The 2020 presidential election has been the most divisive in many people’s living memory. Not only has there been the anger and fury over whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden should occupy the White House come January 20, 2021, there have been concerns and controversy about whether democracy itself is under attack in America.
One indication of people’s concerns about this latest presidential election was the number of those who believed that the outcome was of serious national concern. For instance, for more than 20 years, the Pew Research Center has asked prospective voters whether “it really mattered” who was going to win in an upcoming presidential election. Back in 2000, 50 percent of such prospective voters said the outcome of that year’s presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore “mattered,” while 47 percent said that things would be pretty much the same, regardless of who won.
Presidential Election Outcomes Increasingly Matter to Voters
In the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections, Pew Research tells us, the differences on voters’ views of the possible outcomes were greater, with those considering the result “mattering” being in the 60s percentage range and those who thought it would all be the same were mostly in the 30s percentage range. In the 2016 presidential race, those considering that the outcome mattered increased to 74 percent, and those saying it did not really matter falling to 22 percent. But in the 2020 contest for the White House, Pew Research says that 83 percent of the voters said the result would matter, while only 16 percent replied that it would be all the same.
While the Florida “hanging chads” of 2000 and the Supreme Court’s decision to find in favor of George W. Bush over Al Gore made the legitimacy of the election’s outcome suspect for many Democrats, nothing compares to 2016 and 2020. For the last four years, a good part of the anger and disregard for Donald Trump as president has been due to not only his personality and policies, but the fact that many of those in the Democratic Party and on “the left” in general were sure that “the Russians” had interfered and somehow rigged the outcome for Trump’s victory. Otherwise, how could you explain “him” winning?
Were there really that many “deplorables” in America? Besides, Hillary Clinton won 3 million more of the popular votes than Trump in 2016, so if not for that “undemocratic” Electoral College, the “real winner” would have been in the White House. There can be little doubt that if the November 3, 2020 presidential election outcome had been, again, a Trump victory due to the Electoral College in the face of a popular vote majority for Biden, there would have been many violent and destructive demonstrations and riots across the United States.
As it is, Biden received 81.2 million votes, with Trump getting 74.2 million votes, or a bit more than 52 percent of the popular vote to Trump’s almost 48 percent; both were historically the highest numbers for any Democrat or Republican running for the presidency. And in the Electoral College, Biden won 306 to 232. Now, of course, the shoe is on the other foot, with Trump and many Republicans insisting that “voter fraud,” especially with so many write-in ballots and believed “irregularities” in this season of the coronavirus, has illegitimately given Joe Biden the White House.
Joseph Stiglitz is a Sore Winner Who Distrusts Talk of Liberty
But in spite of Joe Biden’s clear win over Trump in both the popular vote and the Electoral College, some “Progressives” remain sore and poor winners. A perfect example is economist and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who is a professor at Columbia University. In a recent opinion piece on “A Chance to Repair the Cracks in Our Democracy,” in The New York Times (December 8, 2020), Stiglitz insists that it is not enough that Donald Trump refuses to accept his defeat and gracefully accept Biden as his successor. It is that others in the Republican Party declare that in terms of political values, “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
The latter quote was taken by Stiglitz from a tweet written by Utah Senator Mike Lee, while he was watching the vice-presidential debate in October between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris. Senator Lee also tweeted, “Government is the official use of coercive force – nothing more and nothing less. The Constitution protects us by limiting the use of government force.”
This shocks Professor Stiglitz to no end. The idea that something is of greater political value other than “democracy” itself convinces him that the foundations of America are being threatened. Said Stiglitz: “If people like Senator Lee have their way, and we turn our backs on democracy, then our lives and our conception of the United States as a bastion of popular representation and respect for human rights will change forever.”
If democracy is not politically an end in itself, not the defining institutional characteristic of a free society, then in Stiglitz’s view there is in the air “the sour odor of Hitler’s Brown Shirts.” In addition, in his eyes, the failure of achieving the social and economic policy goals that he desires, due to resistance and opposition in the congressional process, means “transforming a virtuous system of checks and balances into one of gridlock and confrontation.”
