[D]emocracy’s gravest defect has little or nothing to do with the defects traditionally ascribed to it. I maintain that its severest defect, indeed, a flaw so critical that it gives democracy the potential to destroy civilization, pertains to its effect in corrupting the people’s moral judgment.
To see how this corruption comes about, let us begin by recognizing that in many people’s eyes, certain government functionaries may legitimately take actions that would be condemned as criminal if anyone else were to take them. If you or I were to threaten a neighbor with violence unless he handed over a specified sum of money, we would be universally recognized as engaged in extortion or attempted robbery.
Libertarians often argue about whether they might more successfully recruit followers by showing that a free society works best or by showing that an unfree society is unjust. Most libertarians, as I see the matter, have chosen to base their arguments on utilitarian grounds, often because they despair of ever convincing the average person that government officials chronically, or even intrinsically, violate moral strictures. Although I have no doubt whatsoever that free societies do work better than unfree ones, that they deliver, for example, greater prosperity and more rapid economic progress for the masses, I am skeptical that we can cut deeply into the current mass support for the welfare-warfare-therapeutic state unless we open people’s eyes to see that the government actions they now support ― and demand ever more of ― are utterly immoral because they violate individuals’ just rights on a gigantic scale and because the government leaders who propose and implement these measures acquire not an ounce of moral justification from their democratic selection for office. “What works best” remains ever open to dispute, as public policy debate on almost any current issue illustrates: each side has its academic experts, prestigious scientists, or other authorities to prop up its position, and although these two sides rarely offer equally compelling evidence, the lay person can scarcely be expected to see through all of the disinformation and rhetorical flimflam.
Everybody understands, however, without any advanced instruction in the matter, that murder and robbery are wrong, and that no one has a justifiable right to bully his neighbors simply because he does not like the way in which they are conducting their lives. The greatest barrier to libertarian progress continues to be that most people give a moral pass to such criminal actions when democratically elected functionaries take them. This presumed moral immunity by virtue of election to public office is the sheerest superstition ― a montrous mistake in moral reasoning ― and if people can be brought to see it for what it really is, then they will be able to act more effectively to regain some of their lost freedom.1