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 is 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 is protected from any human agent bent on violating them. Democracy 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, they are 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, of 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 one is free, which means a self-governing person, then even the majority of ones fellows lacks the authority to take over ones governance without ones consent. This 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 operate 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. 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, and assault other persons, even if one fails to consent to this. And when the legal authorities do this job of protecting individual rights, they may order one to abstain from all such aggressive actions.
However, this doesn't actually involve intruding on people, only being duly authorized, via the consent of the governed, to protect everyone from intrusions. It is along these lines that the idea of limited government – or legal authority – arises: it 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 (albeit somewhat "permissive"), 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 classical liberal idea is 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, the corrupt version of this 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 establishment and maintenance of a regime 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 the citizenry's freedom to take part in democratic decision-making, the scope of government is no longer limited in principle or in 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, and 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. 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. (A little of this has come to be discussed recently on some programs because of Harvard educated Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria's recent book, The Future of Freedom [W. W. Norton, 2003], which is subtitled "illiberal democracy at home and abroad." Sadly Zakaria seems to have abandoned his concerns about the matter and is now mostly taking part in discussions about how the country ought to be managed, like a firm.) True enough, democratic totalitarianism appears more benign than a system under the direction of a tyrant but, as In Venezuela, unrestrained democracy can give rise to the most belligerent version of dictatorship since Hitler's Third Reich. The proper approach to governance is to make all of it focus primarily on protecting the rights of the citizens to their lives, liberty and property. This extension of the idea of the body or security guard is the best model for how government should work and how their work should be appraised. Free men and women require this so as to live their lives by their own judgment and in voluntary cooperation with their fellow citizens instead of being regimented by some group of "leaders" who view themselves as knowledgeable about the public interest.
In caring about democracy mainly or only, the more robust liberty that everyone is entitled to is neglected. The result is not all that different from how feudal orders behave.
Posted by Clive Edwards on 01/06/11 03:30 AM
"This raises an obvious question. What agency or agencies will impose sanctions on such over-reaching govt agents? This is such an old question that it is well-known in Latin: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"
Let me wink and expand the dialectic here. A democratic, public sector body cannot be trusted to do the job. A republic constituted to safeguard liberty as its prime directive might require a "religious order cult or caste" enjoying the benefits of anonymity, secure and sufficient funding, and powers of star chamber in dealing with those who have or are engaged in overthowing the republic. On those occasions when a wide-spread conspiracy is encountered a "night of the long knives" may be required to maintain the integrity of the repubic. No political office or security agency would be above the watcher watchers.
Of course the ad hoc individuals and groups of citizens envisioned by the framers is likely still the best choice.
Posted by Driveby Blogger on 01/05/11 05:15 PM
For those people who think the founding documents are too archaic to understand, in very few words you succinctly explained the purpose of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Thank you. This is definitely worth passing on, particularly to our politicians who swear to uphold the Constitution, then spit on it by subverting it. I am a C.E.O. " Citizen Executive Officer " and an individual (the smallest minority on earth)
Posted by Adrian W. on 01/05/11 09:29 AM
So it seems, by distorting America through the years from a Republic into a Democracy, the Power Elite were able to gain a toehold into the political system. Now, through deception of a Democratic nation, the PE have hidden behind the false sense of liberty through the vote. Unfortunately, the majority of the masses didn't understand that the 2 major political parties are bought and paid for. With mass media owned by the PE it made it quite simple to coerce the feeble minded masses into which ever direction was intended. The minority of enlightened people did not have the means to help enlighten those that were blind to the fact. I think Kennedy tried in his own way but was stopped by the PE.
The internet, a cheap form of immediate and worldwide communication has leveled the mass media playing field. Helping to open the eyes of millions to whats going on in politics. Time will show whether the PE will have their cake and eat it too. Perhaps the majority will be on the "freedom" side of voting and the gig will be up for awhile at least even if its done under the color of democratic rule.
Posted by Daniel on 01/05/11 05:11 AM
Dear Dr. Machan,
Very good article, and I think you should consider these extra concepts below when considering the real limitations and even dangers of Democracy.
First of all, Democracy can and will be corrupted and dangerous, exactly as you mention, when Democracy is elevated as the Supreme Good and Supreme Value in political society.
The ancient Greeks tested all socio-political systems and found that Democracy quickly degenerates into Ochlocracy (the rule of mobs), with one commentator saying that Democracy is worse than wars and tyranny.
