Column on Democracy and Liberty

Democracy and Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

If you object to having your liberty and property taken by the majority,
some political theorists object claiming that democracy is precisely for
such a purpose. But that is not so.

In a free society the purpose of democracy amounts to authorizing some
people who have majority support to help update the Constitution. The
updating, in turn, is not for the sake of changing it, abolishing its
principles and so forth. It is so as to extend constitutional principles
to novel areas that could not be anticipated when the constitution was
framed. There was no Internet, telephone, iPod, telegraph and so forth yet
these are all capable of being used to commit crimes. Lawmakers, those
elected to various local, county, state and federal offices, are supposed
to figure out how the basic principles of the constitution–presumably a
sound document stating how citizens ought to comport themselves toward one
another without violating anyone’s rights–can be applied to new
technology, new science, and so forth.

Instead a great many people think that democracy has to do with imposing
their will upon their fellows whether it is allowed or not. But that is
just what having our individual rights prohibits. In a free country no one
gets to violate rights, not even majorities. Those representing us at
various centers of politics aren’t there to perpetrate complex forms of
larceny, theft, trespass, kidnapping and the like. No one gets to do such
a think to free citizens, never mind how many get together claiming they
may do so. Otherwise the country stops being a free one altogether.

Of course, countries can be more or less free and so far the United States
of America has managed to earn the label "free" in comparison to most
others. Yet, when our president shows friendship toward the likes of Hugo
Chavez–and past presidents have shown admiration for the likes of
Mussolini and Marcos and Pinochet and the like–the time has come to
reaffirm our fundamental commitment to principles that flatly reject the
political ideas of these sort of leaders. But sadly because the likes of
Chavez, including Hitler, have gained majority support in their countries
and could then say that the tyranny that they were perpetrating thus had
political legitimacy, America too has slid into a kind of democratic
despotism, with leaders who make no bones about using their power to
conscript the labors and resources of the citizenry for purposes they
claim have majority support.

All the funds being borrowed now and devoted to bailing out commercial
enterprises that lack market support with funds that future citizens will
have to repay–citizens whose vote no one knows and thus lack
representation–amount to wrongful taking, plain and simple. And this
isn’t anything new, either. Funds used to contribute to countries abroad,
funds used to subsidies struggling domestic businesses, funds used to
support so called public projects that actually benefit only small special
interests–all these are illegitimate takings in a genuine free society.
And they are all being defended on the basis of democracy. But that is a
completely misguided understanding of what democracy must mean for a free
people.

The American founders seemed clearly to have in mind establishing a free
country, not a democratic despotism. This is made very clear from the
Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights which identify the
rights of individual citizens and do not authorize small or large
majorities to carry out criminal deeds for which individuals would be
prosecuted if they committed them. That is why the Founders were
revolutionaries–they disbelieved in the superiority of the government.
They viewed it, instead, as an agency that’s instituted merely to secure
individual rights not one, like a monarchy, that would rule those
individuals, impose on them unwanted, unchosen burdens.

This is the idea that needs to be recovered in America. This is what held
together those people who went on the "tea parties." This is why the
cheerleaders of democratic despots, the likes of Nobel Laureate Paul
Krugman of Princeton University and The New York Times, found them so
objectionable!

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