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Demystifying Democracy: A Critical Look at Democracy and Ideology


Throughout history the many have always been ruled by the elite few. David Hume, in The First Principles of Government, highlights this fact as one of the great philosophical mysteries since “Force is always on the side of the governed,” and finds that it is “on opinion only that government is founded, and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and popular.” (Hume, 19) The opinion that Hume refers to relies on ideology and it certainly applies to today’s most popular form of governance, democracy. Democracy has become the means for the elite to maintain power over the masses after the individualistic and natural rights philosophies delegitimized other previously common forms of governance such as monarchy; further, democracy has transcended its original role as a possible means to individual liberty and has become an ideological end and has been made sacred to the point that it is beyond debate in the minds of many. However, democracy must be objectively judged against the goals of promoting and securing individual liberty in order to make the most informed decisions in regards to foreign policy, such as the benefit of “spreading democracy,” as well as domestic policy where individual rights are most affected.

A clear definition of ideology, as it is used here, must be established in order to effectively communicate the nature of its relationship to democracy and power in general. The common usage of the term, a system of beliefs and values, is too vague and simple to fit this purpose. Robert Higgs, in Crisis and Leviathan, defines ideology this way: “ideology…[is] a somewhat coherent, rather comprehensive belief system about social relations…it is somewhat coherent…though not necessarily in a way that would satisfy a logician…it is rather comprehensive [since] it subsumes a wide variety of social categories and their interrelations…[However,] it tends to revolve about only a few central values—for instance, individual freedom, social equality, or national glory.” (Higgs, 37) This definition does describe ideology but is lacking a component necessary to explain why its variants, such as ideological (which usually implies fanaticism), usually carry a negative connotation or to fully explain why “ideologies are the crucial lever at the disposal of elites for obtaining political mobilization and for maximizing the possibilities of mass manipulation,” (Higgs, 47) that Higgs alludes to later in his book. In order to complete Higgs definition it is necessary to require individuals to subordinate themselves to their chosen ideology. This subordination of the individual is what can lead to fanaticism, which is why fanatics do not appear to be acting in their “own best interests,” and it complements Hume’s answer as to how the elite few rule the masses: the masses have subordinated their own interests to an ideology that legitimizes the current form of power held by the elite. In Western Political Though: From Socrates to the Age of Ideology, Brian Nelson writes, “ Ideologies…tend to replace the idea of personal autonomy with a higher principle of moral progress beyond the individual, a principle to which the individual is to subordinate him- or herself…ideologies tend to subordinate the individual’s moral agency rather than actualize it. (Nelson, 360) In sum, ideology is a coherent, comprehensive belief system that subordinates personal moral autonomy to some higher principle(s) that the belief system revolves around. Another implication of this definition of ideology is that the source of the belief system is external to the individual adherents and the evolution of ideologies ensures that only a limited number that attracts large numbers of adherents tend to survive or have influence. Higgs explained that “opinion leaders are the producers and distributors of (a limited number of) ideologies; the masses are mainly consumers.” (Higgs, 45) The potential for mass manipulation by the opinion leaders should be apparent and if those opinion leaders are also the ruling class with a monopoly over coercive force then their potential threat to individual liberty is exponentially greater.

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Filed under Philosophy, Politics
Oct 7, 2012

Nationalism and Democracy: The Unintended Consequence of Decivilizaiton


Below is a response I posted in one of my classes:

The Treaty of Westphalia and the American Revolution marked another shift as well that is directly tied to the concept of Nationalism and can help explain the problems that the critics associate with it: “war, poverty, exploitation, colonialism, terrorism” and crime.  They marked the shift from monarchical government, where the legitimacy of power was gained through divine sovereignty, to democratic government, where the legitimacy comes from popular sovereignty.  Both forms require a monopoly on coercion over a geographic area, but the irony is that the form of government that appears more benevolent and fair-minded to its subjects, democracy, is actually equally or even more damaging to the societies who live under them.  The reason being that monarchs were seen as coercive and a burden on their subjects and thus much more susceptible to revolution; whereas, democracy takes “privileges, discrimination, and protectionism” that was once restricted to “princes and nobles” and opens them up to “be exercised and accorded to everyone.” (Hoppe, 2007, 83)  Nationalism is then the concept of identifying with the State, making one inseparable from it.  The groups in the text still apply here as each type: “individualistic and civic”, “collectivist and civic”, and collectivist and ethnic” (Greenfield & Eastwood, 2005, 256) describe who the privileges etc. can be accorded to and who will identify with the state, practice nationalism.  It follows then that any attack on the state will be viewed by each respective group as an attack on their perceived current or potential power and so resistance will be prevented or crushed in a decentralized manner through the nationalistic groups, protecting and adding legitimacy to the central government.

