All Commentary
Saturday, February 1, 1992

Rustic, U.S.A.

Mr. Harris is studying political science at Auburn University.

There is a lot of talk nowadays about democracy. Everywhere it seems that democracy and freedom are regarded as one and the same. Even further, there are the constant rantings about “economic democracy.” It is very disconcerting to classical liberals like myself to see democracy equated with freedom. Unbridled democracy is just as tyrannical as any dictator or king. The bloody past of ancient Greece serves as proof of this fact. So, whenever I am confronted with someone who thinks democracy and freedom are synonymous, I tell them the story of my hometown, which I shall call Rustic, U,S.A.

Every few years a group of citizens in Rustic starts a petition asking for a referendum to legalize the sale of alcoholic beverages within the city limits. Alcohol sales in Rustic have been illegal since before Prohibition. The result has been a lack of nightlife and a small bootlegging industry in which a number of local officials have allegedly been involved.

As the petition asking for the referendum circulates, the forces opposing legal alcohol sales mobilize. Concerned townsfolk band together-making speeches, buying newspaper and radio advertisements—all in an attempt to prevent Rustic from being transformed into a “den of iniquity.”

The war of words between the opposing sides escalates until the day of the referendum. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the proposal to allow for legal alcoholic beverage sales is invariably defeated, just like the last time, The voter turnout is invariably larger than for Presidential elections. Witness democracy in action. Once again democracy has trampled over individual freedom—or, as P. J. O’Rourke recently put it: “We [have used] our suffrage to steal a fellow citizen’s property rights.”

The majority of the citizens in Rustic, if asked, will display great disdain for intellectuals. Consequently, most aren’t interested in the philosophical arguments that distinguish between true freedom and mere political freedom—that is, the right to vote. They don’t see the great contradiction in choosing as a group to take away the right of individuals to choose.

Buying alcoholic beverages, like purchasing any product, is a matter of voluntary choice. A person enters a package store of his or her own free will and exchanges currency for liquor. No force is involved. No one puts a gun to the buyer’s head.

Conversely, the owner of the store voluntarily went into business. He or she freely chooses to exchange a product for money. There is no threat of harm, physical or otherwise.

Furthermore, those who wish neither to buy nor sell liquor are free to refrain with no threat of punitive action. There is a reason why this process is known as the “free” market. All the participants, and even the nonparticipants, are, to use Milton Friedman’s phrase, free to choose.

Economic democracy, the subjection of voluntary transactions to the political process (of which the Rustic referendum is only a small example), robs people of freedom. The majority of the voters in Rustic decided to strip everyone, including themselves, of the freedom to engage in whatever type of commerce they want so long as they respect the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and property of their fellow citizens.

This is not to say that the people who opposed the legalized sale of alcohol don’t speak of fights. Quite the contrary, they are always bringing up the “fight” of the community to set standards.

But communities are not organic creatures as some would have us believe. There is no such thing as a single set of community beliefs. Fundamentally, a community is nothing but a collection of individuals, each with his or her own set of beliefs, and consequently, standards. As such, the community itself has no fights. There are only the fights of the individual members. Thomas Jefferson did not write that all communities “are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”

Democracy is no way to run a government, which is why the Founding Fathers seldom used the word “democracy.” The United States was founded as a republic, with elected representatives governing within the limited confines of the Constitution. It wasn’t until the rise of Populism and Woodrow Wilson’s declaration that the United States should “make the world safe for democracy” that the unalienable rights of individuals took a back seat to simple majoritarian rule. Prohibition, if you remember, was part of the Populist agenda.

The great problem with unlimited political democracy is its tendency to spill over into the economic realm. The United States is openly encouraging the creation of free markets in Eastern Europe, but the East Europeans seem to be drifting toward economic democracy. However, this isn’t surprising given that the U.S. is their model of a free market. Economic democracy in America is not confined to simple wet/dry referendums. Voters and their representatives regulate everything they can get their red tape on.

The Last Laugh

To illustrate the absurdity of economic democracy, even on a small scale, allow me to relate my own experience with the Rustic referendum.

I was 18 years old and exercising my right of suffrage for the first time. I am proud to claim fellowship with the few people who went down to defeat that day by voting for legal liquor sales. It was a moral victory at least.

As I left the polling place, I thought about what I had done. By voting I was exercising awesome power, made all the more awesome by the fact that the Constitutional restraints on government power are continually being chipped away. This is the same power that Alexis de Tocqueville warned us about over a century ago—the same power that sentenced Socrates to death.

At the age of 18, I was entrusted with the power to control the lives of other people. This is a power that society, in its democratic wisdom, thinks I am ready for. And yet, even if the referendum had passed, I, being under the age of 21, wouldn’t have been allowed to take advantage of it. I was below the legal drinking age!

This is the cruel joke of “economic democracy”: It presumes to say that people can make decisions for others, yet are incapable of making decisions for themselves.

The joke has been played on the people of Rustic, on the people of the United States, and on the people of the world. Instead of making the world safe for democracy, as President Wilson said, it seems we must make the world safe from democracy.

Yes, the joke has been told the world over, and nobody appears to be laughing. It’s enough to drive one to drink.