A pure democracy, where 51 percent of the people have the right to do anything they want, is not a desirable form of government. It means tyranny of the majority.
That’s why America’s Founding Fathers instead created a constitutional republic, not only because they wanted to limit the power of the central government but also because they wanted certain rights to be inalienable – i.e., guaranteed and protected even if 99 percent of the population feel otherwise.
Fortunately, Senator Lee of Utah is not one of those people, as illustrated by this recent tweet.
We’re not a democracy.— Mike Lee (@SenMikeLee) October 8, 2020
This elementary observation rubbed some people the wrong way.
Indeed, it even generated a hostile article by Nathaniel Zelinsky in the Bulwark, an anti-Trump site operated by former Republicans.
This message fits a growing and disturbing trend. Among the conservative intelligentsia, especially in certain legal circles, it has become stylish to view self-governance as nothing more than a means to a very particular set of ends. And should “conservative” policies lose out in the democratic process, then liberal democracy itself should go. …Among Federalist Society members, a group once defined by a commitment to judicial restraint to protect democracy, one today hears about “active judging”—the notion that life-tenured jurists shouldn’t hesitate to strike down popularly enacted legislation. …these tendencies share a common endpoint: Upset the delicate bargain of American democracy and impose a narrow set of preferences on the rest of us. And it’s exactly this vein of illiberalism that Senator Lee tapped into. …Yes, the Founders crafted a constitutional structure that prevents the majority from easily imposing itself on a minority and places some hard limits on the government’s powers. But Senator Lee’s attack on “rank democracy”…leaves little room for…collective self-government.
At the risk of understatement, Mr. Zelinsky’s attack on Senator Lee is completely incoherent.
The Utah Senator was celebrating the “classical liberalism” of America’s founding principles. Senator Lee was extolling a system that protects individual rights.
That’s the opposite of “illiberalism.”
To be sure, there are some folks on the right who don’t embrace those values. But Senator Lee isn’t one of them.
This isn’t a new controversy, by the way. Writing last year for the U.K.-based Guardian, Quinn Slobodian accused “neoliberals” of favoring economic freedom over democracy (in Europe, they often use “neoliberal” as a term for libertarians).
The ideal world described by these indexes is one where property rights and security of contract are the highest values, inflation is the chief enemy of liberty, capital flight is a human right and democratic elections may work actively against the maintenance of economic freedom. …The definition of freedom they used meant that democracy was a moot point, monetary stability was paramount and any expansion of social services would lead to a fall in the rankings. Taxation was theft, pure and simple, and austerity was the only path to the top. …Pinochet, Thatcher and Reagan may be dead. But economic freedom indexes carry the neoliberal banner by deeming the goals of social justice forever illegitimate…the indexes help perpetuate the idea that economics must be protected from the excesses of politics – to the point that an authoritarian government that protects free markets is preferable to a democratic one that redesigns them.
Unlike the Zelinsky piece, Slobodian’s column is actually coherent.
He wants untrammeled majoritarianism, at least when he thinks it will result in bigger government.
And he’s correct that classical liberals reject that approach.
But we have good reasons for that skepticism. Writing earlier this year for the Foundation for Economic Education, Professor Gary Galles explained why it’s better to rely on “market democracy” rather than “political democracy.”
In a political democracy, a majority can also force its preferences on others in any issue. That is why our founders adopted constraints on majority abuse, such as limited, delegated powers and the Bill of Rights. However, those constraints have largely been undermined. In contrast to political democracy, free-market capitalism, which reflects democratic self-government, represents a far better ideal. Its system of exclusively voluntary cooperation based on self-ownership requires that property rights be respected; no majority can violate owners’ rights. …a superior form of democracy is to remove virtually all decisions and policies that we need not share in common (almost all of them, beyond the mutual protection of our property rights) from government dictation, even if they are “democratic,” and let people exercise self-government through their own voluntary arrangements, protected by their inalienable rights.
Amen. Professor Galles is correct.
Pure democracy is simply another way of saying untrammeled majoritarianism.
And that system of government is a threat the rights of minorities – whether you’re talking about religious minorities, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, political minorities, or any other subset of the population that may be unpopular at some point with mass opinion.
P.S. Here’s an amusing Michael Ramirez cartoon about Obama and the Constitution.
P.P.S. On the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Calvin Coolidge correctly summarized the meaning of the American experiment.
P.P.P.S. If you want a horrifying example of majoritarianism in action, see Venezuela.
P.P.P.P.S. To be fair, Switzerland is a very successful example of a nation based not only on majoritarianism, but also direct democracy (my two cents is that the nation’s decentralization is the real reason for its success).
by Dan Mitchell
Daniel J. Mitchell is a public policy economist in Washington. He’s been a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, a Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, an economist for Senator Bob Packwood and the Senate Finance Committee, and a Director of Tax and Budget Policy at Citizens for a Sound Economy. His articles can be found in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Investor’s Business Daily, and Washington Times. Mitchell holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Georgia and a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. Original article can be viewed here.