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Making the World Democratic

[CLASSIC: 08/20/2002] —During turbulent times like the present, Americans make fervent appeals to “democracy,” which they equate with freedom. President Bush is eager to impose democracy on Iraq and other countries whose governments he disapproves of. Woodrow Wilson only wanted to “make the world safe for democracy”: Bush wants to make the whole world democratic. Everyone seems to take for granted that democracy is the ideal form of government.

Why? What’s so great about majority rule? A majority may be as tyrannical as a single dictator, and majorities have often deprived minorities and individuals of their rights — exploited, enslaved, and murdered them. Democratic Athens executed Socrates.

Majority rule has its uses, as long as it doesn’t threaten or violate more fundamental principles, A chess club can elect its officers, but it can’t vote to change the basic rules of chess; or it ceases to be a chess club.

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution took great pains to create a republican system in which majority rule would be tempered and inhibited by many restraints. They thought the best guarantee of freedom was to specify the [amazon asin=0765808684&template=*lrc ad (right)]powers of government and to limit it strictly to those powers.Most great political philosophers since Plato have dreaded democracy, fearing that demagogues would stimulate and exploit the selfish passions of the majority. The best recent critique of democracy is Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s book, Democracy: The God That Failed.

Nevertheless, we now talk as if America, freedom, and democracy were all the same thing. It’s assumed that government may justly do almost anything, provided it does so with majority support.

Actually, we don’t owe our freedoms to democracy. We owe them to older legal traditions, inherited from Anglo-Saxon law: habeas corpus, due process of law, the presumption of innocence, the right to a trial by one’s peers, et cetera. The Framers of the Constitution were wise enough to preserve these protections against arbitrary state power.

But the Constitution, unfortunately, has failed to provide sufficient safeguards. Its protections have been undermined — by democracy. The Bill of Rights says that nobody can be deprived of his property “without due process of law.” That means an individual trial in which the defendant is proved to have forfeited his property by his own acts.

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