Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 {Colorado Springs Gazette, 2005}

It’s great to see a renewed enthusiasm for democracy around the world.  There’s just one problem:  Democracy isn’t good for very much.

Democracy works for one thing, and one thing only:  Choosing who will wield power.   If you’ve ever thrown your hands up in despair over the American electoral process, you probably wonder if it’s even good for that.

As Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”.  Some may rule by killing anyone else who tries.  That’s dictatorship.  Some may rule because they’ve got the right pedigree.  That’s monarchy.  Some may rule because God told them they should.  That’s theocracy.

Humanity has tried thousands of ways to pick those who wield power. None of them work as well as democracy.  None of the others do as good a job of enabling ordinary, decent people to live ordinary, decent lives in ordinary, decent freedom.

That’s democracy in a nutshell:  The best way we’ve discovered to pick leaders.  It’s not good for much else.

Democracy, for example is terrible at making complicated decisions.  That is democracy’s seductive danger:  Putting everything up for a vote.  By getting enough people in favor of your idea to show up at the polls, you can claim that “The People” have spoken, so your idea must be right. But that’s ridiculous.  There is no “Voice of the People”.  There are only people’s voices.

Democrats, given their name, make this mistake more than Republicans.  They’re hopelessly infatuated with voting their favorite Good Thing more money, or voting to redistribute wealth from people who don’t vote Democratic to people who do.

But many conservatives have no hesitation to misuse democracy in this way when it suits their purposes.  Their most common sin is using the ballot box to “Send A Message”:  Banning some behavior they find objectionable, or defining some word in a way they think best.

Both of these ideas have nothing to do with choosing those who govern.  They are not what democracy is for.  Democracy is the foundation of civil society, but it’s just the foundation.  Pouring the concrete and walking away leaves you with an ugly slab.  To build a healthy society you need two more things:  The rule of law and private property.

Our Founders knew this, which is why they gave America a Constitution.  All Americans have certain rights that cannot be voted away by the majority.  The Constitution is the highest political authority;  neither elected officials nor the laws they pass are superior to it. Yes, the Constitution can be changed, but only in ways specified in the Constitution itself.  That is what the rule of law is all about.

Without private property, the flourishing of humanity is impossible.  We didn’t know this a hundred years ago, but after the deaths of millions and the failed experimentation with economic systems that did nothing but promote human misery, we know it now.  It is the most dearly bought lesson in human history, understood by all save the last Marxist holdouts comfortably entrenched in American universities.  (One UC professor in particular comes to mind).

That is why America is not just a democracy:  We are a republic.  We are the democratic republic of the United States of America.  Both those words are essential.  In our enthusiasm to promote democracy around the world, let us not forget both our potential to abuse it at home and the other essential ingredients of civil society.

If Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other countries succeed in replacing dictatorships and monarchy with elections, but neglect to develop a culture with respect for the law and private property, they will become desperately poor islands of misery once their oil runs dry.  The seeds of poverty sown there will continue to grow into weeds of hate and terror.

If, on the other hand, their elections are accompanied by a sound legal system, the creation of wealth, and the beginnings of a modern capitalist economy, then their citizens’ chance at a decent life that is the birthright of every human being may finally be realized.  History alone will judge.