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Does democracy provide liberty?

By J.K. Baltzersen
web posted October 28, 2019

This past summer is the quadricentennial, the 400th anniversary, of the first convening of the first elected assembly in British North America, the House of Burgesses. About a century and a half later 13 well-established colonies revolted against the imperial government in London. As the West moves west, it becomes more democratic and free. Or so at least the story goes.

A Reaganite Trojan Horse?

When Ronald Reagan stands in front of Congress to deliver his first inaugural address, he makes a proclamation that is to turn into a dictum of the liberty-minded: government is not the solution to our problem(s), government is the problem.

But there is a catch, which Reagan biographer John Patrick Diggins directs our attention towards. One could say government being the problem is only half of the equation. According to Diggins, the American Founders saw problems in the populus, but, says Diggins, Reagan let the people off the hook.

It is an often-occurring view of Reagan that his rhetoric was pretty much fine, it was his practical politics that was the problem. But perhaps there were problems with his rhetoric as well? Traditionally, it was the left who put its faith in popular sovereignty, whereas the right relied more on limits, such as natural law. Reagan changed American politics contrary to founding principles in a way that would be hard to turn around, away from this traditional role of the right, according to Diggins. Reagan let the people live off the government and blame it at the same time.

Reagan spoke ill of government but good of democracy.

What Is Democracy?

In this age of democracy as ersatz religion, there seems to be a particularly strong need to come up with all sorts of definitions of democracy, especially if the alternative is to pronounce one’s opposition to democracy. There is a variant of the old joke: in a room of ten people there will be at least eleven definitions of democracy.

But strictly speaking, democracy is merely majority rule and political equality. Important is also what democracy is not. It is not rule of law. It is not checks and balances. It is not natural, constitutional, or human rights. It is not a whole bunch of liberal – in the more classical meaning of the word – traditions. It is not all sorts of things that make you feel good.

Some of those things are often characteristics of a modern democracy, but they are not part of the definition of democracy. Those things are not necessary for a system to be a democracy, but some of them are necessary for a liberal democracy.

Arguably, the freer a society, the easier it is to run an opposition. However, to include everything under the sun that directly or indirectly might influence the ability of oppositional activity in the definition of democracy allows for including almost everything in the definition, which more or less renders the definition meaningless. Though, it is reasonable to include a minimum of freedoms for opposition, notably freedom of expression and the press and the right for anyone – possibly limited by limits that apply equally such as for age and number of terms – to run for office.

Is the American Revolution to Blame?

The transition of the world into modern democracy has been a long process. It includes events such as the English revolutions of the 17th century, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, World War I, and the many expansions of the franchise.

When comparing the American and French revolutions, it is not rare to claim that the American one was conservative, whereas the French one was about throwing out all the old. There is some truth to that; American independence was to a considerable degree about asserting old rights of Englishmen.

The American Revolution has become part of the American liberty and anti-monarchical mythology. But there is more to the story than the mythology. The revolutionary era reverend Mather Byles is supposed to have asked what is better of one tyrant 3,000 miles away and 3,000 tyrants one mile away – popularized in the movie The Patriot. But was there a or one tyrant across the ocean? Or was it rather about Parliament?

Lecky in his classic Democracy and Liberty claims the American Revolution came about because of Parliament’s usurpation of the prerogatives of the Crown. Eric Nelson in his 2014 book The Royalist Revolution agrees, stating that the revolution was a revolt against Parliament, a multitude. Nelson even makes the claim that the American Declaration of Independence made allegations against the King because his authority, as opposed to Parliament’s, was recognized.

Certainly, the revolution was about representation. Theorists claimed the House of Commons represented those in the British Isles who did not have the right to vote. As an extension of that, also the colonies were represented – supposedly. But the colonists did not recognize Parliament’s authority, as the colonies had been founded with royal charters with no parliamentary involvement. The colonists asked for the King’s protection against the British Parliament, which he declined to give them.

According to Nelson, the colonists were very much royalist in their uprising, and it was due to Tom Paine’s Common Sense that any hope of a homegrown monarchy was lost. Although according to historian Gordon S. Wood in his The Radicalism of the American Revolution the Britain and her dominions were very much republicanized at the time, and the American colonies the most republicanized.

Was the American Revolution a Mistake?

