Column on Democracy in a Free Country

The Free Society & Democracy

Tibor R. Machan

Around the world democracy is often thought to be the system of liberty.
A free country is often thought to be identical with a democratic one.
And while this is wrong, the mistake is understandable. For too many
millions of people progress toward liberty begins with gaining the vote,
with managing to have some, however small, measure of influence on public
policy as opposed to having public affairs dictated by some unelected
chief of state or some unelected group of thugs. So to get at least a bit
of influence—to gain the right to vote—is a step in the right direction
toward becoming free.

But in a truly free society democracy has to be strictly limited. For
starters, it cannot involved voting on how non-consenting citizens should
act and use their labor and property. Democracy can involve no more than
the selection of the administrators of the legal system and such as system
must be strictly limited to the protection of everyone’s basic individual
rights. In short, people may vote for who the sheriff will be but not on
whether the sheriff may rob Peter to help out Paul. The sheriff may only
act in the capacity of a peace officer, as a crime fighter, as the
defender of the citizenry from domestic and foreign aggressors.

Now this shows very clearly and plainly that we do not live in a truly
free society anywhere on the globe, not even in the United States of
America. That’s not to say America is a full blow tyranny or that we do
not enjoy far more liberty than do citizens—“subjects”—of most other
nations around the globe. Just as is implicit in the way some
organizations such as Freedom House rank countries, there are more or less
free societies around the world. And compared to most eras in human
history, there are societies these days that enjoy institutions and laws
that come near to making them free, considering how brutal and Draconian
tyrannies and despotisms had been in the past and were not all that long
ago. Yet even today many societies are ruled top-down in more or less
totalitarian fashion and things could get worse—there is no automatic
progress toward freedom in the world.

The original statement of the way America was supposed to differ from
other societies, laid out in the Declaration, made it abundantly plain
that democracy may not trump individual rights. That is what is meant by
calling the rights of all human beings unalienable—nothing and no one may
strip individuals of these rights; nothing and no one may justifiably act
to violate those rights.

Unfortunately the urgency involved in building a new country, despite all
the good ideas most of the Founders had about how to devise it, made it
very difficult to stick to the basic ideas of the Declaration. So the
Constitution didn’t do justice to its principles, just as Lincoln
explained when he invoked the Declaration’s ideals to try to remedy the
Constitution. (Sadly, even Lincoln didn’t quite stick to those excellent

For those who appreciate how vital liberty is to the maintenance of a just
system of law, it is difficult in our day to tell just what one is to do,
especially when the available selections during elections nearly all
betray the principles of liberty. Will voting for a Hillary Clinton make
American a freer society than it is now? How about voting for Rudy
Giuliani? We don’t even have the kind of system, as many countries do,
where many candidates can run for office in the final race so that
citizens can at least register a sizable preference for other than the
winner. It is certainly very frustrating to have to choose between two
candidates who have no serious concern for what a free society requires.

But in some ways it may still be possible for some people to vote so as to
guide the country in the direction of a truly free society. Just what that
involves can vary a great deal from one region of the country to another,
from what’s at stake in one election versus in another. Voters are
intelligent enough to figure out what will get the country closer to a
free society, although they do not often use their intelligence for that
purpose. As it stands now, most often, sadly, they use it to figure how
many goodies they can get at others’ expense by means of casting their
votes. (That’s just what Alexis de Tocqueville warned us against in his
famous Democracy in America!)

The original idea that what American should be is free, first and
foremost, is getting hardly any attention in our democracy.

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