We’ve been brought up to think that democracy, i.e., rule by the people, is a good thing. Most of the wars that the United States has fought in its history have been, purportedly, to make the world safe for democracy or to spread democracy to those who have lived under oppressive tyrannies. It would be safe to say that for the ordinary American, democracy is equivalent with liberty. It’s often been said that democracy may not be the perfect form of government, but it’s better than all its predecessors.
I want to debunk this notion. As I’ve studied the concept of individual liberty, I’ve come to realize that not only is democracy not equivalent with liberty, but in some subtle ways, democracy may be even more detrimental to individual liberty than other forms of government. Some of the most evil and oppressive regimes in the past century were democratically elected, yet they did more harm to the cause of individual liberty than the old monarchies of Europe.
Let’s examine my ‘outrageous’ claim. In more historic forms of government — e.g., empires or monarchies — governing power resided in one individual, or in the case of hereditary monarchies, one ruling family. Within these systems there was a clear delineation between the governors and the governed; an “us vs. them” dichotomy if you will. The governors lived off the resources of the governed through taxation and tribute. In return, the governed were protected by their governors (or their hired soldiers). Clearly in such political systems, if the monarch or emperor was a wise and gentle overlord, the people would prosper (relatively speaking). Similarly, if the monarch or emperor was a wicked despot, the people would suffer. Either way, the people had little or no say as to who would rule over them.
The goal for the monarch (if he wanted to enjoy a reasonably peaceful and prosperous reign) was to maintain a sort of equilibrium with the people. Tax them too heavily or treat them too badly and the monarch risked a popular revolt; and if too many people revolted, look out because the governed always outnumber the governors. In the late 18th century, a group of British colonists united to declare their independence from the tyranny of the king of England. They cited, among the many reasons, taxation without representation as one of the chief reasons for their revolt. We know how the rest of the story turned out: The British colonies declared their independence, the British fought back, the the colonists (with aid from the French) defeated the British and won their independence.
Now when the newly independent colonies set out to form a new system of government, the one they eventually decided upon, and that which is enshrined in our constitution, was a democratic republic. Why not a pure democracy? If democracy is equivalent to liberty as some naively think, why didn’t the founding fathers set up a pure democracy? The answer is simple: They knew the shortfalls of a pure democracy. In the republic the founders set up, the federal government would be comprised of of two houses. The first house, the House of Representatives, would be the people’s house. The representatives would be popularly elected by the eligible voters of each state. The second house, the Senate, would be the house that represented each individual state as a whole. Senators were chosen by the legislators of the state they represented (that is until the ill-conceived 17th amendment). The president was chosen by the electoral college, the members of which were chosen by the individual state legislators. The bottom line of all this is to say that the founders went to great lengths to ensure that the United States of America would not be a pure democracy, but rather a democratic republic.
So the question remains: Why not a democracy? Because democracies can be every bit as wicked and tyrannical as the empires, monarchies and dictatorships they often replace. Instead of tyranny by an individual or by a hereditary family, you now have tyranny by a majority of people. Whatever 50% + 1 agree to becomes the law of the land. Politicians, instead of protecting the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, sink to peddling whatever demagoguery will get them 50% + 1 of the vote. The majority can vote themselves “bread and circuses” and live off the wealth of the minority. The majority can oppress and suppress the rights of the minority. Whatever 50% + 1 of the population agree upon, the minority has to live with the consequences. Furthermore, the line of distinction between the governed and the governors is blurred. Since democracy is supposed to be government by the people, there is no “us vs. them” dichotomy between the governor and the governed. Yet in democracies, what we increasingly see are slick-tongued politicians manipulating and abusing the system to get into power by pandering to the majority.
In so doing, these demagogues instill animosity and envy between different segments of society; pitting them one against another. Rather than an “us vs. them” dichotomy between the governors and the governed, you now have an “us vs. them” dichotomy between different voting blocs within the society. Men vs. women, blacks vs. whites, rich vs. poor, white-collar workers vs. blue-collar workers, and on and on. By abusing the democratic system, the demagogues create strife and tension between the populace, while they maintain their power base and leech off of all of us. And by creating all of these false dichotomies within society, people fail to see that many of their liberties are being eroded in the process. Democracy doesn’t promote liberty and prosperity for all, but only for the majority. However, the tyranny of democracy is much easier to maintain as long as you can continue to pander to at least 50% + 1 of the populace.
This is obvious if one looks at the failure of democracy to bring lasting freedom and prosperity in the so-called third world. Many of the countries in Africa or South America were at one time petty dictatorships run by strong men. When democracy comes to these countries (usually through some ill-conceived military intervention by the United States), many of these tin-pot dictators adjust to the new system and become presidents. In other cases, those who were at one time oppressed now become the oppressors thanks to the democratic process.
The failure of democracy to promote liberty and prosperity in these countries is due to the simple fact that the people in these countries don’t truly understand what makes for freedom and prosperity. They don’t have a worldview that is based on the classical liberal ideas that formed the basis for the United States. The United States wasn’t formed in a vacuum, but in the context of the political and philosophical struggles of its era. While the British Empire was flourishing around the world, men such as John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith were exploring the ideas of liberty. The founding fathers were heavily influenced by the thought of these men, and the American experiment was the result of this ‘perfect storm’ of thought, initiative and opportunity. However, thanks to the onset of Marxist thought (which is antithetical to liberty) and its bafflingly continued acceptance in the academic community, we have lost our philosophical roots. Our politicians no longer hold to a classically liberal worldview, as such our freedoms are slowly being eroded; all thanks to the democratic process! If we want to see an increase of liberty and prosperity in the world, we need to return to the principles of classical liberalism and not bow down to the god of democracy!