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Democracy and Liberty

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04/05/2011F.A. Harper

[This article is excerpted from Liberty: A Path to Its Recovery (1949; 2007). An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by Colin Hussey, is available for download.]


It is generally accepted that a government can enslave the citizens. Enough kings and emperors and generalissimos and führers have done so to establish that fact quite conclusively.

But the belief prevails that "It is impossible for liberty to be lost under a democratic form of government. Democracy assures that the will of the people shall prevail, and that is liberty. So long as democracy is preserved we can rest assured that liberty will be continued to the full."

The more a person leans on an unsure support, the more certain he is to fall. Edmund Burke observed that people never give up their liberties except under some delusion. Probably no other belief is now so much a threat to liberty in the United States and in much of the rest of the world as the one that democracy, by itself alone, guarantees liberty.

Willis Ballinger's study of eight great democracies of the past — ancient Athens, Rome, Venice, Florence, the First and Third Republics of France, Weimar Germany, and Italy — reveals how unreliable is this hope.1 He reports that liberty perished peacefully by vote of the people in five of the eight countries; that in two of them it was lost by violence; that in one of them a dictatorship was established through the buying of the legislature by a fraudulent clique. One who would understand the problem of liberty must understand why it is possible for liberty to be lost even in a democracy, and how to guard against it.

The "democratic" form of government refers to one of the mechanisms by which the scope of government — the things to be done by government — is to be determined and how its management is to be selected. This may be done directly by decisions of the people themselves (in a "direct" or "absolute" democracy), as when a direct vote is taken on an amendment; or it may be done by delegating the power of decision in these matters to certain "elected" representatives (in a "representative" democracy or "republic"). There is an important difference between these two types of democracy but that distinction is not the object of our present concern.

In both instances, the plan rests on widespread sovereignty at its base. Decisions as to either the issues or the delegations of power are rendered according to the majority — or some other predominant proportion — of the opinions expressed.

The features that distinguish a democracy from any other form of government have to do with the mechanical design of the government, as distinguished from the composition of the load of authority that it carries. This is the same sort of difference as that of the design of a truck as distinguished from its load, or the shape of a cup as distinguished from its contents. In speaking of liberty, what we are really concerned about is what government does — the nature of the load — rather than the style of wheels on which it rides, or some other feature in the design of the vehicle; we are concerned, for instance, with whether or not the government should control prices rather than the department which shall do the job or the name of the person who is to head the department.

"The citizens of a democracy
have in their hands the tools
by which to enslave themselves."

If an act of government in any country violates the liberty of the people, it is of little importance who did it or how he came to have the power to do it; it is of little importance whether a dictator gained his power by accident of birth, by force, or by the vote of the people.

Liberty has been defined as the right of a person to do whatever he desires, according to his wisdom and conscience. It specifies the right to do what he desires, rather than the obligation to bow to the force of others in doing what they desire him to do; otherwise slavery becomes "liberty," and true liberty is lost. It makes no difference whether the transgressor of liberty carries the title of slave master, or king, or führer, or president, or chairman of the county committee, or whatnot.

Historical enterprises that violate liberty are not restricted to instances of complete dictatorship, nor are they all political. The only difference between the aggressive bully under anarchy and the similar acts of the dictator is its formalization into governmental authority. That may make the acts of the dictator legal, in a technical sense, but it does not make them proper or wise in any other sense.

Small dictatorships precede large ones, and destroy liberty to whatever extent they exist. "Power," which replaces liberty, is the irrevocable authority over others. One person's opinions, decisions or actions become substituted for those of another, for a long or short time, for a wide or narrow scope. This is the material of which dictatorships, either large or small, are made. The means by which power is acquired, whether by the "democratic" process or by conquest, does not change its status as power. It is true that under persuasion or demonstration, one person may influence the ideas or actions of another, but, as mentioned before, if there is no irrevocable grant of authority — even temporarily or for one single instance — it is not power.

Suppose, as illustration of encroachment on liberty, that I desire to produce some wheat on my land, with which to feed my family. I shall have lost my liberty in that connection whenever I am prohibited from doing so. The loss of liberty would be the same whether the prohibition was by taking my land, or by prohibiting me from growing wheat on it, or by taking the wheat away from me after it was grown. Nor would it make any difference what official title happened to be attached to the person who enforced the edict, nor how he gained his throne of authority. Further, and most important to the subject now under discussion, it makes no difference whether or not some of my neighbors approved of that act, or how many of them approved of it. It makes no difference because, in any event, my liberty in this respect would be gone.

It should be clear from what has been said that the citizens of a democracy have in their hands the tools by which to enslave themselves.

"It is of little importance whether a dictator gained his power by accident of birth, by force, or by the vote of the people."

