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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Liberty, not Democracy

Today's Opinion Journal carries an article about Natan Sharansky.

Sharansky is one very vocal proponent of "democratization" of the Middle East, an idea that currently seems much out of fashion. He makes an interesting comment (and a true one, as far as it goes) when he says ""Democracy is a rather problematic word, because democracy is about technique. I would prefer freedom. I would say people don't want to live under constant fear."

Just so. The American Founders were never particularly interested in "democracy", they wanted liberty and they feared democracy had a pretty good historical record for, among other things, immediately preceding dictatorships and tyrannies. Their ambivalence and, in some cases, outright hostility to democracy is well known and is sometimes used as one of the cudgels with which to beat their memory.

But Sharansky is right, though he does not go far enough, and the Founders were right. A gang-rape, after all, is very democratic. Democracy is not the highest political good, and, if not treated carefully, can in fact destroy higher political goods, such as liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness.


Glenn said...

Fareed Zakaria. Fareed Zakaria. Fareed Zakaria.

There were two sets of founding fathers, maybe three. The primary problem facing the first set - Samuel Adams, et al, was the prospect of British tyranny and the present certainty of British restrictions on their liberties. (Their liberty, to, for example, ship rum to Africa for the purchase of slaves, which they could ship to French Caribbean islands to trade for sugar, so that they could carry sugar back to New England to be made into rum.) Therefore, the primary thrust of the Declaration of Independence and other documents of the Continental Congress era is freedom, freedom, freedom.

Founders of the second group, some of whom were also members of the first group, grown, unlike T. Jefferson, older and wiser, were concerned with order and the consequences of excessive liberty. (One might consider that the change is from Locke's emphasis upon freedom to Hobbes' emphasis upon the need of society to function.) They wanted, for example, to curb the freedom of the states to set their own import duties, in order to encourage trade to the United States as a whole.

For the third group, i.e., the Jacksonians, the problem was neither liberty or order, but equality. With the Jacksonians the movement to democracy really started moving, as the franchise was granted to ever wider circles, and disabilities upon various groups were successively removed.

The order of these trends is important, because first we established that liberty was important, so that the drive for order could only relatively limit liberties, instead (as in a Fascist state) of obviating liberty altogether. And the drive for equality came after both the principles of liberty and the structure of order had been established.

Fareed Zakaria, who is an editor over at Newsweek, and author of books and articles, made a big point of the fact that our attempts to promote democracy in a lot of places had been disappointed because we misunderstood the degree to which our own democracy (and that of the Brits) worked well because of their undemocratic features. For example, we have the principle that, while the majority gets to govern for a term after elections, it can't be a permanent majority, because individuals have the freedom to change their affiliations. For another example, a lot of the legal principles in our society are set out by an unelected body of nine men and women who are often out of sympathy with the government in power.

The whole structure of checks and balances is undemocratic, in that it frustrates the immediate will of the people. But it also keeps the system from goes off to an extreme, and then crashing and burning.

Iraq may be a really good example. We have successfully promoted democracy in Iraq. They have had elections, the majority elected at those elections runs the government, and the losers are out of power. The problem is that we haven't gotten the Iraqis to understand the necessity for the "liberal," "constitutional," and even "undemocratic" parts of democracy: like voluntarily giving the losers some part of the action, so they don't take their guns and go into the hills or the desert to shoot your soldiers. The Iraqis have the part - and that's a good thing, about the majority ruling. They just don't have the part about checks and balances.

Agim Zabeli said...


Thanks for the comment. It's the first one I've gotten. I don't know that I think of Jacksonians as founders. I think of them as more of an early nineteenth century movement.

And you're certainly right that I did not differentiate between the signers of the Declaration and the framers of the Constitution. I was really thinking in terms of the arguments made in the Federalist Papers concerning the limits placed on democracy and the structural guards against factions (the unraveling of which really accelerated with the adoption of the execrable seventeenth amendment).

seanross said...

As I understand our system of government, it was never intended as a Democracy in either the classical or representative sense. It was consistently referred to as a "Republic" by the founders. A Republic, according to Polybius (which the founders were familiar with) is a hybrid form of government combining democratic, oligarchic and monarchic elements in a balance of power. The idea is to prevent the accumulation of power - and thus to preserve liberty. Agim, I concur with your assertion that "democracy" was not part of the constitutional system, but that liberty was.

I would subsume Glenn's second group "order" under the first, "liberty". Without some order, ones liberty is severely curtailed. I am currently at liberty to hop on my motorcycle and drive nearly anywhere I like. That liberty is only possible because there is an orderly system of maintained roads and a predictable fuel distribution system. Liberty and order go together, the second being necessary for the first.