Focus on Democracy Is Misplaced

democracy vote election ballotIn America, among the most common words used to justify policies are democracy or democratic. “Democratic” is frequently thrown in as an adjective whenever something is considered good politically (e.g., “our democratic way of life”), and “undemocratic” is inserted for things being condemned.   How many times it has been invoked in discussions of the upheaval in Egypt is a good example.

Americans are told we must fight for democracy around the world. Leading up to elections, politicians extol the democratically-expressed wisdom of the electorate (that those elected often overturn).  We are told that the American Revolution was for democracy; that people died (and are still dying) for our democratic right to vote; that each vote was crucial; that if you don’t vote, you don’t care about America; etc.  We even hear proposals to replace the Electoral College because it isn’t democratic enough.

Unfortunately, while democratically determining who will be entrusted with the reins of government may generally be the best hope to enable governments to change without bloodshed (Although the precedent set by John Adams’ acceptance of defeat at the hands of Thomas Jefferson is also critical, a precedent far less common than in America), democracy is not the central core of the “good government” idea that became America.  Liberty is.

Democracy, from America’s founding on, has been important only insofar as it served and defended liberty. You cannot seriously read our founders’ words without coming to that conclusion (e.g., George Washington’s statement that “your union ought to be considered as a main prop to your liberty; the love of the one ought to endear you to the preservation of the other”). It is why we have a Constitution, and particularly a Bill of Rights (if whatever the majority decided “democratically” at a given time was uniformly to be law, there would be no purpose in restrictions that explicitly put certain rights against government impositions beyond majority determination).  It is why the importance of liberty, far more than democratic forms, was a central theme of Alexis deTocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Unfortunately, democracy need not serve liberty.  Majority determination is entirely consistent with choices that destroy liberty, as both logic (how much liberty would you have in the matter if a majority vote picked your clothes each day and your dinner each night?) and history (e.g., in Hitler’s electoral landslides) reveal.

Modern Americans, however, seem to lump liberty and democracy together, as if they were the same thing. They give little thought to the distinction between liberty and democracy or liberty’s primacy over democracy.  Further, they give little attention to the lessons of history.  So, it is important to refocus attention on this central issue.

Fortunately, there is a short analysis available that boils the democracy issue down to its essentials.  That is “Democracy and Liberty,” in F.A. Harper’s 1949 Liberty: A Path to its Recovery.   Consider an abbreviated version.

[A] government can enslave the citizens…But the belief prevails that: “It is impossible for liberty to be lost under a democratic form of government. Democracy assures that the will of the people shall prevail, and that is liberty. So long as democracy is preserved we can rest assured that liberty will be continued to the full.”

Probably no other belief is now so much a threat to liberty in the United States and in much of the rest of the world as the one that democracy, by itself alone, guarantees liberty…it is possible for liberty to be lost even in a democracy…

In speaking of liberty, what we are really concerned about is what government does…

If an act of government in any country violates the liberty of the people, it is of little importance who did it or how he came to have the power…

Liberty…specifies the right to do what [one] desires, rather than the obligation to bow to the force of others in doing what they desire him to do; otherwise slavery becomes “liberty,” and true liberty is lost.

“Power,” which replaces liberty, is…authority over others…The means by which power is acquired, whether by the “democratic” process or by conquest, does not change its status…

This is a far cry from the common belief that democracy offers any definite and automatic protection of liberty. This illusion, that the democratic process is the same as liberty, is an ideal weapon for those few who may desire to destroy liberty and to replace it with some form of authoritarian society…Under the spell of this illusion, liberty is most likely to be lost…Liberty can easily be taken from the individual citizen, piece by piece and always more and more, as more and more persons come under the spell of the same illusion…

Liberty does not mean the right to do anything that is the product of a democratic form of government. The right to vote, which is the sovereignty feature of democracy, assures only the liberty to participate in that process. It does not assure that everything done by that process shall automatically be in the interests of liberty.