In other words, “the system” is a failure if he does not get his policy way. Why? Because the use of “gridlock” by those who hold policy views differing from his implies an unwillingness to “confront head on, our intertwined racial, ethnic and economic inequalities.” Stiglitz insists that a majority of Americans “have expressed their belief in universal access to health care, better access to education, higher minimum wages, tighter gun controls and so on.” To oppose the implementation and imposition of such policies on everyone in the country demonstrates a willingness to resort to a variety of “anti-democratic policies.”
Stiglitz’s Peculiar Views on “Court Packing”
Among these anti-democratic policies, Stiglitz states, is the Republicans “packing the Supreme Court.” This is the height of chutzpah on his part. The three appointments to the Supreme Court during Trump’s presidency have all followed the Constitutional and congressional rules and procedures for nomination and Senatorial approval. As a citizen and a voter, I have not always agreed with past nominations and appointments to the Supreme Court, though, undoubtedly for ideological and political reasons different from Stiglitz’s dislikes.
But I’ve never considered it a nefarious, deceitful maneuver of “packing” the Court with those holding views different than my own about individual rights, private property, and Constitutional restraint. I have feared for court decisions they might make, but unless you want to jettison the Constitutional procedures, the person in the White House and the majority party in the Senate pretty much determine who gets nominated and appointed to the Supreme Court. Those are the rules of the game, for better or worse.
On the other hand, whose preferred presidential candidate in this year’s election cycle refused to directly answer whether or not as president he would attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court with additional justices over and beyond the traditional nine, if Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed by the Senate as a justice to the Court? That the voters really did not have the right to know, and he would only decide after finding out whether or not he had won the White House. Now we are waiting to know Biden’s view on this until after the runoff elections in Georgia for two seats that will determine which party holds a majority in the Senate in January 2021.
Press Freedom and State’s Rights Have Been Alive and Well
Another absurdity in Professor Stiglitz’s article is his assertion that the last four years has supposedly “made us aware of just how exquisitely fragile our institutions – such as those ensuring equality, political freedom, a quality Civil Service, a free and active press and the rule of law – are.” If the last four years have demonstrated anything, it is just how strong and effective our political institutions remain in the face of a president who has been disagreed with and hated by so many in the country.
True to the spirit and letter of the American federalist system, attempts by the government in Washington, D.C. to impose policies and practices on state and local governments that they have found unacceptable and politically unpalatable have been opposed, resisted, and defeated by the actions of state governments and through court cases brought to limit or prevent federal government overreach.
Indeed, Democrats and “Progressives” who have long sneered at and pooh-poohed talk of “state’s rights” for decades suddenly rediscovered their value and use. In fact, the arguments made in defense of state-level autonomy from Washington sometimes have almost sounded like the words of that “unmentionable” 19th century state’s rights advocate, John C. Calhoun! Why, in one major “blue state,” some even spoke of the possibility of secession from the Union with Trump in the White House. Of course, that was a Democrat Party position for many in the South in 1860 and 1861, as I recall.
Also, Professor Stiglitz must live in some alternate universe when he suggests that the Trump presidency has threatened the freedom and independence of the press and social media. Trump had huffed and puffed at the press, calling them names, accusing them of “fake news,” rudely ridiculed particular reporters at presidential press conferences, and told them to stay out of his business of “running the country.” Under the secure protection of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the press has responded to his personality and his policies with criticism, contempt, and “fact checking” to challenge him on almost everything – without one reporter arrested and imprisoned or one news outlet shut down by federal agents. (See my article, “Presidential Hubris: ‘Let Me Run the Country,’” and, “The U.S. Revives the Personal State,” and “The Imperial Presidency Embodies Political and Economic Hubris”.)
The Constitution Has Well Served Trump’s Opposition
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were instituted by those much-maligned Founding Fathers precisely to assure the checks and balances and restraints on the national government’s power when a president is as unpopular as Trump has been in various social and political quarters, so as to preserve the autonomy of the state and local governments and their citizens from what they may consider arbitrary and “authoritarian” policies from “above.”
