Few words get the good PR that democracy does. Americans are told we must fight for democracy around the world. “Democraticâ€ is thrown in as an adjective whenever something is considered good politically (e.g., “our democratic way of lifeâ€), and “undemocraticâ€ is inserted if it is considered bad.
Leading up to elections, democracy’s good PR turns to hyperbole, with politicians extolling the democratically-expressed wisdom of the electorate. We are told that the American Revolution was for democracy, that people died (and are still dying) for our democratic right to vote; that each vote was crucial; that if you didn’t vote, you didn’t care about America; etc. We even hear proposals to replace the Electoral College because it isn’t democratic enough.
Democratically determining who will be entrusted with the reins of government does seems to be the best hope to enable governments to change without bloodshed (Although the precedent set by John Adams’ acceptance of defeat at the hands of Thomas Jefferson is also critical, a precedent that other nations do not share with America). But democracy is not the core of America. Liberty is.
Democracy, from America’s founding on, has been important only insofar as it served and defended liberty. You cannot seriously read our founders’ words without coming to that conclusion (e.g., George Washington’s statement that “your union ought to be considered as a main prop to your liberty; the love of the one ought to endear you to the preservation of the otherâ€). It is why we have a Constitution, and particularly a Bill of Rights (if whatever the majority decided at a given time was to be law, there would be no purpose in restrictions that explicitly put certain rights against government beyond majority determination). It is why the importance of liberty, far more than democratic forms, was a central theme of Alexis deTocqueville’s Democracy in America.
Unfortunately, democracy need not serve liberty. Majority determination is entirely consistent with choices that destroy liberty, as both logic (how much liberty would you have in the matter if a majority vote picked your clothes each day and your dinner each night?) and history (e.g., in Hitler’s electoral landslides) reveal.
Modern Americans, however, seem to lump liberty and democracy together, as if they were the same thing. They give little thought to the distinction between liberty and democracy or liberty’s primacy over democracy. Further, they give little attention to the lessons of history. So, as another session of Congress piles up added legislation, with its combination of ritual obeisance to democracy and threats to liberty, in order to have something to brag about “back homeâ€ during its summer recess, it is important to refocus attention on this central issue.
While reading famous discussions, such as that by deTocqueville, can help revitalize our understanding of this bedrock issue, few people are willing to commit the time and effort necessary. Fortunately, there is a much shorter treatment available that boils the issue down to its essentials and can whet one’s appetite for further research.
That treatment is “Democracy and Liberty,â€ Chapter 7 of F.A. Harper’s 1949 Liberty: A Path to its Recovery.
His brief discussion, abbreviated below, is even more important than when he wrote, given how much further from that path we seem to have drifted in the half century since.“It is generally accepted that a government can enslave the citizensâ€¦But the belief prevails that: â€˜It is impossible for liberty to be lost under a democratic form of government. Democracy assures that the will of the people shall prevail, and that is liberty. So long as democracy is preserved we can rest assured that liberty will be continued to the full.’”
“Probably no other belief is now so much a threat to liberty in the United States and in much of the rest of the world as the one that democracy, by itself alone, guarantees liberty.â€
“One who would understand the problem of liberty must understand why it is possible for liberty to be lost even in a democracy, and how to guard against it.â€
“In speaking of liberty, what we are really concerned about is what government doesâ€¦rather than the styleâ€¦.”