In our modern (Enlighment) political society, Democracy has been praised by Classical Liberals and also by all variants and forms of communists and socialists.
Indeed, Democracy (and the People's Democratic Republic) are demanded by ALL variants of reds, pinks, anarchists, and leftists.
There may be the "centralized democracy" variants of Lenin (for industrial societies) and Mao (for backwards rural-agricultural societies), or the "decentralized democracy" variants of Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, the New Left and all forms of social democracy.
As a curious sidenote, most athiestic socialist Jews (except Labor Zionists) invariably advocate decentralized democracy (Luxemburg, Trotsky, Marcuse, Soros etc) than centralized democracy (like Lenin and Stalin) because of their intense dislike that centralized democracy invariably ends up into manipulating the local national ethnic identity as an additional assisting centralizing factor, which then turns against other ethnic groups including into antisemitism. Then it becomes a National socialist revolution rather than a true International socialist revolution.
So we have a curious case: American constitutional patriots and libertarians love democracy (in a republican form with truly free elections) and so do all forms of leftists. How can such opposites have something so basic in common?
*** Here is my important point: Democracy with electoral mayority of 51% for DECISION-MAKING, is a form of *political state collectivism*, and is INDISPENSIBLE necessary factor for the road to Socialism. Therefore all forms of leftism give at least lip service to Democracy. If you can rig up and rouse up 51% of the vote, with the help of suppressing opposition votes through intimidation of red mobs and outright vote fraud, then you can legitimately and morally claim that the new Socialist Law is the all-sacred Will of the People. Of course, all forms of socialists and communists love "Democracy".
Lets look at the USA: Earl Browder, head of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) in the 1930s-40s, espoused that Communism and Capitalism can co-exist peacefully together. At his time he was expulsed by Stalin from CPUSA but that thinking today is what most communists/socialists think.
Why? Please read the Wikipedia entry on Gus Hall, the later head of CPUSA:
"Hall argued that socialism in the United States would be built on the traditions of U.S.-style democracy rooted in the United States Bill of Rights. He would often say Americans didn't accept the Constitution without a Bill of Rights and they won't accept socialism without a Bill of Rights. He professed deep confidence in the democratic traditions of the American people."
Gus Hall understood, that after many democratic elections with clashes of class interests making laws through pushing agendas and manipulating "mobs", that Communism can be peacefully implemented in the USA, and the US constitution can be overturn.
Therefore, American constutitionalist patriots and libertarians should not be rooting for Democracy (51% decides all) but rather, for a patchwork of real individual civil liberties that include systems of Advise and Consent, Petitioning, Referendums, Recalls & Impeachments, and local elections. All of this does NOT require Democracray, but rather a Natural Organic Society that most functions of civil society are in private groups and associations (family, church, associations, cooperatives, business firms), and the social role of the state is reduced in power and scope to being influenced only by the patchwork system above.
So in summary, Democracy as the Supreme Good, Supreme Value of political society, is a form of political state collectivism which eventually can lead to Socialism, as Democratic Socialism needs Democracy.
As an alternative, conceptually thinking, the Ancient Greeks concluded that Monarchy was the best form of government, and I think that this out-of-fashion concept should be re-explored again in a modern fashion. I say this in the spirit of taking every concept opposite to Socialism, as every idea in Socialism is built as a deliberate corruption of Natural Organic socio-political Society.
Having said that, lots of people including libertarians would prefer Democracy with all of its real and present proven dangers of degenerating into a mobocracy Socialism, rather than Monarchy.
Posted by EDD on 01/04/11 10:36 PM
@ Philip Mccormack
Thank you for the link. When I looked up the definition for democracy, it didn't sound right, but I thought I would post it anyhow. I am glad that you took the time to give me the update. I am always amazed that even the most intelligent authors refer to the U.S. as a democracy when our forefathers explicitly described our form of government as a REPUBLIC. Another way of undermining true expression about our country.
@ the DB, what do you think?
The U.S. is supposed to be a representative republic. As I have understood over the years, democracy could actually lead to 'mob rule'.
Reply from The Daily Bell
The US was set up as a republic. It was certainly not supposed to be a direct democracy.
