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Democracy and freedom

By Christopher Coyle
web posted August 23, 2004

There are not many ideas which are more revered than the concept of democracy, the system of government lead by the great body of the people themselves. Indeed, it is true that democracy has done much to give a voice to many and make politics more representative of the public at large. Yet, in our unending affection for the democratic process, we become apt to forget the true purpose of political systems: the maintenance societal order and individual liberty. Democracy is only as useful and important as it satisfies these goals. We risk the danger of valuing the tools intended to protect freedom above the very ideal itself. Democracy is only a means to an end, not a goal in and of itself.

If we were able to discover and prove a system which was more conducive to such freedom, society should not be wary of releasing itself from the tenets of democracy to adopt the new ways. All things being equal, living in freedom under an absolute ruler would be much preferred to representative tyranny. Of course, history has shown that democracy has generally been the political system most conducive to a free society, a sentiment perhaps most accurately portrait by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill when he quipped, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried."

Whether there actually is a better system out there, either currently existing or yet to be thought of, is anyone's guess. The great minds of history have given us no shortage of utopian visions of possible government administration. What is indisputable is that fact that democracy does leave much to be desired. The course of modern nation-states like America, which of course is not a true a democracy but rather a republic or representative democracy (but which does not really change the study of the problem at all), is in this regard particularly enlightening to analyze.

The spread of enfranchisement to wider swaths of the population has helped to contribute to the growth of the federal government in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The power of the vote is essentially the power to control other people's lives, including their pocketbooks. As the nineteenth-century South Carolina Senator John Calhoun so ably demonstrated, the spread of democracy tends to separate the population into the distinct classes of taxpayers and tax consumers. Democracy enables the mass of the population to vote themselves benefits from others who are not so numerous as to defend themselves at the ballot box. The process only gets more vicious as the ranks of the tax consumers continue to rise, being supported by the smaller and over-burdened taxpayers, who, being in the minority, have little recourse to protect their resources from the voting plunderers. This process has born itself out in America, though not yet to the extent of the socialist nations of Europe, which itself demonstrates the further progression of this phenomenon.

More generally, it is this fundamental conflict between balancing the will of the majority with the fundamental rights of the minority which plagued, among others, our founding fathers during deliberations in creating a new government. King George III had shown the Americans the danger of the centralized control of power, a situation we were keen on not repeating. It was under such conditions that the concept of federalism gained acceptance, devolving most powers to the several states and ultimately to the people themselves. This avoided the dreaded centralization of power and the accompanying evils that come with it. Yet, most American political philosophers of the time were just as fearful of the rule of the tyrannical majority, dreading a "mobocracy" which would trample the rights of the minority and those out of power. It was one of the great attributes of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in that it placed limits on majority decision-making by specifically delineating a small number of areas where the government could interfere as well as listing fundamental rights of citizens and thereby guarantee many of the absolute political rights of minorities against the fleeting whims of temporary majorities.

Governments, as Thomas Jefferson so eloquently phrased in the Declaration of Independence, were not instituted to be an instrument of the popular will (though they were legitimized by the consent of the governed) but rather to secure our rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There is nothing mythical about the "will of the majority." Obviously, the popularity of a decision in no way demonstrates its justness or morality. The fundamental individual rights of every person are above the will of even the greatest of any majority; the vote of a plebiscite can not take that away.

Today, the danger of supplanting democracy for freedom as our striving ideal is even greater as apply this principle in attempting to reform foreign nations' political institutions. An important goal for the Bush administration in foreign policy has been democratic reforms in the Middle East. Such reforms have been part of a very slow process, but a process that has been making progress nevertheless. Mr. Bush's desire to mould a democratic society has seen the most progress in those nations which America has invaded during his tenure, Afghanistan and Iraq. The people of these nations have born many hardships from the repressive, dictatorial regimes of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, respectively. Understandably trying to avoid the failures of the previous system, America has nurtured a transition to democratic institutions in these burgeoning nations. However, we have seemingly ignored the potential tyranny of the majority which could ensue.

For instance, Shiite Muslims make up approximately 60 percent of the Iraqi population and will undoubtedly be the winners of a new, democratically-elected government. This has raised fears that the majority of Iraqis in a democratic process may just vote themselves into a theocracy along the lines of Iran. Whenever administration officials and their supporters are pressed on the issue of a potential popularly-elected fundamentalist government, their answer inevitably comes down to the simple reply "they won't." That may very well be true yet, in the end, it provides absolutely no surety that such a course of events will not occur. This is because the fundamental nature of democracy forbids any such assertion from being truthfully declared.

No such guarantee of one's individual liberties can ever be truly safe as long as such decisions rests in the hands of any majority that develops. Of course, such a guarantee will not be safe anywhere as long as any individual has such political power, with or without the consent of the majority. In America, the Constitution has gone a long way to protect those individual rights. However, in the end, it is simply a piece of paper, constantly evolving as it is subject to the differing interpretations of those in power. There is also nothing sacred about the document; it has the ability to be changed by future generations. And as history has repeatedly shown us, the Constitution can simply be ignored when it gets in the way of the plans of those ruling over us. The answers to our essential political questions will never be discovered if we continue to mistake the ends we wish to strive for with the means we utilize to achieve those ends. "Liberty is the highest political end," Lord Acton said. Representative government – democracy – should only be pursued for as long as it not detrimental to that highest of ideals. 

Christopher Coyle is the president of The Liberty Coalition at the University of Virginia.

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