Hume of the Week


Democracy is a funny thing. On the one hand it’s delivered us a standard of life – not just economic, but in terms of freedoms – that has never been achieved before. On the other, as I’ve written before, unless it is checked by liberal institutions it falls to the rule of the mob.

Bit reminiscent of Polybius applying Aristotle’s  categories of polity:

Monarchy degenerates into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into savage violence and chaos – Polybius, The Histories, Book 6.

This tension is visible in issues as diverse as local citizen voice in inner-city NIMBYism, and questions of fashion and moral judgement in anthropogenic global warming.

Indeed, NIMBYism is one of the toughest nuts to crack in modern politics: broader public interest, local voice, limits on government, legitimate suspicion of government motives, apparent lack of accountability, geographic lobbying, local monied vested interests, broader monied vested interests…NIMBYism at its best is democracy at its best. NIMBYism as I have seen it though, is rule by the most vocal, and by the most capable of spinning their self-interest as public interest. It’s a new kind of  mob.

Science as manufactured consensus also passes as a new kind of mob. Throw in moral disapproval if you oppose the mob, and you have the AGW movement of the past two decades.

Hume’s ever-prudent, ever-practical (even cynical) view of conventional wisdom, fashion, and what I call badge-wearing poseurdom questions this kind of democracy-without-liberal-limits:

Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood than the approbation of the multitude – Letter to Adam Smith

One need only look at those with the largest Twitter following. Kardash-away. Enough said.

Sadly, this is probably also the motto of my regular one-minute-hate target: the political class that sees itself as part of the cognitive elite. Throw in a few Nietzschean comments about the “herd” and you could be Clive Hamilton or Soames Job.

Which again just highlights what a tightrope democracy walks. Too much contempt or fear of the mob, and you have the worst of our current political class: self-deceiving aristocratic moralisers. Too little, and your institutions are subverted.

In these circumstances, anything that works is good enough for me.


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