Posted by Earl on 01/04/11 08:48 PM
Democracy is often used to implement totalitarianism the founders were not fond of democracy as a vehicle for liberty (See Federalist Papers #10). In fact the Constitution does not even mention democracy, since there is certain amount of contempt for the Constitution by the intelligentsia it is no surprise that academia is infatuated with democracy. Liberty cannot be attained through the means of democracies and as the founders aptly noted democracies had failed miserably and often resulted in violence and insurrection. The theme of democracy in America has served to subvert liberty under the guise of compassion. If we understand the Constituion then we grasp that the the highest form of liberty is found in limited government and unalienable rights.
Posted by Zenbillionaire on 01/04/11 05:25 PM
"If votes were weighted by a person's tax burden, say, 1 vote for every $1,000 in taxes paid, the overwhelming majority in every election would be voting for less government, more liberty"
This would be an improvement perhaps, it may offer comfort to those of us who pay huge amounts of tax yet seem to have far less effect on public policy than PACs and D.C. Lobbies. It might work to level the playing field a bit.
I'd add a provision to disallow voting by any person who derives significant income from public funds. A person who's existence depends on tax monies collected should neither vote on how much to collect or on how the funds are used.
Posted by Chad on 01/04/11 05:12 PM
Free societies only work when the free seek that which is good and honorable, which may or may not be profitable, in monetary terms. Once society breaks down, the free/liberated no longer mutually seek the same basic positive human goals. We see this in the USA. And what is the basis of society? The family! And how is the american/western family doing? Not so good I'd say. Divorce, Gay concepts, etc... The only question then is how do we rebuild the family? No government can do this! Who can save us, I wonder?
Posted by Jeff on 01/04/11 04:07 PM
Posted by Lejano on 01/04/11 03:33 PM
The good Doctor has laid it out, chapter and verse, within a breath of how the founders said they wanted it done. No question or argument about their intent. They all were very articulate about describing their country; and where they were not, they argued. These men who pledged their "sacred honor" to the result of their labor, left us the freedom to make mistkes without damaging the framework they had built. Today, freedom is given too much lip service, a quick nod of the head and a glancing response that suggests our freedom is a given that they cannot discuss with comfort.
Posted by Philip Mccormack on 01/04/11 03:00 PM
@EDD Your definition of democracy is incorrect, see my post above. If it is representative it is not democracy. Democracy is not how the majority votes or suffrage. Go to Click to view link
I don't think Tibor Machan will give you a reply-he doesn't understand Common Law Trial by Jury and has to my knowledge never defined true real Democracy. This is why Western so called democracies no longer have T by J for all crimes criminal and civil.(not impeachment). Happy New Year
Posted by Capitalanarchist on 01/04/11 12:47 PM
Dr. Machan, you point out, "The only apparent exception [to the consent requirement] is when it comes to laws that protect everyone's rights. One may indeed be ordered not to kill, rob, rape, burglarize, and assault other persons, even if one fails to consent to this. And when the legal authorities do this job of protecting individual rights, they may order one to abstain from all such aggressive actions."
I suggest that to that list of acts for which sanctions may be unilaterally imposed we *must* add the abuse of power by govt agents, i.e. the use of force to which we have not consented.
This raises an obvious question. What agency or agencies will impose sanctions on such over-reaching govt agents? This is such an old question that it is well-known in Latin: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Such watcher-watchers seem to me to be yet another institution of govt and one very difficult to distinguish from the original watchees, so to speak. It also seems to me that we are beginning on an infinite regress into a never-ending chain of watchers.
As this is a logical impossibility, it finally seems to me that any attempt at institutionally limiting the scope of govt of any kind, even one that with the best of intentions is constituted to avoid any intrusion on liberty, is doomed.
Posted by Silver Lady on 01/04/11 12:25 PM
I believe it can be explained in two words: United Nations. Further as U.N. Educational, Scientific, & Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Our country's N.E.A., whose original funding was from the Rockefeller, Carnegie and Ford Foundations, is an avid supporter of the UNESCO and follows its educational guidelines to the letter.
Look up the NEA timeline. http://www.crossroad.to/Excerpts/chronologies/nea.htm
The UNESCO educational doctrine: Click to view link
I think we are all aware of the U.N.'s agenda. The schools are its tools. Fabian Socialism is the machine.
Click to view link
Posted by Dogwood on 01/04/11 11:39 AM
On this topic – the repeal of the 17th Amendment.
