Roderick T. Long, (is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University; author of Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand; Editor of the Libertarian Nation Foundation periodical Formulations; and an Adjunct Scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1992, and maintains the website Praxeology.net, as well as the web journal In a Blog's Stead.)
"In December 1851, French President Louis Bonaparte – the future Emperor Napoléon III – seized power in a coup d’état, in violation of his oath to uphold the Constitution. He arrested the legislature; imprisoned, deported, or executed his political opponents; and deterred future dissent by massacring civilians in the streets.
When he was done he held a referendum on his coup, and announced that the voters had vindicated his actions by a vote of approximately 7,500,000 to 640,000. Bonaparte’s argument, in effect, was that 7.5 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.
In 1852 the liberal writer and former legislator Victor Hugo responded, from exile, with a book titled Napoléon the Little, the first of his many broadsides against the new régime. After casting doubt on the freedom of the elections and the genuineness of the official figures, Hugo added that even if the plebiscite had been procedurally flawless, an electoral majority had no competence to authorise Bonaparte’s crimes.
As with all that Hugo writes, this passage is beautiful in toto and true magnam partem. But it is worth focusing on the partem that is not true, because the mistake here is not merely Hugo’s, but is the fatal error on which 19th-century liberalism as a whole foundered and lost its way.
Hugo rightly and eloquently denies the authority of majority vote over moral questions.
But he errs in thinking that such matters as “peace and war, the effective force of the army, public credit, public relief, the budget, the penalty of death, the irremovability of judges, the indissolubility of marriage, divorce, the civil and political status of women, gratuitous instruction, the constitution of the commune, the rights of labour, the salary of the clergy, free trade, railroads, the currency, fiscal questions, colonization” are not “moral questions,” but are merely “political questions,” and as such do fall under democratic jurisdiction.
But the vast mainstream of liberalism was to follow Hugo in embracing what Spencer would later call “the divine right of parliaments” – the illusion that little if anything lies outside the legitimate sphere of democratic authority.
Hugo was right: no mere vote can turn crime into innocence. But he failed to recognise the logical implications of his own view. Today only the libertarians (and not all of them!) still recognise that what is a crime if done by an individual is still a crime if done by the democratic state – that,
in Rothbard’s words, “regardless of popular sanction, War is Mass Murder, Conscription is Slavery, and Taxation is Robbery.”