Will self-proclaimed classical liberals resist a right-wing assault on democracy in America? Don’t hold your breath.

Classical liberalism has an uneasy relationship with democracy.  Friedrich Hayek, for example, argued in The Constitution of Liberty and in Law, Legislation, and Liberty that democracy might need to be suspended to preserve liberal economic institutions.  And he meant it, as his support for Pinochet in Chile made clear. 

Democracy in America is now under serious threat due to the increased radicalization of the Republican party.  Donald Trump continues to assert that the 2020 election was stolen.  Most Republican members of Congress refuse to contradict him or hold him accountable.  Election workers are being terrorized.  Republican state legislatures are threatening to politicize the administration of elections, and even to set the results of elections aside.  The right to protest is under attack.

If Republicans undermine elections to entrench themselves in power, will classical liberals stand up for democracy?

Don’t hold your breath.

Here is outspoken classical liberal Donald Boudreaux:

Freedom of choice is wonderful, and democracy – properly understood and constrained – can be a blessing. But democracy becomes a heinous curse when its ethos is reduced to nothing more than the belief that the majority is free to choose whatever it fancies unconstrained by higher law, such as a constitution, and by social norms that protect the rights of all, both as individuals and as members of minority coalitions.

OK, but is democracy in danger of becoming a “heinous curse”?  Well, you judge:

Illiberal people also excel at slathering the worst interpretations on the actions and words of anyone suspected of not towing the party line. Not only ignorant of history, but disdainful of it, illiberal people destroy mindlessly. Chanting diversity, equity, and inclusion, illiberal people are utterly intolerant of anyone who does not willingly chant in their choir. They demonize all who through merit differentiate themselves from the crowd, and insist that anyone who dissents from their party line be outcast. Illiberal people are as allergic to subtlety and trade-offs as they are to humor and fellow-feeling.

Today’s woke legions are people who are as illiberal as people become. They are – let’s not mince words – both stupid and uninformed. And they are motivated overwhelmingly by hatred – hatred of what they do not understand and of the monsters that exist only in their juvenile imaginations. They are comatose to reality.

. . . the woke’s self-righteous eagerness to re-write history, to destroy so much of what has come down to us from the past, and to restructure civilization with brute force make the woke very much akin to the Bolsheviks and to so many of the other barbarians throughout history who mistake their fevered passions as being commands from God.

Over the past year, Boudreaux has incessantly warned his readers that the Covid-19 pandemic is leading the world into tyranny.  He has worked tirelessly not just to undermine trust in government, but to instill terror of democracy in his readers.  His fears are absurd:  the idea that “the woke” – perhaps 10 or 20 percent of the population – are going to destroy liberty and democracy is literally unhinged, as is the notion that Covid-19 policy is putting us on the Road to Serfdom.  But I do not doubt that Boudreaux is indeed deeply fearful. 

Of course, an excessively fearful person would not necessarily be a right-wing reactionary.  Conceivably, Boudreaux could be fearful of racist totalitarian impulses coming from the right, as well as the excesses of the woke left.  If so, he has done a good job hiding it.  A simple sign in a bathroom is enough to remind how much he fears that Covid-19 will destroy liberal society.  Yet he has been largely if not completely silent on the anti-democratic words and actions coming from the American right.

Boudreaux is an extreme case, but if you expect classical liberals and libertarians to step up for American democracy, I strongly suspect you will be disappointed.  Go to any libertarian think tank.  You may see an occasional article critical of the Republican assault on election integrity or the January 6 assault on the Capitol.  But for every article like that, you will find far more about cancel culture, critical race theory, threats to freedom coming from the Democratic party, etc., as well as articles downplaying threats from the militant right and drawing false equivalences between the left and right. 

These think tanks look suspiciously like a propaganda arm of the Republican party.  If the Republicans seize power, it is all too likely that classical liberals and libertarians will be right there with them.