The Tyranny of Democracy

Majoritarianism Versus Unanimous Consent

By L. Neil Smith

Prepared for the Boulder County Libertarian Party, 1989

         For some time, I've meant to write various legislators, bureaucrats, and other sucklers at the public jugular to say, "Congratulations, assholes -- beginning with the most decent, livable culture in history, in just two centuries you've managed, with taxation, regulation, and conscription, to turn it into a prison whose best and brightest inmates, whatever disagreements they may cherish among themselves, are of a single mind when it comes to escaping from it." Everybody wants out: the condition's so uniform and universal hardly anybody sees it, let alone anything strange about it.
         Even when they do, they miss its central significance.
         Aerobics, alcohol, anorexia, bicycling, bird watching, board games, bulemia, celibacy, communes, communism, coca-cola, cocaine, country-western music, gambling, glue sniffing, gun collecting, hashish, heroin, hiking, horror stories, hunting, manic-depression, marijuana, medievalism, motorcycling, movies, neoNazism, nicotine, opium, overeating, pacifism, paramilitarism, premenstrualism, pornography, prohibitionism, promiscuity, psychotherapy, rock'n'roll, role-playing, romance novels, satanism, science fiction, sexual deviation, soap operas, socialism, space colonies, spouse murder, suicide, survivalism, television, terrorism, tourism, vegetarianism, weird religion, and, as we can see in my 1986 novel The Crystal Empire, even weirder religion.
         These are a few of my favorite things -- each with its own advocates and detractors. As an enthusiatic practitioner of several, I'm not knocking any one in particular -- at the moment. Each represents, to a greater or lesser degree, an attempt to stop the world and get off, if only for a few days, a few hours, a few minutes, or a few seconds.
         Psychologist Nathaniel Branden speaks of a benevolent sense of life possible to those with rational, productive values, vividly contrasted with the coercive parasitic group-culture of mystics and altruists we live in, where people all around you seem a burdensome annoyance, a threat to your survival. Having been told from childhood that life is a zero-sum game in which you owe everything to others, at some level you worry all the time that someday the bastards will collect. And collect they do, every April 15th. Why do you think they call it collectivism?
         My experience with groups is much the same as yours, grade school, high school, the Air Force I grew up in, the Boy Scouts of America, the National Rifle Association, Students for a Democratic Society, Young Americans for Freedom, the Libertarian Party, every one seething with bickering and power struggles. Nobody ever seemed happy, but there were always plenty of excuses to fall back on to account for it: the inherent stupidity of mankind; the metaphysical futility of hope. Dumbest of all, although extremely popular in the military, the claim that, if people aren't complaining, that's when you should worry.
         Another novelist once told me he spends half his life wanting to throw something through the TV. I can sympathize. Judging by what we see at the bottom of that "blue hole", the productive class is expected to show up at work, keep its mouth shut, accept what it's told, and tolerate being herded, milked and slaughtered by a parasitic overclass and its freelance symbiotes. Yet as I showed in my first novel, The Probability Broach, all that's necessary to achieve a kind of practical, open-ended utopia is to understand that civilization is a machine whose purpose, like that of any machine, is to give back just a bit more than we put into it. In a technological society, that would be possible a thousand times over if it weren't for groups like the IRS whose function is to deny the average individual the benefits of the industrial revolution.
         We've all taken a vow of poverty. It begins, "I pledge allegience to the flag ..."
         As it still is at times, my progress toward something better than group culture, with all of its failures and excuses, was clumsy and faltering. Like the North American Confederacy to my fictional detective Win Bear, or the act of "detectiving" itself to Agot Edmoot Mav, of Their Majesties' Bucketeers, it was all new territory, where nothing was self- evident but the shortcomings of every other system of human organization. Puzzling out the answers one painful piece at a time, I often felt dim and stupid. Quantum leaps were few and far between. Time and again I overlooked Sherlock Holmes' excellent advice that, once you've eliminated everything else, you must consider the impossible.
         Nothing subject to majoritarianism ever gets better. "If voting could change things," goes an old anarchist saying, "it would be illegal". Set aside the fact that a voting majority always means a minority of the people. Set aside the fact that elections amount to no more than choosing between the scum that floats to the top of the barrel and the dregs that settle to the bottom. Even at majoritarianism's self-advertised best, there are always losers. Sometimes they constitute as many as just one less than half. As an individualist, it's hard for me to see even one percent as insignificant, especially since that one percent always seems to include me. Rather than accepting majority will, once the voting's over, a minority is inclined to skulk off, plotting to get even next time. In a culture where taxation, conscription, self-defense, capital punishment, and private lifestyles are considered legitimate public issues, where mental aberrations like religion and liberalism are given serious respect, it's even harder to view such a reaction as unreasonable.
         Majoritarianism, as I argued in Tom Paine Maru, rests on two false assumptions and a cynical threat. It first assumes that two people are smarter than one person. Strength is additive, two people are stronger than one person, and this has been the primary source of tragedy throughout human history. Even stupidity seems additive somehow, possibly it's a phenomenon of interference which would explain a lot of that history. People, in fact, do possess certain attributes which are additive, and many which are not at all. Decency, kindness, integrity are all individual characteristics. Time is additive only in a limited sense: two women can't have a baby in four and a half months. If you've ever observed a committee, you know that the highest intelligence in a room isn't the sum of its occupants' IQs, but simply that of the brightest individual -- divided by the number of other people in the room. Just as gravity arises from the nature of space and mass, rights arise from our inherent nature as individual human beings. Rights aren't additive. Systems which assume that they are labor under the false and dangerous assumption that two people have more rights than one.
