America's Transformation from Liberty to Democracy

by Randall G. Holcombe

If we were able to go back to the time of the Revolutionary War and ask the typical American to describe, in one word, the underlying principle of the new American government, that one word would have been liberty. If we were to ask the typical American citizen today to describe, in one word, the underlying principle of American government, that one word would be democracy. The Declaration of Independence is largely a list of grievances against the King of England, and the American Founders wanted to escape the oppression of the British government and establish a constitutionally limited government to protect the rights of its citizens — to preserve their liberty. Today Americans view the role of their government as carrying out the will of the majority. My new book, From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of American Government (University of Michigan Press) describes how the fundamental principle of American government has been transformed from liberty to democracy.

At the time of the American founding, people viewed government as the primary threat to their rights, and freedom meant freedom from government oppression. The American Founders viewed limited government as necessary to protect people from aggressors, but feared government's power and realized that left unchecked, government was the greatest threat to the liberty it was supposed to protect.

The erosion of liberty began almost as soon as the nation was founded. The nation's first constitution, The Articles of Confederation, tightly constrained the powers of the federal government, but America's political elite believed their government was too tightly constrained. The Adoption of the Constitution of the United States made the U.S. government more powerful, and more democratic. Even then, some Americans — Alexander Hamilton is the best example — thought that the government should undertake activities designed to make the nation more prosperous, while others — such as Thomas Jefferson — argued for a more limited and libertarian government.

By the end of the 19th century, Hamiltonian ideas were widely viewed as more appropriate to the industrializing nation, and Jeffersonian ideas of limited government were seen as obsolete. People began looking to their government not only to protect their rights but also to further their economic well-being. Antitrust laws were first passed in the late 1800s, and by the early 20th century railroads, drugs, and other industries were regulated by the federal government. As the role of government shifted, it became increasingly important to be represented in the democratic process. If government's role is expanded to looking out for people's economic well-being, political representation is important, because the government's policies will be responsive to those who exercise political power — by voting, by lobbying, and by financing political campaigns.

Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal laid the foundation for the modern American welfare state, but the final triumph of democracy over liberty came with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. Prior to the Great Society, major shifts in policy that placed the demands of the majority over the protection of liberty came in response to crises. The role of government expanded in response to wars and depressions, leaving behind a larger government, more responsive to public opinion and less committed to the protection of liberty. FDR's New Deal came in response to popular demands for government to act in the face of very real economic problems, unlike LBJ's Great Society.

The remarkable thing about the Great Society programs of the 1960s was that they were not created in response to a crisis, or worsening conditions, but rather were created with the hope of further improving things that were improving on their own, without government intervention. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the poverty rate in the United States saw a significant and sustained decline, but Johnson's Great Society declared a war on poverty. The 20th century had seen remarkable advances in health care and longevity, but Johnson's Great Society created Medicare and Medicaid. The quality of America's housing stock was increasing significantly and cities were thriving, but Johnson's Great Society created urban renewal programs. These programs emerged not because of any new problems in those areas, but because there was a public demand for them. Liberty had been completely replaced by democracy as the underlying principle of American government, and Americans fully accepted the idea that the role of their government was to further the will of the majority.

The American Founders knew that unchecked, a ruling majority could be just as tyrannical as any dictator, and tried to design a limited government with a few enumerated powers that was shielded from democratic pressures. But the principles upon which the Founders tried to design their government have gradually been eroded and replaced by the pragmatism of democracy. This transformation from liberty to democracy was not the result of a conscious choice, but rather resulted from a series of smaller changes over two centuries that added up to a major, but largely unrecognized, transformation. American policy at home and abroad promotes the virtues of democracy while ignoring the principle of liberty that led to the nation's birth, prosperity, and freedom. In their extremes, liberty and democracy are incompatible with one another. The Founders limited the power of democracy to try to preserve liberty. Today, we limit the principle of liberty in order to further the ideology of democracy.