What is democracy? Since November, much has been made of President Obama’s supposed “mandate” that is alleged to be evidenced by the 51.06% of the popular vote his ticket received in last year’s elections. Never mind that no sort of explicit mandate can seriously be attributed to a man who never proselytizes substantive political ideas until after elections are concluded, or that the Office of the Presidency is not actually chosen by the general population in our constitutional federal system, does the president nonetheless possess carte blanche to seek and/or implement his subjective will over more than 300 million people simply because he is popular – for whatever reason(s) – with almost 66 million of them? More specifically germane to this discussion, do those ~66 million folks possess any righteous claim to collectively dictate to the other ~250 million individual American citizens and residents how to live their lives, beyond restrictions on behavior that harms others’ person, property, or rights?
The truth of construction that generally fails to make it into primary education nowadays is that the United States federal government is not a democracy at all, nor was it ever intended to be. The United States government is a representative federal republic, its powers not derived from the will of the people directly but rather, as the 10th Amendment, Article 4, Section 4, and the ratification process outline, delegated from the states themselves. Democracy, then, can be said to exist indirectly in the American constitutional system via the democratic participatory states but it is a widely prevalent fallacy stemming from Lincoln-era consolidationism to think of America as a highly centralized democratic regime. The states entered this union as sovereign democratic countries themselves and purposefully chose not to surrender that sovereignty when developing and subsequently ratifying their respective participation in this free republic.
Philosophically, the question of what exactly democracy means lies at the heart of why the State justly exists. One (lesser) definition provided for democracy is the idea of majority rule. This is, ultimately, where common interpretations of democracy in general, and as this concept is applied to our constitutional system in particular, errs. If democracy is a truly just concept of governance, then it cannot ethically claim to both originate at the collective level and be unlimited in its scope and prerogative. To grant this thus inherently positions democracy in direct conflict with the purpose of government – to protect individual rights and freedom. Majority rule is a collective excuse to legitimize majoritarian tyranny, to justify political bullying, and to rationalize the diminishment of the minority individual and his/her freedom. Democracies that fail to exhibit a healthy respect for individual rights and freedom are no better – probably worse, owing to the frenzied nature of the mob – than history’s most reprehensible autocratic regimes. Indeed, the lion’s share of the tens of millions of victims that resulted from the 20th century’s various state-sponsored mass murdering sprees can be attributed to various world democracies, all presumably rationalizing their behavior with a dubious goal of satisfying the “Greater Good” or some other such nonsense.
It is the noble concept of safeguarding the individual from the subjective and often tyrannical will of the majority that explains the existence of constitutional checks and balances within the federal government; of republican checks and balances between the federal and state governments; of the restrictive nature of the Constitution in general and the Bill of Rights in particular; of the explicit enumeration of federal powers delegated to it by the states; and, indeed, the relative procedural difficulty of establishing federal laws that is codified by the Supreme Law of the Land. The modern idea that regime changes every few years reflects some empirical interpretation of popular will (of a majority of a minority of all American citizens and residents, as it happens) justifying confiscations of property, criminalization of victimless behavior, choosing economic winners and losers, and enriching special interests – all necessarily via direct violence or the threat of it – can find no credible founding in moral principle.
Because the State is not a natural thing in and of itself, and as such cannot execute any sort of universal authority without wielding compulsory power, everything it does – all of its laws, policies, regulations, and decrees – must be implemented via force. This is a crucial consideration when contemplating the proper role and purpose of government in our lives, just as when considering the proper role and purpose of the individual’s use of violence. A reasonable person acknowledges that the individual retains a right to wield violence against another in certain very strict, morally justified instances. Obviously, such circumstances are very limited in scope and based on largely absolute ethical principle. What moral framework can righteously exempt the State, whose actions are always necessarily based on violence or the threat of it, from this same standard? Is it just for an individual to assault someone for their choice of physical consumption? Is it legitimate for an individual to thieve to improve his station? Is it just for one individual to thieve from another for the subjective benefit of a special third party? Can an individual righteously maintain the means of defending themselves and their property while simultaneously violently preventing another from doing the same? How can the State justly assume this “right” to legal plunder or compulsory disarmament?
Thomas Jefferson once noted that “history has informed us that bodies of men, as well as individuals, are susceptible of the spirit of tyranny.” Austrian Economist and political (classical) liberal Ludwig von Mises observed that “what is most mischievous about the coercive power that justifies itself in the name of the ‘state’ is that, because it is always of necessity ultimately sustained by the consent of the majority, it directs its attacks against germinating innovations.” He went on:
…the task of the state consists solely and exclusively in guaranteeing the protection of life, health, liberty, and private property against violent attacks. Everything that goes beyond this is an evil. A government that, instead of fulfilling its task, sought to go so far as actually to infringe on personal security of life and health, freedom, and property would, of course, be altogether bad.
Still… power is evil in itself, no matter who exercises it. It tends to corrupt those who wield it and leads to abuse. Not only absolute sovereigns and aristocrats, but the masses also, in whose hands democracy entrusts the supreme power of government, are only too easily inclined to excess.
The state is neither cold nor warm, for it is an abstract concept in whose name living men – the organs of the state, the government – act. All state activity is human action, an evil inflicted by men on men (emphasis added).
If one were to purposefully understand the true nature and just role of government and how these relate to the State’s necessary application of violent force in all instances where it seeks to implement its political will – democratically or otherwise – then one must necessarily recognize that the only way the State may exist and operate ethically is to do so within the most restrictive scope possible. The only justly behaving government is the one whose behavior is limited strictly to protecting its citizens and residents from State tyranny, violence from itself and others, and private property – pursuits of behavior modification, the “Greater Good,” victimless crime, and egalitarianism are all necessarily excluded from this scope of activity.
To that end, the common conception of democracy is a gross misinterpretation. John Locke famously wrote that “men can never be secure from tyranny if there be no means to escape it till they are perfectly under it; and, therefore, it is that they have not only a right to get out of it, but to prevent it.” In a truly free society, democracy is not simply majority rule. Democracy’s singular noble purpose is to present a non-violent alternative for allowing the people to remove tyrants from State sources of power when they misbehave, not to enable that misbehavior.