Do we want democracy?
Walter E. Williams
5/22/2002 12:00:00 AM - Walter E. Williams
What's so good about democracy -- generally understood as having trust in the general will of a democratic people, as expressed by a vote of the majority, to make all important decisions? If a majority of our 535 congressmen votes for one measure or another, is that all right with you?
You say: "What's the story, Williams? Is there a better method of making important decisions?" I say yes, but let's first decide whether we'd really like majority rule as a criterion for making important decisions.
Suppose you're making the important decision to marry. Would you like the decision about whom you marry to be made through a democratic procedure where what the majority of Americans think determines whom you marry? How about using the democratic process to decide what we have for Thanksgiving dinner? Majority rule determines whether everyone has turkey, or ham, or duck, or capon. Once the vote is taken and, say, turkey wins, everyone is obliged to serve turkey.
You say, "C'mon Williams, when people say they're for democracy, they don't mean private decisions!" You're probably right. Indeed, if democratic procedures were applied to those private areas of our lives, we'd see it as nothing less than tyranny. That's one important problem with democracy: It creates an aura of moral legitimacy for acts that would otherwise be considered tyranny.
That's precisely why our Founders thought a Bill of Rights was a crucial protection. Thomas Jefferson said, "The majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society." So we should ask what life decisions should and should not be made through the political process.
Should a democratic process determine how much I put aside out of my weekly earnings for food? What about housing? What about for my daughter's education? You say, "Williams, that's your business and none other." Then I ask why it isn't also my business how much of my weekly earnings is set aside for retirement. In our country, how much is set aside for retirement is, as Jefferson might put it, criminally determined by Congress through Social Security laws.
Democracy was viewed with disgust by most of the nation's founders. Alexander Hamilton said: "We are now forming a Republican form of government. Real liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments. If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy, or some other form of dictatorship."
In Federalist Paper 10, arguing for a constitutional republic, James Madison said, "... 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 said: "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall said, "Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos."
The observation about democracy that I like best was that of H.L. Mencken: "Democracy is a form of worship. It is the worship of jackals by jackasses."
When the Founders thought of democracy, they saw democracy in the political sphere -- a sphere strictly limited by the Constitution's well-defined and enumerated powers given the federal government. Substituting democratic decision-making for what should be private decision-making is nothing less than tyranny dressed up.