Anyone who will defend his liberty must guard against the argument that access to the ballot, “by which people get whatever they want,” is liberty. It would be as logical to assert that liberty in the choice of a wife is assured to a person if he will put it to the vote of the community and accept their plurality decision, or that liberty in religion is assured if the state enforces participation in the one religion that receives the most votes in the nation.

There is no certainty whatever that liberty in a country with the democratic form of government is at a level higher than in a country having some other mechanism of government.

[When] some officials have acquired the power to deny this liberty…no process of selecting the officials who made the decision can make it not gone.

Being able to review a decision or to request its review, under the democratic design of government, does not assure that liberty will be protected. Reinstatement of lost liberty can be requested and refused time and time again…A slave, similarly, might ask his master for his freedom time and time again; he is not considered to be free by reason of the fact that he is allowed to ask for liberty.

Consider in detail all the acts of all the units of government for one day. How many among them were the proper functions of a liberal government …in how many instances did you have any opportunity or right to participate in the decision; if you disagreed with the decision, in how many instances was there anything that you could do about it?…Your “liberty” in the process is that you enjoy the right to be forced to bow to the dictates of others, against your wisdom and conscience…the direct opposite of liberty…

For those matters that are the functions of government in a liberal society, and in the selection of the persons to operate it, the test of dominant preference is probably the safest. But…Government of even the best design should be used only where, in the interests of liberty, it becomes necessary to arrive at a singleness in pattern of conduct.

The maximum of liberty is the maximum of democracy, if by democracy is meant the right of a person to have control over his own affairs. To whatever extent one person gains control over the affairs of another, that other person thereby loses his democratic rights in this sense. This is why the expansion of governmental activities beyond those in harmony with liberalism destroys these democratic rights, even though in a “democracy” there has been granted the widespread right to vote. All minorities are thereby disfranchised from their democratic rights in this sense, because their wishes become overruled in the process. Minorities become the slaves of the others…Participation in these steps that make it possible for someone to rule others does not ensure liberty.

It is fantastic nonsense to assert that the democratic process will assure liberty to the individuals of any nation.  So long as this illusion prevails, it would be more accurate to say that it is a most certain path to slavery.

Decision by the test of dominant preference (majority vote, etc.) is the same operating principle as the one that might makes right. If might makes right, one must conclude that liberty is all wrong.

The test of whether or not a government is defending liberty is to be found in what it does, never in the mechanics of its operation. The test is whether or not the officials in any government, as well as the content of the laws and regulations, are in harmony or in conflict with the requirements of liberty…

F.A. “Baldy” Harper, echoing America’s founders, made the important distinction between democracy and liberty, recognizing that democracy can be a mechanism for the destruction of liberty.  That much current public discourse on government implicitly assumes that the central issue is that someone won an election, regardless of what they then did, or some proposition attracted a majority at a particular point in time, regardless of its effects, shows that we have largely forgotten that understanding.

Further, remembering  that understanding is necessary not just with regard to Egypt, but also for America’s government.  Democratic forms that are not in service to liberty are not the democracy our founders envisioned, nor that which our founding documents enshrined.  But the growing reach of government into areas delegates to the Constitutional Convention would have been aghast at makes democracy an increasing threat to liberty.  And defending liberty will require re-asserting limits to democracy, or the mechanism designed to preserve Americans’ initial hard-won liberty threatens to eat it away instead.

(Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University in Malibu.)


  1. askeptic says

    Progressives, the current banner-carriers for Democracy uber alles, hate it when you remind them that some of the greatest despots in history were democratically elected –
    One Man, One Vote, One Time!

