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

August 13, 2012

Liberty > Democracy

by Stephen Littau

Far too often, people use the terms “liberty” and “democracy” as if they were interchangeable. President Woodrow Wilson justified intervention in other countries to “make the world safe for democracy.” Most if not all of the presidents who have followed have made similar arguments as an excuse to place military bases on every continent. Democracy in of itself is no guarantee that the people will live in a free society.

One thing that drives me nuts is this notion that everything needs to be “put up for a vote” whenever the item in question is not at all the business of the would-be voters. Sometimes communities have meetings to decide if the people should “allow” a Wal-Mart to be built. Those who oppose the building of a Wal-Mart in their community argue such things as Wal-Mart won’t allow their workers to unionize*, Wal-Mart will drive out existing businesses, and Wal-Mart imports too much of their “cheap,” “inferior” products from China rather than American products. These might be valid reasons for you to decide not to shop at Wal-Mart but what makes you think you have the right to deny me that choice by holding a vote?

Perhaps a less sympathetic target to some here in Colorado are the medical marijuana dispensaries. These dispensary owners set up shop and followed the existing rules but in the back of their mind they know that community activists can shut them down if they can gather enough signatures to force a vote**.

Then there are those who believe in wealth redistribution. The “rich” need to pay more taxes to benefit the “less fortunate” we are told.

What about economic liberty? Is economic liberty somehow a lesser liberty than any other liberty? The people from Learn Liberty argue that economic liberty is of more value to the individual than any right to vote. There are just some freedoms that ought not be voted away.

*This is more of a selling point for me.
**I’ve yet to hear of a vote to shut down a Walgreens because its within 1000 feet of a school even though they dispense drugs that are many times more dangerous than marijuana.

Additional Thoughts & Further Reading:
Brad reminded me of a great post he wrote nearly 6 years ago along the same lines entitled: Libertarianism and Democracy. After re-reading my post, I realized that I might have left the impression that democracy is of no value to those who value individual liberty. Brad does a much better job explaining that “liberty is an end, democracy is a means to an end.”

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.

I think the important thing that people need to recognize is that there are limits to what a government should have the power to do even if the process is a democratic one. What are the limits? Simply the recognition that the individual has the natural rights of life, liberty, and property that cannot be taken away provided that s/he does not infringe on the same rights of another.

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  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to link to another fine piece of writing here at TLP ;-)

    http://www.thelibertypapers.org/2006/12/19/libertarianism-and-democracy/

    Obviously I agree with you here, Stephen. Democracy is one means for making group decisions. In some cases it’s a great means for doing so; in other cases there are better options. But that all presumes that something needs to be “decided” beyond the individual, and frankly I think that we’ve allowed too many individual liberties to be improperly subjected to a vote.

  • MingoV

    A benevolent, libertarian semi-dictatorship (where dictators have term limits and can be removed at any time by a two-thirds majority of the voters) would work better than a libertarian democracy or even a libertarian republic. Nonselected populations (such as those in existing cities, states, and nations) have so many idiots, fools, and ignoramuses that a democratic government would never remain libertarian.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau

    Thanks for the reminder, Brad. I added some additional thoughts from your post in the body of my post.

  • Akston

    Not to mention other related posts here and here (apologies for the paralipsis).

    So much of life in a “free country” is determined in markets where free citizens voluntarily interact to arrive at millions of diverse results simultaneously. No coercion is required. The information required for the most appropriate and efficient allocation of resources is available to each participant as he or she trades. No coercion by autocrat, oligarch, or majority can match the ethics and efficiency of a market when no single answer is required.

    In those few cases where a single answer is required, the democratic process in a constitutional republic steps on the fewest participants on the way to that single answer.

    But we don’t need a vote on what we’ll all have for dinner tonight.

    “Do you seriously have such faith in human wisdom that you want universal sufferage and government of all by all and then you proclaim these very men whom you consider fit to govern others unfit to govern themselves?”

    – Frédéric Bastiat

  • http://e-vigilance.blogspot.com ricketson

    I think Plato made the case that democracy is most compatible with liberty, but often decays into mob rule.

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