House of Cards Sends Wrong Messages, and a Discussion On Democracy

House of Cards is a fictional political House of Cardsdrama TV series on Netflix about a Democratic congressman, Frank Underwood, who ruthlessly and extremely unethically rises to power. I enjoy watching it and it’s very addicting for most people. It portrays the US government politicians as dishonest, self-interested, corrupt beings who constantly lust after power. And, the show portrays Democrats as being this way as well as Republicans, which is refreshing. Basically, the show focuses on the nastiness of “how the sausage is made” behind the scenes. You would think that libertarians would applaud such a show because we generally see politicians in this negative view. After all, we are sick of people who childishly think that most politicians are heroic, noble, servants who seek justice and the good of the people. So, I am happy that the show at least does reveal some of the really ugly nature of government. That’s a plus. But, it also sends some incorrect messages about government in general, messages that are actually too positive.

Is the sausage good? No.

In the story, the politicians still produce laws or make other government decisions that most audience viewers would consider good and beneficial to the public. For example, they pass major education reform, some bridge gets built, and they start a major jobs program funded by govt money usually reserved for natural disaster relief. I tend to think that the writers of the show want to send the following subtle message: “Even though the politicians are nasty, two-faced liars, they still get the job done and produce reasonably good results and laws that benefit the public.” In other words, even though you don’t want to see how the sausage is made because the process is nasty, at least the end product (the finished sausage) is pretty good. This is incorrect. It gives the government far too much credit.

The reality is that the nasty and unethical process of government also produces bad laws and bad results that do harm to people and decreases the quality of life. Not only is the process of making sausage nasty, but the end product sausage is also no good. I won’t go into detail describing why or how the resulting laws are “bad” in real life because that’s already described throughout the rest of the blog.

Self-interest in democratic elections:

What’s interesting is that the TV show’s underlying message actually matches some of the theory behind democratic processes. Some proponents of democracy theorize that democracy effectively benefits the public even if the politicians are only interested in themselves (and not noble-minded servants) because the politicians still need to get elected by the public majority. So, even though a politician may be two-faced with selfish motivations, he would still govern well or pass good laws that benefit the public because he needs the approval of the voters to stay in power. The public checks the politicians, so the theory goes. What’s more interesting is that this reasoning almost resembles the correct and well-established observation in free market economics originally described by Adam Smith that all of the self-interested buyers and sellers only seek to satisfy their own interests, yet they unknowingly do a lot of good for all humanity. So, if self-interest can lead to good results in a free market, can’t it also be true that self-interest in democratic politics can lead to good government results?

No. That democratic theory, along with House of Cards’ portrayal of government, is incorrect and quite different from free market economics. In democratic politics, politicians and the majority of people can satisfy their self-interest by stealing and forcing others to do things through violence or the threat thereof. And, the positive view of that democratic theory can only work if the majority of average citizens are extremely wise, intelligent, foreseeing, unselfish, and if they have all the detailed information and data of the world to fully understand how everything works so that they can properly elect the right leaders to manage it from above. This is obviously never going to happen. Another problem is that, as government grows bigger and more complex, it’s practically impossible for the average citizen to understand even what the government does, let alone keep a watchful eye on all of its activities. Most people are too busy with their day-to-day lives and don’t have the time or knowledge to evaluate all of the thousands, or millions, of government actions that take place. Almost always, average voters are simply not effective in checking against destructive big government power through the means of simple majority vote elections, and that leads to negative results for the public.

However, in a free market (which includes the unstated property rights protection limitation), self-interested people have to voluntarily cooperate and exchange good things for good things in order to satisfy their wants, and they can’t steal. Both parties involved benefit from a free market trade. So, even though they don’t intend to, the traders actually create benefits for all humanity (as discussed in Utopia and Blaming Greed and Myth on Trading).

The bad guy scenario is insufficient:

Lastly, House of Cards incorrectly portrays government as just full of a bunch of evil bad guy politicians who only selfishly care about themselves instead of the public. Even though this can be true for many, many other politicians actually do care about the public and want to devote their lives to “doing good and justice”. I don’t know what fraction are such do-gooders, maybe a quarter, maybe a half? Regardless, House of Cards still subtly sends a wrong message about politics in general. If the government is full of a bunch of evil bad guys, then it may seem like the solution is to just elect the right people, the good guys who care about the people. It gives false hope to people who think that we can better our government by electing good-hearted “non-corrupt” people. Since Frank Underwood (the main character) is so wretchedly evil, we might sooth our worries by thinking to ourselves, “If I ever saw a politician like that, I would be able to spot him and I wouldn’t vote for him. Then, others like me would reveal the truth to people and we would make sure he wasn’t elected. Problem solved, troubles averted.”

