The Democratic Ideal
By Tibor Machan - February 04, 2013

In this essay I wish to revisit democracy since all the power that our current administration is claiming for itself is supposedly justified by way of the democratic method. But, in fact, only a properly limited democracy is politically just and justified.

Democracy is a process by which some decisions are made and in the context of politics it means the kind of system that depends upon the participation of the citizenry for certain purposes. What grounds democracy as a just mode of political decision-making is that citizens have the ultimate authority concerning certain matters in the polis. And the reason they do have this ultimate authority is that they are, as adults, equal in their status vis-à-vis the stake they have in their political institutions, their laws, public policies, foreign relations, etc. That they have this equal status hinges on certain extra or pre-political matters, to be discerned by way of reflection upon human nature and proper human relations.

For now, I'll simply note that as I understand political matters, they arise from the moral fact that each individual adult human being has as his or her task in life to live it rationally, to flourish as a rational animal. Since this task for adults can only be achieved if they are not unwillingly subject to the rule of others – in which case it is that other individual's rational choice that would be the ruling principle of one's life – in just communities human beings must be sovereign. From this it follows that they must have a say in their own political fate, ergo, democracy.

In any case, democracy is derivative of what human beings are taken to be as they find themselves within a community that aims at justice, a polity. From the Hobbesian framework, democracy is recommended because all of us are nothing but bits of matter-in-motion and thus lack any significant, fundamental differentiating attributes. Even our human nature is but nominal, a status in the world established by means of the human intellect's response to the motions that effect the brain, a response itself motivated by the drive for self-preservation or keeping in continued motion in part by naming groups of impulses affecting the brain. We make the categories, create them by naming our sensory input as we will. So the reason for democracy a la the Hobbesian view is that nothing justifies differentiating some people from others (indeed, if one were to be fully consistent, anything from anything else, at the metaphysical, fundamental level of being.)

A somewhat different reason for democracy arises from the Lockean view, one closer to what I sketched above as my own. For Locke, at least when we turn to his political treatise, we are all equal and independent in the state of nature, i.e., prior to the formation or apart from civil society or the polis. Adult human beings begin, never mind the precise point of reaching adulthood, as equally embarking on a human life, one that is to be governed by the laws of nature, which is reason, if one but consult it. In other words, we are all moral agents having to live up to our moral responsibilities or duties, and in this we are all alike. So we are all endowed with natural rights, which spell out for each of us a sphere of sovereignty or personal authority or jurisdiction. There are no natural masters or natural slaves (although there may be borderline cases of defective or crucially incapacitated persons). If this is kept in clear focus, one will realize that a human community starts with no one superior or inferior regarding the issue of the authority to make law and to govern. Thus, democracy.

But democracy is a process, morally required by the right to take part in deciding or to give consent. It is, in fact, our natural right to person and estate that lies behind the right to be part of the decision-making process involved in politics. It is not a process that is applicable to everything one might want to influence, however. There is a proper sphere of democracy.

Clearly, there are those who propose that democracy is unlimited – only the fact that people will things to be one way or another matters. Some interpreters of Locke have claimed this, e.g., Wilmore Kendall and his followers as well as some conservatives, e.g., the late Judge Robert Bork. Thus they argue that once human beings are no longer in a state of nature, they have in effect adopted democracy as a decision-making process regarding whatever comes up for public discussion, whatever a sizable number of them want to subject to this process.

Yet this seems to me to be wrong, whatever the proper interpretation of Locke might be, and I would dispute that Locke can be coherently interpreted this way. For in Locke, the justification for government lies in the need for the protection of natural rights, a protection not easily obtained (except by the strong) in the state of nature. (And the state of nature need not be a source of much intellectual consternation – it refers to a circumstance not governed by due process or the rule of law, one we may even encounter in a back alley or away from civilization where we can be easy prey for thugs. In the classic movie, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," it was the situation prior to when John Wayne enabled Jimmy Stuart to establish law and order. In actual life it is the situation one may face in the middle of the Mojave Desert or in any inner city park where law enforcement is nearly nil.)

