Democracy = Mob rule, be it an outright majority or mere plurality – not to be confused with freedom.
Historically, democracy has often coexisted with a relative flourishing of individual rights (see especially the work of 'democide' researcher R.J. Rummell in this regard) but has inexorably and over time led to the subversion of rights, since it has made them subordinate to the vote. Socrates for example allowed his right to life to be violated because a majority had voted that he should be put to death; Germans waived their rights to liberty and the pursuit of their own happiness when a plurality voted the Nazis into power; the right to property is routinely violated in all democracies because envy-driven mobs regularly vote themselves the “right” to someone else’s earnings.
The world’s foremost democracy, the United States, began, not as a democracy, but a constitutional republic, with specific mechanisms designed to protect the individual’s “inalienable rights” from unlimited majority rule. A consitutional republic of the American form recognises that some things must be put beyond the vote -- 'these things' to be beyond any vote are the lives and liberties of the citizens, as protected by the Bill of Rights and teh checks and balances against tyrannical government. These precautions, alas, proved inadequate, and British historian Thomas Macaulay’s famous warning of 1857 proved to be prophetic:
The day will come when a multitude of people will choose the legislature. Is it possible to doubt what sort of a legislature will be chosen? On one side is a statesman preaching patience, respect for rights, strict observance of public faith. On the other is a demagogue ranting about the tyranny of capitalism and usurers, asking why anybody should be permitted to drink champagne and to ride in a carriage while thousands of people are in want of necessaries… When society has entered on this downward progress… your Republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians in the twentieth century as the Roman Empire in the fifth, with this difference: the Huns and vandals who ravaged the Roman Empire came from without; your Huns and vandals will have been engendered within your own country, by your own institutions.
Here in New Zealand we frequently hear the call for 'binding referenda,' as if the will of the majority were always right beyond question. Without the protection of right, such unlimited majority rule is as dangerous as outright tyranny -- it is just that the minority is done over by the mob instead of the government. The result for the minority is sadly the same either way however.
Contrary to the assumptions of democracy, truth and right do not lie in numbers; as New Zealand Objectivist Bill Weddell once said, simple democracy " is the counting of heads regardless of content," and not something principled libertarians would advocate.
This is part of a continuing series explaining the concepts and terms used by libertarians, originally published in The Free Radical in 1993. The 'Introduction' to the series is here. Tomorrow, 'Drugs.'