The water is boiling – American Democracy

For a long time now I’ve been convinced that America democracy is dying, if not dead. Our will to be a great democracy got broken somewhere along the line. Instead, all the evidence shows me that this country works exclusively for the small ruling elite who run the world’s corporations.

The evidence for this seems to almost drown one as soon as one bothers to look.

When American citizens were dying in Katrina our government could do nothing for them. The most powerful country on earth couldn’t figure out how to get food and water to people suffering on its own territory.

When even the best evidence at the time demonstrated that there was no threat to America from Iraq our government could not keep itself from invading and generating billions for corporations while needlessly spilling the blood of America’s and Iraq’s citizens.

In the case of healthcare not only is the Congress and our President completely incapable of delivering any meaningful reform the best they can do is mandate that citizens must get healthcare, only from corporations and without doing anything to reign in corporate costs. Our government is so completely in the hands of its corporate masters it can’t even overturn the exemption it gave health insurance companies against federal anti-trust laws. In other words our ‘reform’, if there is any, will simply be to hand more of our money over to our corporate masters while ensuring they are free to gouge us without restraint.

But probably the ‘great recession’, caused exclusively by the greed and incompetence of our corporate overlords, is the clearest example of the end of any meaningful democracy in this country and our total domination by our corporate overlords. Not only were the people forced to pay money, with no strings attached to reimburse our corporate masters for their incompetence but it’s now clear that in return there will be exactly zero meaningful corporate reform. The government is literally, not figuratively, a piggy bank run by our corporate masters with our money. The government does not work for the people, rather the people are simply funding tools for the government and its corporate masters.

I am reminded of the parable of the boiling frog where the frog is put in a pot of water and the heat is slowly turned up, so slowly that the frog doesn’t realize it is being boiled alive until it is too late. How would we know when the water has boiled on American democracy?

I believe that today I got the answer. The U.S. Supreme court, rather than ruling on anything that can be plausibly drawn from the constitution, has just invented a brand new right. It would seem that the first amendment applies to corporations (the court has actually made this argument before but never, I believe, so forcefully as today) and that corporations therefore must have similar rights as citizens to participate in the political process. Never mind that corporations are not people. Never mind there is no fundamental right to form a corporation and that corporations exist as a deal between the people. In essence the deal is that in return for not being held personally liable for the debts of the corporate entity the corporation is required to act on behalf of the people and with what restraints the people choose. That later part has been forgotten, or really, expunged. Now corporations are more or less people and our Supreme Court has decided that restrictions on their ability to fund the charade we call our political campaigns must be, in effect, close to unlimited.

Not only will corporations now be able to completely drown out everyone but their own voice but now foreign governments can funnel money to their pet corporations or really just set up quid pro quo deals (“Oh, you want to expand your business in China? Well maybe if you help this nice senator win his campaign…”). In a sense I suppose this ruling is good because it removes the thin veil that corporations were doing anything other than running our country.

In and of itself I don’t actually think this decision changes anything. It simply clarifies the relationship between corporations and America’s citizens. But I do find it useful as the final flag, the water is just about boiled. One suspects it’s time to jump out.

10 thoughts on “The water is boiling – American Democracy”

  1. I agree with most of your observations (aside from greed causing the current recession). Although it was not my natural inclination, I’ve recently come to think that corporations are not the problem in our system, but rather the institution of government is. The Austrian economic theory predicts this drift.

    When you have a government which can attribute itself new powers, responsibilities and resources, by taking them from the individuals (who ultimately are the only owners of rights and property), the system makes it a valuable business strategy to get government “favors”. If you increase the scope of government slowly, you get the same boiled frog analogy ;-)

    John Stossel highlighted some good examples just last week:

    I think the most thought-provoking author on this topic is probably Hoppe. In particular, he wrote on the natural consequences of democracy, he outlines that book here:

    1. In answer to the question – where to go? That is something I’m trying to figure out myself. I think (alluding to Julien’s point) the problem is that over time all entities (governments, companies, whatever) become corrupt. I think of it as a natural accretive process. There is always some corruption about but over time it concentrates. So in picking a place to go we have to look for somewhere that the government is old enough to be useful but young enough for the corruption to not have settled into the layers it forms in America.

      There are no perfect choices of course but I’m considering Canada, Ireland and Germany. Canada achieved its independence 80 years after the US Constitution was signed. Ireland didn’t become independent until 1922. And Germany was leveled and more or less rebuilt brick by brick after World War II.

      Again, each of these countries has their own problems. Canada is so tied to America that I can’t see how it can avoid getting dragged down as America goes (anyone fancy playing the equivalent role of Finland or West Germany during the cold war?). Ireland doesn’t even have legal abortion (which says a lot of things about a lot of things) and let’s not even talk about their economy. And Germany is having massive problems becoming a multi-ethnic republic, not to mention that I don’t actually speak German.

      But in the end it’s not about finding the perfect choice, but about finding a better choice.

  2. “somewhere that the government is old enough to be useful”
    That’s raises the question of what government is good for.

