Why Democracy Cannot Protect Our Freedoms
As has become typical for years divisible by four, we are well into the high-intensity portion of the various "must vote" campaigns. Both parties push that as a bipartisan narrative, even though each side focuses their message mainly toward getting more of "their people" to vote. But while that pattern has become "same old, same old," there has been a change in the pitch. While "this is what democracy is all about" arguments once focused almost exclusively on getting out the vote, there has been a sharp rise in assertions that "we should also have democracy everywhere (that we think we would win)," that everything should be determined by some majority vote.
That complementary theme changes things considerably, as there is a big difference between choosing who will best do the job enumerated, and limited, by the Constitution, and turning everything over to current majority politics together with efforts to get out "our" vote on every front. For instance, the Bill of Rights was designed to protect Americans' rights from abuses by the government, but if those rights can be overturned by some transient political majority (especially when such a majority can be newly created by electoral "reforms"), one of the most important reasons for American greatness—that is, greatness in protecting Americans—would disappear.
However, this trend is not new, just accelerating, which means there may be earlier wisdom available on the topic. And we are fortunate that Foundation for Economic Education creator Leonard Read considered this issue in chapter 9 of his 1964 book Anything That's Peaceful.
Read began with The Columbia Encyclopedia's statement that "the existence of only two major parties…presupposes general public agreement on constitutional questions and on the aims of government." He highlighted that fact as "fundamental," because only under such circumstances can we rely on one of the two major parties to check the abuses of the other. Without that circumstance, one party need not check the others' abuses, and, in fact, government abuse can easily be bipartisan. It is worth following Read's argument.
The two-party system presupposes a general agreement on constitutional questions and the aims of government and aims at, if it does not presuppose, honest candidates contending for office within the framework of that constitution…each office seeker is supposed to present fairly his own capabilities as related to the agreed-upon framework, voting being for the purpose of deciding which candidate is more competent for that limited role.
Clearly, the theory as originally conceived did not intend that the positions of candidates should [concern]…the content or meaning of the constitution and the aims of government.
If there were "a general public agreement on constitutional questions and on the aims of government," and if candidates were vying with each other for office solely on their competency to perform within this framework, I would have no comment. But there is little contemporary agreement as to constitutional questions and the aims of government! Name a point that can now be presupposed.
[Politicians] no longer contend with each other as to their competence to serve within a generally accepted framework but, instead: (1) they compete to see which one can come up with the most popular alteration of the framework, and (2) they compete to see which one can get himself in front of the most popular voter grab bag in order to stand foursquare for some people's supposed right to other people's income.
[But] the role of the legislator is to secure our rights to life, liberty, and property," and such "Principles do not permit of compromise; they are either adhered to or surrendered."
Voting is deeply embedded in the democratic mores as a duty….Yet any person who is conscious of our rapid drift toward the omnipotent state can hardly escape the suspicion that there may be a fault in our habitual way of looking at things.
Government in the U.S.A. has been pushed far beyond its proper sphere. The Marxian tenet, "from each according to ability, to each according to need," backed by the armed force of the state, has become established policy….Within this kind of political framework, it is to be expected that one candidate will stand for the coercive expropriation of the earned income of all citizens, giving the funds thus gathered to those in groups A, B, and C. Nor need we be surprised that his opponent differs from him only in advocating that the loot be given to those in groups X, Y, and Z. Does responsible citizenship require casting a ballot for either of these political plunderers? The citizen has no significant moral choice but only an immoral choice in the event he has joined the unholy alliance himself and thinks that one of the candidates will deliver some of the largess to him or to a group he favors…the problem is not one of responsible citizenship but of irresponsible looting.
Does responsible citizenship require voting for irresponsible candidates? To ballot in favor of irresponsible candidates as though it were one's duty is to misconstrue the meaning of duty.
Americans…have some abhorrence of forcibly taking from the few and giving to the many without any sanction whatsoever. That would be raw dictatorship. But few people with this propensity feel any pangs of conscience if it can be demonstrated that "the people voted for it"….And, as government increases its plundering activities, more and more citizens "want in" on the popular say-so.
Read then turns to Frédéric Bastiat's The Law, for its insights into how the purposes governments pursue influence voting:
If law were restricted to protecting all persons, all liberties, and all properties; if law were nothing more than the organized combination of the individual's right to self-defense; if law were the obstacle, the check, the punisher of all oppressions and plunder—is it likely that we citizens would then argue much about the extent of the franchise?
Under these circumstances, is it likely that the extent of the right to vote would endanger that supreme good, the public peace?
If the law were confined to its proper functions, everyone's interest in the law would be the same. Is it not clear that, under these circumstances, those who voted could not inconvenience those who did not vote?
In summary, Read argues that the traditional defense of democratic voting in our constitutional republic is that it defends its principles, but instead "[Our] two-party, ballot-casting system…no longer presupposes any agreement on constitutional questions and the aims of government." And he provides us with and apt warning:
If it be conceded that the role of government is to secure "certain unalienable rights, that among them are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," by what stretch of the imagination can this he achieved when we vote for those who are openly committed to unsecuring these rights?