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Machan’s Archives: Democracy & Liberty

Machan’s Archives: Democracy versus Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last several decades of American political life the idea of liberty has taken a back seat to that of democracy. Liberty involves human beings governing themselves, being sovereign citizens, while democracy is a method by which decisions are reached within groups. In a just society it is liberty that’s primary; the entire point of law is to secure liberty for everyone, to make sure that the rights of individuals, to their lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness, are protected from any human agent bent on violating them.

Democracy at its best is but a byproduct of liberty. Because we are all supposed to be free to govern ourselves, whenever some issue of public policy faces the citizenry, all entitled to take part. Democratic government rests, in a free society, on the right of every individual to take whatever actions are needed to influence public policy. Because freedom or liberty is primary, the scope of public policy and, thus, democracy in a just society is strictly limited. The reason is that free men and women may not be intruded on even if a majority of their fellows would decide to do so. If someone is a free, which means a self-governing, person, then even the majority of one’s fellows lack the authority to take over one’s governance without one’s consent. I cannot be otherwise unless there is prior agreement by all to accept such a process. The consent of the governed amounts to this and that is what the US Declaration of Independence means when it mentions that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.

In a just society no one loses his or her authority for self-government without giving it up as a matter of choice. No one gets to perform an operation on you, no matter how wise and competent, without your giving your consent, and the same is true, in a just system, about imposing duties and obligations on people. They must agree to this. If they do not, they aren’t to be ordered about at all. That would be involuntary servitude!

The only apparent exception is when it comes to laws that protect everyone’s rights. One may indeed be ordered not to kill, rob, rape, burglarize, or assault another person, even if one fails to consent to this. And when government does the job of protecting individual rights, government may order one to abstain from all such aggressive actions. But that doesn’t actually involve intruding on people, only protecting everyone from intrusions.

It is along these lines that the idea of limited government arises: government may only act to protect rights, to impose the laws that achieve that goal, nothing more. Again, as the Declaration of Independence notes, it is to secure our rights that governments are instituted, not for any other purpose. Of course, this idea of limited government hardly figures into considerations of public policy in the USA or elsewhere.

We have never actually confined government to this clearly limited, just purpose. It has always gone beyond that and today its scope is nearly totalitarian, the very opposite of being limited. But there is no doubt that even though liberty has been nearly forgotten as an ideal of just government in America as well as elsewhere, democracy does remain something of an operational ideal. In this way liberty has been curtailed tremendously, mainly to the minor sphere of everyone having a right to take part in public decision-making.

Whereas the original idea was that we are free in all realms and democracy concerns mainly who will administer a system of laws that are required to protect our liberty, now the idea is that democracy addresses everything in our lives and the only liberty we have left is to take part in the decision-making about whatever is taken to be a so called “public” matter. One way this is clearly evident is how many of the top universities in the USA construe public administration to be a topic having to do primarily with the way democracy works. Indeed, after the demise of the Soviet Union, even though the major issue should have been the salvation of individual liberty, the experts in academe who write and teach the rest of the world about public administration are nearly all focused on democracy, not on liberty.

For example, the courses at America’s premier public administration graduate school, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, are mainly focused on problems of democracy. At this institution nearly 40 percent of the students attending come from 75 foreign countries, many of them from those that used to be under Soviet rule, and what they focus on in nearly all their courses is democracy, not liberty. Assignments in these courses tend all to raise problems about implementing democratic governance and leave the issue of how individual liberty should be secured as practically irrelevant. Or, to put it more precisely, the liberty or human right that is of interest in most of these courses is the liberty to take part in democratic decision-making. (“Human rights” has come to refer in most of these course and their texts mainly to the right to vote and to take part in the political process!) Yes, of course, that is a bit of genuine liberty that many of the people of the world have never enjoyed, so for them it is a significant matter, to be sure. But it is clearly not the liberty that the Declaration of Independence mentions when it affirms that all of us are equal in having unalienable rights to our lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

The Declaration speaks of a very wide scope of individual liberty, while the premier public administration school of America teaches, at least by implication, that the only liberty of any importance is the liberty to take part in public policy determination. This, I submit, is a travesty. Once democracy is treated as the premier public value, with individual liberty cast to the side except as far as taking part in democratic decision-making, the scope of government is no longer limited in principle or practice.

