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Desacralizing Democracy to Save Liberty

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In the 1770s, the British colonists living in America won their freedom from British rule thanks to the “de-sacralizing” of the British monarch. The mists before the colonists’ eyes dissipated and they recognized that King George III was a mere mortal and often a dangerous buffoon. Rather than being awed by the titles of the king’s ministers and appointees, they saw them as power-mad men determined to make their citizens kowtow.

Instead of continuing to genuflect toward London, they recognized that the claims by the British Parliament to absolute power over the colonies were the death of their own rights and liberty. Instead of swallowing the “virtual representation” myths by which the British government sanctified itself (claiming that the colonists were magically represented in Parliament), they recognized tyranny for what it was and revolted. This desacralizing was part of what Sen. John Taylor described in 1822 as the American people’s “commission to overturn political idolatry.”

Americans must recognize that democracy is not fail-safe. Democracy is not a penicillin that cures all politically transmitted diseases. It is good for some things — especially for peacefully removing bad rulers. But the ability to remove bad rulers provides no assurance that good rulers will take their place.

It is time to desacralize democracy. Being crowned a winner by the Electoral College does not give one American the right to dispose of all other Americans’ lives and liberties. If we want a new birth of freedom, we must cease glorifying oppressive political machinery. Most of what the government does has little or nothing to do with “the will of the people.” The combination of ignorant voters and conniving politicians is far more likely to ruin than to rescue this nation. In the same way that our forefathers in the 1770s refused to be grabbed off the streets and pressed into His Majesty’s navy, so today’s Americans must cease permitting politicians to impose one scheme and fraud after another.

When Gov. Lester Maddox of Georgia was criticized in the late 1960s for the abysmal conditions in his state’s prisons, he blamed the problem on the poor caliber of the convicts. Similarly, with contemporary democracy many people talk as if the system’s failures are simply the result of the poor quality of today’s politicians. People exonerate themselves by pointing at the people they voted for. But the problem is far deeper than the current crop of rascals in Washington.

Tyranny’s tipping point

“We must count upon a progressively critical, skeptical public opinion, incapable of degradation…. Such a popular mind does not of course exist, but it is for us to determine whether we shall increase or decrease the possibilities of that mind. Some of us aspire toward a state where you can fool fewer and fewer of the people less and less of the time,” wrote early 20th-century writer Gertrude Besse King on the eve of the U.S. entry to World War I.

Americans’ thinking has not become “incapable of degradation”; it has not become more difficult to fool most of the people at crucial times; and the emergence of a “critical, skeptical public opinion” now seems as likely as 25 cents-a-gallon gasoline. Americans proved as gullible regarding the 1999 U.S. bombing of Serbia and the 2003 invasion of Iraq as they were regarding Wilson’s “make the world safe for democracy” antics.

Most of the lofty hopes of democratic theorists from a century ago have long since been shattered. Citizens have not risen up to rein in rulers or to demand an end to their oppression. Instead, people have tacitly accepted the defining down of democracy. Most citizens appear satisfied with the biannual invitation to visit polling places and register a preference between officially approved candidates. Many citizens are unable to recognize foul play regardless of how brazenly politicians betray their oaths of office. Liberty has been at the wrong end of the shooting gallery for decades, and the political assaults have intensified during the past two presidencies

Have we passed the point where the people can rein in the government? Has the government amassed enough power, established enough precedents, and squelched enough opposition that its further growth is unstoppable? What is the tipping point to tyranny, and have we passed it? At what point can American democracy be considered a failure? Unless there are profound and widespread changes in how Americans view government power, any hope for a revival of individual rights will be lost.

What will it take to awaken Americans to the rising political peril? When the government spends the nation into ruin? When the government launches dishonest, unjustified wars around the world? When the government persists in torturing people, and lying about the torture? How many people does the government have to imprison without charges before Americans recognize the threat? How many people must the government victimize before Americans recognize the predatory nature of the State?

Why do people continue to expect elections to produce saviors, or at least quasi saviors? Consider a private job-application process in which applicants were effectively encouraged to tell as many lies as possible — the gaudier, the better; to viciously smear all other job applicants; and to repeatedly offer to bribe the people in charge of the hiring decision. Few people would expect such a process to result in good people’s being hired. It would be especially regrettable if the person selected could not be fired for four years. And yet —that is how Americans now fill the supposedly most important job in the country.

If we accept most voters’ ignorance, politicians fanning mass fears, and government’s nearly boundless power, then what sort of political system are we left with? Sticking the label “democracy” upon it comforts and reassures people. But it is an oppressive sham nonetheless.

It is unrealistic to expect the typical American to become a devoted reader of both the Congressional Record and Federal Register, or even to consistently check the footnotes in dissenting Supreme Court opinions. There are no signs that Americans are on the verge of becoming Super Citizens, more enthralled by federal budget estimates than by baseball batting averages.

Paternalism or limited government

What is needed is a political system that will not self-destruct in spite of the ignorance or laziness of common citizens. There are basically two alternatives. We can either embrace paternalism and openly admit that the government must protect people from themselves (and from their foolish political opinions), or we can reduce the size and scope of government to something that the average citizen can better understand.

It is possible to have a far better political system even if citizens do not immerse themselves in the arcana of government. Changes in the size of government and reversals in the mental defaults that people bring to the political arena are the keys.

Expunging delusions about government is the first step to restoring Americans’ rights. Idealism on liberty demands brutal realism on the nature of power. Government is not some well-meaning abstraction. Citizens must recognize the daily peril they face from the power of a traffic cop to handcuff them for a seatbelt violation; the power of an IRS agent to seize their bank accounts on the basis of a wrongful suspicion of tax evasion; the power of the city council to seize their home and render the land underneath it to a campaign contributor; or the power of a president to immerse the nation in endless foreign conflicts. The question is not how many citizens are being coerced or wronged by the government at any specific time. The issue is the constantly growing arsenal of legal penalties the State can deploy against the citizen.

The fact that government is coercive must be revived as the first truth of political thought. Governing means, more often than not, compelling submission by threat of force. History offers endless lessons on the dangers of dictators, both petty and grand. Yet the perils of arbitrary power vanish again and again in the mists of official propaganda and intellectual confusion. The more philosophers cloak the nature of the State, the more their systems are biased in favor of servitude.

The most dangerous illusion is that government has been tamed once and for all. As long as humans are humans, coercion can be deadly. Coercion is far more effective at repressing than at uplifting. It is time to recognize the limits of coercion as a tool for individual and social salvation. That was something recognized in theological circles hundreds of years ago, but the political realm is lagging behind.

No institutional changes will help if there are not profound changes in the attitude of tens of millions of Americans toward government. The prerequisite to the revival of liberty is for Americans to take government off the pedestal in their own thinking. Many Americans are far more craven to officialdom than they realize. The more deference government receives, the more damage politicians can inflict.

Americans must begin to think again as free citizens, and not as wholly owned subsidiaries of Washington. We will know that Americans have regained the right perspective toward Washington when a negligent congressman dreads a public meeting with his constituents the same way the average citizen anticipates an IRS audit.

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.