“If an act of government in any country violates the liberty of the people, it is of little importance who did it or how he came to have the power to do itâ€¦â€
“Libertyâ€¦specifies the right to do what [one] desires, rather than the obligation to bow to the force of others in doing what they desire him to do; otherwise slavery becomes â€˜liberty,’ and true liberty is lost.â€
“‘Power,’ which replaces liberty, is the irrevocable authority over othersâ€¦The means by which power is acquired, whether by the â€˜democratic’ process or by conquest, does not change its status as power.â€
“â€¦the citizens of a democracy have in their hands the tools by which to enslave themselves.â€
“This is a far cry from the common belief that democracy offers any definite and automatic protection of liberty. This illusion, that the democratic process is the same as liberty, is an ideal weapon for those few who may desire to destroy liberty and to replace it with some form of authoritarian societyâ€¦Under the spell of this illusion, liberty is most likely to be lostâ€¦Liberty can easily be taken from the individual citizen, piece by piece and always more and more, as more and more persons under the spell of the same illusionâ€¦â€
“Liberty does not mean the right to do anything that is the product of a democratic form of government. The right to vote, which is the sovereignty feature of democracy, assures only the liberty to participate in that process. It does not assure that everything done by that process shall automatically be in the interests of liberty. A populace may commit both political and economic suicide under a democracy.â€
“Anyone who will defend his liberty must guard against the argument that access to the ballot, â€˜by which people get whatever they want,’ is liberty. It would be as logical to assert that liberty in the choice of a wife is assured to a person if he will put it to the vote of the community and accept their plurality decision, or that liberty in religion is assured if the state enforces participation in the one religion that receives the most votes in the nation.â€
“There is no certainty whatever that liberty in a country with the democratic form of government is at a level higher than in a country having some other mechanism of government. There is no certainty that liberty will be maintained where the founders of a democracy may have hoped that it would be preserved.â€
“The illusion that liberty is assured so long as a democratic government is preservedâ€¦[When] some officials have acquired the power to deny this libertyâ€¦no process of selecting the officials who made the decision can make it not gone.â€
“Being able to review a decision or to request its review, under the democratic design of government, does not assure that liberty will be protected. Reinstatement of lost liberty can be requested and refused time and time again, without end. A slave, similarly, might ask his master for his freedom time and time again; he is not considered to be free by reason of the fact that he is allowed to ask for liberty.â€
“Consider in detail all the acts of all the units of government for one day. How many among them were the proper functions of a liberal governmentâ€¦in how many instances did you have any opportunity or right to participate in the decision; if you disagreed with the decision, in how many instances was there anything that you could do about it?… Strange is a concept of â€˜liberty’ which allows you to be forced to pay the costs of promoting acts of which you disapprove or ideas with which you disagree, or which forces you to subsidize that which you consider to be slothfulness and negligence. Your â€˜liberty’ in the process is that you enjoy the right to be forced to bow to the dictates of others, against your wisdom and conscience. Being forced to support things directly in conflict with one’s wisdom and conscience is the direct opposite of liberty, and should under no circumstances be allowed to parade under the esteemed banner of liberty. It should be labeled for what it is.â€
“â€¦some government is necessaryâ€¦that the liberty of certain individuals should be curbed in the interests of liberty for allâ€¦For those matters that are the functions of government in a liberal society, and in the selection of the persons to operate it, the test of dominant preference is probably the safest. But it is not a cure-all for the troubles of society because it does not compensate for those human frailties which are the sole source of any need for government in the first place.â€
“Government of even the best design should be used only where, in the interests of liberty, it becomes necessary to arrive at a singleness in pattern of conduct.â€
“The maximum of liberty is the maximum of democracy, if by democracy is meant the right of a person to have control over his own affairs. To whatever extent one person gains control over the affairs of another, that other person thereby loses his democratic rights in this sense. This is why the expansion of governmental activities beyond those in harmony with liberalism destroys these democratic rights, even though in a â€˜democracy’ there has been granted the widespread right to vote. All minorities are thereby disfranchised from their democratic rights in this sense, because their wishes become overruled in the process. Minorities become the slaves of the othersâ€¦Participation in these steps that make it possible for someone to rule others does not ensure liberty.â€
“It is fantastic nonsense to assert that the democratic process will assure liberty to the individuals of any nationâ€¦So long as this illusion prevails, it would be more accurate to say that it is a most certain path to slavery.â€
“Decision by the test of dominant preference (majority vote, etc.) is the same operating principle as the one that might makes right. If might makes right, one must conclude that liberty is all wrong.â€
“The test of whether or not a government is defending liberty is to be found in what it does, never in the mechanics of its operation. The test is whether or not the officials in any government, as well as the content of the laws and regulations, are in harmony or in conflict with the requirements of libertyâ€¦â€
F.A. “Baldyâ€ Harper, most famous as the founder of the Institute for Humane Studies, but central in multiple ways to the defense of American liberty in the mid-20th century, clearly recognized that democracy was not liberty, and could even be a mechanism for the destruction of liberty. He followed a long tradition, extending beyond the foundation of our country, in that understanding.
That tradition was being forgotten then, but it is far more tenuous now. So as government encroaches ever more on the individual choices that comprise liberty, it is worth recalling his insight that democracy that is not in service to liberty is not the democracy our founders envisioned, nor that which our founding documents enshrined. But the growing reach of government into areas delegates to the Constitutional Convention would have been aghast at makes democracy an increasing threat to liberty. And defending liberty will require re-asserting limits to democracy, or the mechanism designed to preserve the liberty that was America’s heart will eat it away instead.