Hosni Mubarak has finally relinquished power and the military is now ruling Egypt. Only time will tell, pardon the clichÃ©, whether the country will make a successful transition to democracy, as the protestors in Tahrir Square certainly hope. At this stage, however, what we can legitimately infer from Egyptâ€™s experience is that it bears out the case in favor of democracy set forth by Ludwig von Mises.
That case is most fully elaborated in two of his books, Socialism and Liberalism: The Classical Tradition. In both, Mises starts by taking up the leading arguments that political thinkers have made for and against democracy. A prominent argument in favor â€“ echoed in the American Declaration of Independence â€“ is that human beings have the right to conduct their lives as they see fit in the pursuit of happiness. This right to self-determination, the right to rule oneâ€™s self in other words, implies that a person is entitled to a share in political decision-making in order to ensure the government does not compromise their autonomy and well-being.
Another time-honored argument, harkening back to the republics of ancient Greece and Rome, holds that democracy is preferable as it permits each individual to partake in the ennobling activity of politics. On this view, ruling a political community fulfills the highest potential of human beings.
Mises rejects the rights-based case for democracy because it wrongly presupposes that ethical statements can be objectively established. Moral claims, such as the assertion of a right to life and liberty, are subjective. For Mises, such claims merely indicate the sentiments of the individual affirming them. The same point could be adduced against the nobility of ruling argument. But Mises emphasizes instead that politics, if it is toÂ be done well, must be a specialized task undertaken by a relatively small group of individuals. So just as nobody is withheld their dignity if a few happen to manufacture cars for them, it is notÂ demeaning either if a few supply them with protection services.
It must be recalled that when Mises was writing about this topic, it was the 1920â€™s. This was a time in which anti-democratic ideas were very much in the intellectual air. Hence, itâ€™s no surprise that Mises is impelled to confront the most influential argument that has ever been put forward in opposition to democracy. It states the best government is that in which the best individuals rule without hindrance. It then goes on to say that popular majorities do not constitute the best individuals.
Misesâ€™ counter to this is that it is well-nigh impossible for allÂ to agree about who the most politically able people are. Inevitably, different factions will arise to rally around their preferred candidates. Being anti-democrats, though, none of these factions will believe that consent is required to empower their favorites. As a consequence, the different sides will fight it out. In the process, the best individuals turn out to be no more than those who demonstrate their political prowess by force. Anti-democracy thus reduces itself to the assertion that might is right.
So where does that leave Mises and democracy? He begins from the common-sense observation that just about everyone wants to preserve their lives and improve their material condition. Now that requires peace. Of all the available alternatives, democracy best assures peace because it allows the transfer of political power whenever the majority is displeased with the government without necessarily stoking instability and violence.
Consider instead what happens in a dictatorship whenever the majority and government do not agree. The majority — who having the power of numbers on their side ultimately hold all the political cards — have no easy way to dislodge the government. More often than not,Â strife and turbulence is the result.
This Misesian script has pretty much been followedÂ in Egypt. By overthrowing Mubarak, the Egyptian people are one step closer toÂ the prospectÂ of being able in the future to change their rulers without having to go through what they just did over 18 hard-fought days.