         Some claim that majoritarianism, despite its faults, is an alternative preferable to physical conflict. They're wrong: majoritarianism is physical conflict. Elections are a process of counting fists, rather than noses, and saying, "We outnumber you -- we could beat you up and kill you -- you might as well give in and save everyone a lot of trouble." Majoritarianism, to put it straightforwardly, possesses the full measure of nobility manifested by any other form of extortion.
         Based in fallacy and threat, majoritarianism is troubled by certain characteristic malfunctions. The lowest common denominator -- Chelsea Bradford in The WarDove, Ron Paul representing himself as libertarian, any of the Democrats or Republicans running for president, their sharpened screwdrivers raised on high -- the lowest common denominator is elevated to the most exalted position, a serious mistake in an ecology governed by natural selection. The multiple choices of the market are swept aside for the single coerced choice of politics. Less becomes more. "Might" is transubstantiated into "must". Winning votes and losing votes turns friends into enemies. Political and personal feuds arise of their own accord, to achieve the status of art for art's sake.
         During my tenure in the Libertarian Party, when these malfunctions began occurring, I went so far as to write to other prominent libertarians, ask what was going on, and couldn't we stay friends? It didn't work. I don't mean to single out the LP, it's simply the place where I gained the bulk of my sad experience. It doesn't differ significantly from any other majoritarian group. If you think me unduly harsh, it's because you're hearing about ten years of mistakes that the LP failed to learn from, in about many minutes. I'm determined that those presently investing their time, energy, and money in it, their hopes and dreams, learn from those mistakes sometime, somehow. If you know nothing of the LP, or don't care, think about any organization you ever belonged to where people vote on what to do, what not to do, what's right, and what's wrong, instead of looking and deciding for themselves as individuals.
         Part of the problem was the LP's underwhelming political track record. Frustration inevitably became recrimination and soon afterward, pointless acrimony. Avoiding painful reminders of a real world they had aspired -- and failed -- to change, hearts and minds began to shrink, like Lando and Vuffi Raa in The MindHarp of Sharu, to fit an increasingly closed and microscopic subculture.
         But more was going on than this could account for. The LP's majority-driven hierarchy was inappropriate to -- incompatible with -- any independent minded individualist striving to maximize liberty. As my favorite character, Lucy Kropotkin might put it, "It's hard t'ride an escalator in elevator shoes."
         The LP's structure had been copied, without thought, from the Young Republicans, another group with its share of factionalism. Individual values soon became secondary to those of the organization. For our logo, we'd chosen the porcupine, a symbol of non-aggressive self-defense. But if it looks like an elephant, walks like an elephant, trumpets like an elephant, and smells like an elephant, it's an elephant, no matter how much you want to believe it's something else. Before long, people were jockeying to become "King of the Libertarians" simply, tragically, because a throne had been built into the structure by accident.
         For me, the crowning blow came with the 1979 convention. Philosophers, educators, writers with their brains on Hold, led moronic floor demonstrations around the ballroom with plastic straw hats, personality cult posters, New Year's Eve tooters, behaving exactly like the majority parties ours had been patterned after. Not only was the porcupine trumpeting like an elephant, it was braying like a jackass.
         A nasty feeling of collectivism filled the air. Noise and motion had replaced thought and purposeful action. It was as if my little freenies from The Nagasaki Vector, forgetting that caffeine had turned them into intelligent beings, had sworn off coffee. And, as I feared, the spectacle warned of personal, political, and philosophical betrayals which became a hallmark of the subsequent Ed Clark campaign.
         Not wanting to give up, believing that this was the one and only chance I had to be free, I kept thinking. Structure appeared to be paramount. What ethically acceptable alternative existed which might replace this majoritarian mess?
         I'd first become aware of "hyperdemocratic" or "Unanimous Consent" theory during a 1972 seminar with Robert LeFevre. This is the familiar "blackball" system where a group accepts new recruits only if no current member objects. Egalitarians detest this "no objection" system, but, far from being elitist as they claim, it takes all opinions into account better than majoritarianism, and can be used in making other decisions, as well. Helping the LP struggle for permanent ballot status, which, under the law, required admitting anyone -- liberals, conservatives, Larouche types who didn't give a damn what we were supposed to stand for -- I started thinking more and more about Unanimous Consent.
         LeFevre had pointed out that the Declaration of Independence wasn't written for approval by one-over-half of the voters. My liberal college professors had regarded its failure to denounce slavery as a fatal weakness -- the same clowns who supported the progressive income tax and compulsory national service. LeFevre claimed it was evidence of strength: the delegates at Liberty Hall were divided on the issue of slavery, yet they went ahead with what they did agree on, an unprecedented expression of individual sovereignty which even promised an eventual solution to the one problem they couldn't solve themselves.