Nope. Firstly, we all know that many such “bad guy” figures do still get elected in the real world (hmm…usually we consider them to be in the other party, or some other nation, not one’s own). More importantly, however, many of our problems don’t come from evil-ish corrupt bad guy politicians, they instead come from good-hearted politicians and ourselves. As I’ve described elsewhere through out this whole blog, many policies that have good intentions actually create harmful effects. A classic example is the minimum wage law, which actually hurts the poor and unskilled the most (see here). Another example is the war on drugs, where many people and the politicians they elect actually think that they are doing good and helping humanity by outlawing drugs (see here). There are countless other examples, like Medicare, Social Security, inflationary monetary policy, commerce regulations, international trade restrictions, laws against homosexuals, and so many unnecessary wars.

The point is, we often need to look in the mirror when we want to blame someone for the problems we have. Through democracy, many of us ordinary citizens get to force our terrible ideas onto other people. So, we elect people who share the same terrible ideas. These politicians probably think that their ideas are great and will help people, so their heart is sort of in the right place. It’s just that their ideas are wrong, almost always because they don’t understand economics. And, in some cases the majority of voters simply vote to get free goodies from the government. Of course, such goodies are never actually free, but we don’t like the tough truth. The vast majority of the citizenry deserves just as much blame as the politicians we elect.

So, if we want to improve our society and government, we cannot imagine that we simply must make sure that we avoid voting for the obvious evil selfish bad guy. Be equally wary, if not more so, of the politician who cares so much about ordinary people that he’s willing to pass any law that appears to do so on it’s surface (see here), including laws that violate people’s rights of free trade. Also, be wary of the politician who cares so much about some moral rules that they are willing to violate other moral rules (initiating aggressive force and violence through governmental law) in order to obtain their vision of a perfect, orderly society (see here for C.S. Lewis’s excellent observation). Instead, we need to move toward a system that allows each individual person to make their own choices about how they live and what they do with their rightful property, as long as they don’t violate others’ rights, regardless of what a majority thinks.

3 thoughts on “House of Cards Sends Wrong Messages, and a Discussion On Democracy

  1. I’d been wanting to read this post for a little while now and finally got the chance. A few thoughts…

    1. You may be the only person I know who describes House of Cards as overly optimistic toward Washington. Made me smile.

    2. You briefly mentioned the bridge that was built in the series, which raised a question for me about your political philosophy. In a libertarian society, how does the development and maintenance of infrastructure (ex: building bridges and other large scale transportation, such as railroads) function? I have a feeling you might say that private groups would band together to make this happen, but that makes me wonder in turn how long it would take before that sort of a system became similar to government – groups of people to whom the larger population delegates tasks that they need but cannot practically accomplish on their own. How is this different than a republic? Why is one preferable to the other?

    3. I hear you describing the U.S. government in this post primarily as a democracy, but it’s actually set up more like a republic in my understanding. The larger population doesn’t have to (and like you said, can’t) know everything that the government is doing, so we elect officials whom we (ideally) trust and judge to best represent our desires, who will then advocate and legislate those desires while we go about our day to day lives. Our current system obviously doesn’t function this way, but would you agree that the intended structure is closer to a republic than a true democracy?

    Thanks for the brain-food. 🙂

    • Well, you just had to ask questions that could never have short answers, didn’t you :)? Questions that have been debated for centuries. I will first address your question about transportation, and leave the one about “republic” vs “democracy” for another time. Beware, this is a long reply.

      The transportation issue is a big one. It’s almost a running joke among libertarians that after everything we say, the first question that a nonlibertarian will almost always ask is: “But, who will build the roads?”. It’s an iconic question. I don’t currently have a post on it yet because I’m waiting to study the subject more. Other “major” libertarians have written very extensively on the subject, but I have not read their analyses yet, so I myself am not quite sure on the subject, but I do have some thoughts and I don’t consider the problem that big of a hurdle. I will eventually write an extensive post on the subject at a later date, but I will now give you some considerations to tide you over until you get the full thing. Now, I’m not currently giving full arguments and I don’t expect this to persuade you or satisfy you because I am admittedly leaving out certain complications, so just know that the following are merely some considerations for you, some appetizers.

