One of the central tenets of progressivism has been that more democracy is the solution to “what is wrong with politics.” That is why progressives have aimed at circumventing limitations on popular opinion’s power over legislation and regulation, as if in response to Woodrow Wilson’s lament that “something intervenes between the people and the government…there must be some arm direct enough and strong enough to thrust aside the something that comes in the way,” and Theodore Roosevelt’s declaration that “I have scant patience with this talk of the tyranny of the majority.”
A century of the resultant “democracy is good” drumbeat has led “democratic” to be used for whatever is approved of politically (e.g., “our democratic way of life”), and “undemocratic” to be used for something being condemned (e.g., proposals to override the Electoral College because it is undemocratic). And the words that have lost the most rhetorical market share are liberty and tyranny. It has even led many to treat liberty and democracy as essentially the same thing. That is highly unfortunate for the “good government” idea that became America, because democracy can at least as easily decimate liberty as serve it.
Majority determination is entirely consistent with choices that destroy liberty. And there are many ways to recognize that. America’s founders said so plainly. It is also reflected in our founding documents. Many insightful observers, foreign and domestic, have understood it since then. The many endorsements clear enemies to liberty have given democracy make the same point from the opposite direction. The contractions of liberty that have accompanied “progressive” expansions of democracy reinforce that lesson to any willing to pay attention. And even a few simple questions can reveal the inconsistencies between democracy and liberty.
The American Revolution and the documents it produced are replete with praise for liberty, but far from complimentary about democracy.
John Adams asserted that Americans’ natural rights “cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws.” James Madison noted that under democracy, “There is nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party or the obnoxious individual.” Alexander Hamilton wrote that “Real Liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of Democracy.” Benjamin Rush said “A simple democracy is the devil’s own government.” Thomas Jefferson wrote that “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine,” but “elective despotism was not the government we fought for.”
Further, as Ron Paul has noted, “the word ‘democracy’ is found neither in the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence, our very founding documents.” The existence of a Constitution of limited, enumerated powers, and particularly the Bill of Rights, is clearly inconsistent with unlimited democracy. As Jacob Hornberger observed, “the Bill of Rights…doesn’t give people rights at all. Instead, it protects us from democracy.” If whatever the majority decided “democratically” at a given time was always to be law, there would be no purpose in such restrictions that explicitly put certain rights against government impositions beyond “democratic” determination.
America’s founders were echoed by Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America. He noted that democracies “undervalue the rights of private persons…often sacrificed without regret and almost always violated without remorse,” but “no private rights are so unimportant that they can be surrendered with impunity to the caprices of a government.” Therefore, to prevent that violation, “the Federal Constitution…disavowed beforehand the habitual use of compulsion in enforcing the decisions of the majority.”
James Fenimore Cooper, America’s first “national novelist,” also followed our founders’ understanding in The American Democrat, particularly in defending the Constitution’s tight constraints against majority abuses. He saw that erosion of its restrictions create “so much public right that private right is overshadowed and lost,” which results in “replacing one tyrant by many.” He recognized that “It must be an equivocal freedom, under which everyone is not the master of his own innocent acts,” as is the case with majority dictation. Cooper also saw the inconsistency between the liberty America sought and the expanded democracy we have gotten:
By leaving to the citizen as much freedom of action and of being as comports with order and the rights of others, the institutions render him truly a free man…left to pursue his means of happiness in his own manner…in endeavoring to secure the popular rights, an effect has been produced in this country totally opposed to this main object.
F.A. Harper, particularly in Liberty: A Path to its Recovery, was a more recent defender of our founders’ vision, in the face of sharply contrasting practice. Harper saw how useful confusing liberty with democracy is in enabling authoritarian government. When “you enjoy the right to be forced to bow to the dictates of others, against your wisdom and conscience,” it is “the direct opposite of liberty.” Further, “Decision by the test of dominant preference is the same operating principle as… might makes right. If might makes right, one must conclude that liberty is all wrong.”
More warning flags against conflating democracy and liberty come from unambiguous opponents of liberty’s endorsements of democracy. Karl Marx asserted “Democracy is the road to socialism,” and Vladimir Lenin said “Democracy is indispensable to socialism,” Mikhail Gorbachev echoed that “More socialism means more democracy.” Fidel Castro claimed “There is not Communism or Marxism, but representative democracy and social justice in a well-planned economy.” Vladimir Putin promised that “Nobody and nothing will stop Russia on the road to strengthening democracy.” When so many advocate democracy to advance socialism, democracy cannot expand liberty.
Reading what serious thinkers, particularly those in the libertarian tradition, have understood about liberty and democracy, offers protection against the bait and switch of democracy for liberty as America’s central value. But it is only necessary to ask a few simple questions to get the same essential insight.
Would you have liberty in the matter if a majority vote picked your clothes each day? Is the answer any different if the same was true of dinner each night? Is it any different when any other dimension of your self-ownership, from which your rights extend, is overridden by democracy? Extending the same logic further, would a majority vote on whether to enslave a minority offer them liberty? Even if the slaves were allowed to vote for their freedom again and again, would not their ability to vote still leave them slaves?
Both deep thinkers and simple questions remind us that in political democracy, every vote not aligned with majority wishes is irrelevant to the outcome. The General Welfare becomes whatever the dominant faction wants, leaving every individual right at risk. That enables democratic expropriation of rights and property from those who would keep them under liberty. And because no one ever pushed for majority determination of an issue when they expected to be a minority “loser,” we know that is the purpose of deposing liberty for democracy. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression,” and such oppression would violate “that liberty…for the preservation of which our government has been charged.”