Nationalism and war: Total war,war on the entire population of a state vs war between just the militaries, is the result of all of the citizenry, or the various groups depending on the type of nationalism, identifying with the state.  In the age of monarchies, conflicts were “merely violent dynastic property disputes,” that could be “resolved through acts of territorial occupation;” however, modern wars have “become battles between different ways of life, which can only be resolved through cultural, linguistic, or religious domination and subjugation (or extermination).” (Hoppe, 2007, 37)  When there is no way to separate the populations from the state, due to nationalism, the wars have to be between the populations.

Nationalism and terrorism: Unlike the text, it does not appear to me that terrorism is the tactic used by people who subscribe to nationalism, but the tactic of those who do not identify with a state to use against those who subscribe to nationalism.  Those who use terrorist tactics see the citizenry as inseparable from the state and as the source of power and legitimacy for the state whose course they wish to change. This leads them to believe that tactical influence and victory can be gained by attacking this source of power, the citizenry, as opposed to attacking the State directly.

Nationalism and Exploitation/colonialism: Since the citizenry identify with the State and entry into positions of power are available to the citizenry, “everyone is permitted to openly express his desire for other men’s property.” (Hoppe, 2007, 87)  This can be through advocating redistributional policies within the population (exploitation) or through advocating territorial expansion in order to take property from outside the population (colonialism) and will be supported by the majority who see the gains of the State as their gains, or due to their hope to eventually enter into a position of power themselves and have the property available to achieve their own ends.

Nationalism and poverty/crime: The more general and damaging effect of nationalism is that it creates a higher time preference (in economics higher time preference refers wanting things sooner; a more short term outlook for both goals and consequences).  This is due to the uncertainty caused by mass amounts of legislation and regulation that results from the increased legitimacy granted to States of nationalistic populations and from the disincentive to accumulate capital due to increased exploitation/property redistribution that occurs for reasons mentioned above.  The resulting decivilization caused by higher time preference is a complex process to explain here but I will use the conclusion from the Chapter, “On Time Preference, Government, and the Process of Decivilization” from Hoppe’s “Democracy: The God that Failed” to sum up the effects:

“…as far as government is concerned, democratic republicanism [nationalism] produced communism (and with this public slavery and government sponsored mass murder even in peacetime), fascism, national socialism and, lastly and most enduringly, social democracy (‘liberalism’).  Compulsory military service has become almost universal, foreign and civil wars have increased in frequency and in brutality, and in the process of political centralization has advanced further than ever.  Internally, democratic republicanism [nationalism] has led to permanently rising taxes, debts, and public employment.  It has led to the destruction of the gold standard, unparalleled paper-money inflation, and increased protectionism and migration controls.  Even the most fundamental private law provision have been perverted by an unabating flood of legislation and regulation.    Simultaneously, as regards civil society, the institutions of marriage and family have been increasingly weakened, the number of children has declined, and the rates of divorce, illegitimacy, single parenthood, singledom, and abortion have increased.  Rather than rising with rising incomes, savings rates have been stagnating or even falling…And the rates of crime, structural unemployment, welfare dependency, parasitism, negligence, recklessness, incivility, psychopathy, and hedonism have increased.” (Hoppe, 2007, 42-43)

Greenfield, L. & Eastwood, J.(2005). Rule Making, Rule Breaking, and Power. In T.A. Janoski, A.M. Hicks, & M.A. Schwartz (Eds.), Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization (33-53). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hoppes, H.H. (2007) Democracy: The God that Failed.New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

Mar 26, 2011