Note: This is a revised version of a piece of mine originally published in the April 4, 2002 edition of Hawaii Reporter.
To make the record clear, Adolf Hitler was not directly elected by the general public to the office of German Chancellor. However, the members in the German Parliament -- whose members were each democratically elected -- did, through a majority vote, democratically ratify a bill that gave arbitrary "emergency powers" to Hitler. So democracy -- if we take the term to mean the elevation of majority votes above that of intransigent individual, private property rights -- cannot be taken off the hook here.
Almost everyone believes that democracy equals freedom.
Not surprisingly, anti-capitalist activist Michael Moore often invokes democracy. “I’ve read the U.S. Constitution, and the word ‘shareholder’ doesn’t appear once in it,” he says. “It’s a Democracy!" (Actually, the word democracy doesn’t appear in the Constitution either.)
When campaigning in Hawaii, Green Party 2000 Presidential candidate Ralph Nader said that those who weren’t out lobbying for more stifling regulations were necessarily mindless “gazers and gawkers.”
His “solution” was that we revive the ancient Greek concept of the “public citizen,” which said that all men must be politically active -- or otherwise be looked down upon by eveyrone else in the community. “Freedom,” Nader insists, “is participation in power.”
But democracy and freedom aren’t always the same. If democracy is so perfect, then why did the majority of Germany's democratically-elected parliamentarians vote for the 1933 Enabling Act, which gave Germany's appointed Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, an unlimited authority to make his own laws? Hitler himself was not elected, but an elected legislature nevertheless gave him absolute political power in a democratic vote.
Democracy is correctly defined as a political system in which laws or lawmakers are chosen by the majority of voters.
Meanwhile, Nader’s claim notwithstanding, freedom is not “participation in power,” but security against power. Specifically, it means that people can rest assured knowing that the power of physical force cannot be initiated upon their life, liberty, or property, by anyone -- not even a government -- even if 100 percent of the population approved.
That is what a good government protects us from; not imposes upon us.
For instance, let’s say democratic voting always won out over individual rights. Then, if the majority of the citizens disliked a group of rich people, it could democratically vote on whether they should all be executed, even though they have inflicted no harm to the life, liberty or property of others.
If at least 51 percent of the votes choose “kill,” then these rich people are massacred by the state.
Fantasy, you say? Actually, this happened periodically throughout the history of the ancient Greek city-state of Athens. Even back then, the majority claimed to represent “the people as a whole,” even if it was only 50.99 percent.
They disregarded the fact that there never was a “people as a whole,” since every person is an individual, with his own preferences, motives, and life. A “group of people” is only a group of individuals, each acting upon his own free will -- never a true collective.
Some might say, “People would never democratically vote for something as awful as mass murder today.” That’s irrelevant -- no one should even have the option to vote on that at all.
America’s Founders, such as John Adams and James Madison, may have deeply admired how Ancient Greece took power away from monarchs, but they were also aware of how the nation would become tyrannical if the Greco-Roman tradition were applied fully.
They understood that democratic voting could only work if individual rights always superseded it.
Under a truly free system, if 99 percent of the population lobbied Congress to steal from a whole class of people, the government was to say, “Those people didn’t do anything to you, so too bad. We protect rights consistently and majority opinion won’t change that.”
The Founding Fathers often proclaimed, “This a republic; not a democracy.” And, by that, they meant a “constitutional republic” in which individual rights were adhered to -- as opposed to the “classical republic” of Rome, in which people didn’t vote for every little law, but instead voted for representatives to craft the oppressive rules for them.
That’s why the Founders considered it an insult when others accused them of supporting democracy.
That also explains why James Madison, the father of the very U.S. Constitution that Michael Moore poses as an expert on, distrusted a state empowering "the people." In the Federalist Papers No. 10, he wrote that
democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
John Adams, who famously championed American Independence in the Continental Congress, once stated, “The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratic council, an oligarch junta, and a single emperor” (emphasis added).
Whether a government is run by one person or everybody is unimportant. The real question is: Does a particular law -- regardless if it was passed by a monarch or a mass -- protect the rightful ownership of one’s own life and material possessions, or does it deny it?
Before we continue to “make the world safe for democracy,” as the rights-violating President Woodrow Wilson put it, we should actually make the world safe for individual rights -- and safe from too much democracy.