    For libertarians, on one end (minarchists), the answer is the minimal government is army, maybe police, maybe justice. On the other end (anarchists), the answer is no government.

    The trouble is that even with a strong initial self-constraint like the 10th amendment, the federal government does not seem that constrained anymore.
    Anarchists would say that any government will have a natural tendency to grow over time. I have heard pretty compelling ideas explaining how such a society would actually work.

    Regarding corruption, I wonder what kind of corruption would remain if you have either of these (minimal or no government). There would still be some bad people, but competition normally penalizes it (ie. make it expensive) to be “bad”.

    In terms of moving to another country, I would probably go by this index ( ) of economic and political freedom. It’s no guarantee that it would last though.

    1. Economic freedom is a small part of total freedom. There is more to life than just the right to make money. How about the right to not be hungry? Not be cold? Not be sick? Not be shot? I do agree that economic freedom is often a good indicator of these other freedoms but it isn’t close to sufficient.

      As for anarchic societies, they are wonderful until something goes wrong. In the end, they all turn into governments. I just read a semi-interesting book on the economics of 18th century pirates. They had true anarchic societies that actually worked fairly well but in the end they still exercised total control over their members so the essence of real freedom was absent. In other words you, as a member of the pirate ship, freely agreed (in the vast majority of cases) to be bound by the rules of the society but in the end this still meant that the ship and its members could inflict punishments on you up to and including death. So anarchy in truth turns out to be government by another name.

      As for me, I’d like a nice social democracy. Far from perfect but better than any alternatives ever tried in the real world.

  3. There is a right not to be shot, as it is a violation of private property (your body).
    Food or shelter on the other hand are not a rights. The only way you can make them a right would compromise somebody else’s rights.
    Regardless, what I learned from economic theory is a counter-intuitive conclusion: the best way to provide food for everyone is freedom. That’s because the society functions better overall. You are better off being poor in a free society than a more socialist/secure society:

    Also, it is important to realize the role of charity as a safety net. It is not guaranteed, but in practice it works better than government welfare. I believe that the majority of people are charitable, so you don’t need government to tax for charitable purposes. The irony is that if most people were not charitable, then a democratic government should also not tax for charitable purpose.

    I heard of those pirate organizations too, but not in great details. Calling them government is a misnomer, because you don’t choose to be governed, whereas you can choose to join a pirate organization, work in a firm with a boss or live in a condo with a condo association. The difference is that government has monopoly usage of force, such as putting you in prison for refusing to pay taxes. So government is not exposed to the important force of competition.

    I personally have not made my mind up on anarchy vs. minarchy, but I do think critically about the role of government. I really try to understand why the problem cannot be solved by private individuals and, if not, why would the government do any better.

    We should have lunch sometime for a stimulating discussion ;-)

  4. Another small comment: economic freedom is not about making money, but about pursuing your own happiness, what economists call “psychic utility”, with your means. When I talk about wealth, there is of course a measurable part such as money, food and TVs, but the same logic holds for intangible ends of individuals.
    Note that spending time with friends and family, helping charity, going on vacation, etc. all contribute to this “psychic utility” or happiness.

    1. My point about the pirates was actually a bit different. They weren’t a government. They were the closest anyone has ever come to true anarchy. That is, a truly free choice of association with a meaningful ability to say ‘no’. But what was interesting about the pirates was that in order to function once one joined the organization (of free will) until such a time as the group decided to end the organization one was, for all intents and purposes, a slave of the organization. The organization decided on payment, it could punish, it could even (with full force of the mutually agreed upon compact), kill its own members. Yes, decisions were made largely by open vote but if things went against you, you still had to do what you were told. So for all intents and purposes while one joined freely the ability to leave freely wasn’t generally present. Now this isn’t quite as horrific as it sounds because in practice pirate voyages ended at some point at which the pirate group would reform. With a few specific exceptions having pirate slaves was unsound policy. But it was still interesting how ‘government like’ the pirates had to become during the operation of their voyages in order to function.

      BTW, I don’t disagree with your point about the coercive power of government but the pirate experience does have a lesson. Until each individual is meaningfully independent of means, in other words, until each person can choose meaningful to join with others or not (without the consequence being starvation and death) then coercion is impossible to avoid. Someone will always be more powerful and someone will always be weaker and the contrary to the social Darwinists the results are as much luck as skill. So until we hit Vernor Vinge levels of technology such that each person can in effect be their own nation we are stuck with coercion and a minarchy will turn into coercion just like any other government.

      So to me the question is – do we accept the inevitability of coercion and try to create a society that minimizes it in a meaningful way or do we ignore it and hope it doesn’t come? A look at the history of the US in particular would be instructive here. The early United States was pretty darn close to a minarchy. Most people, most of the time, once you took three steps out of a major city (of which there were few) were more or less a law unto themselves. But quite quickly this ended (mostly, ironically enough, due to the need for enforceable property rights in the west) and the federal government came in like the right hand of G-D and smote those who didn’t fall in line. And the constitution wasn’t worth the protection of tissue paper in a storm.

      Coercion is going to happen, it’s just a question of what to do about it.

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