      First, let’s talk about morality, and then we’ll talk practicality, similar to the distinction that is made in this post on ethics and justifications of laws. Is it moral for a government to tax people and then use it to fund transportation infrastructure? I believe the answer is no. This is because taxation is stealing (see here for more detail), which violates people’s natural rights of property, and I consider this immoral, regardless of the practical consequences of fewer roads. Many people believe that because they were born on Earth, and because they merely exist, that other people automatically owe them something (they won’t say this explicitly, but it’s the implication of their positions). I don’t believe this. No one owes a road to anyone else. So, it doesn’t make sense for someone to attempt to make a moral claim against someone else for not participating in buying them a road. The moral equivalent would be if I came up to you and said, “Excuse me, I’m going to steal your money because I want to build a road from here to there”, then I did it. This would be immoral. Just because I think I can do something useful with your money/property, or something that may benefit me, some people, or even most people, this does not give me the right to violate your rights and steal from you. So, if I and some other folks want to have roads, we will have to find ways of building roads through voluntary means, not violent forceful means.

      Now, about the practicality of all of this. First, the vast majority of infrastructure has already been built largely by private means and not the government. This is because, technically, infrastructure includes factories and production facilities. But, it’s true that most transportation infrastructure has been publicly funded. When the government subsidizes something, usually more of it occurs. So, because the government has historically subsidized roads or paid for them altogether, we currently probably have more roads than would have been the case if we developed in a completely free market. But, even in a free market, plenty of roads would still be built. Coercion is not necessary for order to exist and for people to coordinate to accomplish things (see here on spontaneous order). Here’s the bottom line: if something is needed and desired enough, it occurs spontaneously in a free society. The reason why we have laptops is not because the government forced us to have them, buy them, or produce them. We have laptops because we want laptops and there is a demand for laptops, so others see this demand and produce laptops and trade them with us with something that we have (usually labor, in the form of money). Most of us currently don’t own two-legged chairs. Is this a problem? No, because we don’t want those and there isn’t a demand for them. If, hypothetically, in a free society, there were very, very few roads, then would this be a really bad thing? No, because if there were very few roads, it would be because we didn’t really want them that much to begin with. So, that would fine. If we really needed or wanted roads, their construction would still occur in a free society through voluntary means and trade.

      Historically speaking, many, although not most, roads and railroads have been built primarily through private means. So, it’s at least possible. But, because the government has already crowded out the market for roads, and sometimes dictated a monopoly on them, most roads are built through the government. Now, let’s for the moment consider two broad types of roads: 1. Major artery roads that go between towns/cities/states and various production facilities, and 2. Local roads within towns that generally go between stores and neighborhoods. For any of these roads, you may object that these are not like simple products that you can buy and sell. True. So, how can trading occur with roads, or how can they be built with voluntary incentives? I will first say that I don’t have to know the answer to this particular question. It is not necessary for me to predict the exact form of the future in order to advocate voluntary road building. After all, I’m an advocate of freedom and I don’t intend to plan other people’s lives or interactions, I instead advocate for others to live freely, whatever that may produce or result in. Imagine the case of the radio or television show. Like roads, these are not ordinary products, either. Long ago, you can imagine someone saying, “Well, you can’t control what people tune into and keep track of it in order to properly charge for each show or station, so we then must get the government involved, or have everyone taxed to pay for radio and TV shows.” This person did not know at the time a way to make TV and radio practically paid for. But, the free market found a way because it involved incentives and people’s natural desires. The radio and TV folks found a unique way to finance their operations, through advertisements. The direct users of the service didn’t directly pay for the service, just as I don’t get a bill for listening to a radio station. Instead, companies with advertisements paid. So, this is an example of market innovation that involves a new form of payment, and it’s indirect instead of the direct form we see for normal products. This form of payment also didn’t even require keeping close track of all “transactions” and those tuning in. Similarly, I may not know exactly how we would “purchase” road services if we wanted them, but I do know that if we wanted them, then entrepreneurs would find a way to practically charge us for those services. Without certainly predicting the future, I can describe below some of the things that might occur.

