Democracy versus Liberty
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 are 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. It 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.
Posted by John the Just on 03/16/12 03:38 PM
I don't think he has it 'totally' wrong. If you Google [Democracy definition], you will find that in common usage the term carries some baggage: 'Many people use the term 'democracy' as shorthand for liberal democracy, which may include elements such as political pluralism; equality before the law; the right to petition elected officials for redress of grievances; due process; civil liberties; human rights; and elements of civil society outside the government.' Click to view link
This is not to say that you are incorrect in your distinction. But to give Dr. Machan a little slack, that wasn't the point he was trying to make. He didn't take the time to bring folks up to speed on your distinction. He was just pointing out how our institutions of learning have dumbed down the subject of what the Founders were striving for as laid out in the Declaration of Independence - specifically blurring the distinction and relative importances between Democracy and Liberty.
But to take up your point about the wonders of a Republic… If the united States of America is your model, you can see by the headlines just how well that Republic worked out as the bastion of Liberty. At the very best, a Republic is just slow Mob Rule. It's like a sea anchor put in place by those who wrote the rules for the Republic - written in an attempt to keep the status quo for their perceived benefit. Whatever the artifice however, the will of the People will inevitably drag that anchor into new waters.
For an attempt to capture the best of Direct Democracy and Representative Democracy, please see my suggestions at Click to view link.
Posted by John the Just on 03/16/12 03:00 PM
Well stated! But I believe there is hope. I see the Internet (along with DB), computers, and cellphones as the technologies that can deliver us to security in our Lives, Liberty and Property.
There is a very insightful speech entitled "CIA Whistle Blower Reveals The Truth About Government," by the ex-presidential candidate of the Reform Party at Click to view link. He quite forcefully lays out the situation the US finds itself in, and suggests that by a concerted effort, Bloggers specifically, can band together to get the truth out. He sees the problem, and a general idea of the solution. I think I have a specific solution. Please go to Click to view link.
Posted by John the Just on 03/16/12 02:14 PM
A superb article. You make vital differentiations. Without knowing what the building blocks are of a specific argument, it is impossible to reach logical conclusions. In this case we are talking about arriving at the blueprints for the Society in which we wish to live. (It has some relevance.)
The reason that Democracy is less important than Liberty is that Liberty is fully one third of the primary aspects of Human Nature; Democracy is as you say - just one of many methods by which decisions can be reached within groups. Historically it has been generally agreed that a Benign Dictatorship, not Democracy, is the best form of government. But I don't think that anyone but the most dyed-in-the-wool Statist would raise the argument that therefore a Dictatorship is more important than Liberty.
The other two aspects of Human Nature, which are also featured in the Declaration, are: Life and Property; Property is phrased as "the pursuit of happiness." Looked at in more fundamental terms, Life reduces to Being, Liberty to Doing, and Property to Having. In fact this triumvirate of Being, Doing, and Having, are the basic aspects of all living creatures. You can look at any plant or animal and see that whichever critter you pick - if it contains the magic of Life, it engages in activities towards survival, and it acquires or modifies things as the result of those activities - Be, Do, Have.
I hope you agree with me about the primacy of Be, Do, and Have when discussing any life form - and that in Man they express themselves as Life, Liberty, and Property. Similarly, I think it is useful to understand this basic triumvirate as 'Human Nature,' rather than 'Human Rights.' Talking about your Rights is talking about what some other agency grants you as a generality along with others. Talking about your Human Nature is talking about who you 'are' as an Individual. That differentiation allows some of the boys to get together of a Saturday night and eat each others' shinbones. While I personally don't subscribe to cannibalism, neither do I hold myself innately superior to those (hopefully few) who do.
Just as Democracy is of a lesser level than Liberty, so are Rights lesser than one's Human Nature. The concept of the Group springs from the Individual, and the concepts of Democracy and Rights spring from the Group. And when thinking of Groups - whether it is the local Library Committee or the New World Order - it is not a question of, 'Which came first - the chicken or the egg?" It is a question of, "Which came first - the chicken or the flock?' (Hint: It's us chickens.)
And just as we need to speak of Liberty as more important than any tool we may employ to secure it (Democracy in this case), it is also critical not to lose sight of the Be and the Have aspect of Man's Human Nature - referring to his enjoying the magic of Life, and the acquiring of the things (Property) that he as an Individual thinks are important. We need to keep these other two concepts alive in our discussions when contemplating Liberty. Life, Liberty and Property are of an interdependent and of co-equal importance as aspects of a man's or woman's Human Nature. They must all be contemplated when considering how a Society could be created for the optimal association of the Sovereign Individuals in that Society. It is the Sovereign Individual and his Human Nature that should be the focus of our attention when we think about getting it right.
Posted by jahfre on 03/13/12 12:02 PM
Consent of the governed is a unicorn... has no basis in the real world of action and consequences.
