Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“It will require many long years of self-education until the subject can turn himself into the citizen. A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police.”     Ludwig von Mises,    Liberalism

December 19, 2006

Libertarianism and Democracy

by Brad Warbiany

By now, of course, you’ve all seen this:

I still say that libertarianism and “limited government” ideology is essentially anti-democratic. It deprives We, the People of the ability to use government in our own interests. Certainly the powers of government must be limited — the power to censor, the power to search and seize property, the power to intrude on citizens’ private lives generally — but placing artificial limits on the size and functions of government doesn’t restrict government as must as it restricts the will of the people. I’m not calling for “big government” for its own sake. I’m just saying that a government should be as big (or as small) as its citizens require.

I’d like to let it go. It’s clear, from this post and another, that this blogger understands neither libertarianism nor democracy. But sometimes I just can’t help myself.

Libertarianism isn’t anti-Democracy. In fact, the statement itself is nonsensical. Libertarianism is a moral system, valuing individual liberty as it’s highest ideal. Democracy is a form of government, consisting of majority rule. Or, to make it more plain, liberty is an end, democracy is a means to an end.

But unfortunately, it’s not that simple. You hear many quotes from Libertarians deriding democracy. Doug said it yesterday. Thomas Jefferson was the one who said “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” Libertarians are fearful of democracy. If a statement that libertarianism is anti-democratic is nonsense, why do so many libertarians make these types of statements about democracy?

But the points still stand. Having liberty as a goal is not inconsistent with using democratic processes in your government. In fact, you can clearly see that our system of government has some democratic processes, created by the Founding Fathers who feared democracy just as much as modern libertarians. As I said earlier, though, democracy is a means, not an end. Democracy can— and has— been used to improve liberty. But it has also been used to take liberty away. Nothing exhibits this more clearly than the 18th and 21st Amendments. Democracy infringed people’s liberty, but it was democracy that restored that liberty.

In truth, democracy is often better for making decisions than monarchy, or aristocracy. After all, what can empower people more than to allow them to have a hand in making their own decisions? The key is that democracy can be used in ways that don’t reduce liberty, but it can also be used in ways that do.

So it’s not really democracy that libertarians fear, it is force. The sentiment that elicits anti-democratic quotes, though, is the fear that democracy will marshal government to impose force that destroys our liberty.

Now, it doesn’t usually sound that bad. After all, to many people, the quote “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner” doesn’t hold water in our modern society. After all, we don’t live in a society that will rip children from their mothers’ womb, to be sold off into sexual slavery, simply because the majority votes for it. We do have a Bill of Rights, after all!

But take a step back. What about the quote “Democracy is 90% of the population voting on how heavily to punish the other 10% through taxation.” It doesn’t sound so far-fetched anymore, does it? In fact, it sounds like something that’s going on this very moment! Now, those on the left will tell you they’re doing it for the “common good”, or that it’s “for the children”. But it’s the use of government to achieve their ends, and George Washington told us what government is:

Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.

When the blogger who started this fight said that “surely the powers of government must be limited”, one is sure that she was not including the power to legislate on any topic under the sun, the power to engage in social engineering, or the the power to regulate your use of private property. These things, of course, are promoting the “general welfare”. The Founders never envisioned some of the problems that people may encounter, and thus it’s clear to her that we shouldn’t let their limits on government get in the way of our democratic process.

But she refuses to see the gun in the room. She fails to see that she’s not just engaging in democracy, she’s imposing force on others. It doesn’t seem like force, when it’s couched in terms like “common good”, or “will of the people”, but force it is nonetheless. And it’s not retaliatory force, it is initiated force. Government is nothing but force. And it’s easy for people to believe that what legislation they propose for the “common good” doesn’t involve the use of force. After all, the gun in the room usually stays in its holster. That doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Libertarians aim for limited government because the less government we have, the more liberty we have. We advocate only enough government to help us protect our liberty, and some, who tend more towards anarcho-capitalism, believe NO government is necessary to do so. That does not mean libertarians are anti-democracy. We believe that when changes need to be made to our government, democracy is one of the best ways to accomplish it. After all, the ratification of our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and any Amendments to the Constitution are accomplished through the use of democracy. What we are against is the destruction of our liberty, and allowing the government extremely wide-ranging powers, harnessed to the democratic process, is not a good thing.

But democracy is dangerous. While it gave us the 13th and 19th Amendments, which I am in favor of, it also gave us the 16th and 18th, which I am not. The first two expanded liberty, and the latter two reduced it. As I said, democracy is only a process, a means to an end. The folks at mahablog might be willing to entrust their liberty to the will of the majority, but I am not. While democracy can be a method of achieving the end of liberty, it’s not a trustworthy or reliable method of doing so.

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8 Comments

  1. I would add the 17th Amendment to the list as well for amendments that restrict liberty.

    Comment by Kevin — December 19, 2006 @ 6:35 pm
  2. I second the motion for adding the 17th. The 16th and 17th Amendments were some of the worst things to happen to this country.

    Anyway, good post Brad…at least *we* were able to find something positive in this sorry incident.

    Comment by mike — December 19, 2006 @ 6:55 pm
  3. In my first draft, I included the 17th. I pulled it out of there, though. The 16th and 18th were direct infringements on individual liberty. The 17th was a change in the structure of government, which happened to have the end result of removing a major check on the size of the federal government, and thus indirectly restricted liberty.

    I didn’t want to focus on something as abstract as the “unintended” consequences of the 17th Amendment, when the 16th and 18th are clear-cut examples of democratic action causing the restriction of liberty.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — December 19, 2006 @ 7:10 pm
  4. [...] Brad Warbiany: In my first draft, I included the 17th. I pulled it out of there, though. The 16th and 18th were… [...]

    Pingback by The Liberty Papers»Blog Archive » The Tyranny Of The Majority — December 19, 2006 @ 8:14 pm
  5. “Libertarianism is a moral system, valuing individual liberty as it’s highest ideal.”

    I have finally gotten an answer. When seen in that light it changes many debates. We must discuss just what is an unalienable right, and does it have value. What defines a moral system if “the good” isn’t it goal? What purpose does that system have, if it is not how we live in a society?

    Comment by VRB — December 19, 2006 @ 9:16 pm
  6. VRB,

    That comment really piqued my interest. Look for another post from me today to go into it…

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — December 20, 2006 @ 6:30 am
  7. [...] In the comments to my last post, one of our regular commenters asked a very interesting question: “Libertarianism is a moral system, valuing individual liberty as it’s highest ideal.” [...]

    Pingback by The Liberty Papers»Blog Archive » Libertarianism and Utilitarianism — December 20, 2006 @ 8:05 am
  8. Great discussion!

    Comment by scorch — December 31, 2006 @ 12:14 pm

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