Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Negative Liberties

Triss and I have been researching different types of government, and came across this interesting definition and commentary on democracy:

There are two major modes of democracy. 1. Government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is retained and directly exercised by the people. 2. Government by popular representation; a form of government in which the supreme power is retained by the people, but is indirectly exercised through a system of representation and delegated authority periodically renewed; a constitutional representative government.

The latter form is that which exists in the UK. The reason I have included democracy as a form of social engineering is because democracy does not limit its power. It is possible (though unlikely) to achieve the same results as a vicious nazi state through democracy. The problems with democracy deserve separate discussion here are that a majority can 'vote away' the freedom of a minority. To use an extreme example imagine that you live in a village of 100 people and 99 of them vote to take your house. Despite the 'landslide' democratic victory there is no change in the morality of the theft they vote for. To a lesser extent this is what happens when one person votes for tax raises. The whim of a majority is no more moral than the whim of a dictator, just less likely to result in an extreme atrocity. The other problem is that it pits one interest group against another. Where the government decides to use one persons' private property to pursue a goal with which he/she does not agree, the two parties oppose. Democracy can rapidly decline to a series of adversarial groups seeking to have the government favour them, at the necessary expense of another. Thus we have young v old, healthy v ill, employed v unemployed, road user v non-road user, county v county, race v race and so forth. where the government serves only as a policeman there can be no such adversariality.

(He defines other forms of government also.)

We were struck by this: "The whim of a majority is no more moral than the whim of a dictator..."

And it helped us to see more forcefully how wise the founding fathers were to form the U.S. government with its three branches, with its checks and balances. How clever they were to write the Constitution as a list of negative liberties-- what the federal government can't do to you, what the state government can't do to you.

This is something to remember as we head to the voting booth. "That limitation of powers is what has unlocked in America the vast human potential available in any population." It is a strength, not a weakness, of our federal government. It is one reason the American Revolution succeeded and the French Revolution failed. Because the majority really can tyrannize, and the rights of the individual really are precious.

h/t Deputy Headmistress

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