-Jahfre Fire Eater
Posted by PAyank on 03/11/12 01:17 AM
"In a republic, which we had till the Feds won the Civil War and we went into perpetual war powers, we have sovereign rights and common law and a government tasked to protect our rights."
And your right to own other people? Educate yourself.
Posted by PAyank on 03/11/12 01:12 AM
First, just to shed light on a slight misrepresentation of cause and effect. To say "a democratic election put Hitler in power and destroyed democracy' is a bit fallacious in that the Weimar election in 1932 re-elected Hindenberg who later 'appointed' Hitler as Chancellor. HItler than succeeded Hindenberg at his death in 1934. No elections followed.
Second is that you use a trick of debate to make your case against the threat of government. That trick is how you define the playing field. The most vocal libertarians define the "battle" as between the "individual" and "government" leaving totally out of the argument the incredible power and influence money and power in the private/corporate sector have over our individual liberties. Arguably the negative impact of the private, corporate East India Company on human liberty in the 17th century at least equals, if not exceeds, that of the actual crown. The same can be said of the private economic interests, e.g. oil, that have driven U.S. foreign and domestic policy for at least the last 60 years and have cost us tens of thousands of American lives in useless and illegal wars. And the unrestrained and unfettered exploitation of the American economy by the avaricious 'vultures' of Wall Street during the 2000s.
Unless you address the threats against our liberty from the corrupt wealth/corporate sector, you are only telling a half truth. And a half-truth is a lie.
Posted by c.martel on 03/08/12 03:20 PM
Well said! No wonder our Founding Fathers in all their Godly Wisdom referred to it as ... "the tyranny of democracy".
Posted by Danny B on 03/06/12 11:05 PM
Forgot my link.
"The U.S. ranks 86th in the world for the costs imposed on business by organized crime"
Click to view link
Posted by Danny B on 03/06/12 10:44 PM
Democracy, mob rule,,,, it CAN work under certain conditions. In Ancient Athens 30--50 % of the population were slaves. It was much higher in Sparta.
Universal suffrage doesn't have a good track record either.
In any society, there will always be useless individuals. In a republic, they will desire support. In a democracy they will DEMAND support.
In a republic, support is doled out by people who have a desire to see the continuity of the society. In a democracy, support is doled out by people who are only interested in their own personal continuity.
In a general sense, mob-rule apportions support beyond the productive capacity of the society. In a republic, the consumptive appetites of the non-producers are restricted to what the society/economy can produce.
Once the non-producers get control of disbursement of wealth, the economy is on the road to ruin. No matter if they be bankers, priests of mental defectives.
Historically, priests and thieves got the first slot at surviving without producing. Politicians and bankers came later.
Priests and thieves are the most institutionalized. Jesuits and jews and mafia. The Yakuza even have offices. As productivity becomes more mechanized and computerized, increasing numbers of people find that they have no PRODUCTIVE niche. The redundant must seek a niche with the priests and thieves. Nobody wants to be a beggar.
You can be very sure that the priests and thieves, bankers and politicians don't want the producers to have any choice in the matter.
Posted by SSMcDonald on 03/06/12 07:14 AM
Dr. Machan has this totally wrong. He describes a Republic, using USA founding documents for example and calls it a democracy. In simple terms, democracy is majority rule in every instance. One example is two wolves and a sheep determining hat to have for dinner. Another better example is a lynch mob; too bad for the minority opinion. Correctly, a Republic is a system of in-place laws initially decided upon by a majority, that govern in all instances. A Republic does not sway with the winds of change at any given moment as does a democracy. Lastly, LIBERTY is more a product of a Republic.
Posted by netblogger on 03/06/12 12:03 AM
To think there is liberty in democracy is a fallacy. Democracy is stupidity. Democracy is weakness and fragmentation. It is also a tyranny of its own kind, for it expects rigid party loyalty from its elected members, and punishment comes down on those who dare listen to the voice of the people. Its propaganda creates a world of brainwashed artificial enthusiasts thinking democracy will solve all their problems once they have achieved it. But when democracy has arrived as they demanded, they find a world of contention with too many wanting to be chiefs and not enough "Indians".
The affairs of a democratic country are run by confrontation instead of cooperation. The system is incapable of working harmoniously and its party system guarantees merely short-term dictatorships which are voted out of office when the people are fed up and then see them replaced by another short-term dictatorship.
Democratic leaders never know what is really going on in their countries, because the bureaucracy under them never informs them of things they should know for the protection of the people. Their politicians are opportunists out for milking the public trough for all it can offer and then surround themselves with immunity from prosecution for the damage they have done to the nation. That fact alone opens the doorway for powerful elitists to assume control, as they never have to stand before the people and become elected. Very convenient, would you not say? And so the hidden real rulers of this world call politicians "idiots".