In other words, the American system has worked, separate from whether someone is “for” or “against” much of what Donald Trump has attempted to implement during his four-year term in office. If the Republican Party retains majority control of the Senate after the Georgia runoff elections in early January, “the system” will again work in limiting a new president of the United States from imposing a blanket set of policies that others in the country may not fully agree with or want.
Praising “Democracy” as Long as It’s Policies You Desire
But what is most disturbing in Joseph Stiglitz’s piece is not only the disregard but clear contempt for those who even speak of individual liberty, private property, economic freedom and constitutionally restrained government. How dare there be any barriers to “the majority” from having its way with social and economic policy! “They” want socialized health care, “they” want government fully funded higher education, “they” want a $15 an hour minimum wage, “they” want redistribution of income and wealth for purposes of a certain conception of economic “equality” and “justice.” And, damn it, to deny the majority what it wants is the end to “democracy” in America, and the arrival of Nazi stormtroopers down Pennsylvania Avenue.
What if the majority wanted to shut down The New York Times and The Washington Post? What if the majority wanted to reinstate Jim Crow laws? What if the majority wanted to impose a mandatory course curriculum on Professor Stiglitz’s economics classes at Columbia University that he would be required to teach?
Why cannot the majority have their way on these matters as much as those that Professor Stiglitz would like to see imposed on a dissenting minority, presuming that a majority of voters actually want these things – if they have been more fully informed of all the costs and trade-offs and unintended consequences that may be forthcoming from their implementation? It would be “the will of the people.” Right? Would it not threaten “America” if it were not allowed?
The fact is, a majority can be just as tyrannical as a minority possessing political power and authority within a country. Numbers do not make something right or wrong, in itself. And Professor Stiglitz knows this because he would be no doubt – and rightly – shocked and opposed to any majority (or its elected political representatives) attempting to impose bans on newspapers, enforce mandatory segregation, or command a professor in a classroom about how and what he was to teach.
American Principle of Individual Liberty and Self-Ownership
So what and how shall it be decided what a political majority may do to a minority and what it may not? Possibly Professor Stiglitz would reply that a benchmark might be “social justice,” especially since he particularly refers in his article to overcoming racial, ethnic and economic inequalities. But there is more than one meaning and understanding to “equality” and more than one reason why individuals may experience unequal outcomes in various aspects of life.
In the American political tradition, the most fundamental notion of equality refers to “equality before the law.” That is, each and every person is seen as possessing the same individual rights to life, liberty, and honestly acquired property, with privileges and favors for none, including those holding political office and their agents and representatives. For the Founding Fathers, the presumption was that every individual possesses such “rights” by their nature as a human being, regardless of time and place and circumstance.
The American founding principles include and are inseparable from the idea of property rights. Why? Because the most fundamental property right is in your own person. If Professor Stiglitz were to start rolling his eyes when confronted with such an idea, then I would ask him whether or not a woman has a right to control her own body, including being safe and protected against rape, and allowed to make her own decision as to whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. On what political-philosophical premise may not a majority prevent her from having an abortion, if not that most fundamental one that she “owns” herself, holds a “property right” in herself?
Does a woman not have a right to say “No” to a sexual advance that is unwanted by her, that any sexual intimacy may only be morally and legally allowed when it is between two consenting adults? That is, on the basis of freedom of association and voluntary, mutual agreement? This means that even if a majority of men in a social setting voted to have sex with her, she cannot be forced or compelled to accept the “democratic” decision.
If the principle is true in this type of situation, then I would argue that it holds in all other social and political settings and circumstances. Each of us has a right to determine our own goals and purposes, select the means available to us that we consider to be most efficacious and likely to bring about the desired result, with any and all human interactions with others to further our peaceful and personal purposes occurring only on the basis of voluntary agreement and mutual consent concerning the terms of association and trade.
Follow through with this idea – I would say this ideal – of human liberty and there are no political justifications for the type of “social justice” goals concerning government-supplied health care, government-funded higher education, government-imposed legal minimum wages, or government-coerced redistributions of wealth. Why? Because none of them can be done without an unjustifiable government “taking” of that which may be the honestly and peacefully earned financial and physical property acquired through the gains from trade in a free marketplace.
