Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2: The Social Function of Democracy - Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
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2: The Social Function of Democracy - Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis 
Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane, Foreword by F.A. Hayek (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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The Social Function of Democracy
In internal politics Liberalism demands the fullest freedom for the expression of political opinion and it demands that the State shall be constituted according to the will of the majority; it demands legislation through representatives of the people, and that the government, which is a committee of the people’s representatives, shall be bound by the Laws. Liberalism merely compromises when it accepts a monarchy. Its ideal remains the republic or at least a shadow-principality of the English type. For its highest political principle is the self-determination of peoples as of individuals. It is idle to discuss whether one should call this political ideal democratic or not. The more recent writers are inclined to assume a contrast between Liberalism and Democracy. They seem to have no clear conceptions of either; above all, their ideas as to the philosophical basis of democratic institutions seem to be derived exclusively from the ideas of natural law.
Now it may well be that the majority of liberal theories have endeavoured to recommend democratic institutions on grounds which correspond to the theories of natural law with regard to the inalienable fight of human beings to self-determination. But the reasons which a political movement gives in justification of its postulates do not always coincide with the reasons which force them to be uttered. It is often easier to act politically than to see clearly the ultimate motives of one’s actions. The old Liberalism knew that the democratic demands rose inevitably from its system of social philosophy. But it was not at all clear what position these demands occupied in the system. This explains the uncertainty it has always manifested in questions of ultimate principle; it also accounts for the measureless exaggeration which certain pseudo-democratic demands have enjoyed at the hands of those who ultimately claimed the name democrat for themselves alone and who thus became contrasted with liberals who did not go so far.
The significance of the democratic form of constitution is not that it represents more nearly than any other the natural and inborn rights of man; not that it realizes, better than any other kind of government, the ideas of liberty and equality. In the abstract it is as little unworthy of a man to let others govern him as it is to let someone else perform any kind of labour for him. That the citizen of a developed community feels free and happy in a democracy, that he regards it as superior to all other forms of government, and that he is prepared to make sacrifices to achieve and maintain it, this, again, is not to be explained by the fact that democracy is worthy of love for its own sake. The fact is that it performs functions which he is not prepared to do without.
It is usually argued that the essential function of democracy is the selection of political leaders. In the democratic system the appointment to at least the most important public offices is decided by competition in all the publicity of political life, and in this competition, it is believed, the most capable are bound to win. But it is difficult to see why democracy should necessarily be luckier than autocracy or aristocracy in selecting people for directing the state. In nondemocratic states, history shows, political talents have frequently won through, and one cannot maintain that democracy always puts the best people into office. On this point the enemies and the friends of democracy will never agree.
The truth is that the significance of the democratic form of constitution is something quite different from all this. Its function is to make peace, to avoid violent revolutions. In non-democratic states, too, only a government which can count on the backing of public opinion is able to maintain itself in the long run. The strength of all governments lies not in weapons but in the spirit which puts the weapons at their disposal. Those in power, always necessarily a small minority against an enormous majority, can attain and maintain power only by making the spirit of the majority pliant to their rule. If there is a change, if those on whose support the government depends lose the conviction that they must support this particular government, then the ground is undermined beneath it and it must sooner or later give way. Persons and systems in the government of non-democratic states can be changed by violence alone. The system and the individuals that have lost the support of the people are swept away in the upheaval and a new system and other individuals take their place.
But any violent revolution costs blood and money. Lives are sacrificed, and destruction impedes economic activity. Democracy tries to prevent such material loss and the accompanying psychical shock by guaranteeing accord between the will of the state—as expressed through the organs of the state—and the will of the majority. This it achieves by making the organs of the state legally dependent on the will of the majority of the moment. In internal policy it realizes what pacifism seeks to realize in external policy.42
That this alone is the decisive function of democracy becomes clearly evident when we consider the argument which opponents of the democratic principle most frequently adduce against it. The Russian conservative is undoubtedly right when he points out that Russian Tsarism and the policy of the Tsar was approved by the great mass of the Russian people, so that even a democratic state form could not have given Russia a different system of government. Russian democrats themselves have had no delusions about this. As long as the majority of the Russian people or, better, of that part of the people which was politically mature and which had the opportunity to intervene in policy—as long as this majority stood behind tsardom, the empire did not suffer from the absence of a democratic form of constitution. This lack became fatal, however, as soon as a difference arose between public opinion and the political system of tsardom. State will and people’s will could not be adjusted pacifically; a political catastrophe was inevitable. And what is true of the Russia of the Tsar is just as true of the Russia of the Bolshevists; it is just as true of Prussia, of Germany, and of every other state. How disastrous were the effects of the French Revolution, from which France has psychically never quite recovered! How enormously England has benefited from the fact that she has been able to avoid revolution since the seventeenth century!
Thus we see how mistaken it is to regard the terms democratic and revolutionary as synonymous or even as similar. Democracy is not only not revolutionary, but it seeks to extirpate revolution. The cult of revolution, of violent overthrow at any price, which is peculiar to Marxism, has nothing whatever to do with democracy. Liberalism, recognizing that the attainment of the economic aims of man presupposes peace, and seeking therefore to eliminate all causes of strife at home or in foreign politics, desires democracy. The violence of war and revolutions is always an evil to liberal eyes, an evil which cannot always be avoided as long as man lacks democracy. Yet even when revolution seems almost inevitable Liberalism tries to save the people from violence, hoping that philosophy may so enlighten tyrants that they will voluntarily renounce rights which are opposed to social development. Schiller speaks with the voice of Liberalism when he makes the Marquis de Posa implore the king for liberty of thought; and the great night of August 4th, 1789, when the French feudal lords voluntarily renounced their privileges, and the English Reform Act of 1832, show that these hopes were not quite vain. Liberalism has no admiration to spare for the heroic grandiosity of Marxism’s professional revolutionaries, who stake the lives of thousands and destroy values which the labour of decades and centuries has created. Here the economic principle holds good: Liberalism wants success at the smallest price.