The revolution was also about taxes. While the revolution to a large extent was a success, it’s not very obvious that it was a success when it comes to the tax level.

Gary North, Bryan Caplan, John Attarian, Stephan Kinsella, Dylan Matthews, and Leland G. Stauber have made the case that the American Revolution was a mistake. Becky Akers has taken the path of fiction sympathetic to Benedict Arnold.

Even though the hereditary monarchy was ditched, there were pseudo-monarchical elements that made it into the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 at Philadelphia, notably an executive not subject to the legislature. Yet others were proposed but failed, such as a life-term presidency.

One of the grand clichés of constitutional discourse in America is the claim that America is a republic, not a democracy. The American Founders did not establish a pure democracy, and certainly not a democracy as we view the term today. Arguably, the American Republic was initially an aristocratic republic.

However, even during the founding era there were different definitions of the term republic; John Adams believed Britain qualified as a republic, whereas others did not. Those United States are still a federal union, not a unitary democracy. The union is considered a democratic republic. It is certainly not a direct democracy, but neither is any other country in today’s world, although there are systems with strong direct democracy elements, notably Switzerland. Those United States are a form of democracy, a representative democracy.

The fact that the word democracy till this day is not to be found in the U.S. Constitution makes no difference in this respect.

While the American Framers established a system with intricate checks and balances, a mix of direct and indirect elections, references to natural law, and state level voting restrictions, it remains a fact that they established a system where all positions were either directly of indirectly elected or appointed by those electees, and where the people was the sole source of power. By the time Alexis de Tocqueville came to America, it was clearly a democracy. Gordon Wood points out that some of the founders were disappointed at what they had created when they had reached the early decades of  the 19th century. A few had even expressed disappointments before the turn of the century.

While it is common to blame (majoritarian) democracy on the French Revolution, Gordon Wood argues it is not surprising that democracy would arise from the American Revolution, which according to Wood, was only not radical if violence is necessary for radicalism.

Democracy Empowers Government

Lord Acton is known to have said:

Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

That could be perceived as an argument for democracy, but, as we shall see, democracy enforces and empowers government.

Lord Acton is also known to have said:

It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist. But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote something somewhat to the same effect in Democracy in America:

My chief complaint against democratic government as it has been organized here in the United States is not that it is weak, as many in Europe maintain, but rather that its strength is irresistible. What I find most repugnant in America is not the extreme liberty but the virtual absence of any guarantee against tyranny.

Bertrand de Jouvenel, a later countryman of de Tocqueville, followed up in On Power:

[W]hen once Power is based on the sovereignty of all, the distrust comes to seem unreasonable and the vigilance pointless; and the limits set on authority no longer get defended.

The essence of it all is that democratic popular majority leads to great legitimacy, authority, and power. This is a theme that also F.A. von Hayek deals with in his works Constitution of Liberty and Law, Legislation and Liberty.

Von Hayek says that if one by democracy means the majority’s right to do whatever it pleases, he is not a democrat. He tells us that unlimited sovereignty hardly was claimed in the West before absolute monarchy, but not considered legitimate before modern democracy. As he also tells us, Britain gave to the world the concept of parliamentary sovereignty, power limited by nothing but the “consent” of constituents collectively through elections.

Despite seeing the flaws of democracy, von Hayek is rather fond of it. However, with all the misuse of the term, he proposes the term demarchy for a system with equal law for all. While the political philosopher admits to democracy having given us unlimited government, he distances himself from anti-democratic thought in the postscript to Constitution of Liberty, the essay Why I Am Not a Conservative, claiming that democracy is the best form of limited government, stating the highly advantageous features of democracy of peaceful transition of power and political education as reason. He also claims the people must learn to limited government under democracy.

To be continued. ESR

This article is part I of a series of three, based on the talk by the author at FreedomFest 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada on July 17, 2019, entitled “Is Government the Problem? Yes, but the Collective People Are Too!”

J.K. Baltzersen writes from the capital of the Oil Kingdom of Norway. He is the editor of the book Grunnlov og frihet: turtelduer eller erkefiender? (in Norwegian and Swedish; translated title: Constitution and Liberty: Lovebirds or Archenemies?), with Cato Institute’s Johan Norberg amongst the contributors

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