Nearly anything can become a public policy issue, so long as some measure of democracy is involved in reaching decisions about it.

And that, in fact, turns out to be a serious threat to democracy itself. Because when democracy trumps liberty, democracy can destroy itself–the law could permit the democratically reached destruction of democracy itself! That is just what happened in the Weimar Republic, where a democratic election put Hitler in power and destroyed democracy. And check developments in our time in the Middle East!

If you ever wonder why it is that public forums, including the Sunday TV magazine programs, the Op Ed pages of most newspapers, the feature articles of most magazines do not discuss human liberty but fret mostly about democracy, this is the reason: the major educational institutions tend not to care about liberty at all and have substituted a very limited version of it, namely, democracy as their primary concern. Once that is accomplished, individual liberty becomes defenseless.

Indeed, democracy is just as capable of being totalitarian as is a dictatorship, only with democracy it seems less clearly unjust, given that this little bit of liberty is still in tact, namely, to take part in the vote.

Column on More Foibles of Unlimited Democracy

More Foibles of Unlimited Democracy

Tibor R. Machan

It is certainly no secret that while democracy has certain merits as a method for reaching political decisions, it is liable to be abused without those limits. American democracy was always feared, even by the framers, and unless it is restrained by a good, just constitution, it can get way out of hand. It can turn into mobocracy, nearly as bad as an out and out dictatorship.

Unfortunately many who desire serious political change stop at democracy and do not proceed to consider its proper limits. This is what afflicts many countries across the globe, including most of those in the Middle East just now in upheaval. The countries that used to be Soviet colonies as recently as the 1980s are also struggling with just what kind of democracy should be adopted for them. Not very surprisingly while a good many embrace the democratic process, very often when this yields exactly the results one would expect–namely, produces public policies that the majority (more or less) wants–complaints are voiced about these results as if it weren’t crystal clear that the process will often yield something many citizens do not want. But if one really just wants pure democracy, no constitutional restraints with it, how can one complain? It makes no sense. That is just what a limitless democracy will yield, policies that most but definitely not all support. It is a bit like a jury driven courts system–whatever the jury decides has to be deemed acceptable (yes, even when the defendant is one O. J. Simpson).

In Hungary, for example a recent constitutional upheaval involves the democratically elected Fidesz Party which is changing the constitution in ways many are protesting. The size of the national debt is now limited, which of course doesn’t sit well with those who have dreams as their guide for public policy, kind of like our own liberal democrats. When one wants to base policies on fantasies like unlimited, costless indebtedness, ignoring the burdens of nonvoting future generations, constitutional limits on the debt will be upsetting.

Yet if that is what the democratic processes yields, how can champions of unlimited democracy protest? The Hungarians are also facing numerous other measures, such as officially stressing Hungary’s Christian roots (which of course doesn’t sit well with quite a few Hungarians). With the super-majority, the Fidesz Party is pushing for measures in education and even the media–they have no first amendment there, which would ban using the power of this super-majority from dictating matters in these areas–that limit the liberties of millions of Hungarians. Yet, so long as they simply want majority rule, they have nothing to complain about.

In America, too, there is a lot of fuss about what Republicans and, especially, Tea Party members and supporters want to make into public policy, despite the fact that this is just what is yielded up with the democratic process, one so eagerly embraced precisely by those who don’t like what the Republicans and Tea Party folks propose for the country. Well, sorry about that but you cannot have it both way–unlimited democracy with restrictions on what may be enacted. You have to take your pick. Will democracy be limited in its scope, in what may come under majority rule, or will it be the bloated kind which can extend to regimenting virtually everything in the country? When a party enjoys strong support, big numbers, the latter tends to be favored by its members; when it doesn’t well then limitations are urged upon it.

The real answer is to have democracy seriously confined to some issues, such as who will administer the laws of the land (but not to what those laws will be, which is supposed to be what the constitution determines). Some minor exceptions would involved the amendment process which would get supervision from the Supreme Court so it doesn’t amount to altering the principles on which he country’s laws rest. But majorities would not be permitted to transform the country into something alien like a socialist of fascist system. For that one would need a revolution, which is not easy to get under way.

It is understandable why elsewhere democracies are highly prized, limits or no limits. That’s because ordinary folks throughout human history have had little say about their political circumstances and with democracy they get some. But that’s just the beginning. The limits on democracy are as important as democracy itself.