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Democracy Is Not Freedom

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bahrain-protestersby Jacob G. Hornberger

One of the ostensible goals of U.S. foreign policy is to spread democracy. Of course, the reality is the exact opposite. The U.S. Empire is one of the greatest lovers of nonelected dictatorships in the world, as manifested by its ardent support of such dictatorships as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Chile (under Pinochet), Guatemala (after ousting Arbenz), Iran (after ousting Mossadegh), Pakistan (under Musharraf), Yemen, Bahrain, and many others.

But the irony is that even if the U.S. Empire was the greatest democracy-spreader in the world, it still wouldn’t necessarily be spreading freedom by spreading democracy. The reason is a simple one: Democracy is not freedom.

In fact, as Ludwig von Mises pointed out, the only real advantage to democracy is that it enables people to peacefully change the administration of government.

Consider Syria, whose government is dictatorial in nature. Since Syria isn’t a democracy, the citizenry have but one way to oust the regime from power: violence — i.e., revolution.

But does a democratic system necessarily constitute a free society?

Absolutely not! A free society does not turn on whether people can peacefully change public officials. It instead turns on the extent of powers wielded by public officials, whether they are democratically elected or not.

Suppose people are living in a democratic society. Suppose also that whoever is elected president has the powers to force people to go to church, punish people for criticizing the government, confiscate weapons, and arrest, torture, and jail people for as long as he wants without a trial.

Would anybody consider that a free society, notwithstanding the fact that the president has been democratically elected? I think everyone would agree that that society is as far from being free as one could ever imagine.

It is not a coincidence that the word democracy is not mentioned one single time in the Constitution. The Framers understood that democratic regimes can be just as tyrannical as non-democratic regimes. Again, freedom turns on the powers that are wielded by public officials, whether they are democratically elected or not.

The Framers also understood that freedom is one of the natural, God-given rights with which all people have been endowed. Such rights preexist government. As Thomas Jefferson observed in the Declaration of Independence, people call government into existence with the aim of protecting the exercise of people’s rights.

The problem, as Jefferson also observed, is that the natural propensity of governments, including democratically elected ones, is to infringe, suspend, and abridge the very rights that the government was called into existence to protect.

Thus, while the Constitution called the federal government into existence with the aim of protecting people’s fundamental rights, it simultaneously limited the powers of the federal government to the few powers enumerated in the document.

Immediately after the enactment of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights was enacted. It made it clear that the federal government was prohibited from abridging people’s natural, God-given rights. It also outlined the judicial procedures that had to be followed before the federal government could punish people with arrest, torture, incarceration, or execution.

Thus, while the United States was established as a system in which people could peacefully oust public officials from office and replace them with others, our ancestors understood that that wasn’t sufficient to establish a free society. A free society necessarily involved severe restrictions on the powers that democratically elected federal officials would be permitted to wield.

Of course, it’s no surprise that U.S. officials try their best to convince Americans that democracy is freedom. If Americans are convinced that democracy is freedom, then they’ll be satisfied with the fact that there is an electoral process. They might even participate in it by voting, making them feel even more free. The idea is that Americans will look on the United States as a free country because there are elections, even as public officials assume the power to seize people, torture them, incarcerate them indefinitely without trial, or execute them with a kangaroo tribunal rather than after a legitimate jury trial — i.e., the same powers wielded by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Cuba, and other non-democratic dictatorships around the world.

Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation.


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