Will Wilkinson is unhappy about a recent article in Salon where Michael Lind denounces libertarians as enemies of democracy. One of Lind’s targets is the classical liberal, Friedrich Hayek who he says preferred libertarian dictatorships to welfare state democracies. Wilkinson hits back, arguing that Hayek was a staunch defender of "constitutionally-limited liberal democracy" and offers an extended quote to prove the point.
But Lind has a point. According to Greg Grandin he once told a Chilean interview that his personal preference "leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism."
As Wilkinson knows, Hayek’s "constitutionally-limited liberal democracy" isn’t what everyone thinks of as democracy. Hayek was all for democratically elected governments, but he favoured a system designed to prevent elected leaders from doing many of the things that voters want. What Hayek feared more than authoritarianism was an unlimited democracy where the government could legislate for and implement anything a majority of citizens wanted.
Some liberals worry about things like a white minority granting themselves rights and privileges they deny to blacks. But Hayek had other things in mind. As he said in a lecture titled ‘Whither democracy’:
An unlimited legislature which is not prevented by convention or constitutional provisions from decreeing aimed and discriminatory measures of coercion, such as tariffs or taxes or subsidies, cannot avoid acting in such an unprincipled manner.
… Agreement by the majority on sharing the booty gained by overwhelming a minority of fellow citizens, or deciding how much is to be taken from them is not democracy. At least it is not that ideal of democracy which has any moral justification. Democracy itself is not egalitarianism. But unlimited democracy is bound to become egalitarian.
Hayek went on to outline a system that would hold the executive in check and prevent it from raising taxes or paying subsidies aimed at particular groups. The first line of defence would be the constitution. This would limit the scope of legislative authority. The second line of defence would be to have two democratic assemblies making different kinds of laws.
The first legislative assembly would make what Hayek called "true law". This might include general laws such as the share of taxation each citizen would pay. The second assembly — the assembly from which the government is formed — would "administer the material and personal resources placed at the disposal of government to enable it to render various services to the citizens at large." While it might decide how much revenue to raise, it could not decide to vary the tax rates for different groups of citizens or different industries.
Of course Hayek worried that the two assemblies might collude in order to pursue some electorally popular goal. So to prevent this he suggested that citizens would only get to vote once in their lifetime for representatives in the first assembly and that members of that assembly would be elected for a period of "something like 15 years".
Hayek suggested that 45 might be a good age for citizens to exercise their one opportunity to vote. Voters would choose from candidates who were also 45 years old. Hayek thought that contemporaries were usually the best judges of a person’s character and that citizens might form "age clubs" that would enable them to have personal knowledge of the candidates.
So Hayek was a staunch supporter of a certain kind of democracy. But the kind he favoured was designed to severely limit what elected governments are able to do. Forced to choose between a less limited democracy and a authoritarian but economically liberal regime, Hayek would choose authoritarian liberalism. So it’s not surprising that he preferred Pinochet to Allende. And that’s pretty much Lind’s point.
Update: Back in 2002 John Quiggin noted how Hayek’s "support for liberal democracy in the ordinary sense of the term was weak and highly qualified". In Quiggin’s opinion: "Hayek’s support for Pinochet was a natural consequence of his system of thought and not an aberration."