So Locke sees the protection of everyone's natural rights as the proper purpose of government. Since establishing, maintaining and protecting government is itself a form of human activity that can be done well or badly, it must be guided by the principles of natural rights – its creation, development and operations may not encroach upon those rights, lest its proper purpose is undermined. Perhaps the best way to understand this is by recalling the common sense notion that even the securing of highly valued goals does not justify the employment of immoral means.

Quite apart from Locke, in any case, unless democracy is itself guided by norms – unless the people express and implement their will as they should and not as they should not – it becomes self-defeating. Not only is there the problem that such a process is in violation of the rights of innocents who would be made victims of the use of arbitrary force.

Unlimited democracy, furthermore, can undo democracy itself. If democracy, for example, is applied too broadly, it is bent upon defeating its very purpose, the goal that justifies its employment. To provide a hint via a possible result of the democratic process, suppose that we democratically vote to exclude some people from the voting process. This is a legacy of some state governments in the United States of America, as well as the efforts of the federal government. When the possibility of voting is linked to property ownership or some other condition, the democratic process is weakened.

It also occurs when the federal government focuses on what has come to be called inclusiveness so that, for the sake of including into the governing process members of some minority groups, it is decided that other members should be given lower representation. Such group inclusiveness undermines the natural rights of individuals to take part in the political process, a right that derives from their right to liberty of association. Yet the underlying justification for democracy is that individuals have the right to consent to their government. In other words, if the democratic process can justifiably produce governmental measures that violate the natural rights of individuals, this undermines the capacity of these individuals to be full, equally free participants in the democratic process.

Other kinds of cases abound. If by the democratic process the rights to life, liberty or property could justifiably be abrogated or violated, those taking part in the process no longer can act freely and independently. The majority can threaten their free judgments. It can enact measures that will authorize vindictive official actions against the minority, something that inevitably leads to the undermining of democracy. That is just why the "democracies" of Eastern Europe were a complete farce despite the great numbers of participants in the actual electoral process. The parties, however, had no liberty to vote as they wanted, for whom they wanted.

If when I vote I know that voting my conscience will result in having my sovereignty undermined, leading to my partial enslavement or involuntary servitude, I will not likely vote my conscience. I will act like the victim of the mugger who is told, "Your money or your life!" When I hand over my money I do it under compulsion, not by choice. (It is a myth that we always have a choice, for a choice that is set out by others regarding one's life, that robs one of one's life and takes away the prospects of a self-governed future is no choice.) If a democratic process allows the similar act on the part of the majority, the members of the minority will vote – voice their judgment, indicate their preferences – under severe constraint. No true majority will can emerge under the circumstances.

We can extend this analysis now to the realm of contemporary politics in Western democracies. Let's focus on the general situation in the United States of America today.


Whenever public programs are being cut, those who have their benefits reduced offer cries of need and those who feel for them cries of compassion. Yet whenever public programs are proposed, which also cuts out the benefits of those who need to pay for it from higher taxes, it is contended that this is just the result of social life. After all, "we" have decided to fund social security, unemployment compensation, the national parks, public broadcasting, or whatnot, haven't we? So it is no objection to this that some of us suffer losses, that some of us now have to forgo benefits and experience reduced income which can lead to reduced quality of education, recreation, home life, dental care, transportation safety, cultural enrichment and so forth. None of this is supposed to matter because "we" have decided to tax ourselves higher to fund all those public programs. Why is it that it is okay to violate the individual rights to liberty and property of millions of people when the lot of us decide to do this but not okay to reduce the benefits of people when a somewhat differently configured lot of us decide to do that? Why may the choices of some individuals be ignored and thwarted by democratic decision making but not that of others trumped by the same process? The fact is that most people who talk of and like democracy in the context of the currently bloated understanding do so only when it supports their agenda. It is fine to use democracy to rob the rich – it makes it valid public policy instead of theft. But if the poor are the targets than suddenly democracy is invalid.

