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Democracy! (When Convenient)

Mises Daily: Saturday, August 07, 1999 by

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Over the years of watching the democratic process I've noticed something important. People tend to reject democracy, indeed, fight it tooth and nail, when it doesn't go their way. But when it does, well, it is the tops.

Consider Proposition 187, which cut off welfare to illegal immigrants. Governor Gray Davis of California is now maneuvering to essentially gut this referendum, one that won with over 60% of the votes. But let us recognize that the leader of the Democratic Party in California has no problem rejecting what the majority of the people want when he and his friends believe that the people are wrong.

Now if you really believe in democracy regarding the handling of certain problems in society, whether people actually have signed up for that process, you will go along with the verdict regardless of whether you like the outcome. That is a principled defense of democracy.

During all health care reform debates, it is liberal Democrats who say, repeatedly, that their demand for a government supervised health care system merely expresses the will of the public and thus has ample legitimacy behind it. That is why there is so much polling, too, by the media--it is widely believed that if "the people" want something, then it should be granted.

What, then, makes for a good law is whether the majority wants it to be enacted. One reason that most Democrats used to oppose a balanced budget amendment is that they believe it would place undue obstacles before the will of the people. Surely if they people want to go into debt (read: if that's what the majority wants), we ought all to comply and go into debt. The people--the public interest, the general will, the greatest satisfaction of the greatest number: these have been the objects of adoration of the leading lights of the Democratic Party. Until the people no longer like what Democrats want, that is.

The people of California wanted Proposition 187, but the Democrats do not. Some years back they did want to make people in business stop hiring illegal aliens, so the enacted federal legislation and claimed, again, that they impose such restrictions and delegate such police powers as this requires on business because, well, the people demand it.

But if you keep fighting the outcome, via law suits and such, you testify to your dismissal of democracy in favor of something else--say, judicial intervention, some kind of higher law that democracy must not abridge.

Few people believe it would be okay to, say, vote the Mooney church out of existence or to vote to shut down the New York Times. That is because the US Constitution protects church and press from democratic meddling, no matter how eager the majority of the people are to meddle.

One of the mainstays of the liberal Democrats has been that in most matters we should leave matters up to a vote. We should vote on whether smoking is to be allowed in restaurants, whether zoning ordinances are to be enacted, how high taxes should be, how to run public schools, and so forth and so on.

The process is declared to be wonderful until things don't quite go the liberal democratic way. The flack over Proposition 187 is a wonderful case in point. Just how hypocritical can you get? Be a fervent supporter of "people power" except when people do not like what you like. Then suddenly "people power" must be destroyed. I guess California's majority will have to pick and choose some other issue on which to unite in order to fend off the duplicitous legalism of liberal Democrats.

At the same time, I am sure that they will have no problem with voting away private property rights, voting for massive government intervention in practically any area of human life, voting for extensive government regulation of business, medicine, and so on.

But if there is a successful vote to rid the community of the expanding tyranny of government, the liberal democrats suddenly aren't democrats any more.

It just goes to show you. In their hearts of hearts democrats are never really democrats at all but merely opportunists who make use of the power of the majority over the minority's rights. But should the majority not wish to go along with this plan, well down with democracy--it is the enemy of higher principles in which democrats believe only sporadically, however.

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TIBOR R. MACHAN teaches at the School of Business & Economics, Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute.