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.