The media is running another "Ignorance Meme" with respect to the Tea Party. The media is saying that the Tea Party is so very dumb because the direct election of senators was a victory for *democracy*
Never do they explain the brute force fact of the situation, and so most people, ironically, remain happily ignorant.
Posted by Cosmogenes on 01/04/11 11:27 AM
It takes someone like Tibor, familiar with the political disasters of Eastern and Central Europe, to see the precipitous trends in the rest of the world, including the USA. When a democracy abandons its focus on liberty, it will tend to develop the "New Class" pohenomenon revealed by Milovan Djilas of Yugoslavia. At this point public policy is no longer aimed at protecting the rights and liberty of individual citizens, but rather at protecting the interest of the military-industrial-political elite.
Posted by James P. Harvey on 01/04/11 10:36 AM
Incredibly, most people seem incapable of examining both sides of issues that affects society before committing to one uninformed opinion or another; human nature then produces a majority of uninformed citizens who demand that superior numbers prove their opinion is right and the minority should conform to them. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this insanely arrogant and obnoxious event called Democracy?
Another equally obnoxious group believes that everyone should be grateful to live in a country where a group of people gets paid obscene amounts of money from private interest to pass laws written by these private interest groups, at the expense of everyone else. They actually believe that, we the people want a government whose sole purpose is to assist certain people in obtaining control over different areas of commerce. Historically, thieves always succeed in a Republic, and a Democracy is always suicidal.
Our only hope is that writer's of Dr. Machan's ability will wake the fools up.
Posted by Robin OC on 01/04/11 10:09 AM
Another case for teaching the ten commandments, since you cannot legislate conscience.
Posted by Siegfried on 01/04/11 09:53 AM
To me the most disgusting part of present western "democracies" is their public discourse of freedom, of "good" vs evil foreign regimes, the self awarded moral superiority, the infallibility of the current system (the corrupts are at most some officials that happen to appear now and then), and how this repulsive pantomime is constantly being dumped to us by the media, education, and all the institutions that are supposedly able to do some critical thinking, everything wrapped in the most amazing colourful amusements of the modern age.
Especially the media, where our political leaders like vedettes surrounded by the other feathered performers of their parties stage all kinds of bloody quarrels and disagreements on the most minuscule and irrelevant subjects. Everything is verbal, a huge immense pile of nonsensical statements.
Language is a huge casualty in this sour struggle of the world and the PE, its demise accelerated by the growth of mass media and political correctness. Words end up meaning their opposite, or become a diffuse cloud that can mean anything and thus always somehow true.
Western "democracies" (and their puppet masters) are sustained by layer upon layer of language distortion, embezzlement and twisting. No doubt one of the key elements of their success has been their ability to gradually lower the language comprehension we get from education.
Luckily their reliance on general stupidity means that a careful listening of their own words is enough to expose the masquerade.
Posted by C.J. on 01/04/11 09:44 AM
Re: Fine Tuning Democracy
It certainly isn't a "politically correct" idea, but I'm confident some form of weighted voting would be a better system than the one-man-one-vote system in place today. Perhaps votes weighted by one's tax burden, or even a voluntary voting system with voluntary taxes: pay a certain dollar amount in taxes and you can vote, don't pay, don't vote. The poll tax, as it were.
If people don't have an iron in the fire, they have no incentive to worry about anyone else's rights. Then we get 60 million Americans voting for bread and circuses that 56 million others will have to pay for. That isn't how liberty is supposed to work. But if votes were weighted by a person's tax burden, say, 1 vote for every $1,000 in taxes paid, the overwhelming majority in every election would be voting for less government, more liberty.
But then we'd have every neo-liberal interest group in the country as well as the UNHRC and every other international joke organization claiming people are being disenfranchised.
Posted by Mountainview on 01/04/11 09:10 AM
Thank you for taking up this discussion on liberty and democracy which will turn out to be a core topic of the next few years.
The risk is that our democracies turn into dictatorships of the poor (there is always a majority to tax the richer) or the old (children can't vote; demography leads to older populations).
Further the current fiscal problems are asking for very unpopular decisions, which will never find democratic approval.
So how democracy can be fine tuned to defend the core of it's idea-individual liberty?
Japan think about giving votes to children (represented by their parents until they reach maturity).
Weighted votes for certain issues should be examined (the voter should make prove that he understands the issue).
Reflexion in this direction have to take place otherwise democracy could head to self-destruction (as happened in Germany 1933).