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Democracy, Tyranny, and Liberty

Do democracies promote freedom? According to Prof. Aeon Skoble, it is definitely possible for democracies to promote freedom, but it is not a guarantee. This is due to a few flaws inherent in democratic systems:

  1. Majority belief in something does not necessarily mean that it’s true.
  2. Majorities are capable of being just as tyrannical as kings
  3. Historically, democracies have elected tyrannical leaders.
If freedom is the primary value of a society, democracy might still be of use so long as there are boundary conditions on the democratic process that protect the rights of the individual.

  • Democracys Road to Tyranny [Article]: Erik Kuehnelt-Leddihn explains how it’s possible for tyranny to emerge through the mechanisms of democracy.

  • Beware Democracy without Liberty [Article]: Richard Ebeling argues that democracy is not necessarily liberty.

  • Liberty: A Path to its Recovery [Book]: F.A. Harper, in chapter seven of this book (page 50 of the PDF), explains the relationship between liberty and democracy.

  • Public Choice (Video): Isaac Morehouse uses economic analysis to reveal several flaws inherent in democracies.


Democracy, Tyranny, and Liberty

We often talk about freedom and democracy as if they were the same thing. But actually it’s not obvious that democracy always produces the most freedom-friendly outcomes. Sometimes it does. The idea that we should all be in charge of deciding our own fate certainly is more conducive to promoting freedom than if we had a tyrant to tell everybody what to do. But it’s also possible for democratic structures to be against freedom.

Democratic structures can marginalize minorities. Democratic structures can make the majority rule seem to be the correct thing even if it’s not the correct thing. After all just because most people agree that something is true doesn’t make it true. So there’s also no reason to think that just because most people agree that something is a just policy that that’s necessarily the most just policy. There was a time when the vast majority of Americans thought that women should not be permitted to vote. Or that blacks shouldn’t have the same rights as white people. Nowadays we think those things are false, but surely it’s not the number of people who thinks that they’re false that makes them false.

The fact of the matter is a democratic voting system is a way to figure out what most people think. But that’s not the same thing as figuring out what’s right. So when majorities in a democratic process pass legislation that removes or restricts individual freedom, that’s not necessarily valuable. If the goal is liberty, then democratic structures have to be themselves bounded by bordering conditions that keep people safe from what John Stuart Mill calls the tyranny of the majority.

Majorities can be just as tyrannical as kings. In fact the Greek philosopher Plato argues that in addition to this concern about tyranny of the majority there’s also a structural problem. The democratic structures can become tyrannical. That is, through the people’s discussion and argument and lack of direction, they will clamor for new leadership and demand that a tyrant be brought into power. This is how historically many tyrants have actually come into existence through a democratic process. This is true with Napoleon. This is true for Hitler. This is true for Julius Caesar. These are all examples of historical tyrants who came into power because of, not in spite of, democratic structures.

So if we’re concerned about protecting freedom, democracy might be something that helps us. But it’s really important to make sure that there are boundary conditions on the democratic process that protect the rights of the individual.

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6 Comments

  1. Matt Wavle

    Right is RIGHT no matter who is AGAINST it.
    Wrong is WRONG no matter who is FOR it.

    TRUTH is never discovered by means of a popular vote.  
    I like where he says "just because most people agree that something is true doesn’t make it true".  This level of logic ought to be applied to the debate on so called "global warming".  And remember, the same group, back in the 70′s was calling for "The next great ice age."
    – Also, remember the quote from the movie, The Patriot, where Mel Gibson’s character says, "Why would I want to trade ONE tyrant 3,000 miles away for 3,000 tyrants ONE mile away?"  If we had moved from a monarchy to a pure democracy, that’s exactly what would have happened.  The French Revolution is another example of the dangers of democracy.
  2. Matt Wavle

    Even if I were a devout Muslim, I would want MY motives to be seen as true, because my actions were voluntary, and not coerced.  Great point you make there Farid.

  3. Daniel Pealer

    Similarly, in practice one has to deal with the problem of the fallacy of moderation, may people pride themselves on being "moderates" because they stand approximately between what they see as the two extremes. However you are still wrong if you assert that 2+2=13 because you see the extremes as being 2+2=4 and 2+2=22. Halfway between the truth and a lie is still false.

  4. taschrant

    I think this is what our Republicans and Democrat friends in Congress have devolved into.  51% of the population pushing the other 49% around.  I think both parties are severely broken.

  5. Damian Gunjak

    The United States is a democracy, the republic died a long time, poor plate saw it all

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