Democracy is self-government of the people; it is autonomy. But this does not mean that all must collaborate equally in legislation and administration. Direct democracy can be realized only on the smallest scale. Even small parliaments cannot do all their work in plenary assemblies; committees must be chosen, and the real work is done by individuals; by the proposers, the speakers, the rapporteurs, and above all by the authors of the bills. Here then is final proof of the fact that the masses follow the leadership of a few men. That men are not all equal, that some are born to lead and some to be led is a circumstance which even democratic institutions cannot alter. We cannot all be pioneers: most people do not wish to be nor have they the necessary strength. The idea that under the purest form of democracy people would spend their days in council like the members of a parliament derives from the conception we had of the ancient Greek city State at its period of decay; but we overlook the fact that such communities were not in fact democracies at all, since they excluded from public life the slaves and all who did not possess full citizen rights. Where all are to collaborate, the “pure” ideal of direct democracy becomes impracticable. To want to see democracy realized in this impossible form is nothing less than pedantic natural law doctrinairianism. To achieve the ends for which democratic institutions strive it is only necessary that legislation and administration shall be guided according to the will of the popular majority and for this purpose indirect democracy is completely satisfactory. The essence of democracy is not that everyone makes and administers laws but that lawgivers and rulers should be dependent on the people’s will in such a way that they may be peaceably changed if conflict occurs.
This defeats many of the arguments, put forward by friends and opponents of popular rule, against the possibility of realizing democracy.43 Democracy is not less democracy because leaders come forth from the masses to devote themselves entirely to politics. Like any other profession in the society dividing labour, politics demand the entire man; dilettante politicians are of no use.44 As long as the professional politician remains dependent on the will of the majority, so that he can carry out only that for which he has won over the majority, the democratic principle is satisfied. Democracy does not demand, either that parliament shall be a copy, on a reduced scale, of the social stratification of the country, consisting, where peasant and industrial labourers form the bulk of the population, mainly of peasants and industrial labourers.45 The gentleman of leisure who plays a great role in the English parliament, the lawyer and journalist of the parliaments of the Latin countries probably represent the people better than the trade union leaders and peasants who have brought spiritual desolation to the German and Slav parliaments. If members of the higher social ranks were excluded from parliaments, those parliaments and the governments emanating from them could not represent the will of the people. For in society these higher ranks, the composition of which is itself the result of a selection made by public opinion, exert on the minds of the people an influence out of all proportion to their mere numbers. If one kept them from parliament and public administration by describing them to the electors as men unfit to rule, a conflict would have arisen between public opinion and the opinion of parliamentary bodies, and this would make more difficult, if not impossible, the functioning of democratic institutions. Non-parliamentary influences make themselves felt in legislation and administration, for the intellectual power of the excluded cannot be stifled by the inferior elements which lead in parliamentary life. Parliamentarism suffers from nothing so much as from this; we must seek here the reason for its much deplored decline. For democracy is not mob rule, and to do justice to its tasks, parliament should include the best political minds of the nation.
Grave injury has been done to the concept of democracy by those who, exaggerating the natural law notion of sovereignty, conceived it as limitless rule of the volonté générale (general will). There is really no essential difference between the unlimited power of the democratic state and the unlimited power of the autocrat. The idea that carries away our demagogues and their supporters, the idea that the state can do whatever it wishes, and that nothing should resist the will of the sovereign people, has done more evil perhaps than the caesar-mania of degenerate princelings. Both have the same origin in the notion of a state based purely on political might. The legislator feels free of all limitations because he understands from the theory of law that all law depends on his will. It is a small confusion of ideas, but a confusion with profound consequences, when he takes his formal freedom to be a material one and believes himself to be above the natural conditions of social life. The conflicts which arise out of this misconception show that only within the framework of Liberalism does democracy fulfil a social function. Democracy without Liberalism is a hollow form.
[42. ]In some sense it is, perhaps, not altogether an accident that the writer who, at the threshold of the Renaissance, first raised the democratic demand for legislation by the people—Marsilius of Padua—called his work Defensor Pacis (Atger, Essai sur l’Histoire des Doctrines du Contrat Social [Paris, 1906], p. 75; Scholz, “Marsilius von Padua und die Idee der Demokratie” [Zeitschrift fur Politik, 1908], vol. 1, pp. 66 ff.
[43. ]See, on the one hand, especially the writings of the advocates of the Prussian authoritarian state; on the other, above all, the syndicalists (Michels, Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie, 2nd ed. [Leipzig, 1925]), pp. 463 ff.
[44. ]Max Weber, Politik als Beruf (Munich and Leipzig, 1920), pp. 17 ff.
[45. ]The natural-law theories of democracy, which fail to appreciate the essentials of the division of labor, cling to the idea of the “representation” of electors by elected. It was not difficult to show how artificial was this concept. The member of parliament who makes laws for me and controls for me the administration of the postal system, no more “represents” me than the doctor who heals me or the cobbler who makes shoes for me. What differentiates him essentially from the doctor and the cobbler is not that he fulfills services of a different kind for me but that if I am dissatisfied with him I cannot withdraw the care of my affairs from him in the same simple way I can dismiss a doctor or a cobbler. To get that influence in government which I have over my doctor and shoemaker I want to be an elector.