  2. On the one hand I absolutely agree with what Gary is saying. And kudos for saying it. On the other hand, he has not gone far enough. The truth is the American founders detested democracy. They knew their history; it never worked. They also found themselves in a unique situation, in that, thanks to the Great Awakening they found themselves confronted with Freedom. Not just independence, or freedom from, but Freedom, and they were willing to do what Freedom requires… proactively embrace it. They are the only generation in the entire history of the human race that chose to embrace Freedom when establishing a country’s governmental system. I can say that because they had a choice as to what their government would be; they designed it. Unfortunately, our generation today doesn’t get it. The structure of our republic is designed to pursue, promote and protect Freedom for the individual. The U.S. is the Great Experiment in Personal Freedom. The republic structure is nothing in itself. Other countries have tried republics also. Even the Communist U.S.S.R. (United Soviet Socialist Republic), was a republic. We know how that turned out.

    Of primary importance is the basis for the design of our system of governance. Using a republic is only the physical structure to best allow for the intended system of governance to work. As John Adams points out, “…we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

    It is about Freedom. It is about a generation of people who got it, not perfectly, but got it and designed a system of governance that pursues, promotes, and protects Freedom for the individual.

    We are now losing what they put in place, not because Freedom is going away. Freedom is always at full strength 24/7/365. It is our love for Freedom, our desire for Freedom that is going away; our lack of understanding. Things are really so bad that, in truth, the only reason we have even a modicum of Freedom today is thanks to the Founders codifying what they understood about Freedom and their vision for government in the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights themselves are not Freedom, they are simply rights or freedoms. The larger absolutely important governance goal the Founders were shooting for is Freedom. From the founding there have been and are today non-stop efforts to take that away, unfortunately by our elected officials who have sworn to protect it. It is not just a matter of protecting the Constitution, it is a matter of protecting the purpose of the Constitution: to allow and encourage the individual to pursue, promote, and protect Freedom within a system of governance. The U.S. Constitution is the first written constitution in the entire history of the world. Today, still the only constitution uniquely designed to allow the people to govern the government. Of the nations that have a constitution none has ever been designed like the Constitution of the United States. Not one. The other constitutions are about what the government can do to the people, nothing about what the people can do to the government. As James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” points out: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

    It is about Freedom.

  3. The people determine through their votes the destiny of the nation.” —Justice William O. Douglas

    Contrary to what Justice Douglas said, the people do not determine through their votes, the destiny of the nation, at least not through a democracy by so-called majority vote. “Democracy,” simply means majority rule — for good or bad. The heart of politics is the art of romancing the voters (pretending with intent to deceive).

    No U.S. President or Congress has ever represented the majority of the people, and in fact, almost never more than a third of the Voter Eligible Population (VEP). Once elected, however, most politicians believe that a first kiss inexorably leads to a total surrender of virtue and thereafter think they can honeyfuggle the voters whenever — and on whatever issue — they choose.
    Facts are stubborn things. Americans, in reality, are ruled by factions. If the media reported the facts about how few votes win elections, Presidents and for that matter, all elected officials would never have the chutzpah to do what they do. Politicians would have to return to being administrative watchdogs over the public purse, as originally intended.
    The rules of the game determine the outcome of any contest. For instance, most people agree no woman’s basketball team can beat the L.A. Lakers. But change just one rule and you’ll get a different outcome: make everyone play in high heels. The rules of politics (for those actually turning out to vote) are the ancient doctrine of “might makes right” whereby 50% plus one = 100% and 50% minus one = 0. This boils down to “We won — Elections have consequences — Get over it.”

    Fortunately, we do not live in a Democracy. When Benjamin Franklin departed from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was asked, what kind of government did you give us? Franklin replied, “A ‘Republic’ if you can keep it.”
    In fact, the founders loathed democracy. They knew democracies often descended into Mobocracies (today, think Libya and Egypt), and did everything they could to guard against “Majoritarianism.” They tried to developed a vaccine (a republic) against the contagion of “popular delusions and the madness of crowds” so politics would not be infected. They knew that Plato and Aristotle thought democracy ultimately led to tyranny.
    The entire system they designed acts as a buffer against a popular, charming, captivating, charismatic orator (aka, A Cult of Personality). Chapter 1, Romancing The Voters


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