Democracy and Liberty

Saturday, March 20, 2010
by Dr. Tibor Machan

The point deserves to be made over and over: majorities have no just authority to trump individual rights! That old dependable standby of the lynch mob is a perfect illustration of this. Just because the whole town wants to hang the suspect, it doesn’t follow that it would be right to do so. The sheriff will defend the process due the accused because justice demands it. Why? Because no one may be punished or indeed imposed upon without it first having been demonstrated that the punishment or imposition is justified, deserved, or warranted.

Of course, this line of thinking takes it as a fact that individuals and their basic rights matter most than the popular will. Yet that should not be very difficult to grasp. So another old saying has it wrong – 50 millions frenchmen can indeed be wrong! Millions of Nazis and communists and people around the globe with all kinds of superstitions can be and are wrong.

However, if one is wrong within one’s own sphere of authority, on one’s own property for example, or in one’s own religious or philosophical convictions, that’s no one else’s business to fix except perhaps one’s best friend or a family member who cares and would nudge one in the right direction. But being wrong is an individual right! The U.S. Constitution attests to this with its First Amendment which certainly protects everyone who may be wrong about religion or other matters of belief.

Individual rights apply to all, including, especially, to those in the minority. In a bona fide free country one is free to be and do what one chooses provided this doesn’t impose on others something they do not deserve coming to them. So when someone doesn’t want to carry health insurance, that is something he or she has a perfect right to do. (The example of car insurance is a bad one since the roads are government run, so the government may make the rules for who may or may not use them. One’s body and health doesn’t belong to the government!)

A few years ago the journalist and Newsweek International’s editor Fareed Zakaria published a book, The Future of Freedom in which he worked out a pretty good set of criteria for which countries are liberal and which are illiberal democracies. I think he was too easy on some topics so he allowed for a lot more democratic meddling in people’s lives than is justified, morally or politically. Nonetheless, the distinction Zakaria worked with is a very instructive one. When democracy intrudes on individual liberty, it is wrong – it amounts to mob rule, period, however civilized it may appear to be. But when democracy operates without such intrusiveness, it is a permissible method (though not always the soundest) for making decisions in small or large groups.

The American Founders identified every human being as equal in respect of having certain unalienable rights, among them to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This pretty much amounts to the best guide as to what may not be done to the citizens of a country – their lives, liberty and their choice of what is important to them may not be voted on. It is for them to decide and no one else, other than as advisors or consultants or teachers. Certainly not as daddies or nannies, even if they are in the majority. As the U.S. Supreme Court once ruled, “One’s right to life, liberty, and property . . . and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.” (U.S. Supreme Court 319 U. S. 62, 638)

It is in fact a quintessential feature of the American political tradition, this insistence on individual rights, something that irks so many rulers and their apologists across the globe and even here in the U.S.A. The fact that everyone has these rights is clearly the greatest bulwark against tyranny. Sadly, this element of the American political tradition has never been fully accepted even in America, let alone elsewhere, so one must constantly be vigilant in opposition to those who would ignore it, from the Right or the Left or indeed any circle of enthusiasts who want to ride roughshod over us.

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