Democracy Vs. Individual Rights Print
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Wednesday, 13 August 2008 02:45

James Madison As an object lesson to the political pragmatists of the United States - those "practical" advocates of "democracy" who see no role for principles in government, just "majority rule" - one need only pause and consider the recent events in Venezuela to realize the profound impact principles actually do have on human affairs.

According to the Associated Press, "Riot police used tear gas Wednesday [August 6] as they blocked hundreds of Venezuelans protesting what they call new moves by President Hugo Chavez to concentrate his power" ("Venezuelans Protest Chavez's New Socialist Push," Ian James, August 7). And more: "The demonstrators said that a blacklist barring key opposition candidates from elections and a series of socialist decrees are destroying what's left of their democracy."

To those who understand the difference between democracy and individual freedom, this will come as no surprise: The rule of the mob offers no protection for individual rights, and the warring political factions that democracies breed inevitably cause such social chaos that they finally devolve into authoritarianism. "Hence it is," as James Madison once noted, "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" ("The Federalist No. 10," 1787).

President Chavez, of course, rejects such intellectual considerations, and calls the contentions of his critics "grossly overblown." "This is a democracy," he said. "They call me a tyrant - tyrants govern without laws. We're making laws, and all those laws are for the benefit of the country."

Historically, the "benefit of the country" (or the "people," or the "masses," or the "common man") has always been the justification for a dictator's seizure of power. Yet the seas of blood spilled by the coups, the purges, the murders, the wars, and the slaughters that have always accompanied such rises to power never seem to give us reason to question the source.

"Though the protest of about 1,000 people chanting ‘Freedom!' was small compared to past marches," the article continues, "there is a growing public outcry over the sidelining of key government opponents ahead of state and local elections in November."

"In the same way, in 1917," the philosopher Ayn Rand once observed, "the Russian peasants were demanding: ‘Land and freedom!' But Lenin and Stalin was what they got. In 1933, the Germans were demanding: ‘Room to live!' But what they got was Hitler. In 1793, the French were shouting: ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity!' What they got was Napoleon. In 1776, the Americans were proclaiming, ‘The rights of man' - and, led by political philosophers, they achieved it" ("Blind Chaos," 1962).

Freedom, it must be remembered, is not an irreducible primary - it depends upon, and is made possible by, the concept of individual rights. Yet how many of those 1,000 Venezuelan marchers demanding their "freedom" have successfully grasped the relationship between the two? Without such a grasp, the chances of "freedom" being established in Venezuela are akin to a snowball's chance of surviving in Hell.

The key to understanding the success of the American Revolution, and the thing that separates it from all other revolutions before or since, is that it was a revolution, not of power, but of ideas, which means: not of one gang of rulers taking over from another, but of rejecting the concept that we need a gang of rulers, which means: "a nation of laws and not of men."

Our Founding Fathers recognized the tremendous threat to man's liberty that government power represents, and sought to limit that threat through a detailed separation of powers - including the subordination of "democracy" to the supremacy of individual rights. That crucial limitation created the freest society ever to exist.

The Venezuelans, in their ignorance of politics, principles, and history, are not having such magnificent results.

At this point in American history, and in the light of Venezuela's present slide into authoritarian dictatorship, the question bears asking: How many of our own population understand the connection between freedom and individual rights? For we, as a people, also seem to have largely forgotten such lessons. (As proof, I offer the intellectual caliber of the current presidential campaign.) And what goes for Venezuela goes for us.

Benjamin Franklin, as he departed the Constitutional Convention, was asked by a citizen: "What have we got?" "A republic," Franklin responded, "if you can keep it."

Have we?


Bradley Harrington is a former United States Marine and a freelance writer who lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming.


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