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Deposing Liberty for Democracy

November 14, 2014 in Economics

By Gary Galles

One of the central tenets of progressivism has been that more democracy is the solution to “what is wrong with politics.” That is why progressives have aimed at circumventing limitations on popular opinion’s power over legislation and regulation, as if in response to Woodrow Wilson’s lament that “something intervenes between the people and the government…there must be some arm direct enough and strong enough to thrust aside the something that comes in the way,” and Theodore Roosevelt’s declaration that “I have scant patience with this talk of the tyranny of the majority.”

A century of the resultant “democracy is good” drumbeat has led “democratic” to be used for whatever is approved of politically (e.g., “our democratic way of life”), and “undemocratic” to be used for something being condemned (e.g., proposals to override the Electoral College because it is undemocratic). And the words that have lost the most rhetorical market share are liberty and tyranny. It has even led many to treat liberty and democracy as essentially the same thing. That is highly unfortunate for the “good government” idea that became America, because democracy can at least as easily decimate liberty as serve it.

Majority determination is entirely consistent with choices that destroy liberty. And there are many ways to recognize that. America’s founders said so plainly. It is also reflected in our founding documents. Many insightful observers, foreign and domestic, have understood it since then. The many endorsements clear enemies to liberty have given democracy make the same point from the opposite direction. The contractions of liberty that have accompanied “progressive” expansions of democracy reinforce that lesson to any willing to pay attention. And even a few simple questions can reveal the inconsistencies between democracy and liberty.

The American Revolution and the documents it produced are replete with praise for liberty, but far from complimentary about democracy.

John Adams asserted that Americans’ natural rights “cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws.” James Madison noted that under democracy, “There is nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party or the obnoxious individual.” Alexander Hamilton wrote that “Real Liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of Democracy.” Benjamin Rush said “A simple democracy is the devil’s own government.” Thomas Jefferson wrote that “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine,” but “elective despotism was not …read more


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