Libertarianism as Opposition to the Electoral Process

The libertarian says: “when government intervenes in the market, it prevents the people from imposing their preferences on the market. People may claim to hate Facebook, but the fact that they use it belies their words. The people have voted in the market for Facebook, which is why Facebook became so successful. If the government destroys Facebook, it goes against the will of the people.”

The trouble with this line of argument, which the libertarian applies to all government interventions in the market, not just antitrust interventions against Facebook, is that in a democracy the people vote in two ways, not one. They vote in the market. And they vote for their political leaders, who in turn decide whether the government should intervene in the market. So it is not possible for a libertarian in a democracy to say that government intervention in markets goes against the will of the people. For it is the people who will the intervention in markets into existence.

The most that the libertarian can say is that the will of the people as expressed through their purchase decisions is more authentic than the will of the people as expressed through their electoral votes. And so it may be. But I have never heard a libertarian address this question directly, even though it is necessarily the heart of libertarianism, at least in a democracy. Instead, the libertarian tends to rail against government intervention as though every government were a tyranny and all market regulations dictated by some unelected politburo rather than, as happens to be the case in the libertarian ground zero that is the United States, by duly elected representatives of the people.

The libertarian asks, “why should the Federal Trade Commission get to decide whether Facebook is right for you or not?,” as if the Federal Trade Commission were a hereditary aristocracy. If the Federal Trade Commission breaks up Facebook, then it is the people who have broken up Facebook. The natural conclusion to draw is not that the people are oppressed but rather that the people have decided that they no longer wish to have Facebook as an option in their markets.

Why ever would a people decide, electorally, not to have a particular market option? The obvious answer is that people might wish to bind themselves to the mast. It could be the case that people find it easier to make deliberative, non-impulse-prone decisions about which products are good for them in the context of electoral voting rather than market voting through their purchase decisions. They think more carefully about what they really want when they vote for President than when they are logging in to Facebook.

Regulation in a democracy is, then, nothing more than the deliberative faculties restraining the impulsive faculties of the brain. It has nothing at all to do with tyranny, domination, un-freedom, or control, except insofar as it represents self-control.

If this is right, then why do libertarians nevertheless object to regulation? It could be that they reject the notion that the electoral process is more deliberative than the market process. Perhaps they believe the reverse: we choose more deliberatively in the market than in the electoral process. Or perhaps they believe that impulsive decisions better reveal our true preferences than do deliberative decisions, in which case the market, to the extent that it encourages impulsive decisionmaking, does a better job than politics at revealing our true preferences.

Or, more likely—because this libertarians do talk about—they believe that the layers of intermediation associated with representative government—the politicians and bureaucrats who stand between the electoral voter and the regulation—are not in fact responsive to voters, or only minimally so, and so the regulations government imposes reflect neither the deliberative preferences of voters nor their impulsive preferences, or reflect them only very weakly.

Whatever the reason, the libertarian position must be that the electoral process is a flawed voting system relative to the voting system that is the market.