In Defense Of The “Filibuster”

Ezra Klein, who is a majoritarian:

Rather, I’d argue that the central question is “legitimacy.” We have a party-based electoral system that, particularly in the Senate, pushes towards a relatively even division of power. The question then becomes whether we’re more comfortable with the consequences of a system where the minority can block good policy or the majority can pass bad policy. I’d prefer the latter: The policies of politicians we voted for have more democratic legitimacy than the system’s structural preference for inaction. Elections should be about the bills passed by the majority rather than the obstructions erected by the minority.

Samuel Johnson said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Democracy, as a fellow collectivist rather than individualist ideology, is similar. Democracy is the refuge of prom queens and the “in” crowd.

I’ve contrasted the difference between libertarianism and democracy before:

Libertarianism isn’t anti-Democracy. In fact, the statement itself is nonsensical. Libertarianism is a moral system, valuing individual liberty as it’s highest ideal. Democracy is a form of government, consisting of majority rule. Or, to make it more plain, liberty is an end, democracy is a means to an end.

But unfortunately, it’s not that simple. You hear many quotes from Libertarians deriding democracy. Doug said it yesterday. Thomas Jefferson was the one who said “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” Libertarians are fearful of democracy. If a statement that libertarianism is anti-democratic is nonsense, why do so many libertarians make these types of statements about democracy?

But the points still stand. Having liberty as a goal is not inconsistent with using democratic processes in your government. In fact, you can clearly see that our system of government has some democratic processes, created by the Founding Fathers who feared democracy just as much as modern libertarians. As I said earlier, though, democracy is a means, not an end. Democracy can— and has— been used to improve liberty. But it has also been used to take liberty away. Nothing exhibits this more clearly than the 18th and 21st Amendments. Democracy infringed people’s liberty, but it was democracy that restored that liberty.

So Ezra Klein wonders whether it’s better that a minority can block good policy or a majority can enact bad policy? Given the “stickiness” of bad policy (Ezra, in another post, suggests that corn and beef subsidies aren’t so wonderful but that there are structural incentives to retain them) one would think that inhibiting bad policy would be a good goal for either side of the aisle.

So let’s stipulate a few general principles:

  1. Government, by definition, is coercive.
  2. Most government “programs” (here defined as positive government acts rather than simple regulatory prohibitions or laws) expand the state and curtail personal liberty — at least to the extent that they must be paid for by non-voluntary means.
  3. Therefore, government action is more likely to reduce individual liberty than increase it.
  4. Finally, to a libertarian (one whose first principles are towards individual liberty), it is best to inhibit government action.

Ezra Klein believes government is a critical enabler of individuals, and thus he believes that government should be encouraged to act. Libertarians believe government is an inhibitor of individual liberty, and thus government should be proscribed from acting except where absolutely necessary.

The American Constitution is largely designed to proscribe government action except where it is provably justified. Libertarians, at least in the spirit of this sense (though often for our own reasons) suggest that inhibition of new government action unless it can be justified beyond purely majoritarian means is beneficial to our end (liberty). These are different first principles, of course, from someone who believes in majority rule. However, I highly doubt he’s highly enthused by California’s Prop 8 result from last November. As any libertarian will tell you, that’s what you get when you value majority rule over freedom.

What does it mean for the filibuster? The filibuster is a way to temper the actions of a legislature — to ensure they don’t simply run roughshod over their opponents every time they get an inkling of power. In essence, it’s a way to help minimize the ability of a small majority to enact bad legislation. And good legislation, of course, should be good enough to overcome a filibuster — after all, the stimulus he wanted still got passed, did it not?