The system itself is tailored to be run by only one profession: LAWYERS. A democracy is rife with fraud, back- scratching and pork-barreling and does not allow for true leadership of positive quality. A democracy has no intrinsic power to do good and in that is only capable of scattering the life of a nation.
DEMOCRACY MAKES NO ALLOWANCE FOR RIGHTEOUS LEADERSHIP and for that reason alone must be rejected as an option to the running of a country. Only governmental stability can achieve liberty for the people, for only a stable government is capable of controlling the smooth flow of affairs at all times. The moment a government is subject to be overthrown by the people through an election, that government will always feel insecure and allow unaccountable bureaucrats the real power, for their offices are never up for election.
A righteous ruler is always loved by his people, be he a King, Caesar, Sultan, Prime Minister or President, but his office must be guaranteed stability until he volunteers to hand his reign over to another worthy leader of his choice.
And a righteous leader will never allow others to make him the target of mockery as is customary in western democracies throughout the newspapers' cartoons. That dishonours him and undermines his credibility with the people. A true leader's strength is the love of his people. True freedom can only come to the people under the firm hand of righteous rule!
Posted by nomad181 on 03/05/12 10:29 PM
Good article to a point.
You use our brainwashed idea that democracy=republic, which it does NOT. A democracy is one vote per person and is therefore Mob rule, majority rule regardless of your rights. In a republic, which we had till the Feds won the Civil War and we went into perpetual war powers, we have sovereign rights and common law and a government tasked to protect our rights. In a democracy, we have majority rule, basically communism where the government(everyone) rules everything. It is basically divide and conquer. If they have us using the wrong terms and asking the wrong questions, the elite are safe!
Educate yourselves. Go read court cases at Click to view link and prepare to have your mind expanded and learn new and proper meanings to common legal terms. You will learn what your Rights truly are(from God, not government).
Good luck and have fun!
Posted by oldman67 on 03/05/12 06:02 PM
Once we signed our Social Security card we stopped being free.
Posted by rossbcan on 03/05/12 05:29 PM
Democracy versus Liberty
is Predator (manipulated majority) versus Prey (productive)
TM: "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. It cannot be otherwise unless there is prior agreement by all to accept such a process."
Dump the "unless", equvalent to "but", discounting all that precedes.
Could have done much better than this or, at least qualified:
a) - consent can be withdrawn, at any time
b) - consent has not been given by non-voters, nor the unborn
... meaning, our ancestors cannot have voted us into servitude (the law, falsely claiming to be eternally irrevocable) and, consent is only between those whom agreed, in the areas that they have agreed upon.
and, it is safe to assume that "informed consent" would never be given for being harmed, which is what the status quo amounts to.
Posted by Ol' Grey Ghost on 03/05/12 03:19 PM
Obeisance of the institution of democracy always remind me of the Russian fable of a pack of four wolves and a sheep. The sheep and the wolves were all engaged in a heated debate over what (or more specifically, who) they were going to eat for supper. In the end they decided to be democratic about the situation and take a vote. I'm sure that I don't have to tell anyone the results of that election. Though not in the original story, I'm sure that when the sheep started to raise a protest the wolves replied, "Why are you complaining? You got to express yourself. Now we are just carrying out the will of the people."
And that is what our elected benevolent government officials truly are: a pack of wolves who feel empowered by winning some type of kindergarten popularity contest. "The people have spoken!" Even when 50% less one voted against them.
Let's have a real democratic election and end all the bickering once and for all...
Click to view link
Posted by Libertarian Jerry on 03/05/12 08:07 AM
Good article Tibor... ..What we are witnessing in America is the triumph of Cultural Marxism over the Founder's concepts of Liberty as laid out in the Bill of Rights. That is the changing of the language to reflect collectivist ideals. So,instead of a Republic we have a Democracy. Instead of Rights we have Privileges. The substitution of equitable interest for property rights. The substitution of licensing for a definite right and on and on. It's a roundabout way of converting a nation conceived in liberty to one of mob rule that eventually slips into a nation of tyranny controlled by a small elite. The challenge is how to stop and reverse the rot. I'm afraid,for America,it maybe too late.
Posted by Merridth80 on 03/05/12 05:55 AM
And yes! in America it seems that is all we have left! Just the right tovote. But with soetoro's/bamer's next term we won't even have that.
This will be the cruelest dictatorship the world has seen!
And Yes , he thinks we gave him the right to do it!!!!
Posted by Mark M on 03/05/12 04:18 AM
The following is taken from an insert (REV. 6/2011) included with a jury qualification questionnaire from the United States District Court:
"Jury service is both a privilege and an obligation of every American. It is the most direct way citizens can participate in our democracy."
... our democracy. I am not sure if this is intentional but it certainly bears witness to the fact that when our words lack precision knowledge cannot be imparted. Speaking of precision, is it now accepted that unalienable and inalienable mean the same thing?