent review of Carlos de la Torre’s latest book (“The Standard Populist Playbook,” Regulation, Winter 2020-2021), my forthcoming Regulation review of Willian Riker’s Liberalism Against Populism, my forthcoming article on populism in The Independent Review, as well as my Econlog post, “What is Populism? The People V. the People” (September 11, 2020).
The “will of the people” does not exist or, at the very least, is totally unknowable. A methodological reason is that “the people” does not exist as a superindividual with a will of its own. There are only individuals with their several different preferences and values. A more practical reason is that, as economist Kenneth Arrow demonstrated, any voting method will give results that are either logically incoherent or dictatorial. What passes for the will of the people is, at best, the result of a numerical plurality within the electorate or, at worst, the clamor of a mob.
In a classical liberal perspective, the purpose of voting is only to allow a peaceful change of the rulers when a large proportion of the electorate have had enough of them. It is not to impose some individuals’ preferences, values, and lifestyles on other individuals.
Political wars of religion, on the contrary, are led by politicians (the ultimate altruists, as we know) who are fighting each other to incarnate the will of the people. And since the will of the people is unknowable, any politician can claim to represent it and is as right as any other politician who so claims (such a claim is the main feature of populism), just as leaders of wars of religion on both or many sides can claim to follow the will of God.
As Grove writes,
And from that expectation [that a single national vote should decide everything] springs partisan bitterness, fanatical political loyalty, and the sense that we must do whatever it takes to defeat our domestic “enemies” at the ballot box. … Samuel Adams wrote to Richard Henry Lee that such a government could not adequately craft laws suited to the great variety of peoples and interests within it, and would bring us only “Discontent, Mistrust, Disaffection to government and frequent Insurrections.” We most certainly have the first three. If we clamor for still more centralized democracy, we may get the fourth.
The problem is not extremism, it’s the desire to impose one’s own brand of extremism on others. Instead, live and let live! That’s my wish for the New Year.