The only issue of “justice” in this matter is whether or not the larger or lesser earned income and accumulated wealth a person has, has been acquired through peaceful voluntary trade and exchange, or through force and fraud in dealings with others, including through the political processes of interventionist and welfare statist policies. (See my article, “Don’t Confuse Free Markets with the Interventionist State”.)
A Classical Liberal vs. an Unlimited Democracy
But what of “democracy?” Democracy is a political mechanism or method for determining how individuals will be chosen to hold political offices for specified periods of time. As the old phrase says, it replaces bullets with the ballot box. But while the democratic procedure determines how and for how long a person will be elected into political office – rather than shooting his way into power – it does not tell us, per se, what that government is to do, regardless of who is holding a political position.
That is defined implicitly or explicitly through the political principles underlying an unwritten or written constitution under which a government and a society operates. The constitutional order that Joseph Stiglitz rejects is the classical liberal one upon which the American political order was founded. Its grounding is in liberty, that word that he seems to be contemptuous of, believing that it means unfairness and injustice. Why? Because it does not guarantee social and economic outcomes that he prefers to the ones that emerge from the voluntary interactions and associations both within and outside of the free, competitive marketplace.
“Democracy” is the magic word that is used to represent all that he would like to do in social engineering society in the shapes and relationships that he prefers and considers good and right. Suppose that this last presidential election had gone the other way. Suppose that Trump had received the 81.2 million votes and Biden had won the 74.2 million votes, instead. And the Electoral College had gone for Trump, as well. Would Professor Stiglitz be shouting “Hosanna,” the will of the people had spoken, and all is right with the world? That the majority of Americans were on the “right side of history?”
Somehow, I just don’t think so. He probably would be insisting that this showed how poisoned the American people had been by four years of Trump, that the “reactionary,” racist and sexist forces had duped a majority of voters. It would show just how “sick” the country really is. In reality Donald Trump is a product of the interventionist-welfare state that has long replaced a truly liberal market system in the United States. He is one version of the “activist” government order that Professor Stiglitz wants more of, to overcome what he sees as the ills of society. (See my article, “Donald Trump is the Corrupt Creation of America’s Bankrupt Politics”.)
The Liberal Market Order Offers Inclusiveness and Diversity
What is also missing from Joseph Stiglitz’s worldview is the understanding that it is the liberal free market order – however imperfectly and incompletely existing – that has raised humanity up from poverty over the last two hundred years, that has offered multitudes of hundreds of millions, now billions, of people in the world opportunities and standards of living unimaginable in the pre-capitalist world of political privilege, position, and status; that has done far more to create an appreciation, desire, and a reality of human rights, respect, and dignity than any socialist or interventionist arrangement could ever imagine and has ever done. (See my article, “The Rise of Capitalism and the Dignity of Labor”.)
It is the competitive market economy that offers the “inclusiveness” and “diversity” that “Progressives” insist they want, precisely because of the market’s “democratic pluralism” of offerings and opportunities through multitudes of demands and desires satisfied simultaneously and continuously, rather than the coerced “winner takes all” outcomes of increasingly unrestrained political democracy that requires and imposes primarily one set of social and economic policy preferences on everyone based on the outcomes of elections. (See my articles, “Clarity on Diversity and Pluralism” and “The Market Democracy vs. Democratic Socialism”.)
Be assured that when the interventionist-welfare state policies are intensified and made more intrusive into the social and economic fabric of American society, and when, over time, it brings about more corruption, privilege, stagnation, and social hostility, the Joseph Stiglitz’s of the world likely will not admit that the cause has been the political paternalism and social engineering for which they so much never stop yearning.
No. They will, once again, insist that it is all due to the free market capitalist system that their own policies will have continued to undermine, subvert, and, indeed, to have eliminated at the end of the day. The last thing that they can admit is that they are the anti-freedom and real anti-democratic forces that will leave America far worse. (See my book, For a New Liberalism )
This article was originally published at The American Institute for Economic Research.
This post was written by: Richard M. Ebeling
Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).