Freedom vs. Unlimited Majority Rule
The concept of freedom rests on a government limited to the protection of individual rights, while the concept of democracy rests on a government run by unlimited majority rule; we need to stop confusing these two opposite ideas.
By Peter Schwartz
America’s foreign policy has led to a bizarre contradiction. President Bush claims to be pursuing freedom in the world, so that Americans will be safer. Yet this campaign’s results–a more zealous proponent of terrorism in the Palestinian Authority, and the prospect of theocracy in Iraq–are posing even greater threats to us.
The cause of this failure is Mr. Bush’s hopeless view that tyranny is reversed by the holding of elections–a view stemming from the widespread confusion between freedom and democracy.
Ask a typical American if there should be limits on what government may do, and he would answer: yes. He understands that each of us has rights which no law–regardless of how much public support it happens to attract–is entitled to breach. An advocate of democracy, however, would answer: no.
The essence of democracy is unlimited majority rule. It is the notion that the government should not be constrained, as long as its behavior is sanctioned by majority vote. It is the notion that the function of government is to implement the “will of the people.” It is the notion we are espousing when we tell the Iraqis, the Palestinians and the Afghanis that the legitimacy of their new governments rests essentially on their being democratically approved.
And it is the notion that was repudiated by the founding of the United States.
America’s defining characteristic is freedom. Freedom exists when there are limitations on government, limitations imposed by the principle of individual rights. America was established as a republic, under which government is restricted to protecting our inalienable rights; this should not be called “democracy.” Thus, you are free to criticize your neighbors, your society, your government–no matter how many people wish to pass a law censoring you. But if “popular will” is the standard, then the individual has no rights–only temporary privileges, granted or withdrawn according to the mass sentiment of the moment. The Founders understood that the tyranny of the majority could be just as evil as the tyranny of an absolute monarch.
Yes, we have the ability to vote, but that is not the yardstick by which freedom is measured. After all, even dictatorships hold official elections. It is only the context of liberty–in which individual rights may not be voted out of existence–that justifies, and gives meaning to, the ballot box. In a genuinely free country, voting pertains only to the particular means of safeguarding individual rights. There is no moral “right” to vote to destroy rights.
Unfortunately, like Mr. Bush, most Americans use the antithetical concepts of “freedom” and “democracy” interchangeably. Sometimes our government upholds the primacy of individual rights and regards one’s life, liberty and property as inviolable. Many other times it negates rights by upholding the primacy of the majority’s wishes–from confiscating an individual’s property because the majority wants it for “public use,” to preventing a terminally ill individual from gaining assistance in ending his life because a majority finds suicide unpalatable.
Today, our foreign policy upholds this latter position. We declare that our overriding goal in the Mideast is that people vote–regardless of whether they care about freedom. But then, if a Shiite, pro-Iranian majority imposes its theology on Iraq–or if Palestinian suicide-bombers execute their popular mandate by blowing up schoolchildren–on what basis can we object, since democracy is being faithfully served? As a spokesman for Hamas, following its electoral victory, correctly noted: “I thank the United States that they have given us this weapon of democracy. . . . It’s not possible for the U.S. . . . to turn its back on an elected democracy.” The Palestinians abhor freedom–but have adopted democratic voting.
The Iraqis may reject freedom, in which case military force alone–as dismally inadequate as our efforts in that realm have been so far–will have to ensure our safety against any threats from them. But if we are going to try to replace tyranny with freedom there, we must at least demonstrate what freedom is. We should have been spreading the ideas and institutions of a free society, before allowing elections even to be considered. For example, we should have written the new constitution, as we did in post-WWII Japan. Instead, we deferred to the “will of the people”–people who do not understand individual rights–and endorsed a despotic constitution, which rejects intellectual freedom in favor of enforced obedience to the Koran, and which rejects economic freedom and private property in favor of “collective ownership.” The consequence: looming neo-tyranny in Iraq.
We need to stop confusing democracy with freedom. Morally supporting freedom is always in our interests. But supporting unlimited majority rule is always destructive–to us, and to all who value the rights of the individual.
Peter Schwartz is a Distinguished Fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute (http://www.aynrand.org/) in Irvine, California. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand–author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
[b]I received that in an email/newsletter. Seems like a windy way of repeating what Franklin said about “Two wolves and a lamb deciding on dinner.” Could this be a root part of the contemporary problem here in the United States? Have we unknowingly slipped from a representative republic into the morass of unfettered democracy?[/b]
My own feelings are that the politicians ( with but a notable handful of rebels) have taken the nation to it’s very knees.
There has been, in my opinion, a veritable silent revolution going on for decades, if not longer. Rampant feminism (political not ethical) has twisted the entire concept of life and liberty. The authoritarians within our society have issued blanket pronunciations that require one and all to conform to their ideas of so-called freedom. Those chicken littles that so love the earth more than their own children have strangled innovation to the point of causing serious gaps in national security. The resultant collective guilt of the populace has resulted in a lack of national pride that turns us against our own with subdued viciousness.
I believe that the sole purpose of any government is to ensure the rights of the individual and that all legitimate uses of government power derives from that basic sense of purposiveness. Hence the necessity of law, military forces and so on.
I believe in opportunity for all through ones own resourcefulness, not by government fiat. I believe that in free markets the source of wealth can be found.
I believe that the Constitution of these United States is the expression of the Declaration of Independence and that the concepts within have never changed, or left. Only the twisted interpetations of certain lawyers and politicians with the express purpose of personal gain. That the rights granted within the Constitution are inalieanable rights, that is God given, and cannot be subrogated by any man, or group of men.