Is classical liberalism anti-democratic?  Spoiler alert:  yes.

As we have discussed, classical liberals and libertarians have an uneasy relationship with democracy.  The reason is obvious – classical liberals support unregulated or lightly regulated capitalism, and this is not a popular position with voters. 

Of course, it could be that classical liberals support both capitalism and democracy, and reluctantly prioritize their commitment to democracy over their commitment to limited government.  Yet as democracy has come under threat from the economically conservative Republican party, classical liberals have generally refrained from defending democracy and criticizing Republicans

But maybe some classical liberals are willing to take a clear stand in favor of democracy.

Classical liberal economist Daniel Klein recently participated in a debate with Helena Rosenblatt on the relationship between classical liberalism and democracy.  Klein denies that classical liberalism is anti-democratic, but then tells us “it’s complicated”.  OK then, let’s roll the tape.

In his opening remarks Klein tells us:

Classical liberals, on the other hand, soberly see that government is a coercive institution. It is based on force—its force is part of its defining nature and specialness—and see that it needs hemming in. Liberal principles are checks, limits on expansive intrusive government.

Now, one of the beauties of aristocracy, back in the 18th century, was that the vast majority of people were officially excluded from governing.

I know that sounds strange, but think about it. That meant that the vast majority of people could not be easily bamboozled to think that the government acted in their interest. The vast majority of people were skeptical of government because government was a small group of aristocrats and magistrates who governed them.

At the same time, that exclusivity of governing ordained a certain responsibility for good governing. And hence we have an idea of responsibility with power. The word for that is nobleness or being noble. In mass democracy there is no nobility. And nobleness is rare.

Got that?  One of the “beauties of aristocracy” is that “the vast majority of people were officially excluded from governing.”  That’s his emphasis, not mine.  And it turns out that this is good, because it makes people skeptical of government.  And it somehow made the governing elites noble.  I’d love to see his evidence for this.

Further on Klein continues as follows:

We’re never going to be a small band again, so we need democracy demythologized. It should be understood narrowly and plainly: Democracy is about voting more. Democracy means expanding the electorate, expanding the choices of the electorate, expanding the frequency of voting, making the electorate more directly determinative of outcomes.

None of those dimensions of greater democracy are necessarily good. The more numerous the number of voters, the less a vote means, and the less a vote means the more fancifully will votes be cast. When a million people decide, no one decides. And no one is responsible for the outcome. Since the voter knows his vote doesn’t affect the outcome, he is more prone to let delusion sway his choice. People indulge in false political quasi-religions.

In terms of determining electoral outcomes, they [voters] have no skin in the game, although in another sense I think they do have skin in the game because wisdom is good for you, and foolishness is bad for you. But people have a hard time learning not to be foolish in politics. They are indoctrinated and propagandized, particularly by the school system and the media.

So, there is much to be said for narrowing the electorate and limiting the role of mass or direct democracy. . . .

Klein tells us that “democracy is about voting more”.  This means “expanding the electorate, expanding the choices of the electorate, expanding the frequency of voting, making the electorate more directly determinative of outcomes.”  Klein then suggests that reforms to narrow the electorate and limit the role of direct democracy are justified.  By his own definition, then, he seems to be anti-democracy.  Furthermore, although many pro-democracy democratic theorists are skeptical of reforms that move us from representative democracy to direct democracy (open primaries, referenda, etc.), narrowing the franchise is anti-democratic under any definition of democracy I am aware of.  Libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan argues for narrowing the franchise in a book called – wait for it – Against Democracy.

Then Rosenblatt and Klein debate a bit.  Rosenblatt asks Klein what he thinks about the threats to democracy today, and if he votes Republican.  He responds:

I think the Republicans are the lesser evil.  (in the podcast, around 41:00)

Later she asks if democracy in decline in America.  Klein:

In many ways I’ve become more democratic recently because I’m worrying about elections being stolen.  (around 46:00)

OK, that sounds hopeful, although it’s not clear how that squares with Republicans being the lesser evil.  Rosenblatt then presses him on whether the last election was stolen.  Klein:

I don’t think we know. 

Sure, it’s a mystery.  Klein denies that classical liberalism is anti-democracy, but with American democracy at risk of catastrophic failure his classical liberal commitments and Republican partisanship prevent him from speaking out clearly and forcefully against attacks on the integrity of elections by Donald Trump and the Republicans who shamefully support him.