All Commentary
Tuesday, October 1, 1991

Freedom Is Not Elected

Mr Smith is a writer living in Santa Maria, California. He has been a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about freedom. Many people tie it to democracy or, to be more exact, representative government. The idea is that freedom is safe as long as elected representatives are sitting in some distant assembly hall. Actually the concepts of freedom and representative government are only distantly related, and the presence of one doesn’t guarantee the presence of the other.

Freedom flourishes best under representative government. But such a system of government is no guarantor of freedom. It is only a tool to help with the job. We might say that it is better to drive a nail with a hammer than with a rock, but the mere fact of owning a hammer doesn’t mean that anyone is going to be driving nails.

Freedom is something that exists alone, and of itself. A big turnout on election day is meaningless if those elected aren’t primarily concerned with the fights of the individual. If, indeed, the people who are elected are intent upon passing laws that impinge on personal freedom, then representative government is working against the people.

We would do well to remember that the United States was founded upon the idea of freedom and not necessarily democracy. Those brave souls who tossed the tea into Boston harbor on that December night in 1773 were not motivated by thoughts of a Senate and a House of Representatives and how much power either one would have. They were interested in freedom, and they were quite content to save the details for another time and place. Patrick Henry was in the same frame of mind when he put forth the liberty-or-death ultimatum, perhaps the most courageous words ever spoken publicly.

The great motivating principle behind our break with Great Britain was the simple, fundamental matter of personal freedom. This was the issue. Our three branches of government, our electoral process, our two-party system, our local governments, and even our Constitution are nothing more than tools to achieve this end; they are not ends in themselves. They are important only insofar as they protect individual fights, and when they fail to do this they have stopped working.

Our representatives are not in office to carve comfortable niches for themselves or to pander to bloc votes. Nor are they there to decide what is best for a constituency that cannot think for itself. They are there solely to protect individual liberties. It is ironic that they should be the ones from whom we need protection.

A sitting assembly is no guarantee that anyone’s rights are being protected, or even considered. The People’s Republics that sprang up in Asia and Eastern Europe after World War II are ample proof that large bodies of people calling themselves legislatures have no direct relationship to the freedom of the governed. Even with the built-in safeguards of our Constitution, a legislature that is bent upon raising taxes and passing laws curtailing individual freedom is not performing any service for those who still consider themselves to be separate entities and not part of an artificially defined economic or social class.

Nor is a high court, in itself, any protection for individual liberty. Judges who tend to legislate, rather than adjudicate, in no way are fulfilling their roles as public servants and are certainly upsetting the system of checks and balances that is supposed to keep the machine running. When the courts choose to work against the public interest, they have ceased to function as instruments of justice.

Legislative assemblies, courts, public buildings, and legal documents are only the trappings of freedom; they are equipment. If this equipment puts restrictions upon individual rights, then it becomes nothing more than an obstacle. Without freedom, government is just something to be bypassed or avoided—it is, in effect, the enemy.

Anyone who doubts this should reflect upon that night in 1773 when 342 chests of British tea went over the side. I don’t think that the point could be made more clearly.

  • Mr. Smith, a frequent contributor to The Freeman, lives in Santa Maria, California.