Indeed, the reason is, as suggested earlier, that democracy is never enough. There must always be some specification of the goals for which democracy is appropriate. It isn't enough to have a democratic process – it can lead to results of widely different quality. Sometimes the majority does right, sometimes wrong. And the task of political theory is, in part, to identify those areas of public life that should be subject to democratic decision-making.

What are those areas? And why are they the ones?

Whether alone or with his or her fellows, a human being may not do some things to other human beings. Especially, no one may take over another's life. This is so whether that other's life is fortunate, well to do, talented, accomplished, beautiful, accepted by others and freely granted benefits. In short, neither the fortunate, let alone accomplished, nor those lacking in good fortune are available for others to be used when permission hasn't been granted, when consent is not given. In either kind of case, no one or group may take over another's life – it amounts to the kind of crime classified, variously, as theft, robbery, assault, kidnapping, murder, battery, rape, and other forms of aggression. And the fact that the numbers of those who do such things is increased and even constitute a majority of those concerned makes no difference. Nor does the fact that some procedure has been followed as these policies are instituted, for lacking the consent, tacit or at least implicit, of those who are to be deprived, makes any such process invalid, unjust, undue.

It is wrong to steal on one's own as well as with the support of millions. It is wrong to enslave, to place others into servitude when they refuse, etc., no matter whether one is in the minority or the majority.

Nor can majorities authorize certain people, their political representatives, to carry out such deeds, even if they do it indirectly, by threatening those whom they would rob, steal from, kidnap, assault or whatever with aggressive enforcement at the hands of the police. It is wrong, then, even for the government of a representative democracy or republic to carry out such deeds. Having done it with democratic "authorization" makes it no more right than if no such authorization had taken place. There is simply no moral authority for anyone to delegate to another such powers since one hasn't got them in the first place. If my friends and I enact an elaborate process, surrounded with pomp and circumstances, ritual and ornamentation, to commence kidnapping your children or confiscating your wealth, all this is morally and politically trumped by the fact that your consent to the process has been lacking. Unless you are a criminal, who has by his or her crime in effect tacitly agreed to accept our forcible (self-protective) response, you may not be intruded upon.

Most of this is admitted by all the parties to the debate. This is why even when the people elect certain political representatives (for example, conservative Republicans), others (for example, liberal Democrats) often claim that what results, in terms of legitimation, is wrong and should not have been done. They maintain this in various political forums that are supposedly the spheres of democratic decision-making. So they evidently think that what the democratic process produces is not decisive as to what ought to be done. Even if a law passes, critics will call it wrong – heartless, unkind, lacking in compassion. Even supporters of legal positivism, who discount any moral dimension of the legislative process, such as the obligation to be guided by natural or divine law, will protest democratic attacks upon values other than democracy. Because no one simply accepts the answer to a challenge of a democratically arrived at result which they find morally abhorrent that, well, it was brought about by way of the democratic process – "we" did it, so it's okay, a matter of society's collective will. (Even in criminal trials, the mini-democracy of jury verdict is governed by firm provisions of due process and with opportunities of appeal.)

It is, then, no valid answer to those who protest the taking of their life – time, income, good fortune or whatever – by majority vote that, well, this is okay since it is done democratically. The violation of the rights of individuals is no more justified by democracy than is collective callousness. Which raises the issue of how to be kind, compassionate, generous and helpful to those in genuine need without violating the rights of individuals to life, liberty and property.

The answer is actually quite plain: Do it, promote it and exhibit it by your own conduct! When members of a society learn that moral principles cannot justly be violated by the democratic process so they may not violate anyone's rights with the excuse that "we" did it so it's okay, they learn, also, that when the right thing must be done, it has to be done by choice, free of coercion. The help that the poor and needy should be given must be given at the initiative of the free citizen – via charity, generosity, philanthropy and, yes, the facilitation of productive opportunity.

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