      For the major artery roads, these would still get built in a free market voluntarily. One of the main advantages and reasons for roads is it allows the transportation of products. This way, many people in different areas can get products that they themselves didn’t have to produce. It would suck if each town had to make everything from food to laptops. Roads allow specialization of industries so each industry or town can focus on a fewer number of really good products. So, who would build these roads? Some companies would. A company has a natural incentive to want to expand business and sell to more customers. Not only this, a large company may want to build some roads between centers of raw materials and centers of refining and production. So, a company like Walmart would want to build roads so it can increase its business, especially between cities. To further increase revenue, the owner of the road may also allow others (citizens and other companies) to use the roads, maybe by charging a toll. The only downside is that, if the road owner is a company in a specific nonroad industry, then that company would probably not let other companies in the same industry use that road, because that would be helping your competition. But, they would probably still allow companies in other industries to use their road (with a fee, of course). But, so what? It’s their road and they have every right to do what they want with it and choose who they sell road services to. Other competitors in the same industry would have to just build their own road if they want to get in on that action.

      Also, some automobile manufacturers and oil companies may contribute to finance road building, because that way they can actually sell cars and gas to people who would use it. Such car and oil companies would want as much travel as possible, so if they owned and built a road, they would probably have no restrictions or tolls at all, which is good for me and you.

      Besides a few companies owning a road for its own industry (described above), the most likely thing to happen in a society is that some roads would get built specifically by “road companies”. A road company would know that people and businesses want to travel between cities A and B. So, a road company might build a road and charge people and companies to use it, either through tolls or some other pay structure. And, with today’s technology, a toll road wouldn’t even need to require stopping because the road company could set up a system of sensors that sense every time a customer drives by and then they could be charged on an account paid monthly. Or, who knows, some roads may have completely different ways of indirect payment with no tolls at all, such as billboard advertisements, taking a lesson from the TV and radio industry. You might think that it would be unpleasant to have to pay for road use, but remember that we already do today, indirectly through taxes. A free market system just causes users to pay for things more directly, which almost always leads to great increases in efficiency. So, this would be awesome.

      Interestingly, I think some roads could be justifiably financed by the government if it’s principally connected to one of the few legitimate government functions, such as law enforcement and national security. So, the military may be able to build some major roads between population centers specifically for emergency use and military maneuvering in case of an invasion. And, law enforcement may build some roads to access communities to enforce the law. And, since they are technically “publicly owned”, then those same roads could be opened up for general public use like a normal road today, and this may not necessarily violate libertarian principles.

      What about local roads? These shorter roads could be financed by companies and stores within the city or town. After all, these stores wouldn’t be able to sell much if people couldn’t get to their stores, so they have a strong incentive to build roads. A set of stores may combine resources to build a common road to their area. Or, before the stores even exist, a shopping center developer may build a road to its property so that it can sell its real estate to stores for a higher price, knowing that stores would value a store location that allows customers to access them. There are so many ways to do this I can’t even list a fraction of them here. For neighborhoods, the roads would likely already be built by the neighborhood owner and developer who oversees the neighborhood layout, doing this before he even sells the plots and/or houses. But, there are still other ways. It’s possible that people could come together in a sort of collective way to pull resources and fund a road that the community thinks is useful. As long as there’s not force or stealing, this would be fine and legal in a free society. Lastly, and I know this sounds impractical, charity and philanthropy can play a major role here. A lot of people frown when I say this because they might have heard of some statistic that the total amount of money currently given by private charity and philanthropy is much smaller than government budgets, suggesting that private charity is too small to replace useful government services. This is a grossly incorrect interpretation of the situation of how private giving works, but I won’t get into it here.

      Well, that’s in introduction to that. When there’s a real demand and need for something in an economy, it happens spontaneously, mostly according to incentives, but sometimes by good will and philanthropy. You asked how long it would take for this system to turn into a government-like entity, “groups of people to whom the larger population delegates tasks that they need but cannot practically accomplish on their own”. I disagree with your meaning of “government”. A “government” is not simply doing things collectively, cooperatively, and with delegation. A government is when this occurs by force, violence, and stealing. Working collectively, cooperating, and delegation are significant parts of a libertarian society, if done voluntarily. For more on that, see here and here and here. And, a free market is where most of this occurs. I do not want to build my own pen. I don’t know where I’d get the ink, and I don’t have an easy way to make one. Most of us are like this. So, in your words, I am part of a larger population that “delegates” to various pen-making companies to make us pens, because I cannot practically accomplish this on my own. Even the pen maker has to cooperate with others to make the pen. The pen-maker probably gets his raw material plastic from some other company that refines oil and goes through a chemical process to make plastic, and he probably gets his ink from who-knows-where. He just takes these and assembles them into a pen. We all generally work together in a free market to achieve ends that we want, through the voluntary mechanism of trade.

