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Monday, January 1, 1996

The Proper Scope of Democracy

Democracy Is No Excuse for Abandoning Basic Principles of Human Social Life

Dr. Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama.

Whenever public programs are cut, those who have their benefits reduced protest loudly and those who feel for them offer compassionate support. Yet whenever public programs are enacted, little sympathy is extended to those whose incomes are reduced by higher taxes. It is contended that it’s all part of our collective social life. After all, “we” have decided to fund Social Security, unemployment compensation, the national parks, public broadcasting, or whatnot, haven’t “we”? Who cares that some of us suffer losses, that some of us now have to forgo benefits and experience reduced income, which can lead to reduced quality of education, recreation, home life, dental care, transportation safety, and cultural enrichment? None of this is supposed to matter because we have decided to impose higher taxes on ourselves to fund all sorts of public programs.

This is rank duplicity. If some propose to cut federal programs that leave open the possibility that states will not spend money on poor children’s lunches, their actions are mean spirited, cruel, and morally insidious. But if others decide to increase taxes to fund Public Broadcasting or the National Endowment for the Arts or farm supports, we are told that this is just the way democracy works. All those who suffer the consequences of higher taxes have no reason to complain. “We did it to ourselves, so we have no right to fuss.”

Why is it acceptable to violate the rights to liberty and property of millions of individuals when the one group of us decides to do this, but unacceptable to reduce the benefits of people when a somewhat different group of us decides to do that? Why may the choices of individuals be ignored and thwarted by democratic decision-making, but not the feelings and lot of others hurt by the same process?

Most people who talk of democracy in this bloated sense—wherein everything is subject to democratic decision-making—like it only when it supports their own agenda. It is fine to use democracy to rob the rich or yuppies or drinkers or smokers—it makes it valid public policy instead of theft. But if the poor or artists or educators or auto workers are the targets, then suddenly democracy is an exercise in meanness!

The reason for this duplicity is that democracy alone is never enough for forging public policy. There must always be some specification of the goals for which democracy is appropriate. It isn’t enough to have a democratic process—it can lead to results of widely different quality. Sometimes the majority does right, sometimes wrong. And the task of political theory is, in part, to identify those areas of public life that should be subject to democratic decision-making.

What are those areas? And why are they the ones?

Whether alone or with his fellows, an individual may never act in certain ways toward other human beings. In particular, no one may take over someone else’s life. This is true whether or not that other person’s life is fortunate, well to do, talented, accomplished, beautiful, accepted by others, rewarded.

Taking over another’s life entails theft, robbery, assault, kidnapping, murder, battery, rape, and other forms of aggression. And the fact that the numbers of those who do such things (via their representatives or hired thugs) are large or even constitute a majority makes no difference. It is wrong to steal on one’s own as well as with the support of millions. It is wrong to enslave, to place others into servitude when they refuse, no matter whether the enslaver is in the minority or the majority.

Nor can majorities authorize their political representatives to carry out such deeds, even if they do it indirectly, by threatening those whom they would rob, steal from, kidnap, assault, or whatever, with aggressive enforcement at the hands of the police. It is wrong, then, even for the government of a representative democracy or republic, to carry out such deeds. Having done it with democratic “authorization” makes it no more right than if there had been no such authorization. There is simply no moral authority for anyone to delegate to another such powers since one doesn’t have them in the first place. A government that is supposed to govern with the consent of the governed can only do that which those who give their consent have the authority to do in the first place!

All participants in the debate admit this, more or less directly. This is why even when people vote in one party, members of the other party claim that what their opponents do is wrong. They argue their case in the various forums of the media and the government itself. So they clearly believe that what the democratic process produces is not the end of the story. Even if a law passes, some will call it heartless, unkind, lacking in compassion—or, alternatively, burdensome, confiscatory, impeding productivity, or encouraging sloth. The fact that such legislation was brought about by way of the democratic process—“we” did it, so it’s OK, a matter of society’s collective will—is never adequate justification. The violation of the rights of individuals is no less justified by democracy than is collective callousness.

What can be done democratically without violating the rights of individuals to their life, liberty, and property? The answer is quite simple. We can elect our political representatives democratically, and decide who should guard over our rights and liberties. The rest is supposed to be done by means of voluntary conduct, not politics.

Once members of a society learn that moral principles and individual rights cannot justly be violated by the democratic process, they also learn that when the proper thing must be done, it has to be done by choice, free of coercion. Help to the poor and needy—as well as to those whose works of art, science, or pedagogy may not enjoy sufficient demand to sustain it as a market phenomenon—should be given at the initiative of the free citizen, via charity, church, philanthropy, and fund-raising. Democracy is no excuse for abandoning basic principles of human social life. When people make it so, that’s when democracy has overstepped its proper boundaries.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.