Is freedom at odds with majority rule?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 3, 2006

America’s foreign policy has led to a bizarre contradiction. President Bush claims to be pursuing freedom in the world, so that Americans will be safer. Yet this campaign’s results – a more zealous proponent of terrorism in the Palestinian Authority, and the prospect of theocracy in Iraq – are posing even greater threats to us.

The cause of this failure is Mr. Bush’s hopeless view that tyranny is reversed by the holding of elections – a view stemming from the widespread confusion between freedom and democracy.

Ask a typical American if there should be limits on what government may do, and he would answer: yes. He understands that each of us has rights which no law–regardless of how much public support it happens to attract–is entitled to breach. An advocate of democracy, however, would answer: no.

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The essence of democracy is unlimited majority rule. It is the notion that the government should not be constrained, as long as its behavior is sanctioned by majority vote. It is the notion that the function of government is to implement the “will of the people.” It is the notion we are espousing when we tell the Iraqis, the Palestinians and the Afghanis that the legitimacy of their new governments rests essentially on their being democratically approved.

And it is the notion that was repudiated by the founding of the United States.

America’s defining characteristic is freedom. Freedom exists when there are limitations on government, limitations imposed by the principle of individual rights. America was established as a republic, under which government is restricted to protecting our inalienable rights; this should not be called “democracy.” Thus, you are free to criticize your neighbors, your society, your government – no matter how many people wish to pass a law censoring you. But if “popular will” is the standard, then the individual has no rights–only temporary privileges, granted or withdrawn according to the mass sentiment of the moment. The Founders understood that the tyranny of the majority could be just as evil as the tyranny of an absolute monarch.

Yes, we have the ability to vote, but that is not the yardstick by which freedom is measured. After all, even dictatorships hold official elections. It is only the context of liberty – in which individual rights may not be voted out of existence–that justifies, and gives meaning to, the ballot box. In a genuinely free country, voting pertains only to the particular means of safeguarding individual rights. There is no moral “right” to vote to destroy rights.

Unfortunately, like Mr. Bush, most Americans use the antithetical concepts of “freedom” and “democracy” interchangeably. Sometimes our government upholds the primacy of individual rights and regards one’s life, liberty and property as inviolable. Many other times it negates rights by upholding the primacy of the majority’s wishes – from confiscating an individual’s property because the majority wants it for “public use,” to preventing a terminally ill individual from gaining assistance in ending his life because a majority finds suicide unpalatable. Today, our foreign policy upholds this latter position. We declare that our overriding goal in the Mideast is that people vote–regardless of whether they care about freedom. But then, if a Shiite, pro-Iranian majority imposes its theology on Iraq–or if Palestinian suicide-bombers execute their popular mandate by blowing up schoolchildren–on what basis can we object, since democracy is being faithfully served? As a spokesman for Hamas, following its electoral victory, correctly noted: “I thank the United States that they have given us this weapon of democracy. . . . It’s not possible for the U.S. . . . to turn its back on an elected democracy.” The Palestinians abhor freedom–but have adopted democratic voting.

The Iraqis may reject freedom, in which case military force alone–as dismally inadequate as our efforts in that realm have been so far–will have to ensure our safety against any threats from them.

But if we are going to try to replace tyranny with freedom there, we must at least demonstrate what freedom is. We should have been spreading the ideas and institutions of a free society, before allowing elections even to be considered. For example, we should have written the new constitution, as we did in post-WWII Japan. Instead, we deferred to the “will of the people”–people who do not understand individual rights–and endorsed a despotic constitution, which rejects intellectual freedom in favor of enforced obedience to the Koran, and which rejects economic freedom and private property in favor of “collective ownership.” The consequence: looming neo-tyranny in Iraq.

We need to stop confusing democracy with freedom. Morally supporting freedom is always in our interests. But supporting unlimited majority rule is always destructive – to us, and to all who value the rights of the individual.

– Peter Schwartz is a Distinguished Fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute in California.