Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Free Society & Democracy

Tibor R. Machan

Around the world democracy is often thought to be the system of liberty. A free country is often thought to be identical with a democratic one. And while this is wrong, the mistake is understandable. For too many millions of people progress toward liberty begins with gaining the vote, with managing to have some, however small, measure of influence on public policy as opposed to having public affairs dictated by some unelected chief of state or some unelected group of thugs. So to get at least a bit of influence—to gain the right to vote—is a step in the right direction toward becoming free.

But in a truly free society democracy has to be strictly limited. For starters, it cannot involved voting on how non-consenting citizens should act and use their labor and property. Democracy can involve no more than the selection of the administrators of the legal system and such as system must be strictly limited to the protection of everyone’s basic individual rights. In short, people may vote for who the sheriff will be but not on whether the sheriff may rob Peter to help out Paul. The sheriff may only act in the capacity of a peace officer, as a crime fighter, as the defender of the citizenry from domestic and foreign aggressors.

Now this shows very clearly and plainly that we do not live in a truly free society anywhere on the globe, not even in the United States of America. That’s not to say America is a full blow tyranny or that we do not enjoy far more liberty than do citizens—“subjects”—of most other nations around the globe. Just as is implicit in the way some organizations such as Freedom House rank countries, there are more or less free societies around the world. And compared to most eras in human history, there are societies these days that enjoy institutions and laws that come near to making them free, considering how brutal and Draconian tyrannies and despotisms had been in the past and were not all that long ago. Yet even today many societies are ruled top-down in more or less totalitarian fashion and things could get worse—there is no automatic progress toward freedom in the world.

The original statement of the way America was supposed to differ from other societies, laid out in the Declaration, made it abundantly plain that democracy may not trump individual rights. That is what is meant by calling the rights of all human beings unalienable—nothing and no one may strip individuals of these rights; nothing and no one may justifiably act to violate those rights.

Unfortunately the urgency involved in building a new country, despite all the good ideas most of the Founders had about how to devise it, made it very difficult to stick to the basic ideas of the Declaration. So the Constitution didn’t do justice to its principles, just as Lincoln explained when he invoked the Declaration’s ideals to try to remedy the Constitution. (Sadly, even Lincoln didn’t quite stick to those excellent ideas.)

For those who appreciate how vital liberty is to the maintenance of a just system of law, it is difficult in our day to tell just what one is to do, especially when the available selections during elections nearly all betray the principles of liberty. Will voting for a Hillary Clinton make American a freer society than it is now? How about voting for Rudy Giuliani? We don’t even have the kind of system, as many countries do, where many candidates can run for office in the final race so that citizens can at least register a sizable preference for other than the winner. It is certainly very frustrating to have to choose between two candidates who have no serious concern for what a free society requires.

But in some ways it may still be possible for some people to vote so as to guide the country in the direction of a truly free society. Just what that involves can vary a great deal from one region of the country to another, from what’s at stake in one election versus in another. Voters are intelligent enough to figure out what will get the country closer to a free society, although they do not often use their intelligence for that purpose. As it stands now, most often, sadly, they use it to figure how many goodies they can get at others’ expense by means of casting their votes. (That’s just what Alexis de Tocqueville warned us against in his famous Democracy in America!)

The original idea that what American should be is free, first and foremost, is getting hardly any attention in our democracy.

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