Democracy and the Individual

An article published in this month’s Freeman Magazine claimed a new solution to our political woes with the title: “Can We Correct Democracy?”

Perhaps the author would answer Churchill’s famous quote — that democracy is “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” — by finding an entirely new system of rule. Democracy is, after all, a strange combination of centralization and spontaneous order, where the rules are tweaked by those in power, then thrown out of power, only to be replaced by others. 

The author did respond to Churchill’s quote, but he suggested adding a new mechanism to the political process — an easy procedure to “strike down a specified rule” based on a popular mandate:

A corrective democracy allows voters to do only one thing: Strike down a specified rule. Voters would get a fair shot at any law, regulation, ordinance, or order that offends them. If it failed the corrective vote, the rule would get removed from the books. Think of it as the electoral equivalent of jury nullification.

Unfortunately, this “corrective democracy” doesn’t offer anything truly new to protect liberty, because it does not free the potential of spontaneous human order from centralized political control. The problem isn’t that we have too many laws, but that many of the laws we do have hamper individual rights.  One could disestablish a despot, only for it to be replaced by another.

As the article describes it, voters would be able to “get a fair shot at any law, regulation, ordinance, or order,” no matter how constitutional it is, or if it preserves liberty, but only on the basis if it “offends them.” Handing over legislation to public morality is a step towards increased statism. Fortunately, near the end of the article, the author did say that perhaps certain rights could be “completely exempt[ed]… from popular challenges,” demonstrating an understanding that decisions based on majority vote are the real problem.

Corrective democracy would perpetuate the tyranny of the majority by allowing the majority to strike off potentially beneficial laws and decide which rights shouldn’t be exempt from popular referendum.

The problem for millennia has been to reconcile pure democracy — the idea that the majority decides — and the central role of individual consent. Although initially considered progress compared to the rule of a king or an oligarchy, rule by the majority allows for equally tryannical rule. Frederic Bastiat explained it as “everybody plunders everybody else.” Alexis de Tocqueville questioned in On Democracy in America, “[i]f it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach?”

The greatest political thinkers have sought to answer this question — from Plato’s rule of philosopher-kings to John Locke’s social contract; or from Jefferson and Hamilton divisions displayed in the Federalist Papers to Bastiat’s concept of justice; or from Mill’s limited government to Ayn Rand’s law of identity. Often they thought that they had stumbled upon the solution, a government and society that is both democratic and respectful of, as Rand would say, “the smallest minority…the individual.” However, each proposal was either too abstract to be applicable or was proven unworkable over the course of time.

Nevertheless, we must learn from the failures of the past, their thinking and their understandings, in order to come to any substantive new conclusions on how the individual system can be broken and how a new system would look.

So, what are the lessons?

  • For Plato’s philosopher-kings, the thought surely must be that a government of angels cannot exist on earth.  
  • For John Locke’s social contract, the problem would be that a contract requires consent from all parties and doesn’t bind generations for all time.
  • For Jefferson and Hamilton’s division by faction, the maxim would be that robbers work best in cartels. 
  • From Bastiat’s concept of justice, we can learn that given a choice, people will support universal plunder, blind greed and false philanthropy, rather than a system without plunder. 
  • For John Stuart Mill’s limited government, the lesson is that simple societal immorality does not justify an abridgment of rights.
  • For Ayn Rand’s law of identity, it is that we must not forget that man is a social creature with an ability for great altruism.  

Can the pieces be put together to arrive at a new theory that is democratic, individualistic, and doesn’t stumble on these points? The following system is not definitive in any means, but it is a step in realizing the real crisis of government. 

The author of the article does present two useful points: It is easier to measure disapproval rather than approval, and it’s easier to do so with existing laws rather than legislating new ones. However, I’d reject the forced communalism advocated by the FEE article by replacing it with individual nullification and the non-initiation of force. Instead of having a group vote on repealing a law, thereby ignoring dissenting views, individual nullification would only bind the person who chooses to ignore a certain law. To use the original article’s example, one person may want a flavor of ice cream that everyone else rejects. Does the individual then get overruled? No, he exits the group and buys his own.

Of course, not all laws should be nullified, but only those whose nullification does not in itself require or allow the initiation of force. This forbids anyone from depriving another person of their life, liberty, or property, unless they have already initiated aggression against these. Stating that one will not pay property taxes, for example, might forbid one from sending children to public schools. However, it would be allowed because it does not initiate force, but protects one from it.

By contrast, the nullification of the crime of theft wouldn’t be allowed because it would legalize the initiation of force. Non-initiation differentiates between the first, negative liberty, and the second, positive liberty. The latter is not recognized because it often requires that force be used against another. This simplicity would prevent a change in interpretation over time and create a new societal morality cognizant of the individual.

Content published on the Young Americans for Liberty blog is only representative of the opinions and research of the individual authors. It does not necessarily reflect the views, goals, or membership of YAL.

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