Individual Freedom vs. Democracy

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This note explains and distinguishes two opposing systems: individual freedom vs. democracy. They are easy to confuse but they are conceptual opposites.

Should “needs” be determined, decided and addressed by individual people who associate freely in groups of their own choosing, which means voluntarily by individuals who decide what groups to join or not to join and who decide how to satisfy and pay for the needs they are concerned about? This is the system advocated by libertarians. It may be called a system of individual freedom.

Or should needs be determined, decided and addressed by political processes of voting, in which everyone is involuntarily bound into a union or collective of all people? In the collective system, the determinations and decisions are made by elected representatives according to a constitution, and the decisions pertaining to the menu of needs, who pays and who gets what are in the hands of elected representatives. This is the system advocated by opponents of libertarianism. It may be called a system of democracy.

These two systems, individual freedom and democracy, oppose one another.

The individual and voluntary system has individual freedom and choice in all matters of choice and association. The collective and involuntary system, also called democratic, has compelled association. It does not have individual freedom and choice except to vote for representatives within the given system.

In the individual system, each person ascertains his own needs and how to associate with others best to meet those needs. In the democratic system, each person is forcibly bound to everyone else. Needs and their fulfillment are ascertained by elected officials politically after a collective voting process. Freedom is limited to voting and to those areas of choice that the collective decides will be left to the individual.

In the system of individual freedom, each person has freedom to begin with and joins with others voluntarily to accept rules that may regulate and control individual behavior. In the system of democracy, the only freedom to begin with is the freedom to vote. The collective decides what decisions and freedom will be allowed individuals.

These two systems radically oppose one another in conception, but it is easy to confuse them. The confusion arises in two ways, through a confusion of result with concept and through historical evolution.

The democratic process allows people certain freedoms. People do not have freedom to start with. But because people are allowed certain freedoms by the collective process, they think they are free by the individual freedom process of free association. This is not so. That it is not so is evident by the fact that the collective decision-making process takes away freedoms and gives freedoms; and the individual has no say over this except through the voting process. The other road to confusion is historical. The system used to be one of relatively large individual freedom and the scope of collective decision-making was limited constitutionally and by habit, custom and practice. The mythology grew up that the system was one of individual freedom, since voting played so small a role in decisions being made. As time passed and the democratic collectivism became entrenched, people kept right on thinking they had the system of individual freedom, which by then was long gone. And since they possessed a number of what are called personal freedoms still allowed by the collective they thought they still had individual freedom. But they didn’t because the collective had amassed so much power to make laws that any of these freedoms was at the will of the elected representatives, not individual freedoms arising from a system of free association.

To understand the actual system we live by, we cannot start with the set of our observed freedoms and then infer the system’s type. We can’t do this because under both systems, there may be a substantial amount of freedom left in individual hands. Instead, we have to inquire as to the origins of what freedoms we have, that is, the kind of legal system we have, who has the ultimate decision rights, who decides on the freedoms and whether or not we have freedom of association. Freedom of association distinguishes the system of individual freedom from a collective system like democracy or any comparable system of state. If freedoms are decided by individuals, that is not the same as their being decided by voting, which is a collective process. In addition, voting is by citizens many of whom are involuntarily bound into a state, so that the process itself, not only its outcomes, is collective and forcible.

7:48 am on June 2, 2014