Friday, May 01, 2009

Assumptions of Democracy

Tibor R. Machan

One interesting aspect of democracy is that today and indeed in most epochs some of its foundations are threatened and even violated by its application. For example, democracy assumes that everyone in society who isn't a criminal has a right to participate in political decision making. This is simply an implication of everyone's basic right to liberty. Taking part in political decision making may not be undermined just as taking part in work or education or any other peaceful conduct may not be undermined or forbidden. Free men and women have the right to liberty which includes the right to participate in peaceful political affairs. No majority may breach this.

Political democracy is but the outcome of the right to liberty--adults are not to be hindered in their politically relevant actions any more than they are in other kinds of actions. Their right to liberty implies this, plain and simple. And the democratic endeavors of free men and women have limits, just as do any other endeavors. Everyone is free to work or travel or build homes or write books but no one may violate the rights of others to do the same thing or anything else that's peaceful. So if democratic endeavors involve limiting the rights of others, those are not justified. Put simply, no one may interfere with another's rights to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, etc., even if one has joined a majority of the population in doing so. That is what is implied by the system of basic rights everyone has in a free society--no one, not even a majority of the citizenry, may violate those rights. Thus democracy is limited by everyone's basic, natural rights to be free.

One can put this in very practical terms. No majority may pass some law or public policy that violates anyone's rights, the right to life, liberty or property, just as no individual, however powerful, has the authority to do this. Thus democracy has a rather limited scope in a country in which the law protects individual rights. Fareed Zakaria, in his book The Future of Freedom, makes a valid distinction between liberal and illiberal democracies, the former being constraint by the rights of individuals while the latter is not, so majorities may do whatever they will. It is pretty plain to see that the fact that a majority chooses to act in some way that violates rights does not make such violation any less wrong than if it were some powerful single individual who did. The famous case of the lynch mob illustrates this perfectly well. (In that case the majority breaches the imperative of justice to follow due process.)

All of this is important to understand in the current eagerness of politicians to make policies that violate individual rights, such as providing funds to bail out failing companies from the future taxes of the citizenry. No individual has the authority to commit another individual to fund such bailouts, not without the consent of those who will be required to pay. Coming together and forming a majority does not change this.

Unfortunately too few people appreciate that policies that have the backing of a majority do not thereby become justified. Sadly democratic theorists failed to make this point even though without it the very foundations of democracies are undermined. Just as a majority isn't authorized to abolish democracy, as it has done on numerous occasions throughout history--most recently in Venezuela where Hugo Chavez gained near absolute power through the so called democratic process--neither is a majority authorized to perpetrated anything else that amounts to the violation of individual rights. This really ought to be crystal clear in a country that has as its founding documents the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and has experienced the injustice of democratically supported slavery.

Unfortunately the place where this would come to light in the education of a citizen, during primary and secondary education, the system itself contradicts the very point. America's primary and secondary education is founded on the belief in unlimited majority rule! How can those teaching in such a system be expected to explain to their pupils that democracy has limitations, namely, the rights of individuals (including those being unjustly taxed so as to keep the institution funded)?

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