         Unanimous Consent was so important to them that they even faked it with the Constitution.
         The free market, LeFevre proclaimed proudly, runs on Unanimous Consent. The canned pears "issue" gets solved every day without debate, without TV pundits, without elections. If you don't like canned pears, you don't buy them. If you do, your choice isn't limited by political bosses in smoke-filled rooms. If your concern is cost, you buy generic. If you want savings and colorful pictures on the can, you buy housebrands. If you like a company because it has funny advertising or doesn't make its workers take urine tests, you buy name products. If you consider yourself above the common herd, you buy specialties -- canned pears in garlic sauce -- at specialty prices which don't penalize anybody else. Everyone, manufacturer, distributor, retailer, and consumer gets what he wants. Unanimous Consent. Hyperdemocracy. Even crippled by taxation and regulation, quality steadily increases, while prices, in terms of real wealth, continuously fall. Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.
         Understanding that majoritarianism guarantees only dissatisfaction, I sat down to devise a new structure for the LP and wrote another letter to as many of its leaders as I could. The few who replied objected that nothing could get done under my plan. A common response was, "ever see fifty people agree on anything?"
         So, with the fresh insight that people who have to be persuaded to be free don't deserve to be, I finally gave up on the LP. Realizing also that intelligence is non-collective, I put everything I had into the kind of work that didn't depend quite so much on cooperation from others. Today, thanks to its majoritarian structure, a diminished LP is reduced to running a clone of Pat Robertson for president. Meanwhile, I've introduced a million readers to libertarianism, and receive letters and phone calls almost every day, thanking me, telling me I've managed to change the lives of countless individuals for the better.
         Writing politically experimental books like, The Probability Broach, Tom Paine Maru, and especially, The Gallatin Divergence, I began acquiring the final puzzle pieces, although the picture is by no means complete even now. The most important piece arrived (as puzzle pieces often do) in a colorful cardboard box -- steaming hot on a thick crust, with black olives, mushrooms, onions, sausage, pepperoni, green peppers, and extra cheese. Sitting in a room full of friends, I noticed how such a group makes decisions by the process of Unanimous Consent. They were hungry. Something got done because that's the way everybody wanted it. The idea of pizza met with unanimous approval, but the earth wouldn't have stopped if it hadn't. Whoever didn't want pizza wouldn't have to eat it. Or pay for it. Among libertarians, the individual is free, limited only by a non-aggression principle forbidding initiation of force, to do whatever he wishes, including going out for a hamburger. The crisis always centers on anchovies, but "pizzacracy", as I began to call it, seemed to be up even to that. Pizza could be had with anchovies on half its surface, although anchovies do tend to make their influence more widely felt than their little bodies are distributed. Two pizzas could be ordered, with and without, common practice even among non-libertarians.
         But something else was happening. An anchovy-lover might consider his friends more important than dead fish on toast. His friends, seeing how he'd been deprived of anchovies since the McKinley administration, might decide, just this once, to suffer for the pleasure of his company. Nobody was campaigning, voting, or skulking off to plot revenge. Instead -- and entirely unlike the majoritarian process -- individual feelings seemed genuinely important to everyone. The Ordering of the Pizza had become among the most festive of American rituals.
         As I demonstrated in The Probability Broach, the one principle that makes all of this possible is that an individual may opt out of group activity at any time, without negative sanctions. Without having to pay for what the rest of the group wants. As I discovered later, if this principle is stringently observed, there are rewards. The remainder of the group, thus "reconstituted", becomes unanimous all over again. The individual who opted out will likely rejoin for another, later reconstitution. Even if he doesn't, everybody stays friends. The process is natural to human beings, if you wake them up in the middle of the night before they put on their majoritarian pretensions. It may resemble 60s-style consensus, it's also a transfer of the ethical processes inherent in the free market system to all social endeavors. if it sounds simple, the best ideas are. How many moving parts are there in a lightbulb?
         Some folks have an impression that, under Unanimous Consent, nobody does anything without everybody else's permission. On the contrary, no group does anything without the Unanimous Consent of its members, which is a different thing, indeed. But, I pretend to hear you asking, what about the claim that nothing can ever get done? To be absolutely truthful, with respect to the government, I wish to hell it were true. As my wife Cathy points out, when this objection is raised, it's a clear warning that something is about to happen that deserves scrutiny by everyone who values his life, liberty, and property.
         The objection is also unfounded. As I tried to show in The Venus Belt, people live their everyday lives by Unanimous Consent. Yet I found that the process is so natural that it's transparent -- invisible -- in fiction unless you focus on its most political (and therefore least natural) aspects. Under the most absurd political handicaps, the Unanimous Consent system produces and distributes goods and services more broadly, more efficiently, and much more cheaply than any other economic system in human experience, giving us the highest standard of living anywhere in history, anywhere on earth. The Declaration of Independence was written and ratified under Unanimous Consent. The Covenant of Unanimous Consent, centerpiece of my novel The Gallatin Divergence, was amended by its real-life Signatories to its present form by the same process:

