Thursday, 26 May 2005

Cue Card Libertarianism -- Democracy

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.'


  1. Indeed - while democracy may be a good way of deciding what WILL be done - it can make no such claims about what SHOULD be done.

  2. A relevant PJ O'Rourke quote that helps explains Socrates' willingness to take the hemlock: "Government is also boring because in a democracy, government is a matter of majority rule. Now, majority rule is a precious, sacred thing worth dying for. But - like other precious, sacred things, such as the home and family - it´s not only worth dying for; it can make you wish you were dead. Imagine if all of life were determined by majority rule. Every meal would be a pizza. Every pair of pants, even those in a Brooks Brothers suit, would be stone-washed denim. Celebrity diet and exercise books would be the only thing on the shelves at the libary. And - since women are a majority of the population - we´d all be married to Mel Gibson."

  3. Majority rule doesnt make somthing is right, but else who decicides what is right? Sure you think libertarianism is right, but people disagree, others beleive just as strongly that you are wrong, how else can we come to a conclusion? Even if we managed to have a libertarian constitution that couldn't be changed it would have to be brought in by democratic vote and you would still have to have democracy to decide on the finer points of law, to elect people run the police and justice systems.

    Like Churchil said: democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest.

  4. Voting to elect people run the police and justice systems required under an entrenched constitution is not a democracy.

    It's a constitutional republic in which elections are held to select the people to run the police and justice systems.

    A republic, if you can keep it.

  5. Like Churchil said: democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest.

    And when Churchill was "saving" the UK and the West, the UK was not a democracy in the sense we understand the word today.

    Let's be clear Churchill, Washington, Jefferson, Paine, etc would not and could not recognise the debased government of Western countries as "democracies" in any way, shape, or form.


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