Saturday, November 08, 2008

Democracy, When It Suits Me

Tibor R. Machan

Back in the 1970s I think it was, California had one of those referenda on whether to slap huge taxes on oil companies and the thing lost. The person who was an avid supporter—maybe even the main organizer—of the effort, Bill Press, was very unhappy with the result. If I recall correctly, he alleged that the election was rigged, that Big Oil bought off the voters, etc., etc. Press didn't simply accept that his side lost.

Democracy has this about it: most people don't much like being subjected to a vote when it comes to their basic beliefs and conduct. If Big Oil really owes huge bucks to the rest of us, it shouldn't be a matter of a vote whether it will pay up. Indeed, a great many matters on which people get to vote should not be subject to a vote at all. A system of limited government means, among other things, that government doesn't get to intervene with our lives, even when a majority of the voters would prefer that it did. Notice, for example, that no referenda are acceptable about whether Catholics, Methodists, Jews, Moonies and other faithful are free to practice their faith. The First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, combined with the doctrine of incorporation that applies the amendments to the whole country, rules out voting on people's religious practices. Or what they may publish in their newspapers.

Sadly, however, democracy today is taken to apply to nearly everything else. Voting on whether one may elect to die with the aid of a willing assistant? It is no one's business but the parties who are directly involved and thus voting on the issue is in essence like voting on whether some of us should be enslaved!

This is how it is with California's recent vote on whether gay marriages should be banned. It is no one's business apart from the couple's whether they should get married. Sure, tradition promotes only heterosexual marriages but tradition is no guide since it is all over the place, proposing this here and that there. So long as gays marrying each other forces no one to do anything—and, yes, there are problems with that since once married, the government requires others to treat the couple in certain ways no one should be forced to treat them—it is no one's proper authority to prohibit it.

Because with marriage come various legal privileges that others must provide, the matter isn't all that simple. We aren't just talking about the freedom of gays to marry, to do what they choose to do without compelling others to do anything. Married couples have mandated privileges at work, in renting their homes or apartments, and so on.

So when it comes to the right of gays to marry it turns out that is not all that's involved. That right would appear, at first sight, to simply establish a freedom from interference but, in fact, it also establishes entitlements. People who believe that gays are breaking God's law, for example, will have to fork out support for gay married couples unless there is a ban of the kind that passed in California. Yet, of course, the mandated support for gays is matched by mandated support for heterosexuals. Bottom line: both gays and bigots have rights, including the right of disassociation!

Yet, that should be dealt with apart from the marriage issue. Should people receive legally mandated benefits from being married? No. Anyone has the right to marry and that's it. Others may not be imposed upon by this and one reason there may be resistance to gay marriage is that it requires those who object to it to provide it with certain kinds of support, not simply to tolerate it.

More generally, though, people have all kinds of rights to act one or another way and no one ought to have the legal authority to interfere. To make it possible to vote on such issues—like whether one must take sensitivity classes at a university (another California law)—is already to pervert democracy, which must be limited to issues that do not involve rights violations (like who will be the president or the local sheriff).

The illiberal kind of democracy now running amok everywhere is likely to destroy democracy where it is quite justified. After all, unlimited democracy can be used against itself and has been in many instances that even saw dictators come to power "democratically." In the California case gays should have no obstacles placed before them when they want to marry but should also not demand that their critics be required to support them.

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