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Democracy: Neither Freedom Nor Prosperity


Consider this excerpt from a New York Times article on the recent success that Tunisia has had in adopting a democratic system:

Many young Tunisians say that the new freedoms and elections have done little to improve the daily life, create jobs, or rein in a brutal police force that many here still refer to as “the ruler,” or, among ultra-conservative Islamists, “the tyrant.”

There is a very simple explanation for that phenomenon: Democracy does not produce economic prosperity and does not guarantee freedom from tyranny.

What is democracy? It’s simply a political system by which people are selected for public office. That’s all. Its primary benefit is that it enables people to change regimes peacefully — that is, without the need for a violent revolution. It guarantees neither freedom nor prosperity.

While democracy is important in the sense that it enables people to replace public officials with new people, what matters from the standpoint of individual liberty and economic prosperity is the nature of the powers that public officials wield after they are elected.

If, for example, people have the freedom to elect a president with totalitarian powers, that is as far from a free society as one can get. Latin Americans have long experienced this particular phenomenon. It’s been said that they have the freedom to elect their dictators every four or six years.

That’s where a constitution comes into play. Its purpose is to restrain the powers of those who are democratically elected.

The U.S. Constitution, for example, called into existence a federal government whose powers were few in number and extremely limited in scope.

The idea was that while federal officials would be elected to office, they didn’t mean that they were empowered to do whatever they wanted to the citizenry. The American people in the late 1700s were not interested in that type of government. They were interested in a government whose officials were democratically elected and whose powers would be limited to those few enumerated in the document.

Even the original Constitution, however, wasn’t good enough for the American people. They demanded that the Constitution be amended just as soon as it was approved. Ten amendments were adopted. They came to be known as the Bill of Rights but they really should be called a Bill of Prohibitions. That’s because the Bill of Rights didn’t give anyone any rights. Instead, it prohibits the federal government from infringing on preexisting, natural, God-given rights.

Consider the first and second amendments to the Constitution. They are express restrictions on democracy. They are an explicit acknowledgement that democracy constitutes a grave threat to people’s freedom and well-being. Our ancestors didn’t want people’s fundamental rights to be subject to majority vote. That’s why they amended the Constitution to clarify that democratically elected public officials would lack the power to punish them for speaking out against the government, forcing them to attend church, confiscating their guns, and infringing on their fundamental rights in other ways.

Consider the fourth, fifth, sixth, and eight amendments. These enumerated procedural rights and guarantees that had been carved out during centuries of resistance by British citizens to the cruel and brutal tyranny of the British government. These amendments prohibit federal officials from doing bad things to the citizens, such as incarcerating them or killing them, without first following well-established procedural processes, such as trial by jury, right to counsel, and due process of law.

The point behind those four amendments was to emphasize that America’s democratically elected federal officials lacked the constitutional authority — that is, the legal authority — to wield tyrannical powers over the citizenry.

A democracy political system also does not bring into existence an economically prosperous society. Economic prosperity depends on economic liberty, not on democracy. If Tunisians or anyone else want a prosperous society, there is but one solution: a complete separation of economy and the state and of money and the state. That is, a way of life in which people are free to engage in any occupation or business without a license or permission from the state, to freely enter into economic enterprise without governmental control or regulation, to enter into mutually beneficial economic transactions with others anywhere in the world without governmental interference, and to keep everything one earns and decide for himself what to do with it. It is a way of life in which government is prohibited from taking money from people in order to give it to another group. It is a way of life that depends on sound money–e.g., a free-market monetary system rather than the fiat paper system money of the state.

In other words, economic prosperity depends on ending the dead hand of the state in people’s everyday economic activities. It means dismantling all the socialistic and regulatory programs by which the state purports to take care of people. It also means dismantling the enormous warfare-state bureaucracies, which suck the life out of a society. It means abolishing all the taxes that fund a welfare-warfare state apparatus.

The most democratic political system in the world can also have the most tyrannical government and the impoverished society in the world. The most democracy can do is allow people to change political regimes peacefully — that is, without the need for a violent revolution. For a genuinely free and prosperous society, it is necessary for people to constitutionally protect economic liberty and civil liberties from infringement on the part of those who are elected to public office.

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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