Democracy, Tyranny, and Liberty

Aeon J. Skoble,

Release Date
October 6, 2011


Democracy and Voting

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.