by Mario Rizzo

Some people rest the case for representative democracy on the idea that its decisions express the “will of the people.” Those who believe this have never thought deeply about what they are saying. I am inclined, in response to these believers, to use my favorite paraphrase of Ludwig Wittgenstein, “You can mouth the words, but you cannot think the thought.”

What is the will of the people?  Whatever it is, it is certainly not without contradictions, illusions, misinformation, and wishful-thinking – just like a lot of individual thought. But as an aggregation of individual thought it is a construct used to justify all sorts of things. In some people’s minds, this construct has claim to moral authority.

This is not the place to expose the superstitions involved. But it is the place to point out some interesting findings about “the people’s” wish to tax the “rich” more heavily to pay for government benefits. I refer to an interesting column by Karl Rove in the Dec. 5th Wall Street Journal. Mr. Rove does not present these findings to illustrate the point that I am making, but that is not important.


It is often overlooked that Americans can hold conflicting opinions on the same subject at the same time. While Americans favor raising taxes on the wealthy, a Winston Group poll two weeks ago (conducted for the GOP House leadership) found just 26% of respondents agreeing that “given the state of the deficit, those making over $250,000 a year should have to pay 40% of their income in federal taxes.” Some 68% disagreed. This is relevant because Mr. Obama wants wealthy Americans to pay 39.6% of their income in federal taxes, plus additional levies that would bring the total bite to at least 44.6%.

In the same survey, 60% said they believe taxes shouldn’t go up for “small businesses that make over $250,000 a year.” Yet the Obama plan would raise taxes on half of all small business income. As to the “better way to raise tax revenues,” 61% said they prefer “reforming the tax code to lower tax rates and close loopholes,” as House Republicans have proposed, while just 28% back Mr. Obama’s plan for “raising tax rates on those making over $250,000 a year.”

(Rove’s point is that Republicans therefore do have possibly-winning arguments to deploy in opposition to these tax increases.)

So what is the will of the people? Such ambiguities are not unexpected in view of the fact that few people have the time or the incentive to learn the various facts involved.

The will of the people is a construct that is quite malleable to the political purposes of whichever group is better at manipulation.

7 thoughts on “THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE

  1. The so called “will of the people” can never be accurately judged. The media will try to interpret the will of the people by based on their preconceived notions of who ‘the people’ really are. Pollsters would also do this by asking the same question in different ways, or just oversampling a group of voters. Their tilted data would still, however, seem objective to the public.

    It is not necessary to speculate on the what the populous wants for we already know their desires based on election day results. Assuming we can trust that the counting of the ballots was accurate, we have a pretty good view of what the public wants.

    In my opinion, based on this evaluation the voters would be against raising taxes on the (so called) rich if they knew it would possibly damage the economy. But they would in favor of a tax increase if it was unfairly played as a deficit reducer (which, of course, it is not).

    Regardless, completely following the will of the people is typically not the best technique of governance. As Mill taught, we must maintain a system where the tyranny of the majority cannot thrive.

  2. People have wills. The relevant question is what happens when those many wills act through a coercive political system, versus what happens when they act through a market process.

  3. The fundamental problem — which Mario suggested he wanted not to deal with in this comment — is the confusion that exists in various people’s minds that “democracy” equals “freedom,”

    Of course, this goes back at least since Rouseau, in “modern” times, in the context of the “General Will” of the people, and the idea that “the people,” when they decide, can never enslave themselves, since this “General Will” represents a higher “right” and “justice” than the “will” of any one member of society.

    The “Will” of the people expressed through the democratic process, therefore, becomes (implicitly) the closest to an expression of such a “General Will,” and, as such, is a concrete manifestion of the “freedom” of the people emancipated from the tyranny of the “one” or the “few.”

    But “liberty” has meant the autonomy of the individual to live his life as he honestly and peacefully choses, and as such free from not only the tyranny of the “one” or the “few,” but from the tyranny of the “many” (the majority), as well.

    This distinction is captured most clearly in Benjamin Constant’s famous lecture of 1819, on “The Idea of Liberty Among the Ancients and the Moderns.”

    When Obama repeats over-and-over again, as he has since the election last month, that he won and that he ran on a platform that emphasized the “fairness” of higher taxes on “the rich,” and that this means that “the people” have expressed their “will” by giving him a majority of the popular vote, and that, therefore, taxes on “the rich” must be increased, he is saying that all must now submit to that expression of the “General Will.”

    “Freedom” was exercised in the political election process, and now all must submit to what “the people” as a whole have expressed as their “General Will.”

    Every individual — by social justice — is the slave of the will of the majority, because the majority has spoken, and political expression and decision-making IS freedom.

    Until this confusion is cleared up, and corrected, much that goes on in “democractic” societies will continue to be dangerous and misdirected.

    Richard Ebeling

  4. We should add the critique of the “General Will” of Carl Schmitt and other totalitarians. There are times when the legislature cannot express the General Will because of special-interest infighting. At that time, the “dictator” can embody the General Will. (I am not endorsing this!)

  5. The will of the people is unquantifiable in today’s political process. I doubt the Founding Fathers of the United States envisioned a majority rule system when drafting the Constitution. There is a reason that checks and balances, and super majorities exist within our government.

    Popular sovereignty through democracy has issues, but no government system is perfect so the question is whether this choice of government is the best alternative. Many economists warn about the fallacies that arise when using a simple majority rule system to conclude upon the collective will of the people.

    John Stuart Mill, brought up the issue of the tyranny of the majority; a democratic majority forcing its will on the minority. Murray Rothbard dissected the many issues of direct vs. representative democracy in his book Power and Market, but I think Milton Friedman states this dilemma the best:

    “Democracy in the sense of majority voting is an effective means for achieving agreement on some things, on things which are not very important. Really important things we require much more than a simple majority.”

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