This is a far cry from the common belief that democracy offers any definite and automatic protection of liberty. This illusion, that the democratic process is the same as liberty, is an ideal weapon for those few who may desire to destroy liberty and to replace it with some form of authoritarian society; innocent but ignorant persons are thereby made their dupes.

Under the spell of this illusion, liberty is most likely to be lost and its loss not discovered until too late. Liberty can easily be taken from the individual citizen, piece by piece and always more and more, as more and more persons under the spell of the same illusion join in the Pied Piper proceedings. Finally, all liberty is gone and can be recovered only by a bloody revolution.

Liberty does not mean the right to do anything that is the product of a democratic form of government. The right to vote, which is the sovereignty feature of democracy, assures only the liberty to participate in that process. It does not assure that everything done by that process shall automatically be in the interests of liberty. A populace may commit both political and economic suicide under a democracy.

Anyone who will defend his liberty must guard against the argument that access to the ballot, "by which people get whatever they want," is liberty. It would be as logical to assert that liberty in the choice of a wife is assured to a person if he will put it to the vote of the community and accept their plurality decision, or that liberty in religion is assured if the state enforces participation in the one religion that receives the most votes in the nation.

There is no certainty whatever that liberty in a country with the democratic form of government is at a level higher than in a country having some other mechanism of government. There is no certainty that liberty will be maintained where the founders of a democracy may have hoped that it would be preserved.

The illusion that liberty is assured so long as a democratic government is preserved is well illustrated by an event recently reported in the newspaper. Items to illustrate the same point can be found in the newspapers daily. A news dispatch reports that an increase in rent ceilings has been "turned down" by "top administration officials." The mere fact that some officials have acquired the power to deny this liberty to those who own this particular form of property is evidence of the fact that liberty in this respect is already gone; no process of selecting the officials who made the decision can make it not gone.

But let us pursue the matter further. It is argued that, since this act occurred in a "democracy," the "will of the people" has prevailed and liberty has thereby been assured. Did you participate in this decision of "top officials"? Did anyone ever ask your opinion about whether this increase should be granted? Was the person who made the decision elected by the voters, or appointed by someone — perhaps by someone who was himself appointed by someone? And finally, coming to the elected official, did you vote for him or for the other fellow? Did you approve of his advisers, or were they perhaps defeated candidates for office of former years?

Actually all these considerations are beside the point anyhow, so far as liberty is concerned. Even if there had been approval all along the line, it is a violation of economic liberty and of liberty in general for me, a nonowner, to be able to control the rent charged by a neighbor to a third party.

Being able to review a decision or to request its review, under the democratic design of government, does not assure that liberty will be protected. Reinstatement of lost liberty can be requested and refused time and time again, without end. A slave, similarly, might ask his master for his freedom time and time again; he is not considered to be free by reason of the fact that he is allowed to ask for liberty.

Consider in detail all the acts of all the units of government for one day. How many among them were the proper functions of a liberal government as you would judge it; of those that were, in how many instances did you have any opportunity or right to participate in the decision; if you disagreed with the decision, in how many instances was there anything that you could do about it?

Strange indeed is this concept of "democratic liberty," which has gained such widespread approval! Strange is a concept of "liberty" which allows you to be forced to pay the costs of promoting acts of which you disapprove or ideas with which you disagree, or which forces you to subsidize that which you consider to be slothfulness and negligence. Your "liberty" in the process is that you enjoy the right to be forced to bow to the dictates of others, against your wisdom and conscience!

Being forced to support things directly in conflict with one's wisdom and conscience is the direct opposite of liberty, and should under no circumstances be allowed to parade under the esteemed banner of liberty. It should be labeled for what it is.

The people of the United States now live under a president who was elected to that office by the expressed preference of only one person out of six in the land; by only one person out of four who were eligible to vote; by less than half of those who voted. And many of those who voted for this candidate will certainly disapprove of many of his official acts. This illustrates how the democratic process is a far cry from guaranteeing the liberty of the people.


F.A. Harper

Floyd Arthur "Baldy" Harper (1905–1973) was a Cornell University professor and member of the Mont Pelerin Society. He helped start up the Foundation for Economic Education, codirected the William Volker Fund, and founded the Institute for Humane Studies. At Harper's death, Murray Rothbard wrote, "Ever since he came to the Foundation for Economic Education in 1946 as its chief economist and theoretician, Baldy Harper, in a very real sense, has been the libertarian movement. For all these years, this gentle and lovable man, this wise and Socratic teacher, has been the heart and soul and nerve center of the libertarian cause."

Read Rothbard's memorial: Floyd Arthur 'Baldy' Harper, RIP.

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