         [READ COVENANT]

         Fundamentally, all rights are property rights, beginning with the right to control and dispose of your own life -- as long as it doesn't conflict with anybody else's equal and identical right to control and dispose of his or her own life.
         All rights are individual. Groups are simple aggregations of two or more human beings -- like yourself, no more, no less -- whose rights begin, as yours do, with a claim to ownership of their lives. Their rights cannot be any greater than your own.
         Human rights are an aspect of natural law, a consequence of the way the universe works, as solid and as real as photons or the concept of pi. The idea of self-ownership is the equivalent of Pythagoras' theorem, of evolution by natural selection, of general relativity, and of quantum theory. Before humankind discovered any of these, it suffered, to varying degrees, in misery and ignorance. Where they are suppressed or disregarded today, people still suffer. When Pythagoras, Darwin, Einstein, Bohr, and Rand each made his or her uniquely valuable discovery about the way the universe works, mankind took another step away from savagery, toward lasting safety, comfort, pleasure, and convenience.
         I explored the potential of Hyperdemocracy to see what weapons, if any, it might lend to those who wish to be free. So far, I've "discovered" one, the Covenant of Unanimous Consent. If it seems small, remember it's only the first, and may be more powerful than it appears. At this moment it's being circulated in 40 countries, has signatories in over 30 states, several Canadian provinces, and the number doubles every year. I wrote the Covenant to restore the machinery of civilization to the hands that built it and the uses it was intended for. I wrote it to start something which, like my books, didn't depend on others, progressed when I had the energy and could wait when I hadn't, didn't involve the stop- start-hurry-wait of politics, was effective whether the media were kind to it or not, and, although it was perfectly legal, operated outside the rules constructed by an establishment anxious to prevent change.
         It wasn't my aim to create another faction in the struggle for liberty, but to eradicate the causes of factionalism. Without compromising anything I personally believe, I wrote the Covenant for natural rightists and non- natural rightists, religious libertarians and the non- religious, anarchists and non-anarchists -- since the former can assume, accurately, that it's a first step toward abolishing government, whereas the latter can see, with the same degree of accuracy, an explicit contract establishing the systematic, non-coercive order they desire. Under the terms of the Covenant, they amount to the same thing.
         Whenever there's an election coming, especially a referendum, especially on taxes which are not only a monkey wrench in the machinery of civilization -- rent we're forced to pay on our own lives -- but the very fuel of war itself, try suggesting -- try demanding -- of local Democrats and Republicans that it be settled in the only decent, moral, civilized way, by Unanimous Consent.
         Sure, they'll laugh at first. Later they'll scream and tear their hair. Never stop making their lives as miserable as they've made yours. If history demonstrates anything, it's that every lasting victory which the cause of liberty ever achieved was won for it by radicals. Every humiliation it ever suffered was inflicted, not by kings, dictators, or opposing parties, but by its own moderates and gradualists.

Permission to redistribute this article is herewith granted by the author, provided that it is reproduced unedited, in its entirety, and appropriate credit given.

Talk to me!:

Back to L. Neil Smith's Speeches Page