May 2, 2004
Posted at Liberty Post, Breaking All the Rules, The Patriotist, The Price of Liberty and The Boulder County Libertarian Party.
Is America a republic or a democracy? And if there is a difference does it have practical consequences?
Well, America was a republic before it degenerated into a democracy. And, yes, there is a huge difference between the two and the practical ramifications are enormous.
Someone far wittier than I will ever be once said that, in a democracy, two wolves and a sheep take a majority vote on what’s for supper, whereas in a republic, the wolves are forbidden on voting on what’s for supper and the sheep are well armed.
Constitutional republics -- as opposed to, say, the Peoples’ Republic of Korea – are based on the citizens having rights given to them by God. Government is strictly limited and exists merely for the purpose of protecting those rights. It can neither curtail those rights nor create new rights.
In a constitutional republic, people have the right to do all kinds of things, provided they do not inflict harm on other people. They have the right to do things others find objectionable (e.g. home school their children, smoke the devil’s lettuce). They can exercise these rights without having to seek permission.
This is why the Founders of this Republic spelled out the few and defined powers of the federal government (see the United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 8) and expressly forbade the federal government from exceeding these limits (see the Tenth Amendment).
This is why we have three branches of government. This is why we have an intricate system of checks and balances to prevent any branch of government from getting too powerful. When one branch steps out of line, it is the duty of the other branches to step in and say “We don’t think so!” (Did you know that Article 3, Section 2 authorizes Congress to limit the jurisdiction of the federal courts?)
Media talking heads fulminate against “gridlock” in government. The president wants X and congress wants not-X so, therefore, nothing happens. This is one of the key characteristics of a constitutional republic. Gridlock is good. Gridlock is our friend. We should want gridlock ‘til it hurts! Next to nothing is supposed to happen in Washington, DC, anyway. Until Woodrow Wilson and his ilk began to stink the place up, Washington, DC, was a sleepy southern town. That’s the way it once again should be.
The most power is vested in the House of Representatives, i.e. the only directly elected segment of the federal government. However, the Founders feared that this democratically elected body would fall prey to the runaway whims and passions of the people. Thus, the Senate was put there as a brake on the House. Until the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1916, senators were elected by state legislatures. Because they were elected by different groups, they would have to answer to different groups. Instead of acting as the super-congress that it is today, the Senate had its own identity.
(The Senate still retains some of its undemocratic republican character. California, with 33,000,000 people, has the same number of senators as Wyoming, with 500,000 people.)
The concept of federalism, wherein certain powers are delegated to the federal government and the rest are reserved to the states and the people, is another key characteristic of a constitutional republic. Issues are supposed to be hashed out in places like Denver, Trenton, Olympia and Little Rock. If Massachusetts wants Leninism and Nevada wants libertarianism, so be it. Issues are local, not national. If you do not like things in state A, move to state B. This is a lot easier than leaving the country. (Oddly enough, it was Lenin who described refugees as people who vote with their feet.)
Indeed, even in the aftermath of the War Between the States, there is nothing in the Constitution forbidding a state from seceding from the union altogether.
Until the election of 2000, the Electoral College was for decades written off as a quaint anachronism. Who needed it? There had not been a difference between the electoral vote winner and the popular vote winner since 1876. Why does it matter if one guy wins the popular vote while the other guy wins the electoral vote? This was just one more way that the Founders sought to thwart the prospect of tyranny by the majority.
(It always amuses me to hear Republicans glorify democracy. Indeed, Rush Limbaugh deems himself “The Doctor of Democracy.” If America were a democracy, Al Gore would be president.)
There is one other check on democracy that I want to mention: a fully informed jury. Trial by jury does not mean trial by the judge's instructions. Fully informed juries can decide not only on the facts pertaining to the case, but also on the law pertaining to the case. If so much as one juror thought that the defendant was being tried for breaking a bad law, he could, on this basis, vote to acquit. Because so many Northerners of good conscience thought that the Fugitive Slave Laws of the 1850s were bad laws, they used the fully informed jury concept to make these laws well nigh unenforceable.
There is a great line in the Mel Gibson film The Patriot about there being no difference between one tyrant 3000 miles away and 3000 tyrants one mile away. What does it matter what the source of tyranny and oppression is? The result is the same.
As a matter of fact, King George III – bad guy that he was – was much less tyrannical than King George XLIII. George III only taxed us at about three percent; he did not force us to send our kids to government schools; and he did not imprison people for ingesting non-government approved medications.
When I recommend that we eliminate such things as the income tax, state education and the drug war, people frequently respond that this would never happen in our current political climate. After all, the majority have willed with their votes that society should be organized in such a fashion. Such is life in a democracy. The question of my right to keep the fruits of my labor, my right to educate my children as I see fit and my right to take whatever medications are most beneficial to me without having to seek someone’s permission is never raised.
The word “democracy” never appears in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. The Founders believed that men were “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among men”. That was it. The job of government in the constitutional republic they gave us was to secure rights, and not to push society in this or that direction.
James Madison once described democracy as the “most vile form of government”. In Federalist Paper No. 10, he had the following to say about democracy:
“A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
In a democracy, government’s powers are unlimited. Why? Because 50.1 percent of the people said so. Half your income is confiscated before you can buy groceries. Why? Because 50.1 percent of the people said so. Your child goes to school on this side of an arbitrary line rather than that side of an arbitrary line. Why? Because 50.1 percent of the people said so. Air passengers cannot defend themselves against box-cutter wielding terrorists. Why? Because 50.1 percent of the people said so.
In a pure democracy, we could see blacks become slaves overnight. Why? Because 50.1 percent of the people said so.
Democracy, in short, is mob rule. Whatever the mob wants, the mob gets. And any other considerations be damned!
Under a republican form of government, your right to vote does not mean that you have a right to vote away someone else’s rights and freedom.
The network talking heads tell us that, in order to stop terrorism, we must bring democracy to the Muslim World. How soon they forget: Adolf Hitler was democratically elected.
(It saddens me when I hear Christians exalt democracy. Pilate originally found no fault with Jesus. However, the mob’s demands for crucifixion became so strong that Pilate turned Jesus over to the mob. [Luke 23] This business of government officials caving into the whims of popular opinion is nothing new.)
As the election draws near, and as our brains more and more resemble bowls of apple sauce, remember the distinction between republics and democracies. Political philosophy is about real things. The practical consequences are enormous indeed.
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Freely Speaking: Essays by Doug Newman