Democracy and Freedom
JULY 01, 1980 by JOHN V. DENSON
Mr. Denson is an attorney in Opellke, Alabama end writes a regular column of libertarian viewpoint for several newspapers in which he holds an Interest.
A common error in political dialogue today is the interchangeable use of the words “democracy” and “freedom,” as though they mean the same thing. They definitely do not; in fact, democracy can be a severe threat to freedom and individualism.
One of the most astute and intelligent observers of the American experiment with democracy was a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville. His classic, Democracy in America was published in 1835, soon after his visit to America. The book is more pertinent today than when it was written. Tocqueville then theorized about the nature of democracy and its dangers to freedom, but these theories have been proven correct, to a great extent, in the 20th Century.
Tocqueville recognized that aristocracy, monarchy, and such forms were quickly dying out in the West and that democracy was the wave of the future. The Old-World system of legalized privilege, which was inherited, and rule by the few, was being overthrown in favor of equality of opportunity and mass political control. Tocqueville stated very prophetically that, “The destiny of the world will be in the hands of America and of Russia; these two great nations, each going a different way, will determine what will hap pen.”
Tocqueville further stated that “Democracy is irresistible, it is going to come.” “Democracy has enormous benefits . . . but also democracy has the most dangers. We had better prepare for it so we take advantage of the benefits and avoid the dangers. Democracy is potentially the best of all forms of society and government; it is also one of the most dangerous forms of all society and government.”
One danger that Tocqueville saw was the potential tyranny of the majority and loss of individualism due to enforced conformity by an uninformed, and possibly, manipulated public. He also saw a threat to both civilization and culture in democracy. He pointed out that in aristocratic societies you saw instances of great wealth and extreme poverty, great learning and extreme ignorance. In a democratic society, the extremes would be more or less eliminated and a much higher general standard of living would be available. He stated, “a state of equality is less elevated but it is more just; and its justice constitutes its greatness and its beauty.”
Tocqueville warned that a democracy must be very careful not to stamp out dissent which provides meaningful change. He recognized that differences of opinion often produce the most progressive changes and that conformity produced by a democracy could severely restrict such progress.
Tocqueville also saw that centralization of power in a government run by an unelected bureaucracy would continue to be the great threat to individual liberty in the democratic system just as it had been under the old, autocratic systems. He felt that centralization of power and democracy may be even more of a threat in a democratic state since the public would tend to be less suspicious of a government when the people possessed the right to vote and to elect their representatives.
When kings and aristocrats ruled, the people knew they had to be suspicious and careful of government since they realized that they had little influence or power. However, democracy had the potential to create a false sense of security from the force of government. One of the architects of the American system of democracy, George Washington, continued to recognize the true nature of government, even though democratic, when he stated: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence—it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”
Following the lead of Tocqueville in analyzing democracy, two English libertarians, in a later period, seemed to grasp, better than Tocqueville, that democracy would not necessarily change the true nature and danger of government. Herbert Spencer stated: “When we have made our constitution purely democratic, thinks to himself the earnest reformer, we should have brought government into harmony with absolute justice. Such faith, though perhaps needful for the age, is a very erroneous one. By no process can coercion be made more equitable.”
The Initiation of Force
Spencer’s student, Auberon Herbert, correctly perceived that it was the initiation of force which was the key to tyranny and he stated: “Majority rule is not founded—any more than the emperor’s rule—on reason or justice. There is no reason or justice in making two men subject to three men . . . no one has the moral right to seek his own advantage by force. This is the one unalterable, inviolable condition of a true society. Whether we are many or whether we are few, we must learn only to use the weapon of reason, discussion, and persuasion.”
One of the authorities on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is history professor Henry Steele Commager. He recently appeared on the television program, “Bill Moyers’ Journal,” and analyzed Tocqueville’s book. Commager commented that all governments, even democracies, advance like gravity in a natural flow, towards centralization, but that liberty does not. He stated: “Liberty must be worked at, must be achieved, and it has rarely been achieved anywhere in the whole of history. It requires a most extraordinary self-control, self-denial, wisdom, sagacity, vision to protect liberty in the face of all the forces that mitigate and militate against it. And Tocqueville regarded centralization as the most dangerous of all the threats to liberty.”
Commager’s quote about the nature of government gives special emphasis to the earlier warning: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Commager also reminded us that Nazi Germany was a result of the democratic process and “is perhaps the outstanding example in modern history of how an overwhelming majority can exercise the most ruthless tyranny over a minority.” Governments throughout the democratic West continue to grow larger and to become more oppressive, especially in the area of taxation. Government domination of education and regulation of almost every form of human conduct, especially in economic matters, is far more extensive today under democratic governments than existed in the Old-World autocratic systems of the past.
Our present situation in democratic America, where we are being threatened with a peace-time draft and actually have a large portion of our Army stationed in Europe and other foreign countries coupled with numerous entangling treaties, would have been unthinkable conditions to our founding fathers. Democratic governments in the 20th century have shown strong militaristic tendencies and have produced the most widespread wars known to mankind. The noted historian, Arnold Toynbee, author of the massive, six-volume A Study of History, questioned the assumption that democracies were automatically more peace-loving or anti-militaristic than other forms of government. He also found “the suicidalness of militarism’; by far the most common cause of the breakdown of civilizations.
Professor Commager, at the conclusion of Bill Moyers’ interview, and after being asked to comment upon the future of democracy, said,”I feel like Justice Holmes, late in life, when some of his young clerks came back to him and he said, ‘I myself have little hope for change, but I’m happy to see that the younger generation consults its hopes and not its fears.’”
We must continue to recognize that democracy, while being the best form of government, nevertheless, like all government is potentially dangerous, depending upon its size and power.
No government, even a democracy, should have the right or power to initiate force; it should only repel or defend against force. Government must be kept extremely limited in its scope of influence, and individual rights must be carefully protected. We should never lose sight of this goal nor lose hope of achieving it.