There is a growing tendency among libertarians to attack the concept of democracy, and blame it for America’s problems. But this is reckless: we need to address the issues within our system and provide alternatives instead of burning the entire thing down.
Democracy is defined as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”
Many accuse democracy of being merely majority rule, but if democracy is majority rule, is the alternative minority rule? Whether we like it or not, some decisions have to be made at scale. We do not exist in a vacuum or a test tube, so we cannot bury our heads in the sand and say that the alternative is no government at all. After all, few things are worse for liberty than power vacuums.
How we define and protect property rights, resolve conflicts, and provide for a common defense are not decisions that can be left to the individual. There is simply no getting around the fact that how we define these things requires a baseline consensus from the people we live near, otherwise a constant state of conflict would arise.
If we left it up to every individual to decide what property did or did not belong to them, society would soon devolve into might making right.
Majority rule has a much better track record than minority rule
So if our choice is between majority or minority rule, then all we have to do is look to history and the real world. There we will find clear proof that (limited) rule by majority has far better consequences for individual liberty and prosperity than rule by minority. From post-revolution America to post-World War II Western Europe to post-Soviet Eastern Europe, democracy in any form has consistently been the best choice for liberty.
Democracy isn’t perfect, it is human. Without checks and balances on government power and transparent elections, a democracy can theoretically be as brutal as any other form of government. Except that in practice, this simply doesn’t hold true.
All other forms of government eventually end up catering to a minority. Democracies alone have proved resilient in protecting individual liberties. The real world results of the “pure democracy” that we are so often warned about, such as several cantons in Switzerland, are among the freest places on Earth.
The risks posed by democracy can be mitigated
The beautiful thing about representative government is that the risks it poses to liberty can be mitigated by restraining it within a system of a constitutional republic. After all, democracy refers to people holding power “indirectly through a system of representation”. Indirect representation, along with checks and balances, has the best track record of any form of government for protecting individual liberty.
We are dealing with the real world, so we must look at how humans respond to different forms of government. In the real world, democracy has an incredible ability to increase peace between nations and within them. Anyone who is trying to sell you a perfect system in a human world is trying to pull the wool over your eyes.
We must adapt to the imperfect nature of people. Democracies may have fallen into some modern traps: growth of the state, increased taxation, and restricting movement. But they have also proven resilient at avoiding historical traps of government: free speech and personal liberty have never been better protected.
As worldwide incomes have skyrocketed (thanks in large part to the freedoms protected by democracy) the willingness to have a higher tax burden has increased as well. As more and more people rise above the poverty line, the burden that taxation imposes grows smaller, even as the tax rates themselves go higher.
This isn’t to minimize the negative impacts that taxation causes, but the tax burden should not be the only metric that we measure freedom by. Would you move to North Korea if you knew you would never pay a tax again? Of course not.
While inflation has often seduced many democracies, it is not a result of democracy, but a result of human nature desiring to create value from nothing. Many historical forms of government regularly devalued their currency with base metals. The solution isn’t to change which kind of government has a monopoly on currency, the solution is to end government’s monopoly on currency entirely.
As the physical barriers to immigration have fallen, legal barriers on immigration have increased. This is not a direct result of democratic actions, but a byproduct of democratic nations economically outpacing non-democratic nations.
There are no serious alternatives that would better serve liberty
Those trying to push buttons by opposing democracy also never play out the obvious scenario of taking away people’s ability to vote. How do they imagine the process of de-democratizing going?
Who is far more likely to take advantage of removing the ability to vote, libertarians or authoritarians? The answer is obvious, and it’s obvious in history: taking away the ability to vote will never fail to lead to tyranny.
Those who support minority rule, do so by imagining a ruler in their own image. They theorize, without historical or practical evidence, that such a ruler could exist and not fall prey to the same shortcomings they find in democracy. They ignore that anyone willing to seize power from a democratic system will never be a friend to liberty. They imagine a government of angels, not men.
In 1850, less than 6 percent of the world’s population lived in a democracy, today, that number is around 62 percent. This growth has taken place not because democracy is a fad, but because it helps people solve problems and improves their way of life. We are dealing with an extremely new and raw mechanism of corporate decision making.
For such a relatively new form of government, its track record is truly remarkable. Democracies’ stability and peaceful transitions of power are rare traits in historical forms of governments. We should not change what works imperfectly for that which doesn’t work at all.
Those who would claim that libertarians are anti-democracy are simply tipping their hand: they care more about fantasy notions of liberty than real world liberty. The more we sit around pining for utopia the more we will fail to act for liberty in the world around us. And no system of government in the real world provides for more security of our freedoms than democracy within the confines of a constitutional republic.
At the end of the day, the ability to vote is not what can restrict liberty, it’s what the vote controls. And it’s our job to use that ability to vote to protect liberty.
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This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.