Column on Democracy and Individual Rights

Democracy and Individual Rights

Tibor R. Machan

Over the decades I have tried to show in numerous works as well as talks
that individuals have basic rights, including to (private) property, just
as John Locke and many of the American founders held. For these thinkers
and political activists, this right constituted a bulwark against tyranny
of any kind, be it of one person or millions. For a human being it is
vital to have a sphere of full authority, of sovereignty, whereby one can
govern one’s life, determine how one will act, what one will devote one’s
life to, where and whom one will worship, what opinions one will express,
one industry one will undertake, with whom one will associate and trade
freely. These are requirements of the morally significant life!

This kind of thinking was deemed fundamental to respecting everyone’s
humanity, the capacity to think and act by one’s own judgment, including
choosing with whom one will join in various endeavors.

This kind of thinking flies in the face of many other thinkers who believe
that individuals either don’t even exist or are the property of some
group. The most blatant recent example of this way of understanding human
social life came from east Germany whose officials justified shooting
those who tried to escape over the Berlin Wall by claiming that they were
stealing themselves from the country. In short, East Germans were deemed,
by the country’s communists, to belong to the state, to be a cell in the
organism of East Germany.

Milder versions of this idea prevail everywhere, including in many Western
countries. In the United States of America, too, it is the notion that
the majority may conscript the minority to its ends never mind what the
minority has in mind doing. For example, how is it justified that the
American government may expropriate the wealth of millions so as to bail
out some others when they ask for support, even when the millions would
refuse to provide this help (for a variety of reason, some good some not
so good but all justly held)? Well, the minority belongs to the country
as a whole and those who take themselves to rightfully represent everyone
claim to be authorized to make such decisions, never mind those who
disagree.

Quite apart from the fact that this is often an excuse for some people
lording it over others who disagree with them, the idea is a serious
fallacy because we are really individuals, first and foremost, and our
consent is required to become members of groups, including of entire
societies. Conscripting people to a society is a violation of their
humanity as choosing, thinking, free agents. Yes, this runs up against
the traditions of many societies in which for centuries some have managed
to rule others with only ineffectual opposition, at least until the
American Revolution. And, of course, revolutions are never quite done
with after the fighting has stopped. Many remain, for example, who are
still captive to the habit of tribal, collectivist thinking.

And there are some legitimate issues to sort out, as well, as for instance
just how much human beings are social and how much they are independent
individuals. No one is an island unto himself but neither does anyone
belong to others, as slaves were believed to belong to their masters. And
that is true whether the others are posing as lord and masters
individually, on their own, or they unite with millions of people and then
make this claim together. The claim is a false one in any case. But
millions have lived in denial of it and millions still have the resulting
habit of thinking of themselves as “cells in the body of society.”

Yes, of course, people are naturally bound to one another but not without
first giving their consent, without retaining the exit option so no one
may use them against their will. All that talk about “the people,” “das
Volk,” “Society,” “Humanity,” and the like may give the impression that
these refer to some being with a will of its own—“society says,” “the
people’s will,” “humanity’s goal,” “the common interest,” etc.—in point of
fact these are just linguistic short-cuts, as when we say “that car ran
into me,” when of course it was the driver who did that!

In the name of these collectives grave crimes have been committed
throughout history, especially in the 20th century, yet with the
leadership of some very clever minds who are either misguided or
malicious, these ideas continue being propounded. Right now, when people
are panicked, they often fail to see through the malfeasance perpetrated
by way of these ideas. And in our day, when so many millions are kept out
of decisions bearing on public policy, democracy looks good enough to many
and this is exploited and used to deny millions the self-governance to
which they are by natural right entitled.

Yes, democracy is an advance over dictatorship but it can become a
dictatorial device, too, unless contained by firm constitutional
principles that affirm the rights of individuals. The implications of
this are, of course, revolutionary but nonetheless true.

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