      Also, the government has greatly expanded environmental damage through building excessive amounts of roads. Not only has the government directly destroyed the environment through clearing forests and increasing storm water runoff and erosion, but it also subsidized our current lifestyles of driving everywhere and greatly increasing CO2 emissions from this lifestyle. I’m not against roads per se, or cars, as long as the environmental damage stays under libertarian requirements (see here for libertarian environmentalism). That reminds me, FDR is a total jackass for having very long roads (Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive) built along the ridges of the beautiful southern mountains, destroying the environment and the secluded beauty there for no practical or economic reason. Those roads were built on beautiful natural settings just to create a very expensive scenic route financed by stolen tax money.

      In a libertarian society, we would still have a “sufficient” amount of roads, but probably not as many as today because it takes great effort to make and finance roads, and government has catalyzed the process, making it much faster and greater in amount. Our society’s city and town structures and layouts would have evolved differently in a free society, where people would likely have to walk and bike more, and communities would probably be smaller and more close-knit, which sounds rather pleasant to me. Once again, I’m not making a moral claim here for or against small communities or biking, I’m just describing some negative side effects of government. And, government has greatly helped corporations by stealing the people’s money to fund the major artery roads instead of that burden being on the corporations themselves. It’s kind of odd how progressive liberals talk about the need for the public to finance roads, but then they also talk about how much they hate corporations. Well, I say let the corporations fend for themselves and find their own way to pay for roads. Progressive liberals are actually creating special privilege for the rich by publicly financing major artery roads.

  2. Good comment on the “republic” or “democracy” issue. Unfortunately, there are many meanings of “republic”, and disagreements about what that word means. Some people have used it to mean any government that is not a monarchy, but which derives its powers from the people in some way. In this case, “democracy” could be seen as a subcategory of “republic” instead of a wholly separate type of government. Anyway, I usually don’t use the word because of this kind of confusion and because I myself don’t even know which definition I would like to use.

    You are correct in the sense that we do not have a “direct” democracy, thank goodness. We have a complicated “mixed” government form, including many aspects that are either democratic or place power in the hands or a few or one person (for purposes of stability from masses). And, our constitution has a Bill of Rights that seeks to protect some human rights from the government, including government laws that are passed democratically. Now, when I say “democracy”, I’m usually referring to any concept of simple (>50%) majority rule, either directly or indirectly. So, even though we are not a direct democracy, we have highly democratic parts to our government. As you pointed out, we employ simple majority vote for representatives. And, laws get passed largely through a simple majority vote by those representatives, or something close to it (of course, I’m simplifying for brevity). So, when I speak negatively about “democracy” in the U.S., I’m usually referring to the democratic parts of our government that include the concept of simple majority will (of the type just described that is particular to the U.S.) being able to pass laws that violate the human rights of others.

    Of course, this conversation opens up many other “cans of worms” about how we decide which human rights actually exist in the first place, and what government type we have should then have. This is beyond this post, though. Also, per the home page, I want to first focus on questions like “what should and should not be legal for people to do?” before getting into questions like “what exactly should the constitution say, and what exactly should be the government structure?”. Note that there is a difference between “structure” and “content” within that structure. I will at least say that I do think that it is possible to have a libertarian society with a government structure that is similar to ours (with the three branches, separated powers, and elected representatives, etc.), but we would have to change the language (content) of the constitution to better match the human rights requirements of libertarianism because the Bill of Rights is too narrow and some parts of the constitution give government sweeping power to pass nearly any law it wants to. I may be incorrect or naive, but the way that I hope to change the government into a libertarian type is through constitutional amendment.

    Yes, your description of the intent of representation is correct. Direct democracy would be very time consuming, so I like the idea of elected representatives to do the work for us. However, what I’m concerned about is what those representatives are allowed to do and pass, thus the conversation goes back to the one above about what structure and constitution to have.

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